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The Films Of Christopher Nolan: A Retrospective

by Oliver Lyttelton
July 19, 2012 2:04 PM
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"The Prestige" (2006)
Nolan's strangest film by a country mile and probably his most divisive, "The Prestige" was the little passion project that he knocked off with his 'Batman' cred in remarkably short time (filming began in February 2006, and it was in theaters only eight months later). Based on the novel by sci-fi author Christopher Priest, it follows the story of two magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), who become embroiled in a years-long feud after Angier's wife (Piper Perabo) drowns in an accident that he holds Borden responsible for. They move on, only crossing paths every so often, and each becoming famous for a trick which sees them vanish across a room into thin air, but each also holds a terrible secret that will have dreadful consequences. Many found the film (which is glorious-looking, thanks to Pfister's best-ever photography and Nathan Crowley's astounding production design) hard-to-follow, thanks to Nolan's puzzle-box-like structure, and hard to like, due to two murderous, bitter protagonists. But, if you're concentrating, the director's storytelling instincts never get you lost (the secret to the mystery is detailed in the opening shot, as it turns out), and to our mind, Bale and Jackman each give enough charm and sympathy to their performances that you can feel for both, although Nolan delicately lets your sympathies come down on one side of the fence by the end. And while it's certainly a film for the brain first and foremost -- Nolan using the world of magic as a metaphor for moviemaking and storytelling in general -- it packs an emotional punch, thanks in part to a tremendous performance by Rebecca Hall in, amazingly, her first major film role. A film quite unlike any in recent memory, and one that you suspect only Nolan could have directed, it's the kind of thing we hope he returns to now he's done with the Bat-franchise. [A]  

"The Dark Knight" (2008)
A sprawling crime saga running two and a half hours and until recently, the highest-grossing comic-book movie of all time (since surpassed by "The Avengers"), Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is still arguably the greatest superhero movie ever made (though that may change this weekend). But it’s also not without its flaws. Heath Ledger as the unhinged and unforgettable Joker and the cast elevate the entire thing, removing most traces of suspension of disbelief issues, but even Aaron Eckhart can’t make that realistic-style Two-Face make-up really work in Nolan’s ultra-realistic world (we spend most of his time on screen worrying what kind of infections he's going to catch). And if anyone can tell us the narrative reasoning for the faked death of Jim Gordon, we'd be most grateful, because that particular plot thread seems unnecessary, extraneous and poorly executed. Still, aside from minor problems such as that, thematically, “The Dark Knight” is rich, textured stuff, arguably a minor love story about two opposing forces that cannot exist in the same universe without one another. Moral themes of how the means justify the ends are provoked, and the political and social implications brought up in its grand finale are stupendous. Still, this is the Joker and Ledger’s show, the late actor playing a nihilistic villain who’s anarchist on the outside and deviously nefarious on the inside, who essentially is enamoured by Batman. He doesn’t want to kill him, the Joker wants to prove to this fellow freak that their methods are essentially one and the same and that the people he protects aren't worth fighting for. “You'll see...when the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other,” he cackles. And while he may never fully convince Batman, the villain always shakes the man to his core. [A-]

"Inception" (2010)
Honestly, until we sat down in the theater, we expected "Inception" to be Nolan's "Heaven's Gate" -- an expensive indulgent folly, the kind of film directors all too often fall to after being given carte blanche to make whatever they like. But we'd forgotten that Nolan had been working on the screenplay for a decade, and had honed his skills to a greater level than ever before, because "Inception" is an absolute triumph, and the culmination of everything the director's career until then had been building towards. A deeply personal art film disguised -- and also working brilliantly as -- a giant summer blockbuster, it sees Nolan focus in on a bold science-fiction idea: implanting an idea in someone's mind by entering their dreams. But while many would use that pitch as an excuse for Lynchian imagery up the wazoo, Nolan gives it his meticulous attention to detail and rules-setting, creating a clear and satisfying universe that, nevertheless, has enough texture that it doesn't become airless. He engages deeply with big concepts; about where ideas come from, about the function of dreams and consciousness, about love, grief and closure. And yet the film is consistently entertaining, a pacy caper film with cracking action sequences (the director finally nailing that side of filmmaking), that also doubles as a brilliantly thought out metaphor for the movie-making process itself. We can see how some can grate against the exposition, although as far as we're concerned, it's about as painless as it could be (although it's a shame that Ellen Page can never just ask the question "Why don't you get Michael Caine to bring your kids to you in France?"). And we can see that some might find it hard to identify with Nolan's rule-bound, organized, sexless dream world, but as we've said before, it's a hugely personal film, and we suspect that this is the way that Nolan's dreams look. It's as weird and difficult a film that has ever made $800 million at the box office, and if this is the kind of original filmmaking that Nolan will continue to make, we're positively pleased that he's retiring from the Bat-game. [A]

