Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Hollywood’s greatest hope for original blockbuster filmmaking.
I saw Memento twice in theaters. The first was due to the great reviews it was getting early on and the fact that it starred the great Guy Pearce. The second was after walking out of Pearl Harbor about 10 minutes in — just after the dogfight scene, if I recall correctly — and into the theater next door to revisit the work of a young genius named Christopher Nolan. I thought to myself, I hope this guy sticks around.
And he has. In under two decades, his movies have featured cops, magicians, thieves, and Jokers. He’s shot in both black and white and color (sometimes in the same movie), showed us dreams and death, and given us a whole lot of Michael Caine. He not only resurrected a franchise from the depths of a nippled-batsuit-hell, but also created the greatest comic book movie of all time.
Critics agree that Christopher Nolan is one of the great modern filmmakers — and you’ll see why ahead.
10. Following (1998)
Runtime: 1 hr. 9 min.
Press Release: A young London writer, Bill, starts following people around to see if he can drum up inspiration for his fledgling writing, learn about human behavior, and, more importantly, characterization.
Cast: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell, John Nolan
“Yeah, but is Michael Caine in it?”: Well, the budget of Following was an estimated $6,000 bucks. According to IMDB, Caine was paid $250,000 for Gambit, in 1966. Taking inflation into account, I suppose I understand why Caine couldn’t make an appearance in this micro-budget brain-buster.
Career Charge: Considering Theobald, Haw, and Russell barely had careers beyond this film, it’s a safe bet (approximately $3 billion and counting in box office) to say that this film launched the career of the young Brit who handled the shooting, editing, producing, writing, and directing behind Following, Christopher Jonathan James Nolan.
Best Shot: Is it fair game to talk about the last shot of a film that came out 16 years ago when many still haven’t seen it? Read the next bits, but we’ll just throw up the ol’ SPOILER: After tricking poor Bill (Theobald) into being his rube, murdering the blonde, and basically getting away with everything, Nolan frames an ace long shot of Cobb (Haw), standing alone in the crowd by himself, and as just enough people appear in the foreground, poof, he disappears. Sneaky, competent stuff right there.
Non-Linear Notes: Nolan took a chance by employing a non-linear structure to his tiny film (an editing style that he’d later use in Memento, Batman Begins, and The Prestige), which reveal his interests in withholding information, subjectively playing with his characters and forcing audiences to evaluate his work a little harder than usual. Nolan allegedly became interested in non-normative, parallel structures in storytelling after reading Graham Swift’s Waterland at age 16, and he never looked back. The old DVD and new Criterion allows for viewing the movie in chronological order, which really amplifies how impressive the film actually is. Instead of clear definitions for characters and stories, you get to follow arcs into legitimate surprises.
Bat-Fan? It’s blink or you’ll miss it moment, but as Bill and Cobb leave one of the apartments they’re raiding, a nice Batman emblem can be seen. It’s likely not career foreshadowing for Nolan, everybody likes The Dark Knight, but how cool of a connection is that?
“Nah. Look at the books. They’re college educated.”: After graduating from University College London, Nolan made Following over the course of a year on weekends. He personally financed the film, and made it with friends after getting zero traction with UK financiers for projects he pitched in the late ‘90s. Nolan came up with the concept for Following after his apartment was burgled, and he began to wonder what could be going through the minds of home intruders while they rummage through people’s personal, private spaces. It shows in some of the film’s more casual and crackling dialogue. When Cobb explains to Bill why he breaks into people’s homes, he asserts that it’s not for the money, but “for the adrenalin, and because, like you, I’m interested in people.” Nolan’s literally explaining what goes through the minds of people, a concept that would be a staple of his talkative filmography.
Analysis: Following is primarily a heady little doodle; an exercise in process and likely just learning how to make a movie. That said, as far as first features go, Nolan showed infinite potential, and his own particular interests, what with the film’s curious themes, attention to detail, and early mastery of non-linear narrative. It’s unpolished and raw and hungry and it makes for great indie viewing.
09. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Runtime: 2 hr. 45 min.
Press Release: The epic conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Dark Knight Trilogy.
Cast: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
“Yeah, but is Michael Caine in it?”: Hardly. Bruce Wayne’s trusty protector, Alfred Pennyworth, appears for maybe 15 whole minutes. Still, you get to see the ol’ bird shed some tears, and that’s a priceless if not heartbreaking moment.
Career Charge: Mr. Matthew Modine, come on down! Up until this point, the Full Metal Jacket and Bye Bye Love star had been swimming in mediocrity, with the exception of a recurring role on Weeds and an appearance in HBO’s forgettable film, Too Big to Fail. As Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley, Modine does what he can with the underwritten character, injecting enough comic skepticism towards Commissioner Gordon for audiences to hate the guy.
Regardless of his weak arc, he does manage to find his own redemption by the film’s final act, leading a charge against Bane’s henchmen in what might be the most ludicrous scene in the entire Dark Knight trilogy. “There’s only one police in this town,” he declares before succumbing to one lame send-off. How could Nolan do that to Private Joker? …. Ah, I see what he did there.
Best Shot: It’s hard to shake off the brutal confrontation between Bane and Batman. Nolan keeps things claustrophobic with plenty of close shots, which really heightens the stakes at hand. One iconic shot, used rather liberally in the trailers, pops up when a soaked Batman raises his fists at a lingering Bane. It’s easy to miss because the scene itself is littered with multiple background-worthy images, from the painful shattering of Batman’s mask to the way Bane hoists his crumpled body over his head. The film revolves around these tense few minutes and Nolan truly used his magic here. Watch it again, if you dare.
