Nolan.  Christopher Nolan is right there with Iñárritu as the best director to have his first archiveable film in the 21st century. As I said with Iñárritu my main guidance for this list is the list of the top 500 films and that list has a 10-year moratorium on all new films. So my guiding metric for this list doesn’t include films from 2009-present. Nolan may very well be the best auteur on the planet during that stretch so needless to say he’ll skyrocket up this list the next time I update it (if you’re the best of a decade in an artform that’s only been around for 100 years or so… well). For the purposes of this list the two best films on Nolan’s resume are 2000’s Memento and 2008’s The Dark Knight. Both films are excellent- but there’s not as much to tie them together as say Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel (which is why he’s behind Iñárritu even if the individual films may be slightly stronger). Anyways, Nolan’s resume is still strong. At age 49 he already have 6 films that landed in the top 100 of their respective decade.  He’s prolific and ambitious which is certainly rare in recent post-Kubrick cinema. Quite a treat. He has 9 archiveable films in the 18 starting with Memento and in at least the last 5—it feels like he’s trying to make the best film of all-time—every time.

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imaginative set-pieces paired with a Hitchcockian precision

Best film: Dunkirk

  • There’s a tangible impact of 70mm/IMAX cameras and no CGI
  • It’s a walk-out-of-the-theater masterpiece (my 5th of the decade I believe) but you’re not aware of it in the first 20 minutes like birdman or la la land– it takes the entirety of the time and time the finale to fully appreciate
  • Nolan is smart to fill many frames with extras—it not only helps add realism to the dire situation in the narrative but, more importantly, gives such an epic scope and multiple visual focal points to the large landscape, establishing shots, and 70mm/imax longer lens
  • For the beauty of the aerial shots- which I’m not sure have been ever matched- my closest comparison might be the gorgeous work in out of Africa and the English patient (both of whom went on to win best picture and best cinematography in 1985 and 1996)- I kept thinking of the howard hughes line from leo in the aviator about how the plane battles needed clouds for context and scope but clearly clouds are no match for the horizon and gorgeous open sea shot here by Hoyte van Hoytema and Nolan
  • The film’s straight narrative is really a series of deadlines and brilliant manipulation of space and time through editing—I think this may bother some diehard Nolan fans who fell in love with him because of his unique narratives and clever ideas on memory and perception— as a visceral experience though it’s hard to top and although it’s done differently (long takes and floating camera) Cuaron achieves much of the same effect in gravity (there’s more depth to both of these films than some critics will recognize)
  • Brilliantly Nolan chooses to go at this film from land, sea and air- and manipulates the time beautifully—it’s such a calculate use of narrative structure (would you expect anything else from Nolan?)- very unlike other ingenious narrative restructuring efforts like rashoman, tarantino’s work or Iñárritu work
  • It’s much closer to a pure style exercise then Nolan has ever been. There’s no set up here aside from the some tangent comments along the way and the opening title card preface—the entire film doesn’t really need a lot of words actually
  • It could be Hans Zimmer’s greatest achievement with the musical score and he’s done some astonishing work before in dark knight, inception, gladiator, thin red line, rain man, lion king– he’s an all-timer now
  • There’s so much depth there with the musical score and the narrative time construct mechanism
  • Even the plane landing at the end with the wheels coming out isn’t done simply— there’s no wasted sequence in the entire film- this is a dazzling mini-film and exemplary use of film montage and editing
  • I’ve said before that Nolan’s greatest strengths are his establishing shots and (mainly) his cross cutting (particularly with multi-narratives) and this film is basically this for the entire running time instead of an elaborate and complicated set-up with some of this in-between and a finale
  • I think for many when deciding on whether this is his best work to date it will come down to if you prefer Nolan the director (master editor and montagist to beautiful imagery) or the screenwriter
  • There are many films to compare it to- the work of Leone (another great all-time montagist) – the way we have 3 parts that are separate but connected and come together has to be compared to once upon a time in the west and the good, the bad, and the ugly—but perhaps the main film I think about is intolerance with how Griffith weaves his stories together slowly at first and then ramps up the pace—marvelous
  • As a critic and devotee to cinema- I personally kind of love that we have a clear masterpiece here that’s not all about tracking shots- I was starting to feel like I was married to that kind of work (birdman, la la land, etc) and without it I wouldn’t be able to call a modern day film a big masterpiece- love to see that isn’t the case here and there are clearly many ways to create film art and moving the camera like cuaron does is just one such vehicle
  • It goes without saying at this point but you are watching an auteur who is it absolute and total control—certainly the comparisons to a watchmaker or a chess strategist aren’t wrong
  • I doubt if I’ll see a more beautifully photographed film all year and I’m positive I won’t see a better edited one
  • The performances are not the headline here but they are all very good. Branagh would be my single favorite if forced to pick as his face and reaction is a the Kuleshov effect reaction shot more often than anyone else and he’s great at it
  • What can you make of Hardy here? Yet another brilliant film where we don’t see his face for basically the entire thing (dark knight rises, mad max: fury road). I will say that his scene at the end with the plane on fire- being the face of the hero- is huge and not just any actor could pull that off- you need a big star and preferably a masculine one
  • It is an all-time war film but as much a Nolan film as anything he’s done- it reminds me of the thin red line in that way where the canvass of the war is just a launching point for malick and nolan’s unique expression of cinematic style
  • The best edited film in years
  • Masterpiece
epic film-making- along with Cuaron – the best use of large format screens of the 21st century