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  • Raag | July 22, 2012 3:05 PMReply

    Excellent analysis, i must say. The Prestige and Inception are two of my favorite Nolan films as well, or rather i must say I consider them to be among the greatest films that I've ever seen. The Prestige was a movie that has simply blown me away during the first watch and even after multiple rewatches I get that same thrill and emotion that I had for the first time. The DarkKnight and Memento are 2 amazing films as well. I'm yet to catch Rises but would make sure to catch it in next few days time. And yeah, just to add, Nolan, for me is the greatest director in Hollywood right now.

  • Deep | July 22, 2012 4:13 AMReply

    Dark Knight is haunted tale and it is well made movie and Wow how great haters you are? Observing every bit of movie that what fans do You r best observer of this movie.
    Somewhat u liked this movie but pretending to hate this movie.

  • Amardeep | July 22, 2012 4:07 AMReply

    People have their own argument on Nolan's movie but it is real fact he that is most celebrated filmmakers in recent time you will not count him as greatest but he is better craftsman than any other great directors. For me and millions of people around the world he is great director than any movie director. In India people watch movies because it is directed by Nolan no other Hollywood director have that reputation. He make intelligent and sensible Cinema. Whatever the haters say but all his movies are above b grades for sure.

  • Schedel | July 21, 2012 7:43 AMReply

    Jim was afraid his family would be targeted by the Joker- he says something implying this in the film, I believe.

  • quickV | July 20, 2012 11:07 PMReply

    Following was much better than Insomnia in my opinion. Much, much better. I loved Following. The plot was simple and intriguing, the acting was good, and the progression, structure, and payoff was spot on.
    Batman Begins had some bright moments, but overall the "cheap" blockbuster look during the final scenes with the train hurtling around did it in for me. Still enjoyable though.
    Loved Inception, thought that The Dark Knight was really good, very much enjoyed The Prestige and Memento too. Not the biggest fan of Insomnia...
    I'd love to see someone else direct Inception without the exposition. See how coherent it is. Creating a world, a technology, whole concepts about concepts would require some explaining :)

  • zatopek | July 19, 2012 4:54 PMReply

    Exposition.. I mean Inception is hardly A. More like B or B+, like The Dark Knight.

  • TXW | July 19, 2012 4:54 PMReply

    TDK is a superficial, sloppy mess. Crib notes from Heat transcoded into a poorly plotted, inexplicably motivated slosh. It has like 50 aerial expository shots, but otherwise it's cramped and flat. It 'provokes' themes, perhaps, sets up reductive dualisms, yes -- then lets them stew. It has no perspective. The film dramatizes none of its thematic threads -- everyone just talks about them. Freeman is outraged by the breach in privacy inherent in that sonar nonsense (great, we get it), the Joker raves in pseudo-profundity about nihilism and chaos, Gordon expounds on Batman as symbol (-- and can we get much more didactic than that ridiculous boat scene?). So, awesome: platitudes and binaries. The boring chit-chat/talking-for-our-benefit scenes are then interspersed with the aforementioned aerials and a few spatially incomprehensible action scenes. Ledger gives a one dimensional performance, as does Gyllenhaal -- one all jitters and cheese, the other a vapid flirt who undoes all the solid groundwork laid by Holmes. All sense of Batman Begin's psychological realism is gone; yes, BB has terribly blocked and shot action, but otherwise it's a much, much tighter film (one whose Gotham isn't just Chicago or New York, too, which is nice). Batman/Wayne in TDK -- the most/only interesting character -- gets lost in the shuffle of plots, villains, deaths, double-crosses, and cops with one-liners. The film rushes through its convoluted amalgam of cliches and Mann-aped cinematography, talks out its dubious 'themes,' and then ends on a note that makes no sense. The Joker can't take the fall? cuz it's not like people believe everything the news tells them (but no, Gordon says, you can't cover up a few cops deaths when the city's been in a panic for the past few weeks and a bunch of cops and civil servants are already dead -- right...) Begins is Nolan's best film, Insomnia second, TDK worst, the others hovering in 6-7/10 territory. He's not a totally untalented director, but he relies on telling not showing (using faux-'epic' [I'm using internet movie-dork idiom here] visual tricks to cover that up and appear more cinematic [the aerials, the big actions set pieces, Batman standing on a 50 story building every fifteen minutes, dollying-in for every line delivery ever]), and on incredibly convoluted plots that, yes, raise questions, and are praised for it despite -- and here comes an important yet little discussed fact -- their triviality or minor applicability to lived human life (the high concept MO, dealing in thought experiment pseduo-thematics). In summation, this list sucks

  • tristan eldritch | July 19, 2012 5:09 PM

    Dude, your description of Dark Knight is 100% dead-on accurate. I have NEVER understood the Dark Knight phenomenon; it seems like some form of prolonged mass hysteria. I would be somewhat kinder to Ledger's performance, but other than that, everything you say is spot-on.

  • Tom | July 19, 2012 4:20 PMReply

    Ouch, harsh grade for Following. It's rough around the edges to be sure, but I'd say it's much better than you give it credit for. Also, the exposition nearly killed Inception for me. I really must give it another chance, perhaps I can go into it with adjusted expectations.

  • Jake | July 19, 2012 4:18 PMReply

    Can we talk about how terrible Eric Roberts is in The Dark Knight?

  • Nolan | July 19, 2012 3:44 PMReply

    I agree that Batman Begins is actually relatively weak. The initial reaction most had to it was more of a "wow, this is actually surprisingly pretty good" rather than "OMFG THIS IS SO GOOD NOLAN IS A VISIONARY", which is how everything he does now is perceived. But, it's interesting that you only call out Begins as having third act problems when, really, everything he's done SINCE Begins has had the same problems. TDK is 20 minutes and one needless setpiece too long, Inception completely goes off the rails once we get to the weird, Metal Gear Solid-esque snow-fortress set, and Prestige ends up trying to be too clever for it's own good as it winds down. I can't speal for TDKR, but I really do hope that he's figured out how to write a third act.

  • AS | July 19, 2012 4:13 PM

    I agree with you about Batman Begins but the biggest problems about that film, for me, are the performances. Everyone gives Nolan credit for taking Batman in a new direction with Begins, but actually, after the first hour, it's a by the numbers comic book movie. There are way too many cheesy moments (obligatory homeless guy going "nice wheels," cops looking up in wonderment as Batman jumps off a building, cutaways to cops having stupid pseudo-comic reactions to Batman driving across a roof) and embarrassingly weak performances (Katie Holmes, Mark Boone Junior, Colin McFarlane and an over-the-top Cillian Murphy). The film is at its best when Bale and Neeson share the screen. For a super hero movie it's good, for a movie-movie it's decent. I disagree with you, however, when it comes to the final acts of his films. As much as I like The Dark Knight, it's the first hour of that film that really struggles (again, mostly due weak performances, i.e. Michael Jai White). As the film moves along, it gets better and better, building to a terrific climax. Same goes for Inception (although, Inception doesn't really suffer from any weak performances, which is why it's my favorite of Nolan's films). In the beginning, Nolan has to deal with a lot of exposition but as the story starts to unravel, the film becomes more and more engaging.