“Hey, can we get some girls in here!?”
Look What the Cat Dragged In: Though she’s never officially referred to as Catwoman in the film — despite the onslaught of marketing prior — Anne Hathaway rises above the title by embracing the role of Selina Kyle, instead. She’s resourceful, curious, aggressive, and feisty, scratching up each scene with feral nihilism. The chemistry she has with Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is quite palpable, too, which is intriguing given how little screen time the two share with one another. While Michelle Pfeiffer will always be the definitive Catwoman, Hathaway certainly lived up to the hype as Ms. Kyle. So much so that Warner Bros. would champion her performance (albeit meekly) come awards season.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn”: As the nation’s obsessed raced to midnight showings across the country, 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes walked into the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, CO and opened fire. He killed 12 people, injured 70 others, and identified himself as “the Joker” to the authorities when he was apprehended. In response, Bale visited the survivors while Nolan issued an emotional statement, which contained a line that pretty much said it all: “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” Not surprisingly, there were at least five other loosely-related incidents across America in the days following, from alleged vocal threats to armed theatergoers.
“I won’t bury another Batman”: No, Batman doesn’t die. Prior to the film’s release, rumors circulated online that Bats would bite the dust, especially when the screenplay was revealed to be sourcing material from 1993’s “Knightfall” storyline, Frank Miller’s grim The Dark Knight Returns, and the semi post-apocalyptic “No Man’s Land”. Still, things are quite dire throughout the film’s near-three hour experience: Bane breaks Batman’s back, Gotham is nearly destroyed, and both Gordon and Alfred wind up “burying” Bruce Wayne, making Rises the rare unforgiving third entry in a trilogy. Despite all that, however, the tension never comes close to matching its predecessor, The Dark Knight…
Analysis: …which was always going to be a problem, right? The 2008 critical and commercial beast shattered every filmgoer’s expectations of what a Batman movie or a sequel in general could be. It came at a time when Nolan was just starting to realize the world was his oyster, and that expansive scope explains why he can get away with shifting the action between Gotham City and somewhere far out like Hong Kong.
By comparison, Rises attempts the same tricks — look no further than its 007-inspired opening aboard a plane — but ultimately loses its grasp, tackling larger-than-life action sequences that shatter any sense of realism established in The Dark Knight. What’s worse, Tom Hardy is simply an agreeable villain rather than a haunting figure like the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the iconic Joker.
There’s also a breakneck pace to the film, as if Nolan couldn’t wait to sign off from the beloved franchise, which might explain why there’s little logic from beginning to end. Not surprisingly, he’s since expressed his elation to be finished with superhero movies, distancing himself further and further from Warner Bros.’ grand design for DC.
Here’s hoping he one day revisits the series and we can see Mr. Gordon-Levitt don the cape. But don’t hold your breath.
08. Insomnia (2002)
Runtime: 1 hr. 58 min.
Press Release: A shady cop begins to lose it as he investigates a murder in a small Alaskan town, thanks to a combination of remorse and the summer solstice.
Cast: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank
“Yeah, but is Michael Caine in it?”: Believe it or not, Michael Caine is nowhere to be found in Insomnia. He is not under any snowbanks. He is not hiding under the bridge where Pacino and Williams meet. If he had been cast in the film, I imagine it would have been as Chief Nyback, who was instead portrayed by the great Paul Dooley. Have you seen him in Breaking Away? Let me sabotage this feature by suggesting you go watch Breaking Away.
Career Charge: Since his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting, the late Robin Williams had been toiling away in weepie fare like Bicentennial Man, Patch Adams, and What Dreams May Come. This movie not only took him away from such, but showed another depth to his possibilities as an actor. His darkly comedic turn in Death to Smoochy is stripped of any humor here in his performance of Walter Finch, a novelist-turned-killer. One-Hour Photo was released the same year, which also featured the funnyman in creep mode. Insomnia is the better film, but Williams’ performance in Photo is not to be dismissed.
Best Shot: Simply put, the very beginning. We see a microscopic shot of a red substance spreading across fabric. This isn’t done simply for the sake of an inventive visual — it ends up being a major part of the film.
Re-Make/Re-Model: Nolan’s 2002 film is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film with the same title. While the main plot remains the same, Nolan’s version paints his protagonist Dormer (Pacino) in a slightly darker shade, with Internal Affairs investigating him back home. We’re wondering whether or not he’s a dirty cop before he even lands in Alaska. The original film stars Stellan Skarsgård in the role of Engström, and had he reprised his role in the American version, we could have seen another showdown between him and Williams (Good Will Hunting). This movie needs some Lambeau/Sean action!:
Lambeau: “Oh, God. Is this about the Field Medal? I’ll go home and get it for you. You can have it.”
Sean: “You know what? You can shove your medal up your fucking ass!”
Okay. Maybe not.
Working With a Bunch of Non No-Names: From a Nolan interview with DVDTalk: “It’s certainly very daunting to work with actors you’ve grown up watching your whole life. Certainly in the case of Pacino you’re talking about The Godfather, Scarface, Serpico, and all these movies. It was certainly daunting in theory. What I found with Al and Robin and Hillary Swank is you realize very early on in the process the reason these actors have achieved what they’ve achieved is because they’re tremendously talented, but they’re also very professional. They understand more than anybody about the process of filmmaking and what your job is as a director. I found it actually to be really, tremendously exciting once we started working.”
