Dimensional Director: Our Top 5 Gripping Christopher Nolan Films

Christopher Nolan is one of the most celebrated modern filmmakers plying his trade today. Best known for his cerebral, often nonlinear storytelling, the English director has managed to turn the summer blockbuster into a more serious art form with an effective, almost European approach. Born in London in 1970, his first short film was Doodlebug (1997), a piece he created whilst studying English at university. Shot on 16mm black and white film, it gave him the confidence to make his first feature, Following (1998), a taut and ingenious neo-noir that caught the attention of many people in the industry and winning awards internationally.

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan.
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan.

The big break came with Memento (2000), written, directed and edited by Christopher Nolan and starring Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss. This psychological thriller, presented both forwards and backwards, in colour and black and white, has a unique editing style to tell a cohesive nonlinear story. This film was groundbreaking and influential, earning plaudits, awards and Oscar nominations across the industry.

After his big break, Christopher Nolan has gone on to direct 11 feature films, grossing nearly $5 billion at the box office worldwide and becoming one of the most notable people in the film industry today.

All of Christopher Nolan’s films are brilliant, unique and thoroughly enjoyable, but here we have picked out what we think are his five best films.

They are listed in chronological order….

1. Memento (2000)

Technically, Christopher Nolan’s first feature was Following (1998), a no-budget neo-noir crime thriller that gave us a glimpse of something special. But Christopher Nolan’s first proper feature with a decent budget was Memento. It was written in collaboration with his brother Jonathon, whom he has worked with extensively during his career. It is based on his short story “Memento Mori“.

The film gave us a first glance at a director obsessed with time, and a director who likes to play with the concept and structure of filmmaking, pushing into areas we perhaps haven’t previosly seen. This is far more in line with a more European style of filmmaking than traditional Hollywood formats.

Guy Pearce in Memento (2000) directed by Christopher Nolan.
Guy Pearce in Memento (2000) directed by Christopher Nolan.

The film is mindblowing, especially for a new filmmaker. Momento is presented in two interspersed sequences, one in black and white (shown in chronological order) and one in colour (this is in reverse order). By the end of the film, these two sequences meet in the middle to complete the story. Films had been told out of sequence before, but not to this level from such a young director. It was a fantastic way to announce himself in a film dealing with memory loss and deception, earning eight times its budget. The Oscar-nominated film has been acclaimed as one of the most influential films of the 2000s, and rightfully so.

Working with Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, Christopher Nolan tells a story of consequence that keeps you guessing and places the viewer into the heart of the narrative. You know as much as the protagonist. You are discovering this information as and when they are. Many medical experts have cited Memento as featuring one of the most realistic and accurate depictions of anterograde amnesia. It is this that keeps the movie reverberating in your mind, and each iteration makes one examine preconceived notions in a different light.

Leonard (Guy Pearce) is tracking down the man who raped and murdered his wife. The difficulty, however, of locating his wife’s killer is compounded by the fact that he suffers from a rare, untreatable form of memory loss. Although he can recall details of life before his accident, Leonard cannot remember what happened fifteen minutes ago, where he’s going, or why.

2. The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige (2006) is one of those films that went under the radar and got missed by many after Christopher Nolan’s colossal work on Batman Begins (2005) the previous year. Here he reunites with Christian Bale and Michael Caine from Batman and brings in Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis and David Bowie for a real treat of a film.

Based on the book of the same name by Christopher Priest, the screenplay was again written by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathon. The film’s primary theme is a duel between two illusionists’ minds, a game of one-upmanship. It was shot quickly, with lots of handheld cameras and natural lighting with fantastic Victorian sets and costumes and looks absolutely stunning.

The Presteige (2006) directed by Christopher Nolan.
The Presteige (2006) directed by Christopher Nolan.

The Prestige is packed with all kinds of themes, including the battle of classes between the two illusionists, the danger of man’s obsession with power and the nature of deceit. Ultimately the film itself is a magic trick. A cascading story that would be told onstage by any great trickster, diverting our attention all along from what is happening. This is what Christopher Nolan is really great at, pulling off the cinematic equivalent of magic.

An illusion gone horribly wrong pits two 19th-century magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), against each other in a bitter battle for supremacy. Terrible consequences loom when the pair escalate their feud, each seeking not just to outwit — but to destroy — the other man.

3. The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008). Well, what can we say that hasn’t already been said. Probably the most famous film of Christopher Nolan’s career and definitely the most profitable, pulling in over $1 billion at the box office. The film set the benchmark for what a “comic-book movie” could, and should be. In my opinion, no film in the genre has reached this high standard since.

Having already kicked off the Dark Knight trilogy with Batman Begins, Warner Brothers and critics alike were delighted with this fresh approach to the character, especially after the bad taste left in the mouth by Batman & Robin (1997). Now it was time, as planned before Batman Begins began production, to introduce the Joker and Two-Face/Harvey Dent.

The Dark Knight has been regarded as one of the best films of the 2000s and as one of the best superhero films ever made. But the film was so much more than just a “superhero movie” and much more a crime or gangster movie, a neo-noir thriller. The film was not only inspired by the Batman comics and graphic novels, especially Batman: The Killing Joke, but films such as The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and of course Heat (1995), which greatly inspires the opening sequence and the gangster elements that run through the film.

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) directed by Christopher Nolan.
Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) directed by Christopher Nolan.

Of course, Christopher Nolan’s big masterstroke was the casting of the late Heath Ledger in the role of the Joker, who really excelled in the role and stole every frame of the movie he appeared in. But even aside this, Nolan did something remarkable. He took the world of comic book heroes and villains, and much like the fantastic graphic novel’s of the 80s, presented them a hell of a lot more seriously.

