Christopher Nolan is a rarity in today’s Hollywood. He is the rare big-budget director that pushes the craft of filmmaking both visually, thematically and narratively. His images are often spectacular. Think about the truck flipping in The Dark Knight or the plane scene in Tenet.
Nolan’s hatred of CGI is well-known, and his dedication to real-world set-pieces pays off. Unlike an Avenger movie, Nolan’s films, despite fantastical locations, feels like they are taking place in the real world.
His stories though are less interesting. Certain films do very well with fanboy, IMDB culture. (Check out the number of videos about Tenet on youtube). These films involve convoluted, labyrinth-like plots. They can be interesting like a Rube Goldberg machine but mostly bore me after repeated viewings. Hitchcock thought that directors should all be trained in silent cinema because it forces a director to tell a story solely through the image. Nolan could have taken that advice to heart. Inception, Interstellar, and Tenet all have some incredible setpieces but have far too much exposition. As a result, I did not include many of Nolan’s most dissected movies on or this list. Anyway, without further ado, here are the 5 best Christopher Nolan movies (according to me)…
5) Batman Begins
Forgotten over the years for bigger, flashier Nolan productions, Batman Begin took me aback when I first watched it at the Loews Theater in Times Square. It had everything that previous Batman movies (and superhero movies) lacked: darker themes, a tortured character study of a man, a cool Tibetan-inspired origin story, a terrifying villain in the Scarecrow, and Liam Nesson sporting a goatee. Gone were the days of bat suits with nipples. At the time I thought it was the second-best superhero movie I had seen after Spiderman 2.
Since then several superhero movies have surpassed it, including another film in the franchise, but Batman Begins remains an essential film in Nolan’s oeuvre. It marks the inflection point from gritty indie auteur to a big-budget director. Like The Dark Knight, It works best for the first hour and a half as the momentum of the origin story sucks us in. Unlike previous Batman films, Begins makes the psychology of Batman plausible and as a result Bruce Wayne becomes a more sympathetic figure here.
The movie’s McGuffin, something about radio waves and water supplies, works less well because it is pretty ridiculous. But I suppose what superhero story isn’t?
I saw this movie alone at an indie movie theater in Campbell, California, expecting a lot. I was disappointed. The plot, while intriguing, felt gimmicky. The ending seemed to invalidate any emotional connection or sympathy for the main character. I wanted the story to mean more. And in the end it felt empty.
My opinion has changed over the years probably because how I see movies has changed. When I was younger, I thought the best films were Important. They explored a big idea or tried to change how we see the world. Today I am less finicky and pretentious. More than anything I want a movie that is well made and intriguing.
Memento checks those boxes. It is a Hitchcockian movie with a twist: it is told backward. The backward story is undoubtedly gimmicky. But gimmicks when done well are so fun to watch. Memento is never boring. And I’m willing to forgive a lot of flaws in a movie that entertaining but also never dumbs down its filmmaking for the benefit of the audience. And the ending, which used to seem silly, now feels sinister and intriguing.
3) The Dark Knight
Now this is a movie. From the magnificently staged opening scene, which is masterfully edited like a propulsion engine to the moment The Joker sticks his head out of the cop car, which is the most iconic shot in any superhero movie, The Dark Knight is just about perfect. It works for a lot of reasons, the biggest being that the story is driven by three fascinating characters, Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent and The Joker (Batman is by far the least interesting of the 3). I won’t say too much about Heath Ledger’s Joker, except that he is the biggest reason why this transcends every other superhero movie. What is a hero story without a great villain? And Ledger’s Joker is one of the best villains in cinematic history.
I do think it goes on too long. And when Nolan tries to be Important, he mostly fails. Take the final boat scene. I know it is intended to be a philosophical inquiry on the nature of choice, chaos and human morality. But it didn’t quite work for me as it felt too facile or neat in the end. Yes, we get it. Human beings are actually good.
A note on the score: Nolan rightfully gets a lot of shit for his overly loud score, But the loud Hans Zimmer score works here. It creates an atmosphere of forward, anxious momentum, matching the chaos on the screen.
2) The Prestige
I missed this movie when it came out. A film about two 19th century magicians just didn’t interest me. I caught it in 2008 on DVD and enjoyed it, but it also didn’t register as anything important. But over the years I’ve caught it on cable and streaming services many more times, and it has grown on me, so much so that I considered putting it number one on this list.
This is Nolan’s most personal movie. The story about two aggrandizing magicians attempting to entertain their audience but also push the boundaries of their craft speaks to how Nolan views filmmaking. His movies are the works of a mad showman not only trying to entertain but also misdirect and confound and leave an audience in awe. Nolan at his best is Angiers disappearing from the stage and appearing on the balcony, astonishing his audience.
Also, the movie’s twist works. Lots of movies with twists seem to have no basis in the story. (I’m looking at you Den of Thieves). But like the Sixth Sense, the movie’s twist is always in the story but we just didn’t know to look for it.
A visionary piece of imagistic filmmaking, Dunkirk is the best Christopher Nolan because it manages to temper his biggest flaws as a filmmaker while accentuating his strengthens. As I said above, Hitchcock believed that all directors should be trained in silent cinema, and it was a lesson I wish Nolan would take for more of his movies. But Dunkirk doest not fall into these traps. It has none of the exposition trappings of Tenet or Inception. We get no back story on the characters or longwinded explanations about plot machinations. What we do get are incredible are a number of stunning set-pieces. Take the above. The opening POV shot, as we follow a British soldier through the streets of the town works for a number of reasons. For one it is beautiful. Pause the above video at any moment and you have a stunning shot. The propaganda pamphlets drifting from the sky are a particularly nice touch. And the chase of the POV camera creates a sense of suspense and dread that permeates the entire movie.
The story can be a little confusing as the many interlocking stories converging on different timelines that are not immediately apparent. Also I saw it on the big screen where one can witness the size and beauty of the filmmaking, but that doesn’t quite translate to our home TVs. That’s not the movie’s fault of course. Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey both pale in comparison on television to a big-screen experience. Dunkirk is Nolan at his best, and it is the one movie of his that I think will be remembered in 50 years.