Before Zimmer, There Was Julyan: The great thing about composer David Julyan’s scores for early Nolan films is how minimalistic they are. Take the opening and closing of Insomnia for example. These pieces of music don’t knock you over the head. They’re always present without changing too much, much like the ever-present sunlight that is slowly breaking down Will Dormer. Hans Zimmer’s contributions to the Nolan filmography are great, but hopefully the director will reteam with Julyan one of these days.
Analysis: This was Nolan’s big break for a big studio with big-name actors, and he passes with flying colors. The key to his success is found in the casting of, and ultimately the performances by, his two leads. Williams and Pacino had become more than a little comfortable playing it for the back row, but Insomnia demands them to play it a bit more muted. Pacino deliberately sleepwalks through his performance while his enemy Williams relishes playing the observer. Nolan sacrificed nothing by making the leap, and Warner Bros. wouldn’t forget when looking for a director to help re-launch their Batman franchise.
07. Interstellar (2014)
Runtime: 2 hr. 49 min.
Press Release: In the near future, when globally destructive dust storms push Earth closer to uninhabitable status by the day, a skilled ex-astronaut is enlisted as part of a secret task force to explore the depths of space and time, in hopes of finding another planet in the galaxy which could allow humanity to continue.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Mackenzie Foy, David Gyasi, Michael Caine, Timothee Chalamet, Bill Irwin, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, John Lithgow
“Yeah, but is Michael Caine in it?” Interstellar offers a Nolan-Caine twofer; not only does the venerable actor play a key role as the scientist behind the ambitious (and dangerous) expedition, but he also plays what may be his most unlikable character in any of their actor-director collaborations. His eventual conclusion that Earth and most of its inhabitants will die, and that only an ark of embryos can sustain the species, is as horrifying as it is brutally practical.
Career Charge: Aside from the fact that Chastain will likely find herself beset by loud invocations of “MUUUUUUURPH” for the rest of her career, Interstellar was the end cap to a major year for McConaughey, who won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club and delivered an unforgettable, chest-beating turn in The Wolf of Wall Street before cementing his return to the A-list with his powerful work here.
Best Shot: There are a number of devastating images throughout the film, from McConaughey’s famously sobbing face as he watches his children grow through 23 years in a series of videotapes to that haunting final image of Hathaway alone on a solitary planet, waiting for salvation or the release of death. But the one that lasts the longest for us arrives when the Endurance passes through the wormhole, dragging its crew out of anything that might ever be familiar again and into previously uncharted corners of the unknown universe. (Or at least they believe so.)
Non-Linear Notes: For as strange as Interstellar ends up being by the end of its near-three hour runtime, in a storytelling sense, it may be one of Nolan’s more straightforward films until around twenty or so more minutes from the end. The abstract horrors of the greater universe are distilled down into something an audience can at least follow, if not fully understand. At least, that is, until Nolan breaks the boundaries of quantum physics by suspending Cooper and TARS in a gigantic time paradox, at which point all of those strange occurrences and dust lines in the film’s early scenes finally come full circle. It’s only when the film untethers itself from all known boundaries of science that it finally comes to resemble the disorienting narrative manipulations for which Nolan has become known.
Bourne on the Waves of Time: Much has been made of the close proximity of two very different Matt Damon performances as astronauts; where his stranded Mars explorer in The Martian is a far more sympathetic figure, he more or less shows up to ruin everything around the middle point of Interstellar. But to have his appearance even be such a surprise is remarkable in and of itself, particularly in an era where spoilers and set-photo leaks are something of an Internet currency. But thanks to Nolan’s tight-lipped methods of film production, only one Variety article ever so much as teased that the star would play a pivotal role in how the film ends up playing out. And he ends up being such an incorrigible shit that it’s hard to feel bad for him, even after all of his isolation and suffering, when he zealously ejects himself into the vacuum of space.
Extra-terrestrials: Although the film’s dramatic, paradoxical climax cements the presence of other intelligent life, we can’t help but wonder how Interstellar might have been presented if left in the hands originally meant to bring it to life: Steven Spielberg. As far back as 2006, Spielberg was attached to the project with Jonathan Nolan still writing the screenplay. But when the director left to pursue other interests, it was Christopher who took over. You can still see some of the director’s DNA in the finished film, from the emotional family dynamics at its center to the presence of a highly divisive ending.
Analysis: Interstellar offers a version of Earth’s future that pulls off the difficult balance of at once being practical enough to exist within the realm of plausibility, but surreal enough to sustain Nolan’s grand ambitions. Though the filmmaker has worked on an increasingly large scale for years, here is the first film where he takes a true swing at the heady overwhelm of a true epic, for better and worse. From Hans Zimmer’s deafening, overwhelming score to the broad emotional scale of the film’s take on far-flung worlds, there isn’t a single aspect of Interstellar that aims anywhere short of the absolute heights of cinema. This is a big part of why the film’s expository screenplay (one that’s sometimes clunkily so) has become a matter of major debate in the years since its release. For every scene on the level of Cooper’s realization that he missed a sizable portion of his children’s lives in an instant, there’s a lead-footed line in the vein of the early mention that “You were a great scientist and a great pilot, Cooper!”
Yet what makes Interstellar such an essential and well-loved modern film is the way in which it takes some of sci-fi’s oldest and most difficult concepts (time paradoxes, worlds beyond comprehension, humanity in places it was never meant to exist) and tethers them to one of the simplest and oldest stories of them all: love as a force of absolute transcendence. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at, but it’s also arguably lazy to do so. What Nolan accomplishes with the film only grows more staggering upon reflection, when you realize that the director made the kind of movie that most studios won’t even touch, with as big a budget as any summer blockbuster, and made it accessible to audiences who might never otherwise watch such a thing. It stands as definitive proof that Nolan can accomplish pretty much anything he sets his mind to, no matter how jagged the edges.
06. Batman Begins (2005)
Runtime: 2 hr. 21 min.
Press Release: The origin story of The Dark Knight.
Cast: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes
Yeah, but is Michael Caine in it? Yes! ‘Ello, Alfred.
Career Charge: Rutger Hauer is a Dutch character actor whom you might remember as the gravelly-voiced villain in Blade Runner, Nighthawks, and Sin City. His role in Batman Begins is a small but crucial one; as Wayne Enterprises CEO William Earle, he’s basically the Miranda Priestley of the joint, plotting a company takeover from rightful heir Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and firing Board member Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) with the delicious line, “Didn’t you get the memo?” Memo to Hollywood: Keep casting this guy.
Best Shot: The introductory installment of Nolan’s inspired franchise reboot is full of thrilling “firsts”, with Bruce scaling a snow-covered mountain in Tibet (actually Iceland), discovering the Batcave and debuting the Batmobile in Gotham City (hey there, Chicago!) being just a few of the highlights. But the most spine-tingly shot comes in the final scene, when Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) shows Batman the “calling card” of the Joker. It’s a subtle and fleeting moment, but also one of the most exciting teasers for a comic book film sequel in recent memory. My theatre erupted in applause when Gordon turned the card over, having no idea at the time how immensely gratifying The Dark Knight would be. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
Alternate History: Although Bale was the first actor to meet with Nolan, he still faced some stiff competition to play the caped crusader. Jake Gyllenhaal, Billy Crudup, Hugh Dancy, Eion Bailey, Cillian Murphy (whose audition Nolan liked so much, he cast him as Dr. Jonathon Crane/Scarecrow), Joshua Jackson, Henry Cavill (now Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), Keanu Reeves and Ashton Kutcher (the studio favorite) were also strong contenders, with Angel’s David Boreanez being the original first choice and Josh Hartnett reportedly turning down the role when the project was in early development.
#ByeKatie: Interestingly, the role of Rachel Dawes, a character that does not exist in Batman or any other DC Comics’ series, was written expressly for Katie Holmes, with Claire Danes and Reese Witherspoon being the backup considerations. Rachel McAdams and Sarah Michelle Gellar also auditioned for the part, while Amy Adams, who would go on to play Lois Lane in Man of Steel, read opposite Bale in his screen test. Sticking with Holmes may not have been the best idea, however, as most critics were unimpressed by her performance and audiences didn’t bat an eye when she skipped The Dark Knight due to “scheduling conflicts” and Maggie Gyllenhaal stepped in to replace her. And yes, that is a #ByeFelicia reference.
The Blade Runner Connection: Before shooting began, Nolan invited his entire film crew to a private screening of Blade Runner. Afterwards he told them, “This is how we’re going to make Batman.”
Analysis: Begins marked the dawn of a new era for superhero films, and in terms of adding Oscar-worthy gravitas to what could just have easily been another silly popcorn flick, revitalized the genre. While previous franchises (Burton and Schumacher’s Batman series, Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy) were more flashy and cartoonish, and eventually sputtered to embarrassing ends—remember Batman & Robin and Spiderman 3?—Nolan’s spin on The Dark Knight’s origin story signaled the start of something darker, grittier, and more compelling, narratively and visually, than anything that had come before.
05. The Prestige (2006)
Press Release: Two rival magicians in 19th century London compete to perform the ultimate illusion.
Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johanssen, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie
Yeah, but is Michael Caine in it? Right-o! He plays the film’s narrator and inventor of tricks (or ingénieur) John Cutter. Although the part was not written with Caine in mind, Nolan would later describe him as the perfect fit: “Michael Caine’s character really becomes something of the heart of the film. He has a wonderful warmth and emotion to him that draws you into the story and allows you to have a point of view on these characters without judging them too harshly.”
Career Charge: Yes, the late David Bowie shows up as Nikola Tesla and is fabulous as per usual. But what about Rebecca Hall? Before Nolan cast her as Sarah, the wife of Christian Bale’s character Alfred Borden, the English actress had not appeared in an American film and was “starstruck” just to be involved. Hall went on to shine in Vicky Christina Barcelona and The Town, and remains one of the most egregious examples of “Why isn’t she A-List?” talent working today.
Best Shot: Of course, a movie about optical illusions is rife with spectacular imagery, but the underwater escape trick gone wrong is especially gripping. Julia (Piper Perabo) slips into the water chamber, after we see Borden tying the knot around her wrists in a peculiar fashion, and her nodding in consent. The door locks; the curtain closes. And then: long, deafening silence. She isn’t coming up. The shots that follow—Cutter driving his axe into the glass and Julia tumbling out in a watery gush, drowned and dead; and seconds later, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackson) reliving the horror of that moment, her last gasp cutting into his starved gulp for air as he lurches his head from the sink—are exquisitely paced, blunt and brutal.
Los Angeles to London: Nolan built only one set, an “under-the-stage section” that housed the machinery to make the larger illusions work, and simply dressed various Los Angeles locations and sound stages to stand in for London and Colorado Springs (the only Colorado location was Osgood Castle in Redstone). Production designer Nathan Crowley chose four locations in L.A.’s Broadway theatre district for the film’s magic stage performances, turned a portion of the Universal back lot into Victorian London and shot a scene of Tesla inventing the electric light bulb in the parking lot of the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, Ca.
One Year, Two Magician Movies: The Illusionist, another fin de siècle magician drama film directed by Neil Burger and starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel, premiered in August 2006, followed by The Prestige in October. Although both films took place at the turn of the 19th century, The Illusionist is set in Vienna, and The Prestige in London. Both films were commercial and critical successes, although The Prestige slightly more so: Nolan’s film grossed $109 million worldwide to Burger’s $87 million, and received Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. And, for the record, Rotten Tomatoes ranks The Illusionist at 74 percent fresh, and The Prestige at 76 percent. Close call!
Every Script Consists of Three Parts: Echoing Cutter’s monologue at the start of the film, “Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts,” the Nolan brothers’ three-act screenplay was deliberately structured around the three elements of the film’s illusion: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. In essence, Christopher and Jonathon Nolan are explaining to the audience how all films are made, and how we are tricked into believing them.
Analysis: The Prestige is one of the top Nolan productions, after Inception and Memento, that benefits most from repeat viewings, as the film itself is an elaborate trick. Here, nothing is what it seems, and everything from the storyline to the characters to the images projected onscreen are subject to doubt in their order and intent, not to be trusted. How well can we trust the people that are close to us, or perhaps more importantly, how well can we trust our perceptions of those people, and our own visions of reality as it is presented? How much of life is an illusion by our design? The Prestige is widely thought of as a “twist” film, but upon closer inspection, Nolan’s statement is not at all radical to anyone who has ever been tricked, by sleight of hand or something more sinister: the answer was right in front of us all along.
04. Inception (2010)
Runtime: 2 hr. 28 min.
Press Release: A team of thieves use dream-sharing technology to break into the mind of a CEO to install an idea. A man tries to go home.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy
“Yeah, but is Michael Caine in it?” He’s around. He plays Professor Stephen Miles, a mentor and father-in-law to DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb. He not only proves to be the link between Cobb and his children, but also to Ellen Page’s Ariadne, a key figure of the film’s story who will eventually create the dreamscapes that Cobb’s team will employ.
Career Charge: Whoa, is that Cleveland Indians catcher Jake Taylor? You betcha. A hefty Tom Berenger sweats and shuffles around as Peter Browning, a surrogate father of sorts to Cillian Murphy’s Robert Michael Fischer. It’s a minor role, but quite essential to Cobb’s master plan. Tom Hardy’s Eames forges his character, which allows him to walk Fischer deeper down into the recesses of his own memory banks. Despite the little screen time, however, Berenger still manages to squeeze in his trademark machismo. When Saito assumes Browning is Aimes, he apologizes and says he had him mistaken for someone else. Browning nods and adds, “Good-looking fellow, I’m sure.” Classic Berenger.
Best Shot: Inception is one of Nolan’s most beautiful works to date. Cinematographer Wally Pfister really earned his Academy Award for this one, capturing each location — Japan, England, France, Morocco, Los Angeles, and Alberta — with tear-jerking delight and solely on 35 and 65mm film. “It’s an action film set in a contemporary world, but with a slight science-fiction bent to it,” Nolan explained. As such, each location has a surreal addition, whether it’s tilting city streets, a crumbling seaside metropolis, an impromptu train, or revolving hallways. It’s impossible to pick an essential shot, though one of the film’s sharpest is also its most human: a hypnotic close up of Cotillard’s face on the train tracks. The way she’s framed strikes the heart in its intended fashion, while also sparking memories of French New Wave cinema. Then again, it could just be that Cotillard is an enigma herself.
Can we talk about Hans Zimmer for a second? While the Academy Award wound up in the hands of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network, Zimmer’s score for Inception might be his strongest and most influential effort yet. The score’s bombastic brass and swells of sweeping bass have been used in just about every trailer post-2010, while his composition “Time” has since been reconfigured by various composers (consult: Henry Jackman’s “Safe Now” for last year’s Captain Phillips) and even Zimmer himself (consult: “Solomon” for last year’s 12 Years a Slave). Guitarist Johnny Marr adds to the score’s depth, which thrives on feelings of depression and nostalgia and desperation. As such, it moves and shifts in a way that cracks the cyclical mode of Zimmer’s more iconic work for The Dark Knight Trilogy, dialing back, instead, to his previous compositions for The Thin Red Line and even The Lion King. It’s a beautiful thing.
Alternate Dream: The role of Cobb was originally pitched to Brad Pitt and Will Smith. Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur could have been James Franco’s, while Evan Rachel Wood was Nolan’s first choice to play Ariadne. Others also considered outside of Page included Emily Blunt, Rachel McAdams, Emma Roberts, Jessy Schram, and Carey Mulligan.
