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The Best Christopher Nolan Movie Is …

The film historians might say ‘Insomnia’, superhero fans may go for ‘The Dark Knight’, and you know there’s a few guys in the back yelling ‘Inception’ — but all things being equal, which film from the master of high art/entertainment stands above the rest?

(Newmarket Films/Warner Bros./Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration)
(Newmarket Films/Warner Bros./Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration)

To celebrate the release of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest film, on Friday, we’ll be paying our respects to the director and his unique ability to produce grand cinematic experiences that are simultaneously very popular. Welcome to Christopher Nolan Week. Now, what better way to kick off the five-day event than to throw all of Nolan’s movies into a ring and debate which one is better than the rest? (Note: No one volunteered to argue for Following, Insomnia, or The Dark Knight Rises, which tells you where they stand in the hierarchy of Nolan’s films.)

‘Memento’

K. Austin Collins: Memento isn’t Christopher Nolan’s best movie, but it might be one of the most valuable. It’s still unique. With movies like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan would eventually usher in a new era of serious blockbusters. Robustly structured, well-made, and with a penchant for drawing from (if not exactly exploring) serious social and philosophical ideas, those movies became a model for certain kind of tentpole feature: the prestige blockbuster — a movie as marked by its hefty dramatic ambitions as it is by its whiz-bang action, overserious villains, and longstanding franchise loyalties.

Fast-forward to today, and a number of directors in film and television — including Nolan himself — are making that kind of show and movie. It’s no longer particular to Nolan’s canon. But Memento — and the equally tricky, non-franchise studio features Nolan made afterward (The Prestige, Inception) — still belongs to its own class. When we think of puzzly, structurally ingenious blockbusters, we think of Christopher Nolan. Memento is the blueprint.

I enjoy it as a movie, particularly for its cast: the traumatized, amnesiac Guy Pearce; Carrie-Anne Moss, pitch-perfect as a noirish fatale you want to believe despite yourself; Joe Pantoliano as Joe Pantoliano. I enjoy it as a puzzle, too, because at this scale you can focus much less on whether it adds up (it does) or satisfies (it does) than on the close marriage between the movie’s structure and a tortured man’s soul. Nolan’s movies all have their share of tortured hero complexes, which is not a complaint, merely a diagnosis. But Memento, with its small scale and tight focus, stands out for feeling like one of the few times Nolan’s muscular, structural gambits pointed inward and toward the character, rather than outward and toward our expectations in the audience. It’s youthful in that way — which is why I still value it.

‘The Dark Knight’

Alison Herman: A sure sign of great art is how it opens the floodgates for an outpouring of terrible art that tries and fails to recapture its appeal. Zack Snyder wouldn’t have the job he does without Christopher Nolan, full stop; without the Dark Knight trilogy we wouldn’t have the doom-and-gloom-superhero disease that’s afflicting even all-American golden boys like Superman. The only reason DC’s taken this strategy to such misguided places is due to The Dark Knight, which, freed of origin-story place-setting, proceeded to sink its teeth into the existential core of the Batman struggle: borderline-fascist law and order versus pure anarchic chaos, neither side particularly qualified to serve as Gotham City’s public face. The movie’s politics may be dubious, but the film is still a more interesting collection of themes, moods, and set pieces than any sanitized corporate product either Marvel or DC have put out since. Within Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre, The Dark Knight arguably remains his most popular work — and incontrovertible proof that filmmakers with distinct voices can do quality franchise work, not in spite of their vision but due to it.

‘The Prestige’

Kate Knibbs: How many Christopher Nolan movies feature arch supporting turns from David Bowie, again? Ah, that’s right. Just 2006’s dueling-magician thriller The Prestige, which also happens to be Nolan’s best film.

Christopher Nolan has made a ton of great films, and also Interstellar, so it’s not like I want to champion The Prestige by dismissing his other work, although in the spirit of The Prestige’s hypercompetitive dueling magicians, I will say that it’s the most rewatchable Nolan film by far. Unlike most of his other hits, The Prestige has a plot enhanced by its convoluted high-concept twists rather than defined by it. The story is anchored in believable human emotion by strong performances from Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rival illusionists obsessed with beating each other, and while part of the joy of watching the movie is following its wild narrative, their recognizable human conflict is its heart. It’s grittier and more grounded than anything else Nolan has done, with an ingenious structure and sci-fi flourishes that are balanced by a moody realist setting and strong acting work. I realize it sounds weird to say the most psychologically realistic Nolan movie is about sociopathic magicians, but it’s true!