total archiveable films: 9

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films: 2 (The Dark Knight, Memento)

before the set-piece work and parallel editing sequences aided by Hans Zimmer– Memento showcased a burgeoning auteur filled with new ideas

top 100 films of the decade:  6 (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk)

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Nolan isn’t known as an overly painterly auteur- but this here from Inception is certainly wall-art quality

most overrated:  Not a thing. My two Nolan films already in the top 500 of all-time are the only two on the TSPDT list (Memento and The Dark Knight) and they’re at #605 and #611 all-time respectively so obviously both below where I have them. In the context of Nolan’s filmography I do think Memento is slightly overrated at this point. The TSPDT consensus has it as his #1 and I’m at #4. I’ll get to it in stylistic traits below but Nolan is much more than just an inventive screenwriter.

a god-smackingly perfect shot from Inception, and the shot behind the actor– certainly part of the Nolan visual style
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from Dunkirk
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…again- a reoccurring shot in the oeuvre…
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…. form The Dark Knight

most underrated: Everything from Nolan is underrated so here it’s about picking the worst offense and I think it’s 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Following up The Dark Knight and Inception is no easy task but Rises is a triumph by any measurement. The TSPDT consensus has it at #43 of 2012 which is disgraceful.

  • Without ledger’s performance I think I’d grade rises as the slightly superior film to 2008’s the dark knight. This is really hard because I also think Tom Hardy as Bane is absolutely wonderful here and between his physical presence and vocal work (he’s the best in the business right now in this category)—it’s an accomplishment for him and his career
  • It’s larger in scope and epic- Chris Nolan- size. There are more establishing shots, use of IMAX (the jaw-dropper of an opening is a set piece that rivals the best in Nolan’s career)
  • Bale is also superb as the prisoner and the howard hughes-type billionaire recluse in the beginning of the film
  • The lighting work here is superior to both the earlier batman films from Nolan- specifically at the charity ball it looks similar to eyes wide shut—but only for a second- it wasn’t sustained enough
  • There is some bad writing here- the cat puns I could absolutely do without- the “cat got your tongue?” stuff is just awful
  • Fantastic drum score with vocalizing/chanting
  • Nolan- as is his trademark now- is masterful at juggling the multiple narratives
  • The fatal flaw in the film is bane (hardy’s)’s death. He’s just a great character and he’s killed/defeated with a throwaway cheeseball boner of a line by catwoman. It lacks the gravitas of the situation/character and is really bad narrative form. It’s untrue to the film
  • Michael Caine also does his best work of the series in a few great scenes with Bale
  • Must-See top 5 of the year quality film