This all feels very 007. You’re not alone. Back in 2010, HitFix asked Nolan if all the location shooting helped him purge the need to ever direct a James Bond film, to which he laughed and agreed upon, saying: “When you look at the idea of being able to create a limitless world and use it as almost a playground for action and adventure and so forth, I naturally gravitate to cinematic worlds whether it’s the Bond films or things like that. So, without being too self-conscious about it or without too much intention, as I was writing it I certainly allowed my mind to wonder where it would naturally and I think a lot of the tropes from different genres of movie. Heist films, spy films, that kind of thing, they sort of naturally sit in that world.”
Dream is Collapsing… Or Not: Similar to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a film that Nolan has repeatedly drawn inspiration from over the years, Inception ends on an ambiguous note. Cobb is reunited with his kids, but his totem — specifically, the metal top — remains spinning on the dining room table. Is he still dreaming? Did he ever wake up on the airplane? It’s all left up to the viewer’s interpretation. “That always felt like the right ending to me – it always felt like the appropriate ‘kick’ to me,” Nolan explained. “The real point of the scene—and this is what I tell people—is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top. He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind. That’s the emotional significance of the thing.”
There is further evidence that Cobb did, indeed, wake up. As Caine suggests, “If I’m there it’s real, because I’m never in the dream.” Many also argue the top wasn’t technically Cobb’s totem, but his wife’s, and that his true totem was his wedding ring, which he only wears in his dreams. (Spoiler: He’s not seen wearing it by the film’s end.) Even more telling is the fact that both children at the end have clearly aged and are wearing different clothing than in Cobb’s previous dreams — they’re even played by different actors. Nevertheless, this speculation is all part of the fun.
Analysis: And Inception is quite a blast. Back in 2010, the film was a breath of fresh air for the science-fiction genre, an original blockbuster amidst a sea of unnecessary reboots and uninspired sequels. Today, it remains a remarkable achievement by Nolan, having elevated the director into the upper echelon of Hollywood by awarding him his first Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. The blockbuster also provided further evidence that Nolan is a rare talent who can deliver an uncanny brand of cinema similar to the head-turning events of Alfred Hitchcock. Years later, Inception is a timeless thrill ride that triumphs over its liberal use of exposition with an essential cast and breathtaking visuals.
03. Memento (2001)
Runtime: 2 hr.
Press Release: A man with anterograde amnesia (unable to form new long-term memories) attempts to solve the mystery of his wife’s murder with help (?) from a suspicious man, a bartender, and tattoos full of reminders.
Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
“Yeah, But Is Michael Caine In It?”: No. Sadly, Michael Caine is not in Memento. Were he in the movie, I could maybe see him in a cameo role as “Sammy Jankis”, but dammit Stephen Tobolowsky’s brief appearance as that character is impossible to get out of my head. And don’t you dare suggest to me that he could play “Teddy” instead of Joe “Joey Pants” Pantoliano. I won’t bring sacrilegious ideas to the table!
Career Charge: Although she starred on E.R. for a few years, Jorja Fox’s role as “Leonard’s Wife” was followed by a supporting role in C.S.I, a show she has been on and off of for 15 seasons. Her role is very small in Memento but memorable. Which I think is ironic?
Best Shot: The best shot is the first scene which is really the last scene but the way the movie is sequenced it arrives at the beginning…have I lost you? Memento is superb and tricky with its storytelling, and the opening shot of the film tells us to expect the unexpected: Leonard (Pearce) holds a Polaroid picture of a man face-down on the ground (presumably dead). The man holding the picture keeps shaking it, even though the photograph is perfectly clear. The more he shakes it, the more the picture fades as we discover the footage has been reversed. Weirded out.
You Have to Pay Attention! Get off your computer. Turn off your phone. Don’t get up to get a drink or pop some popcorn and leave the movie running. Tell your talkative friends to leave your place of residence. Being distracted from Memento for any length of time can throw you completely off the plot. A helpful hint: The B&W scenes arrive in order while the scenes they break up (shot in color) appear in reverse order. This will all make sense when the B&W/color collide in the end. Hopefully you’ve already seen the movie, but if you haven’t, get on it.
Tattoo You: When the movie begins (ends, aargh!), Leonard has 27 tattoos. Here are the best ones in alphabetical order:
“Find Him and Kill Him”
“I’ve Done It”
“John G Raped and Murdered My Wife”
“Memory Is Treachery”
“Never Answer the Phone”
“Remember Sammy Jankis”
“She Is Gone”
Must Have Been a Grueling Shoot. Right, Guy Pearce? Nope. From an interview with About Film back in 2003: “It was the easiest job I’ve ever done in my life… it suddenly dawned on me one day that I could just pop up and do a little comedy sketch [because] no history or future thoughts meant anything to this character, because of what he’s suffering. In a sense it was quite a freeing experience. I was able to let go of everything. It was a good exercise for me to figure out how to be in the present moment, which something I’m continually trying to do anyway. It was great.”
Analysis: It’s difficult for an actor to immerse himself in a role in which his character knows no one else in the film, and then has to get to know them over the course of two hours. Nolan (who also wrote the script) has Pearce doing this repeatedly in the same film, having to walk the tight line between creating a challenging film and a confusing film. No one is who they appear to be in Memento, and the audience is better for it. Clearly Nolan’s best film, was it not for some movie featuring the late Heath Ledger.
02. Dunkirk (2017)
Runtime: 1 hr. 46 min.
Press Release: Allied soldiers attempt to stave off and escape a German invasion on the shores of Dunkirk, France, in this lean, mean, and true story from the early years of World War II.