‘Inception’

Micah Peters: Listen, as Nolan movies go, The Prestige has the best Michael Caine performance in it and possibly the best twist. Angier and Borden might be Nolan’s most interesting foils — both grow to hate each other but neither feels completely in the wrong. But The Prestige didn’t prey on my mistrust of reality, nor did it enhance this terrible feeling I get from time to time that free will is an illusion in quite the same way Inception did. Oh word? Dreams are just bleeding freely into the waking world now? People can just sit next to me on a commercial flight and mess around in my mind until I decide that dissolving my father’s empire was my own idea? I THOUGHT I WAS THE MASTER OF MY FATE, COBB.

This isn’t overly complicated. Well, the movie is, gracious. It’s been seven years and I still don’t really understand how time dilates across different levels of consciousness. (I also don’t know what Cobol Engineering is; did they ever explain that?) But what I mean is, although Inception grabs our understanding of physical existence by the legs and dangles it off a fire escape, the movie is, at its core, a heist movie. But with brains instead of bank vaults, and everybody is super well-dressed. And Tom Hardy’s in it, treating Joseph Gordon-Levitt like his willowy kid brother. Inception is the best Nolan movie. Next question.

‘Batman Begins’

Robert Mays: Between parsing Heath Ledger’s greatness in The Dark Knight as the Joker and trying to figure out what the hell Tom Hardy was saying in Dark Knight Returns, Batman Begins has wrongfully become the least talked-about installment of Nolan’s trilogy. The notion of haunted, brooding superheroes has become a caricature of itself over the past decade, but most clichés are born from an idea that took hold for a reason. When Bale’s Bruce Wayne was getting in prison fights, trudging up mountains, and growling at gangsters — all set to Hans Zimmer’s towering score — it made for a superhero movie unlike anything else we’d seen.

Sure, there are bits of the movie that have become punch lines by now. A snicker is the only correct reaction to Bale’s Batman voice, and Katie Holmes isn’t winning any Oscars. But I’d say that most of what distinguishes The Dark Knight from Batman Begins lies in what Ledger brought to the table. When it comes to memorable, inventive shots lifted by Zimmer’s pulsing work, Begins has just as much to offer, while also laying the groundwork for the two films that came after it, and with Zimmer, the foundation of a relationship that’s helped define every Nolan movie since.

No non-Ledger scene from the three films sticks with me like Bale’s first foray into the Bat Cave. The way the silence plays and is eventually taken over by the building score coupled with the image of Bale slowly moving to his feet still gives me chills. There may have been moments in other Nolan movies that have surpassed it since, but none of those would be possible without the palette Nolan landed on with Batman Begins.

‘Interstellar’

Juliet Litman: The early works in Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre demonstrate his passion for innovation, logic, and science. He had to shelve his interest in these topics while he helmed the Dark Knight trilogy, which is why the specter of Interstellar was so exciting. Audiences didn’t need to know that Matt Damon pops up (literally), because the cast was already star-studded, with new Nolan Repertoire addition (at the time) Anne Hathaway, plus decorated actors like Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine. From the first log line, the movie seemed destined for greatness.

And then it opened. The Matt Damon secret was out. It looked beautiful, the futuristic robots were original, the music was grand, and — fine — the plot was a bit troubling. Matthew McConaughey had gone to space in search of an alternative planet because Earth was nearly barren and out of corn. His daughter, Jessica Chastain, was a scientist leading the effort back on Earth. Anne Hathaway took to the skies to search for her boyfriend. There’s a lot of chatter about how much time is passing for Matt and Anne versus the time on Earth, and this led to many objections to the film.

It’s true. The logic of Interstellar is not flawless, and perhaps its interpretation of the space-time continuum is more convoluted than any time travel on Lost. But it doesn’t matter. Take, for example, a scene at the end of the film, when McConaughey and Chastain reconnect thanks to a five-dimensional bookshelf. From his fifth dimension, he pushes books off of the shelf, which catches her attention and the dust scatter patterns lead to the most pivotal scene of the movie.

I describe it as ascientific, as in there is an absence of science. But it doesn’t matter. If life on Earth is ending, I hope all of my emotional traumas are resolved in my home library an hour or so after a cameo from Matt Damon. What fate could be better?