gem I want to spotlight:     The Dark Knight

  • I’ve heard many call it the empire strikes back of the trilogy and I like that- it’s the best film of the series (though close) and certainly very bleak
  • The film begins with a trademark Nolan gorgeous establishing shot of the city
  • I admire the terrorism post-9/11 element in the joker character and film. We have hostage videos and cell phone surveillance and certainly a blurry line of good and evil
  • 2 wonderful 360 shots- unlike De Palma or other shots though Nolan chooses to do one revelation and pause at a choice time
  • Absolutely has a gripping narrative and performances led by a virtuoso genius-level show by Heath Ledger- this and his performance in brokeback mountain put him on the fast track for greatest working actors until his tragic passing
  • Leger’s walk is studied as are his facial tics
  • There are multiple jaw-dropping sequences and set pieces. The tunnel chase scene is a jaw-dropper as is the impeccably timed hospital explosion set piece
  • Unlike the bond films where it always feels like Bond is one step ahead here it always feels like joker is and it plays marvelously on the viewer
  • The zimmer score is superb
  • I feel like Dent/two-face/eckhart’s betrayal could’ve been built up better formally- I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s a flaw it’s just an unwelcomed suspension the viewer’s disbelief that he would turn that quickly
  • The entire drama, almost like Shakespeare or the godfather in gravitas is impeccably executed
  • I love seeing Gary Oldman playing a straightforward character. He’s such a brilliant character actor but after 20+ years it’s nice to see him do such a good job at a straight-laced character
  • Masterpiece
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there are at least a few artists at work in The Dark Knight– Nolan and Ledger— and Nolan gets credit at least for the casting, and being there to capture the tour-de-force performance
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Nolan’s Heat – and this shot is right there from Mann’s masterpiece- blue day for night with a blending of Nolan’s trademark establishing shot brilliance

stylistic innovations/traits:    Nolan has a real fascination with complex narratives that often have to do with identity or meditations on memory. He’s also phenomenal at parallel editing sequences and increasingly massive (and gorgeous) set pieces. I think he’s also firmly established now (and many critics use this description as evaluation) as a cold and cerebral auteur but McConaughey, Ledger, Dicaprio, Bale and others have all done really good work in his films so clearly he can direct actors as well.  He’s done great work with other auteurs but Hans Zimmer’s work feels like it’ll be largely tied to Nolan and the exceptional work they’ve done together.   Nolan’s greatest strengths are his establishing shots (started with Insomnia giving us stunning overheads of Alaska) and (mainly) his cross cutting (particularly with multi-narratives)—Dunkirk is basically this for the entire running time instead of an elaborate and complicated narrative set-up with some of this in-between and a finale. It ranks the film and Nolan amongst the best achievements in film editing of the 21st century. There’s absolutely a Swiss watch-like Kubrickian and Hitchcockian precision and perfectionism in his work. It’s big muscular filmmaking. He’s borrowed from Michael Mann (especially Heat in The Dark Knight), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner and The Prestige borrows from The Duelists) and David Lean in his scope and size. From Interstellar we get Nolan speaking about himself with the “we’re explorers, not caretakers” as a mantra for Nolan himself as an inventive auteur—look at what he did with Batman—clearly not a caretaker- it’s auteur cinema.

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from The Prestige– magnificent imagery
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from Interstellar– Nolan has no real peer when discussing these big-format long shots
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from Dunkirk – negative space, camera distance– clearly a visual eye at his peak

top 10

  1. Dunkirk
  2. Inception
  3. The Dark Knight
  4. Memento
  5. The Dark Knight Rises
  6. Interstellar
  7. The Prestige
  8. Batman Begins
  9. Insomnia
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this one is from Insomnia – a stunner
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Inception – world-building– visual execution to match his imagination

By year and grades

2000 – Memento MS/MP
2002- Insomnia R
2005- Batman Begins R
2006- The Prestige R/HR
2008- The Dark Knight MP
2010- Inception MP
2012- The Dark Knight Rises MS
2014- Interstellar HR/MS
2017- Dunkirk MP

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives