There is tremendous irony in Interstellar. At once Nolan’s most ambitious film, it’s also his most personal. Though it’s set amid distant constellations, the director’s space epic is ultimately about a father’s relationship with his children. Before Nolan officially approached Hans Zimmer with the movie, he asked the composer to write a theme inspired by two lines of dialogue, one from a father, “I’ll come back,” and the response from his child, “When?” The simple tune that Zimmer created became the beating heart of the film.
Interstellar is a polemical movie, especially when pitted against other entries from Nolan’s oeuvre. While a grand entertainment, it’s not particularly entertaining in the way Hollywood typically builds its blockbusters. It hurts, it transports, and it moves. Amid all of the machinery and wormhole travel, Interstellar is about loss, separation, and the hourglass of life that cascades away without end. Some viewers have complained about the long run-time, the maudlin nature of the film, and the dubiousness of its intergalactic science. Others recognize it as an emotional moon jump ahead of its very inspiration, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thanks to powerhouse performances by Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain and her character’s younger counterpart, Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar compels audiences to “not go gentle into that goodnight.”
When all is said and done, Dunkirk may ultimately top Nolan’s list of achievements. For now, the sheer newness of Nolan’s WWII epic precludes it from taking one of the top spots. Rankings aside, this is easily Nolan’s most horrifying film. While restrained in its depictions of violence, Dunkirk is fearless in showing the utter hell that nearly 400,000 British, French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers endured. To watch Dunkirk is to experience the Second World War with none of the bailout buttons we’ve come to expect from cinema. This is a 107-minute heart-palpitation that threatens to turn into a full on myocardial infarction. As Nolan himself pitched it, it’s truly “virtual reality without a headset.” Gamers familiar with Call of Duty and Battlefield will no doubt feel right at home.
Told through a triptych of air, land, and sea, Dunkirk effortlessly handles the multiple perspectives and unites them in thrilling ways. Though the narrative toggles between the beachhead, the cockpit, and the belly of destroyers, the tension never slips. Every minute is precious with Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and star-in-the-making Fionn Whitehead, as danger abounds on all sides. Nolan’s guiding hand is seen not just in the sparing but effective dialogue or the interwoven narrative, but in his visual storytelling. The first half of the film borders on a silent movie, yet it communicates volumes. Better yet, Nolan’s flair for practical effects is on full display. Battleships sink, Spitfires crash land in the ocean, oil spills lead to ocean blazes, and there’s never any doubt that these sequences are real. Despite the brutality it showcases, Dunkirk is a truly gorgeous film that is an equal testament to the survivors of Operation Dynamo and the consummate craft of Christopher Nolan.
2. The Dark Knight
With The Dark Knight, Nolan blew the doors off the superhero genre. Though Batman Begins was (and remains) the best superhero origin story set to film, the second chapter changed the landscape of Batman’s future. Christian Bale’s take on the Caped Crusader was so effective that the DCEU is still finding its niche for Ben Affleck and Matt Reeves’ anticipated entry.
As both writer and director, Nolan turned his ambitious script into one of the most thrilling and intense films of the last 20 years. He and Heath Ledger developed an indelible Joker along with a subplot study on the nature of anarchy. Ledger’s wanton clown brought Batman to the brink of justice and set a new gold standard of villainy. The Dark Knight also manages to include an ill-fated romance with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the tragedy of Harvey Dent against the backdrop of a withering Gotham. Amid the theatrics, Nolan always keeps The Dark Knight rooted in real-world consequences, showing the true effects of a masked vigilante who operates outside the law.
The fundamental laws of the universe are clear: every action has a reaction, the sun will come up tomorrow, and Inception should not have worked. To everyone but the dreamer of the dream himself, Christopher Nolan, this story should have seemed impossible to film. Memento may have had two timelines and a serpentine structure, but that script looked like a fairytale relative to the mind maze of Inception.
And yet, the movie worked. Not only does it make sense, but it also triggers all manner of human reaction along the way. Inception is so intoxicating that you relish the opportunity to get lost in it, to go to that third layer of the dream and risk it all. While Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) pulls off an epic mind-heist in the movie, Nolan does the same with his audience, planting ideas in our mind until he pulls the rug out and forces us to question everything we watched. Inception is the embodiment of a filmmaker at the top of his game, who not only understands the mechanisms of the medium but inverts them for his own pleasure.