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy.
“Yeah, but is Michael Caine in it?”: Nope. Despite the fact that this film takes place over the English Channel, Britain’s finest export is nowhere to be seen. One might argue that Mr. Rylance took his place here, but that would be unfair given that Rylance, at 57, is playing a father to two young teens, which would be quite a stretch for the 84-year-old Caine.
Career Charge: In a surprising twist, Nolan didn’t resurrect any veterans for his World War II epic. The closest you could say is Kenneth Branagh, though it’s not like he’s been slumming it. In recent years, he’s made a return to big-budget filmmaking, having directed 2011’s Thor and 2015’s Cinderella, a trend he’ll keep alive with his forthcoming blockbuster adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which he also stars in as detective Hercule Poirot. Still, Branagh is exactly the type of veteran star power that’s always been attractive to Nolan, and the Irish actor brings all the right nuances to his role as Commander Bolton, aka the highest ranking officer on Dunkirk. But it’s a very patient performance, one that boils down to something as minimal as his eyes, specifically the way they convey the severity of the situation, his utmost compassion towards his countrymen, and his chilling fear at the sight of those remorseless German fighter jets. Your skin crawls with him.
Best Shot: What’s extraordinary about Nolan’s vision for a war film is how he trims any of the fat that comes with the genre. There aren’t any lengthy discussions on the rage of mankind or any meditations on the pitfalls of war; it’s all show and zero tell, which is quite remarkable given that Nolan has often used exposition like Lee Evans leans on crutches. Because of this, this is more of a director’s film, and from beginning to end, it’s a stunning medley of nail-gnawing visuals that are intended to sweep you out of your seats and into those European skies. So, you could really pick and choose any frame of the film and come away with something inspiring to behold forever, but if we had our choice, it would have to be the final moments with Hardy’s Royal Air Force pilot, Farrier. The rich, dusky colors that come from the French sunset and the way they sizzle on the beach as he’s soaring over the terrain is just staggering. It’s like a fine bottle of Merlot for the eyes.
Nolan’s Found His Herrmann: Auteurs tend to work with the same people, as that’s traditionally how they execute their vision. When it comes to filmmakers, these “people” tend to be producers, cinematographers, and composers. The latter may be the most essential of the three, seeing how they’re responsible for the second most important aspect of film: sound. That’s why David Lynch has Angelo Badalamenti, Steven Spielberg has John Williams, and Alfred Hitchcock traditionally called up Bernard Herrmann. For over a decade now, Nolan’s been creatively married to Hans Zimmer, and they’ve yet to show any signs of a divorce — and for good reason. Nolan brings out the best in Zimmer, and it’s no secret that his scores with the filmmaker happen to be among his best. Don’t believe us? Go back through his post-2000 discography and you’ll likely walk away with The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar.
Well, now you can add Dunkirk to the list. Whereas Zimmer truly made a grand departure on Interstellar, turning church organs into a symphony of black holes and space dust, the composer spiritually revisits his work on The Dark Knight for Nolan’s war epic. Similar to that score, the tracks that layer Dunkirk rely heavily on skittering repetition and manic clicking, which brilliantly elevates the ensuing tension of the film, of which there’s an endless flow. Seriously, this must have been one hell of a workout for Zimmer’s crew; it’s like one long marathon that’s peppered with daunting peaks and valleys. From beginning to end, Nolan rarely offers any respite and Zimmer capitalizes on that unquestionable duress with a sea of strings and the not-so-subtle tick of an off-screen doomsday clock that rises and falls no different than the waves of Dunkirk. It’s the sound of being strangled with fear and it’s largely why the film succeeds.
Bottom line: They’re a great couple.
“Ugh. Isn’t that the fucking guy from One Direction?” Yes, Harry Styles, and he absolutely kills it. Back off.
And Even the Smallest Seed of an Idea Can Grow: Over 25 years ago, long before he turned heads with Memento, Nolan came up with the idea for his war drama while he was literally sailing across the English Channel to Dunkirk. Makes sense, right? At the time, he was hanging out with his wife, producer Emma Thomas, but that brilliant mind of his was working out all the little details that would make this a cut above the rest of the Hollywood clutter that cramps up the war genre. Namely, this wouldn’t be about a rousing victory and that it wouldn’t involve the Americans at all. Feeling inspired, he drafted up a tight, 76-page screenplay that chiseled the story and action down to a triptych — the air, the sea, and the sky — a creative decision that would provide him the perfect vessel for his brand of puzzling temporal displacement. Deciding he needed some experience before he properly tackled the project, he shelved the screenplay. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nolan, the Historian? Not surprisingly, Nolan wanted to be as accurate as possible for Dunkirk, which makes sense given that he’s more or less the valedictorian of The School of Michael Mann. As such, he approached the film like he was making a documentary, even though the film consists of fictional characters, a juxtaposition that was actually quite freeing for him, as he recently explained in an interview: “You see, when a script is purely fictional, you work very hard to attain a state where there’s this maze that’s actually independent of you, this obstacle course through which you guide the characters. But here, the reality has already provided the maze. It was quite inspiring to have that bedrock of reality.”
