In honor of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Dunkirk, Kyle and Ben sit down this week to discuss their Top 5 Nolan films. We culled from his library of works our respective Top 5 films. In doing so, we included those films that he’s produced, written and/or directed. We both had the same consensus about a large majority of Nolan’s body of work and we diverge on at least one film.
BEN: Nolan’s sophomore directorial effort, Insomnia is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film featuring Al Pacino, Hilary Swank and Robin Williams in one of his few dramatic roles. Set in a small Alaskan frontier town, two Los Angeles detectives are sent to investigate a grisly murder. Eternally suffering from guilt over another case, Pacino’s performance is a familiar one where he’s driven to the edge while maintaining his sharpness. Swank is a nice balance to Pacino’s descending manic-depressive insanity while Williams just absolutely chews every scene he is given. Wally Pfister’s cinematography and Dody Dorn’s tight editing add to the tension of torn personalities trying to find peace. After writing this, I might just need to revisit it!
KYLE: This is an amazing film. While I absolutely love the 1997 original, I really appreciate Nolan’s take on the material. While a few of the darker scenes are excised from the narrative, Nolan’s focus on endless torment is framed in a fascinating, psychological manner that really allows Pacino and Williams a lot of breathing room with the script. As you mentioned, I think is one of Williams’ best performances and I’ve watched it several times since he left us.
The Dark Knight
BEN: Following the immense success of Batman Begins, Nolan’s effort to build a modern Gotham City is rich with relatable characters and terror that mirror our everyday existence. Christian Bale draws us in as both Batman and the torn Bruce Wayne, trying to find his place within his own demons. Just as with Pacino in Insomnia, this is a character trait that Nolan has been able to tap into time and time again. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon is absolutely first rate. This story allows him to portray a true detective, which is a key to this story. Aaron Eckhart’s transformative performance as Harvey Dent only compliments the other characters as he struggles with his own demons. Heath Ledger is the true star here as the Joker. Maniacal and dangerous, Ledger’s final screen performance is near perfect and holds his own next to Bale.
This is in part to Nolan’s understanding of the psychological nature of each of the characters as well as their environments. Nolan knows when to push his boundaries. Wally Pfister was called to service again here and he answers the call of The Dark Knight with precision. Hans Zimmer’s and James Newton Howard’s score help convey the beats and the lethality on the screen without ever overwhelming the action.
KYLE: It’s my favorite Superhero film and Ledger’s iconic performance is unforgettable. I love how Nolan makes Gotham itself a character that lives and breathes around the larger than life personas that inhabit it. There are so many iconic shots in this film it’s impossible to pick my favorite, but the scenes shot in IMAX, such as the initial bank heist are razor sharp proficiency.
I do think it stumbles, just a bit in the final act, but everything else is near perfect. Nolan made a Michael Mann level crime epic inside of a DC comic book film before the term Cinematic Universe had been invented. It’s definitely one of his greatest.
BEN: Following on the heels of his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan began his foray into the realm of science fiction/fantasy with 2010’s Inception. Part espionage, part thriller, Inception is the story of a troubled man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has been trying to get home to be with his family, but because of a past transgression, he cannot. He may have found a way home when he is presented with an opportunity to help a Japanese businessman with a corporate espionage job. Full of wondrous special effects, Nolan’s efforts here are about smoke and mirrors, almost emulating Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven from 2001.
Carrying on the theme of a torn soul, DiCaprio’s motives are always front and center, but the layers that Nolan puts on each of the characters is beyond belief. This is not a simple movie and it never claims to be such, especially with the closing frame. Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Tom Berenger co-star. Michael Caine, who was a staple of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and would also have a pivotal role in one of my Top 5 Nolan films, is along for this ride, as are his trusty cinematographer, Wally Pfister and Hans Zimmer, who creates yet another stunning score for the ages.