  • sfdsf | July 19, 2012 3:23 PMReply

    Wow, your problems with Batman Begins are SO fishy. Batman Begins has some majorly misunderstood action scene aestetics. Nolan puts you in the shoes of the bad guys and therefore the action/fighting scenes are disorienting, chaotic and scary - just in line with the theme of fear! You've failed, Oliver. And Liam Neeson being hammy? Give me a fucking brake, you elitist tool!

  • HanTorso | August 15, 2012 6:04 PM

    The whole "the fight scenes come from the bad guys perspective" is such a weak defense of these awful action scenes. Liam Neeson didn't seem scared of Batman at all, so why was the fight with him shot incoherently. The same goes for the opening fight scene in the prison, and the fight with the Foot Clan members who had the same training Batman did. Way to try and rationalize a terrible movie.

  • Ryan | July 25, 2012 12:22 AM

    Calm down, fan boy.

  • A Hipster's Worst Nightmare | July 19, 2012 3:16 PMReply

    The jim gordon death has to happen in order to give the audience the illusion that chaos has taken over Gotham; that the stakes are high. It also sets up Harvey Dent's following scene with the Arkham patient; that even the white knight is corruptable when the Joker's chaos reigns. Don't try to be too smart all time, Playlisters, sometimes your critique is obviously fishy.

  • Mike | July 19, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    Secondly, while I agree with you wholeheartedly that Insomnia features Al Pacino's last great big screen performance, he has done plenty of excellent work since then in things like Angels in America, and You Don't Know Jack.

  • Mike | July 19, 2012 3:11 PMReply

    I completely disagree on Batman Begins, its my favorite Batman movie because it focuses on Bruce Wayne as a living, breathing, psychological character, not the alter ego of a masked vigilante that plays second fiddle to a cavalcade of scenery-chewing villains. The Dark Knight is a thrill to be sure, but Bruce Wayne and even Batman is shoved aside into a part of an ensemble, and as electrifying as Ledger was, an antagonist with some tangible story or motivation makes a film more engaging for me. Plus I'd much rather we had more slightly unhinged but grounded villains & those not depicted on screen previously like Scarecrow here than what we got in the following films.

  • Day | July 19, 2012 2:50 PMReply

    Oh my god. Thank you for giving The Prestige top marks. I am a huge Christopher Nolan fan and was having a conversation with my friend the other day, I told him, while The Dark Knight and Inception are cool films, in my opinion when I went back to watch them for a second time, I couldn't really get anything new out of them. The Prestige is my favorite of all of Nolan's work, it has a way of always revealing something new. I also hope he tunes down the big budget projects and goes for something more intiment. With that said, cannot wait for The Dark Knight Rises!!!

  • Christian | July 19, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    The Batman Begins hate is ... just wrong!

  • Charles | July 19, 2012 2:47 PM

    Amen to that. Batman Begins provided the solid foundation for the rest of the series.

  • DG | July 19, 2012 2:39 PMReply

    Switch the scores around for Inception and Dark Knight and you've nailed it. Also I liked the Scarecrow's hallucination scenes but agree some of the action stuff in Begnins kind of fell apart.

  • cirkusfolk | July 19, 2012 2:28 PMReply

    This is your best director's retrospective yet. Not only do I agree with everyone of the grades for each film but the write ups for each are spot on, especially with regards to Batman Begins. Awesome job.

  • Brian Z | July 19, 2012 2:40 PM

    I would argue pretty heavily against Nolan as the greatest. If you love him, that's fine, he's definitely super talented. For me, I'd still go with Almodovar, Haneke, Cuaron, Fincher, Soderbergh, the Dardennes, Assayas, Desplechin and a few others over Nolan. Which isn't to say he's not great, just not the greatest today in my eyes.

  • cirkusfolk | July 19, 2012 2:31 PM

    Should've included The Dark Knight Rises as well though. So with that being said, how can anyone argue Nolan isn't the greatest director working today. Four A's a B and a C. That's quite a report card when compared to all the other directors you've already done retrospectives on, cough cough, Ridley Scott.

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