For better or for worse, Christopher Nolan is leveraging the most powerful tool in his bag of tricks to get Tenet over the line and into theaters by the end of July: his name.
Since the turn of the century, Nolan has been cinema’s primary pioneer, as his films are not only pushing boundaries, but they are doing so on the largest possible scale — Nolan isn’t experimenting with arthouse indies but reshaping the landscape of global blockbusters.
Like all artists, Nolan is certainly not without his weaknesses, as the director’s films are occasionally marred by clunky, 2-D dialogue and incomprehensible action sequences (looking at you, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight — by The Dark Knight Rises, he finally realized to stop overediting and cutting his fight scenes). He’s got a famed addiction to tampering with time, whether that be through the narrative mechanics (Memento, Dunkirk) of his film or the actual science in the plot (Inception, Interstellar, and Tenet), and because of that, his name is just as synonymous with mind-fuckery as it is with groundbreaking, it’s rare you’ll get one without the other. But that’s also what makes Nolan so important: not only his willingness but his apparent determination to find increasingly new ways to tell grand stories.
Still, just because Nolan’s desire to go beyond the storytelling status quo is admirably necessary doesn’t mean we can’t poke a little fun at him and his obsession with unlocking the secrets of the universe.
9. The Dark Knight
The perfect movie. 12 years after its release, The Dark Knight has only improved with age. There is not a wasted line nor a superfluous frame. Every single piece of the film fits together like a 10,000-piece puzzle of mastery.
8. Batman Begins
Enjoy it while it lasts, folks, because once we move past Batman Begins, we enter full-blown Nolan Territory — little to nothing is going to make sense from this point forward.
7. The Prestige
Despite its star power — Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, essentially in their mid-30s primes — The Prestige is perhaps Nolan’s most underrated film. Released between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in 2006, fans of Nolan and his work were obviously preoccupied with the auteur’s resurrection of the Batman franchise.
To its credit, while its very subject, magic, could be inherently perplexing, The Prestige and its plot are wound taut, thus allowing its twists to not only add significant dramatic effect but to actually make sense on first viewing. A key to movie twists working are there ability to resonate with the audience in the moment, not two hours later when they look it up online and say “Ohhhhhh, NOW I get it!”.
I’m going to be completely honest with you: it’s been, at least, five years since I’ve seen Insomnia, and I simply don’t have the bandwidth to go back and rewatch it. That said, given that it’s perhaps Nolan’s most under-the-radar films, that leads me to believe it’s also one of his most tame, and therefore, understandable. From what I remember, Robin Williams (I miss you man, rest in peace) plays a nutjob and Al Pacino plays a cop chasing him down. Insomnia is as by-the-books as Nolan has ever been and that’s probably why it’s largely overlooked.
5. The Dark Knight Rises
My relationship with The Dark Knight Rises is supremely complicated.
On one hand, it’s far and away the worst of the three Nolan Batman films. Still, because Nolan on his worst day is better than most directors on their best, it’s still one of the Top 15 or so comic book movies ever made.
While The Dark Knight Rises may not be confusing to the audience necessarily, its rife with plot holes, which are the first cousin of audience confusion. To this day, eight years after the film’s release, people still joke about how the hell Bruce Wayne made his way back to Gotham after being buried in a desert and presumed dead for six months.
Dunkirk! Did you forget about Dunkirk? I often do simply because it’s the least Nolan-y of the Nolan movies. I mean that quite literally, as its the only one of his 11 feature films (I’ve never seen Following so it’s not appearing on this list) thus far to be based on a historical event.
Still, as we know about our boy Chrissy G, the man just cannot resist Nolanifying the fuck out of his movies. “Oh, y’all wanna see me make a World War 2 movie? Fine… you asked for it.” After a second viewing, the Air-Land-Sea construction of the narrative becomes clearer, but there’s no shame in admitting it left you scratching your head the first time around.
You were waiting for Inception, weren’t you?
At the time of this writing, Inception is currently streaming on Netflix, which lead me to a re-watch a few weeks ago. And, unlike The Dark Knight and Dunkirk, Inception has not necessarily graced with age. By all means, it’s still a solid movie, but while watching it as a somewhat-adult, I realized just how truly preposterous the entire plot is. Every inch of it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character literally exists solely to explain what the hell is going on and even still it’s laugh-out-loud ludicrous.. Without Leo DiCaprio acting his absolute ass off, this one could have flirted with nonsensical disaster. But Leo will be Leo, and Nolan will be Nolan, and due to that, it somehow, miraculously, worked.
Quick sidebar about Interstellar: any of y’all remember that incredible teaser trailer? Six years later and I still think about it quite often.
While INTERSTELLAR was ultimately just solid, its first teaser remains one of the best trailers I've ever seen. pic.twitter.com/2en8tJ3cQS
— Eric Ital (@eric_ital) June 18, 2020
Released during the peak of the McConissance, Interstellar sees Nolan literally shooting for the stars by putting forth his highest-concept, most ambitious project to date. The reactions to Interstellar are mixed, as some fawn over its visual splendor while others lament its overcomplicated final act. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, it is simply undeniable that more than half of the film is incomprehensible without further Reddit research.
The king. The crème de la crème. The original gangster. The don. The top dog. Memento came out two decades ago and I still don’t understand it. Find me someone who’s able to explain the plot — two decades after the film was released — without the help of Google, I dare you.
Eric is a New York City-based writer who still isn’t quite sure how he’s allowed to have this much fun for a living and will tell anyone who listens that Gotham City is canonically in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @eric_ital for movie and soccer takes or contact him email@example.com