KYLE: I am in love with this film! One of my favorite things about it is the layers. There’s the main event tiered dream sequence, in which Joseph Gordon Levitt’s part is the whole ordeal, but for me, I really love how it gets into the concepts of perception and grief and how both alter one another in the flow of time. Marion Cotillard’s specter is my favorite character and I love how her performance drifts between tragedy and horror seamlessly.
Also Pfister’s Oscar winning cinematography is breathtaking. The slow motion scene where the van hits the water is a wonder to behold. I also really enjoy the costuming and how it is vital to deciphering the mysteries of both the plot and its ambiguous ending. While this is not my personal favorite Nolan, I think there is a strong case to be made for this being his most well-made feature.
BEN: This is the film where Kyle and I diverge just slightly. Partially an environmental tone poem, partially an homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and very much in line with the emotional roller coaster that Nolan’s protagonists seem to undergo, this science fiction film about life and death is set in the near future where we have decimated our planet and a crop blight ravages the surface. As a result, we now seek to find other worlds beyond our solar system such that they are suitable for human life.
Matthew McConaughey is Joseph Cooper, a widowed, former NASA pilot who is trying to cultivate the land his home is on along with a failing father-daughter relationship. When “Coop” is called to duty, he must leave his daughter (Mackenzie Foy) and father-in-law (John Lithgow) behind, potentially forever. Michael Caine plays the reassuring father figure, given to quoting Dylan Thomas, while Anne Hathaway plays Coop’s co-pilot, Dr. Amelia Brand. The supporting cast is a who’s who with Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Jessica Chastain, Topher Grace, David Oyelowo and William Devane who plays the same role he played in Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, another film that Interstellar mirrors.
The story by Nolan and his brother Jonathan is intelligent sci-fi at its finest. Yes, it is a bit preachy with respect to its environmentalism, but the notion of being able to see your daughter’s life through a looking-glass and to have that image reflected back to you is priceless. Much like Bud in Cameron’s The Abyss, Coop knows this is a one-way trip for him. However, because our characters don’t necessarily understand the true nature of the universe, they are given opportunities to correct past transgressions, or so it seems. Taking a page from Inception, not everything is as it seems.
Hans Zimmer’s score is second to none, taking the heightened emotionalism to the next level. But, it is Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning cinematography that truly blasts this movie into another dimension. Shot with IMAX cameras in the 1.43:1 aspect ratio along with the 2.39:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio, the film was exhibited on IMAX screens with a blending of the two formats heightening the images while traditional theaters ran the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. On Blu-ray, the mixed aspect ratio has been retained, which I think highlights van Hoytema’s composition. Its preachiness hinders in it comparison to other films of its nature, but it’s a ride well worth taking. Just ask Matt Damon.
KYLE: This is my favorite Nolan by a mile. It not only a remarkable cinematic experience, it’s a puzzle that requires multiple viewings in order to work through all of the clues. As a colleague wisely pointed out, the entire film is a magic trick like the one described during the first act. This realization makes the surprise twists more impactful, distancing The Prestige from other magic related pictures.
Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are wonderful as dueling magicians, fueled by vain composition and deadly vendettas. Michael Caine and Scarlet Johannsen support with vintage appropriate turns that set up Nolan’s carefully planned bait and switch from the moment they appear on screen. The great David Bowie has an esoteric turn as Tesla, whose electricity fueled pseudo-science is the key to one of the struggle at the center.
Nolan’s long time cinematographer Wally Pfister once again provides crisp visuals and haunting imagery, with the opening frame, a somber field of top hats sticking in the viewer’s memory for the duration. It rivals The Dark Knight for atmosphere and world building, and for me, it takes top honors because it never falters and forms a perfect circle of deception and comeuppance.
BEN: I think we hit all the right notes here, Kyle. I don’t know about you, but I am looking forward to seeing “Dunkirk” next week. Despite the negative social media reaction to the film’s running time, I am a firm believer in Nolan’s story telling abilities.
KYLE: Once again, we’re in complete agreement!
We’ll see you at the movies.