can decide the fate of a movie before it’s even released and streaming keeps people home from theaters, studios have to be more careful than ever about planning their programming. Or they can have someone like Christopher Nolan direct their movies. The 47-year-old London filmmaker is a consistent source of both critical acclaim and box office glory.
I’ll be honest up front: I haven’t seen it. Coming in at 70 minutes, this black and white crime thriller was Nolan’s feature film debut. A little know movie, “Following” shows the life of a writer who stalks strangers for stories until he meets a thief who takes him under his wing. The premise sounds interesting, but it is certainly not known for being his best.
Set in a small, rural town in Alaska, “Insomnia” follows two cops as they investigate a teenage girl’s murder. It has a great cast—Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank—but this movie isn’t as innovative or emotionally powerful as a typical Nolan movie. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that—plenty of directors make movies with common tropes and themes that turn out to be great. But for someone like Nolan, a crime movie set in the middle of nowhere seems too simple and overused a premise for a director whose previous movie was the mind-spinning thriller “Memento,” perhaps because Nolan didn’t write “Insomnia” himself.
8. “Batman Begins”
The first installment in Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, “Batman Begins” starts the trilogy off well. As the introduction to a comic book franchise, it inevitably has to take care of some origin history. We meet young Bruce Wayne and follow him to the League of Shadows, where he trains before becoming Gotham’s caped crusader. What sets “Batman Begins” and the rest of “The Dark Knight Trilogy” apart from other comic book movies is its focus on human emotion and realistic portrayals. The film never feels like an alternate universe—rather, you’re right there with the characters, feeling the impact of every move they make. Many such moments arise from discussions between Wayne and his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), who serves as the film’s voice of reason: In one powerful scene, he criticizes Wayne for using Batman to prove something to Rachel, rather than helping others out of pure generosity. Alfred says, “Well, we both care for Rachel, sir. But what you’re doing has to be beyond that. It can’t be personal, or you’re just a vigilante.” Such poignant scenes set the tone for the rest of the series.
7. “The Prestige”
It’s a shame that this movie has to go so low on this list, but these are Nolan movies after all. Christian Bale hangs up the cape to play Alfred Borden, a magician in 19th-century England. Hugh Jackman plays his competition, Robert Angier, as they battle each other for fame through escalating tricks, ending in…a debate on ethics? Trust me: It’s exciting. The film is fast-paced and requires a keen eye, just like trying to figure out a magic trick. It pivots when Angier goes to visit Nikola Tesla—played by none other than David Bowie—in an effort to replicate Borden’s new, show-stopping trick. Jackman and Bale both play complex characters who sacrifice everything to gain an edge over the other. Angier hinges his integrity and everything he has worked for on Tesla’s invention, while Borden chooses his career over his family. In the final scene, the intricacies of the two characters come to light, along with some major plot twists that are sure to elicit a few gasps.
6. “The Dark Knight Rises”
The final installment of what I consider one of the best trilogies of all time, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a rousing send off to Christian Bale’s Batman. He must save his city one last time, which plays out in a paradoxically satisfying way. At first you’re upset with the ending: You watch as Batman flies off into the distance for the last time, carrying a bomb that would have otherwise destroyed Gotham. Batman dies, but Bruce Wayne does not. The day that Alfred sees him in a cafe overseas is the first time he sees the real Bruce Wayne—a fitting end to one of the most complex comic book heroes. And while any villain would have a hard time following Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of the Joker, Tom Hardy proves to be decent as Bane. Fitted with a mask to help him breath, Bane’s deep, reverberating voice fits his menacing frame. The plot isn’t as plausible as the first two films’, with Bane cutting Gotham off from the outside world and threatening to detonate a nuclear bomb. Yet spectacle outshines script in this finale’s tense action scenes, particularly towards the end, when Bane confronts Batman in the center of a larger battle between Gotham police and Bane’s henchmen.
Gorgeous to look at and Neil Degrasse Tyson-approved, “Interstellar” explored the infinite frontier like no other movie had before. When Earth begins to experience Dust Bowl-like symptoms, Matthew McConaughey and co. are sent through a wormhole to find a hospitable planet at the cost of leaving their lives and families back home. “Interstellar” is a voyage of hope and love that revolves around the concept of time, which changes the future of their humanity forever. The first 30 minutes are a little slow, but after that, the film shifts to a beautiful race against time in the depths of space, complemented by a haunting Hans Zimmer score.
Released last summer, “Dunkirk” represents Nolan’s transition from science fiction to historical drama. The film successfully avoids rehashing the typical style of World War II dramas. Instead of focusing on specific individuals and tackling common themes of the era, “Dunkirk” is a war movie in a literal sense, showing the British rescue of 400,000 people from the point of view of multiple characters whom the viewer never truly meets—Nolan structures the film so the viewer is never formally introduced to the characters. Instead of having long backstories and individual anecdotes show how war affects specific soldiers, “Dunkirk” makes the airlift the center of the plot, not the individuals involved. The result is a war movie that is much larger in scope, using the battle’s events to move the story along. It’s an unusual point of view, but combined with outstanding camerawork, a ticking score from Hans Zimmer, and a little time-bending flair from Nolan, this is one of the best movies of 2017.
The film that put Nolan on Hollywood’s radar, “Memento” might be his best script. The film follows Leonard, a man who suffers from short-term memory loss searching for his wife’s killer. “Memento” is structured like Leonard’s brain: it is told backwards, revealing the true meaning at the end of the film, which is chronologically the beginning. This structure puts a unique spin on what would otherwise be a typical crime drama. Your head may hurt after this one, but it’s too damn good to pass up.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the main character, which is all you really have to know. DiCaprio plays Cobb, a thief who steals corporate secrets from dreams. One day, he’s asked to plant a dream in someone’s head. “Inception” is another Nolan film that will make your head spin, but arguably in the right direction. What makes this film stand apart from the others may very well be its ending, a scene that has caused an immense amount of debate. Was the top still spinning, or did it begin to fall?
1. “The Dark Knight”
Captivating from beginning to end, “The Dark Knight” is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. It maintains the same themes established in “Batman Begins,” only this time, Batman battles a villain who pushes the trilogy from great to exceptional. Heath Ledger plays the Joker, my favorite villain of all time. He is one of the darkest characters to appear on the big screen, and Ledger’s portrayal is remarkable in its unpredictability, always teetering between the polar characteristics of the Joker: clinically insane and unassumingly genius. In his best scene, the Joker attempts to blow up a hospital, and when the detonator doesn’t go off as planned, Ledger improvises. First, he’s calmly disappointed. Then, he frantically pushes the trigger as though it were a broken TV remote. Ledger’s performance in this scene is subtle, but reflects the grueling work and amount of detail that he put into the Joker.
This is one of those movies that I have to watch every time it comes on TV. Not a moment is boring. I admit, it’s extremely dark and hardly uplifting. The Joker is the force behind this darkness, bringing it out of Batman and Harvey Dent, Gotham’s beloved district attorney and the Caped Crusader’s foil. When Batman confronts the Joker in the interrogation room, he is at his weakest, forced to choose between the love of his life and Gotham’s greatest hope. He tries to force answers out of the Joker by physically hurting him, even though he knows he can’t affect his nemesis—as Alfred says, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” While Batman is only bent, Harvey Dent is broken. His misery transforms him into Two Face, killing whatever was left of Gotham’s “White Knight.” “The Dark Knight” is much more than a superhero movie: It explores law, justice, morality, and—most importantly—humanity. It is the ultimate Nolan film.
—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.