Silver Screen Spotlight: Christopher Nolan

In an age of multi-million dollar franchises and plenty of reboots to go around, filmmakers of mostly original films have steadily become scarce. One filmmaker, however, has maintained a ruling hand in how he crafts his films, the majority of them original stories. From his feature debut in the noir sleeper hit Following to his mind-bending crime thriller Inception, director Christopher Nolan has easily become one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the modern era. A master of complex story structure, whether he's spinning a story backwards or telling it from multiple points of view, Nolan has solidified his name in Hollywood through never holding back on bringing his unique vision to the silver screen. With his latest passion project, the World War II thriller Dunkirk, in theaters now, I decided to decipher the puzzle that is Nolan's intriguing line of films. Follow me into limbo as I break down Nolan's minimal but phenomenal filmography. 


Beginning his career in film at a young age, before diving into the realm of short films in college in London, Christopher Nolan always seemed to have ambition in his blood. Before crafting his first feature debut in 1998's Following, Nolan toyed around with 8 to 16 mm short films, effectively honing his eye for detail as an aspiring filmmaker. From his surreal picture in 1989's Tarantella to the ambitious Doodlebug in 1997, while Nolan's first films may not have garnered him much success in the long-run, they without a doubt had a lasting effect as he moved toward his breakthrough hit.

With his first handful of major films, Nolan quickly displayed an eagerness to stand out among the rest. With 1998's Following stringing a more-or-less amateur plot of a lonely writer following strangers in London, it was Nolan's compelling method of directing and writing that elevated the simple caper into the realm of a near-classic. While the film surely isn't Nolan's best picture, it presented a dynamic introduction to the attention to detail and structure that would later become a staple of the director's work. That eye for detail and structure couldn't evolve fast enough, as Nolan's next picture in 2000's breakout hit Memento easily drew his name into the mixing pot of modern filmmaking.


Adapted from his brother Jonathan's short story, telling of a man struggling with a unique type of amnesia that prevents him from forming new memories, Nolan's breakout hit in Memento saw the director flex his true eagerness to bend the rules of story structure. Telling the story of Guy Pearce's amnesic, tattooed protagonist in reverse, Nolan presented a film that toyed with your mind right from the first shot. Whether it was the opening shot of a bullet rolling back across the grimy surface of cement only to find its way back in the barrel of its gun, or the film's sprawling but captivating dialogue that sent you down a unique rabbit hole, Memento proved that confusing the audience could prove to be the best way to keep them on the edge of their seats. 

As the early 2000s saw Nolan making his gradual descent into blockbuster filmmaking, his third major feature found him treading into territory typically reserved for more seasoned directors. Taking on an ambitious remake of the 1997 Norwegian film Insomnia, Nolan, with the help of fellow director Steven Soderbergh, found his way at the helm of yet another seedy crime thriller. While he might have moved from his first two original creations to a more traditional Hollywood film with a modest budget, Nolan's fascination with bending the rules managed to elevate the 2002 psycho-thriller to a gloomy re-examination of the morality and guilty that highlighted the original story. Working alongside more renowned names as Al Pacino and Robin Williams (the latter taking on one the darkest roles I've seen from the comedian), Nolan began his transition into major Hollywood filmmaking.


Enthusiastic as ever, Christopher Nolan's next project would later come to define much of his fame in Hollywood today. Kicking off an ambitious new take on the comic-book icon Batman -- almost a decade after Joel Schumacher brought the character down to a laughable, almost-mocking level in both Batman Forever and Batman & Robin -- Nolan crafted an elegant and dark retelling of the Caped Crusader in 2005's Batman Begins. Subverting film genres even more, as he retold the origins of Bruce Wayne in a contemporary and realistic landscape, Nolan managed to successfully revive the Batman name on the big screen. What would soon evolve into a trilogy of critical acclaim and profound performances, Nolan's first step into the superhero genre showed a promise for the director like no other.

While he might have passed up on a number of other adaptations at the onset of his Hollywood career, from a Howard Hughes biopic (later snatched up by director Martin Scorsese) to a take on Ruth Rendell's crime novel The Keys to the Street, Nolan's next film lent more fire to his passion for crafting both atmospheric and psychological stories. A period drama set in 19th century London, 2006's The Prestige followed two rival magicians obsessed with creating the perfect stage illusion, eventually pushed to darker means of outdoing one another. While the year might have produced a duo of other magician-themed films in The Illusionist and Woody Allen's Scoop, it was Nolan's chilling and provocative period-thriller that truly had the most tricks up its sleeve. Again spinning a sprawling story of deceit and mystery, one that used its star appeal in Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale to its advantage, The Prestige left moviegoers with possibly one of Nolan's best pieces.

With another Batman film on the back burner and a plethora of ideas still banging around in his head, Nolan continued his career of critical and commercial success. With his next two features, Nolan also continued his quest to subvert the Hollywood formula, as he delivered two of his most ambitious projects in 2008's The Dark Knight and 2010's Inception. With both evolving into two of my all-time favorite films, the highly-anticipated follow-up to Batman Begins and the dream-inducing crime thriller presented Nolan at the peak of his early career. With the critically-acclaimed The Dark Knight delving into the darker corners of Nolan's Gotham City, the director managed to explore themes of anarchy and tragedy to great avail, all while weaving through the trenches of the often-predictable superhero genre. With Inception, Nolan offered a break from the commonplace tropes of the summer blockbuster, delivering one of the most original stories of the 21st century in his star-studded heist thriller set within the architecture of one's mind.


While Nolan might have impressed fans of his work with both Inception and The Dark Knight, easily heralded as two of his best films, it was with 2012's The Dark Knight Rises that Nolan might have showed signs of fatigue in his filmmaking. While Rises did propel his Batman franchise toward a compelling and emotional conclusion, the film did face a number of issues, with fear of becoming overloaded by its complicated story and its overtly grim environment. While the film remains a favorite of mine, especially for Tom Hardy's profound presence as the masked terrorist Bane, the film was undeniably the weakest chapter of the trilogy, leaving Nolan at a roadblock only another grand and unexpected project might fix.

While he might have passed his modern take on Superman director Zach Snyder's way the next year with Man of Steel, Nolan didn't let the mixed reception of Rises keep him down for long. As Fall 2014 gave us Interstellar, Nolan's leap into the far reaches of space seemed like the natural next step for the visionary director. While the film surely didn't knock Inception from its top place in my favorites from the director, the philosophical space adventure boasted fantastic visuals and a slew of overarching themes that resonated well with its central focus on humanity. Once again a daring venture for the director, Interstellar again displayed the ever-evolving notion that Nolan remains a director who stands by his ambitions, and never lets an idea go to waste.

Embarking onto the varying haunting landscapes of World War II with his latest film, Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan seems to have yet another hit on his hands. With the film employing another facet of the director's unique storytelling style, exploring a trio of perspectives with divisive and climactic effort, Nolan looks to be trying to subvert yet another genre of film through his meticulous design. This time taking on one of the most intense series of moments in the war, Dunkirk is another Nolan adventure I'm eagerly waiting to climb aboard.


Whether he's tossing us into a whirlpool of nonlinear storytelling and visual enigmas, or toying with our minds in an effort to bring us to a greater understanding of the world we live in, director Christopher Nolan remains a dynamic player in the Hollywood mix. With that, are you a fan of Nolan's work? If so, what film is your favorite from the director? And what project do you want him to tackle next? Let me know in the comments below, and stay tuned next month for another Silver Screen Spotlight!   

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