And really, Nolan took great strides to create that foundation: he worked with historical consultant Joshua Levine, visited veterans from the landmark evacuation, filmed on the actual beaches of Dunkirk, and reconditioned 60 actual warships. To maximize those feelings of reality, he once again worked with IMAX cameras, shooting 75% of the film on the devices, even utilizing them for hand-held situations, which marked a first for the medium. Much like Mann’s filmography, all of this helped create the sense that what you’re watching on screen looks and feels like it actually happened. That’s an essential component to Dunkirk and one that you never question from its explosive beginning to its stunning conclusion.
Here are the 11 films that influenced Nolan: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Wages of Fear, Alien, Speed, Unstoppable, Greed, Sunrise, Ryan’s Daughter, The Battle of Algiers, Chariots of Fire, and Foreign Correspondent
Analysis: When it was initially announced that Nolan’s follow-up to 2014’s mildly disappointing Interstellar would be a World War II epic, the general consensus among critics, fans, and moviegoers was, “Wait, another one?” But Nolan came through, as he so often does, delivering a blitzkrieg of a war film that singes the senses in every way a war film should. In hindsight, the filmmaker was wise to wait until he knew his ways around the camera, as his level of professionalism shows in each frame of Dunkirk. It’s a tour de force in every sense of the term, thriving from Nolan’s marked blend of tension and drama that knows how to burn the edges of your seat until all that’s holding you is a breathless anxiety attack. But this isn’t a comfortable story, and Nolan didn’t make a comfortable film. Instead, he scraped away all the traditions of a modern war film and opted to revel in the smoldering chaos, not too dissimilar to all the anxious moments of his past films. Granted, that might not sit right with everyone, but then again, neither should war. Dunkirk is a statement, but its loudest sentiment is that Nolan also belongs in the history books.
01. The Dark Knight (2008)
Runtime: 2 hr. 33 min.
Press Release: Batman confronts his darkest adversary, the Joker.
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Yeah, but is Michael Caine in it? ‘Ello again, Alfred!
Career Charge: Eric Roberts, brother of Julia and father of Emma, has an impressive IMDB profile—impressive in that he has appeared in over 200 films since 1978, 54 of which were released in 2014 alone. That has to be some kind of record. But chances are good you haven’t seen most of these films, as the vast majority in recent years has been shuffled to VOD for being unbelievably awful (if you haven’t seen A Talking Cat?! yet, please do). But for every 50 or so terrible films that Roberts plows through, there is always one glimmer of light: 1985’s Runaway Train, 2006’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, PT Anderson’s upcoming Inherent Vice, and, in 2008,The Dark Knight. In Nolan’s film, Roberts plays Sal Maroni, a menacing Gotham City Mafia boss in cahoots with the Joker, and—I mean this as a compliment—the role fits him like a glove.
Best Shot: The Dark Knight is a visual feast of gritty action and gorgeous chaos, fear, and captivation in equal measure, and perhaps no single shot better encapsulates this beauty in destruction than the first physical confrontation between Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger). The car chase leading up to this moment is exhilarating, and the “Hit Me!” Batpod swerve and crash even more so. But the pinnacle is that acrobatic truck flip, which, incredibly, is not a CGI effect. According to MovieLocations.com, the production really did flip over an 18-wheel truck in the heart of Chicago’s prestigious financial district, after extensive tests to ensure the stunt wouldn’t cause structural damage. Yes, this is a shot that must be seen and fact-checked to be believed.
The White Knight: Eckhart has described his portrayal of Harvey Dent/Two-Face as simultaneously coming from and being apart from the same world as Batman (Dent is the white knight of Gotham, as opposed to the Dark Knight). His challenge was “looking for the similarities and the tension between the two; to find what’s similar to Batman and then what’s opposite to him.” Eckhart prepared for his role by studying split personalities, and based his portrayal in part on the charismatic, all-American politician Robert Kennedy.
Gotham City/Chicago: The Dark Knight was filmed in Chicago, London, and Hong Kong, but the bulk of shooting took place in the Windy City, where the monolithic skyscrapers and glittery streets gave Gotham its cool, sprawling and refreshingly non-soundstage-y feel. Shooting on location was not without its obstacles, however. When Nolan and his crew were filming a chase scene on Lake Street, the Chicago Police Department received several calls from concerned citizens stating that the police were involved in a pursuit with a dark vehicle of unknown make or model.
A Joker is Born: In preparation for his role as The Joker, Ledger secluded himself in a motel room for six weeks, delving deep into the psychology of his character. Ledger would later say that his performance was partly influenced by the disheveled look of punk rocker Sid Vicious and the psychotic mannerisms of Malcom McDowell’s character Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange. Ledger also designed the Joker’s make-up himself, using white clown makeup and cosmetics from a drugstore, as he believed the Joker would have applied it himself.
Analysis: Batman Begins may have laid the foundation for Nolan’s epic trilogy, and Rises offered a satisfying conclusion, but The Dark Knight remains its acme: the superhero movie that changed superhero movies. 2008 was a tough year for Americans, as we grappled with the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and The Dark Knight’s themes of urban desecration and anarchy touched a tender political and sociocultural nerve. Batman still swoops in to save the day, but this struggle of good vs. evil is his most complex and harrowing yet.
Meanwhile, Ledger’s maniacal Joker, a role that posthumously earned him the first and only Academy Award given to an actor in a comic book film, will go down in history as one of the most fascinating and disturbing villains to ever snake his way into a nation’s psyche. No offense to The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, which are excellent and wholly deserving of acclaim, but Nolan’s groundbreaking tour de force The Dark Knight is still the greatest superhero movie of all time.