In the Dark Knight, we are presented with a film full of ideas. A battle of good vs evil and the question of what those terms mean. If you equal the actions of those you are fighting, are you any better than them? How strong are your morals? Do you practice what you preach? And this all in the wake of some of the previous decade’s actions in the “War on Terror“, created a landmark film that will be discussed forever.

With the help of allies Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman (Christian Bale) has been able to keep a tight lid on crime in Gotham City. But when a vile young criminal calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) suddenly throws the town into chaos, the caped Crusader begins to tread a fine line between heroism and vigilantism.

4. Inception (2010)

Inception (2010) is perhaps Nolan’s best film. It’s definitely the most ambitious. It was a film based on a treatment he wrote about “dream-stealers” that had been marinating in his mind for ten years before it came to fruition. Originally envisioned as a horror film, the movie eventually turned into a heist piece, with shades of James Bond, to create the thinking person’s action film. In fact Nolan cited one of the inspirations for the film to be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) whilst also mentioning that the film is not just about action, but at its heart, a love story.

“I think, ‘Her Majesty’ Secret Service’ would be my favorite Bond. It’s a hell of a movie, it holds up very well. What I liked about it that we’ve tried to emulate in this film is there’s a tremendous balance of action, scale, and romanticism and tragedy and emotion. Of all the Bond films, it’s by far the most emotional. There’s a love story and Inception is kind of a love story as well as anything else. I’m going soft in my old age.”

Christopher Nolan talking about Inception to The Playlist in 2010
Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception (2010) directed by Christopher Nolan.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception (2010) directed by Christopher Nolan.

What is so brilliant about Inception is the fact that the viewer gets as much out of the film as they put into it. It can be watched passively, a fun action thriller, and it works fine. But if you want to think a little harder and dig a little deeper, the film is layered with themes and ideas only possible in our dreams, and its meaning is left to your imagination.

Influenced by the illogical, the film digs deep and shows the splendour of what cinema can achieve if you have the imagination and faith in the art form, something that Christopher Nolan clearly does. From Penrose stairs to a city folding and gravity-defying corridors, every trick in the book is thrown on the screen. It’s like a trip to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the finished film is absolutely marvellous.

You can listen to our podcast about this film here.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief with the rare ability to enter people’s dreams and steal their secrets from their subconscious. His skill has made him a hot commodity in the world of corporate espionage but has also cost him everything he loves. Cobb gets a chance at redemption when he is offered a seemingly impossible task: to plant an idea in someone’s mind. If he succeeds, it will be the perfect crime, but a dangerous enemy anticipates Cobb’s every move.

5. Interstellar (2014)

Some have described Interstellar as Christopher Nolan’s take on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Although it is undoubtedly a massive inspiration for the film, much like Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982) and Star Wars (1977) are. Despite its science fiction setting, the film is really about humanity.

Christopher Nolan noted that his big inspirations were The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Right Stuff (1983) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in how he approached the film.

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar (2014) directed by Christopher Nolan.
Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar (2014) directed by Christopher Nolan.

It’s a trick I missed on first viewing the film. I focused so much on the technical aspects, the science of it all, how all these black holes worked and how time moved, I was ignoring the actual story. The science is fantastic and the effects brilliant, don’t get me wrong. I have always been obsessed with ideas about the concept of time. But if you’ve only ever seen the film once, I implore you to watch it again.

On second viewing, this film brought tears to my eyes. All of Nolan’s films are genuinely about human nature and family. People seem to overlook it somehow, but it is at the core of Christopher Nolan’s catalogue. Interstellar is his best example of this, throwing the essence of people’s spirit up on the IMAX screen.

If anything is to be taken away from the film, it should be that.

In Earth’s future, a global crop blight and second Dust Bowl are slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a brilliant NASA physicist, is working on plans to save mankind by transporting Earth’s population to a new home via a wormhole. But first, Brand must send former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and a team of researchers through the wormhole and across the galaxy to find out which of three planets could be mankind’s new home.

So that’s our Top 5 Christopher Nolan films!

Christopher Nolan is one of this generation’s premier auteurs. A masterful filmmaker with a characteristic confidence in what he wants to make. Involved in the writing and producing of his own films and working with a select group of collaborators over the years carries all the signs of the very best artists in cinema we have seen over the years.

More than anything, Christopher Nolan has helped to usher in a better quality of filmmaking. His insistence on using big ideas and stories in blockbuster level films pushing against the mainstream opinion that “audiences are not clever enough” for these kinds of films. He has proved them wrong, bringing massive ideas in time, memory, philosophy, science and mathematics front and centre and is near-universally successful.

This has inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers, as well as his peers, to be far more assertive and confident in their ideas.

He has also helped to usher in many techniques and ideas into the modern filmmaking philosophy. Some of these hark back to days of old. His insistence on practical effects, which many feels looks better on the screen than lots of CGI, has greatly changed many filmmakers’ position today, where a lot more models and props are used compared to 15 years ago.

He has also helped to make IMAX the default option for modern blockbusters, shunning 3D films and preserving the art of cinemas as a moving image, rather than what some would call a “theme park ride”.

He is the art-house blockbuster filmmaker. And I am very excited to see what he comes up with next.

Have we not included your favourite Christopher Nolan movie? Then let us know in the comments below.

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David Roberts
Dave is a digital content creator, web and software developer and keen filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @drobertsdigital.