Filmsmiths ‘Essentials’ Series: Christopher Nolan

As a slightly nerdy 20-something dude, I of course have seen all of Christopher Nolan’s work and am a big fan. In only 20 years, Nolan has established himself as one of the greatest directors working today. What makes Nolan’s popularity even more impressive is he has achieved this level of success while primarily making the kind of movies that typically appeal only to a relatively niche audience. Movies about memory thieves or exploring the fabric of space-time don’t typically have the widest appeal.

In addition to his widespread popularity with audiences, Nolan has also impressed critics with his creative exploration of themes such as memory, as well as his masterful technical filmmaking abilities. Nolan will regularly present his narratives non-linearly which leave even the most attentive moviegoers feeling like they need a second or third viewing in order to catch everything.

Nolan is also famous for his commitment to using practical effects rather than CGI in his movies. He has gone on record as saying that he is only interested in using CGI when absolutely necessary and his goal is to “fool the audience into seeing something seamless”. Additionally Nolan shoots all of his movie on film as opposed to digitally which places him squarely in the minority of filmmakers today. It’s this commitment to these techniques that not only impress movie hipsters or “purists”, but they give his films a staying power. A recent Nolan release will have almost an identical look to his older films, and there is no risk of his effects aging poorly as technology improves.

Combine his ability and willingness to use more experimental filmmaking techniques with the brilliant scripts that he has written for all of his films, and Christopher Nolan is easily one of the best filmmakers of his era.

His newest film, Dunkirk, had it’s wide release on July 21st. To celebrate this momentous occasion, let’s explore which of his films are essential viewing.

Memento (2000)

“Look at this photograph…”

Memento was only Christopher Nolan’s second feature film, but in it he demonstrates his mastery of many of the techniques for which he has become so well known.

The film stars Guy Pearce, a man who suffers from severe amnesia who is trying to track down the man who murdered his wife. Due to the severity of his condition however, he is forced to use Polaroid photographs and tattooed reminders all over his body in order to keep track of information that he is unable to remember for more than a couple of minutes.

Nolan broke this film into two separate sequences which he switches between throughout: a black and white section which plays out in chronological order, and a sequence of scenes that are in color and presented in reverse chronological order. The two sequences meet in the middle at the end of the film to create a cohesive narrative.

It is the combination of unique and innovative filmmaking techniques along with a compelling narrative that make Memento an absolute must-watch for movie fans.

The Prestige (2006)

Christopher Nolan has an incredibly impressive body of work filled with great films. Choosing a “best” one is incredibly difficult, but if you held me down and forced me to choose a favorite Nolan film, I would choose The Prestige.

Based on the novel of the same name, The Prestige focuses on two 19th century stage magicians played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale and their ever-growing rivalry. Over the course of the film, we see these magicians become increasingly obsessed with one-upping the other which leads them to take some incredibly drastic steps in order to achieve this.

Like many great films, The Prestige is about an idea rather than it’s surface level subject matter. I’m reminded of Whiplash (2014). Both films have clear and obvious surface level narratives: The Prestige is about guys doing magic tricks and Whiplash is about drumming. But this is not where the true drama of these films come from. Both movies are about people and their desire for greatness and how far they are willing to go in order to do this. In The Prestige Nolan brilliantly explores the ideas of obsession and personal sacrifice. It’s this exploration that makes The Prestige a true masterpiece.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the brilliant performance by David Bowie as Nikola Tesla.

If you haven’t yet, go watch The Prestige… actually even if you have seen it, go watch it again. Right now. I’ll wait.

The Dark Knight (2008)

“And this time…he’s not wearing hockey pads”

There’s not much that can be said about The Dark Knight that hasn’t already been said. Considered by many to be the best superhero movie of all time, The Dark Knight along with the Marvel Cinematic Universe have proven that a comic book movie can appeal to a mainstream audience. In the months following its release, The Dark Knight was the second-highest grossing film of all time.

Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is perhaps what The Dark Knight is most remembered for, but Nolan’s directorial contributions can’t be overstated. His embrace of the urban environment made the city of Gotham its own character rather than just a setting. The film is also successful in how it creates personal conflict that feels genuine. The Joker’s anarchic worldview forces characters to make moral decisions that carry a certain weight that feels earned rather than acting as simple plot points.

Given the massive success of The Dark Knight it is likely that you’ve already seen it, but that shouldn’t stop you from revisiting an old favorite.

Interstellar (2014)

Epic is a word that has been so overused it has become a cliché. In the case of describing Interstellar however, epic is the only appropriate adjective.

Interstellar takes the science fiction genre and pushes it further than almost any other movie of its kind. Part of what makes Interstellar work is how grounded it is. The film finds a perfect balance between personal family story and grand space planet saving adventure.

What I found to be the most compelling part of Interstellar was how based in reality its science was. Everybody’s favorite astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson even commended the film for its accuracy in showing things such as Einstein’s theory of relativity and how time distorts as you approach a black hole or other super massive objects. Without trying to spoil anything, I will say that the moment when the crew returns to their ship from the first planet they visit and they learn how long they were gone for was one of the most impactful moments I’d ever seen in a film.

Interstellar keeps its feet planted firmly on the ground while reaching into the fabric of time itself. It is a very rare film that is able to have such a grand scope while remaining graspable to the audience. Interstellar allows the audience to dream about and worry for the potential future of humanity better than maybe any other film of its kind.

Dunkirk (2017) 

Christopher Nolan has become famous for his ability to play with the idea of time and memories as we understand them. These themes play well and are easier to manipulate in science fiction, a genre which Nolan has at least dipped his toe into in almost all of his films.

Dunkirk however appears as though it will be a sharp turn from what we’re used to seeing from Nolan. A gritty war movie based in World War II, it will be very interesting to see how Nolan’s classic techniques and themes translate to this new and unexplored setting.

Very few directors are able to create as much anticipation for a project simply by having their name on it as Christopher Nolan. Any new Nolan film should be highly anticipated, but a written/produced/directed World War II movie? Yes, please. Before it is even released, Dunkirk is an absolute must-see.

Zachary Liles

Filmsmiths co-founder and certified moron. Interests include putting nonsense on the internet and Wendy's chili. Degree in Broadcast & Cinematic Arts and Cinema Studies from Central Michigan University.

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