Ranking: The Films of Christopher Nolan (Rob’s Take)
Christopher Nolan is one of the most important filmmakers working today. He relaunched the character of Batman from an increasingly campy (but not funny) franchise into an Academy Award-winning, box office-slaying trilogy respected by critics and audiences alike. He repeated his touch with another Academy Award-winning film, Inception, a heady blockbuster that looks nothing like those surrounding it (and it made more money than many of them). This offering proved that viewers were willing to pay the price of a challenging ride for the reward of an experience that they are immersed in rather than merely watching from afar. His eagerly anticipated conclusion to the Batman trilogy will certainly represent another feather in his already busy hat. Nolan’s filmography is as consistently solid as any other director working at a comparable rate (more so, in many cases). I can’t wait to see where the future takes him. I’ve been returning to some of his titles lately, and I thought it would be fun to rank them (although the result proved to be more headache-inducing than anything). It’s not an easy list to make, I assure you, and the points of differentiation became ones of near minutia. Keep in mind that while you might disagree with the orderings, they are only relative to the work within Nolan’s canon. I would take all seven of these over countless titles any day. Here’s what I sort of instinctively came up with:
1. The Dark Knight- Perfectly paced, deftly orchestrated, and equally generous on the first viewing or the tenth, The Dark Knight holds some sort of mysterious X-factor that lifts it to great heights. As I’ve suggested before, these intangible variables might find their roots in the corresponding socio-political landscape or the redefining of the superhero genre or in Heath Ledger himself. Either way, it’s a thrilling film on a big canvas full of ideas. And while others call it bloated or excessive, I think that it balances everything satisfactorily.
2. Memento- In my opinion, this is still Nolan’s most fully successful rendering of narrative unconventionality, thematic pondering, and emotional concern. The final ten minutes bring all three of those elements together in surprising and resonant ways. It has it all: wit, daring, flair, sincerity, and a brain and a heart to match. This film announced Nolan as a supreme craftsman willing to challenge the traditional parameters of structure. On his sophomore effort, he fulfills all of the promise of Following and then some.
3. Insomnia- Not nearly as structurally ambitious, visually astounding, or cerebrally challenging as Nolan’s other work, this severely underappreciated film might reach for less, but it grasps more. Will Dormer’s central moral struggle is (for me) a more emotionally involving thru-line than that found in the director’s grand-scale work. Nolan offers Al Pacino his meatiest vehicle in years, one of two (The Merchant of Venice) that display that the legend can still deliver the goods in the 2000s (HBO work aside, which is admittedly marvelous). He navigates the murky, fatigued, guilt-ridden waters with ease, and Robin Williams does some of his finest work. It might be linear and straightforward, but it’s ultimately a more complete experience.
4. Batman Begins- After Joel Schumacher recklessly drove the previous franchise into a silly, pointless abyss, Nolan had his hands full in an attempt to dive back into the comics and reboot a classic piece of pulp-fiction in a more realistic world. He proved up to the task, casting every role perfectly and yielding the best superhero (well, sort of) origin story ever committed to film. It is a fitting precursor to the more tonally earnest and thematically expansive The Dark Knight, but this one maintains a necessary degree of humor and downright fun. Turns out that big-budget Nolan can be just as good as small-budget Nolan.
5. The Prestige- Having read the book before watching the film, I’ve always been incapable of viewing this one with fresh and objective eyes; unfortunately, I think my pre-existing knowledge of the material diminished my enjoyment of the visual manifestation. Handsomely staged, acted, and lensed as it is, I also find this title a bit cold, even on multiple viewings. Nolan handles three times as many story stands as most filmmakers do (at least), and he connects them masterfully, conveying a great deal of information with a keen sense of pacing. The Prestige is no doubt impressive (and surprisingly watchable, giving certain tendencies of period pieces), but it doesn’t go to deeper levels for me.
6. Inception- Contrary to the strong (and equally valid) opinions of others, I don’t think this film returns much value on repeat viewings, and I don’t think it’s very emotionally engaging. My first theatrical encounter with it was dazzling and heart-pounding, but neither sentiment seemed to stick on revisits. Never less than visually astonishing, certain stretches of Inception emerge as little more. The complex ideas hit harder in earlier titles, as does the personal investment with the protagonist. Cobb’s sense of guilt is there, but it’s so entangled in the “science” and “fiction” devices that it never viscerally takes hold. I’m happy for its place in the industry, but its place in my collection is not quite as high.
7. Following- This shoe-string-budget, 70-minute debut showcases the strengths of a budding storyteller, but it mostly feels like a warm-up for the superior Memento. It’s a fabulous first feature by any standards, illustrating Nolan’s trademark gifts for juggling parallel, non-chronological narratives. Yet, this modest success is justifiably smothered underneath the more accomplished work than would follow.