My personal ranking of all Christopher Nolan’s films

It’s a tricky job because every film from #7 onwards is excellent. But here’s my utterly subjective attempt to rank the master’s work.

*Light spoilers ahead*

 

#9 The Following (1998)

What’s the story?

An out of work writer seeks inspiration by following strangers. When one of them turns out to be a burglar, things become very complicated.

Why it’s #9?

They say to start as you mean to go on and Nolan did that. He began his first film by making shot of someone putting on a rubber glove into something very eery. But, the rest of the film doesn’t really live up to it.

The elements which makes Nolan’s work distinctive were all there: the visual panache, the twisty non-linear narratives, strong performances, themes of perspective and deception, and bucket loads of originality. However, for me at least they don’t quite gel into a satisfying whole. This feels like a prototype for what would come later rather than a successful project in its own right.

#8 Man of Steel (2013)

What’s the story?

A scientist on the doomed planet of krypton sends his son to earth where he is raised by Kansas farmers. As he grows up it becomes apparent he has superpowers. When as an adult he tries to uncover his origins, he brings earth to the attention of malicious forces from his homeworld.

Why it’s #8

This is a unique entry on this list because Nolan was its producer not its director. The result is that its director Zach Snyder has more of an impact on it. This is to its detriment. I doubt that Nolan would have made such overlong action sequences or written such a contrived plot.

That said, despite what you might hear, it’s still a good film. It has a strong cast (apart from Russell Crowe), some well done visuals and the sense that the action scenes do indeed reflect how nearly indestructible, superstrong aliens would fight. It’s a shame so many people were unprepared to forgive it for not being the Christopher Reeve films.

7# Inception (2010)

What’s the story?

Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team have an unusual approach to corporate espionage: they steal people’s secrets by breaking into their dreams.

Why it’s #7

Having Inception in a relatively low position probably puts me at odds with most Nolan fans. And it’s easy to see why. If you like his work then you’re probably going to be drawn to the film in which his style is the most heightened. The way dreams are realised on screen certainly makes it his most visually impressive work. It also has the best of Hans Zimmer’s many scores for Nolan’s films. However, because non of the characters really engaged me, it is something I wound up admiring more than liking.

6# The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

What’s the story?

A physically and emotionally broken Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has to become Batman again for a final showdown with the League of Shadows.

Why it’s #6

It’s massively entertaining and franchise newcomers Bane (Tom Hardy) and Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) steal the show. However, it lacks its predecessors’ taught storytelling and black humour.

#5 Insomnia (2002)

What’s the story?

An LAPD cop (Al Pacino) is sent to Alaska to help a small town police department solve the murder of teenage girl. But rather than catching the killer (Robin Williams) he finds himself ensnared by him. Oh and it all happens during perpetual daylight.

Why it’s #5

When Williams died I saw a newspaper headline the story with “the man who made us laugh.” Insomnia shows that ‘the man who creeped us out’ would have been equally apt. His manipulative villain is the film’s greatest strength.

It’s also interesting to watch Nolan work with a much more conventional narrative than he normally does and yet still prosper.

#4 The Prestige (2006)

What’s the story?

Two magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) engage in a deadly feud.

Why it’s #4

Illusion is a recurring fascination for Nolan, so magic is natural territory for him. And it shows in the assurance and inventiveness of the Prestige. It also has David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla, which is a treat.

#3 Batman Begins (2005)

What’s the story?

How Bruce Wayne becomes Batman

Why it’s #3

Batman Begins was made in an era before it was a truth universally acknowledged that any financially successful franchise must be in want of a reboot. It must have seemed likely that Tim Burton’s Batman films were going to remain the definitive ones and that they would overshadow the work of a little known British director of cerebral indie films. In reality it was Nolan who eclipsed Burton.

This dark yet entertaining revival of the mythology was a huge success and made Nolan into a Holywood powerhouse.

#2 Memento (2000)

What’s the story?

A private investigator (Guy Ritchie) is the victim of a home invasion which leaves him brain damaged and his wife dead. His injuries leave him with no short term memory. Despite this he sets out to track down his wife’s killers.

Why it’s #2?

Because it’s so clever. The intricacy of the plotting must rival that of a Swiss watch. Yet – in contrast to Inception – it never feels self-consciously labyrinthine. It also has an effective human element running through it: as the mystery unravels that also reveals to us the extent of the tragedy we are watching.

#1 The Dark Knight (2008)

What’s the story?

Batman and the Joker (Heath Ledger) battle for the soul of Gotham.

Why it’s #1

I kept changing my mind about whether this or Memento should be top. It’s tough as they are both near flawless.

In the end I plumped for the Dark Knight because it is a more grandiose endeavour and had found a broader appeal. As a corollary of these reasons, it also had a greater cultural appeal. It’s also way more fun. It might be…well…dark but it still has some of the best action sequences ever put to celluloid. And one can’t ignore Heath Ledger’s Oscar Winning evocation of the Joker: a man with a reptilian demeanour who combines mania with almost superhumanly fiendesh plotting. Its success owes as much to the Nolan brothers writing as it does Ledger’s acting.

If I could only take a single film onto a desert island then it would very likely be the Dark Knight.

In Defence of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor

jesse-eisenberg-will-play-lex-luthor-in-batmansuperman-movie

Last week we learned more about the casting for the Man of Steel sequel; which may or may not be called Batman vs Superman. Jesse Eisenberg will play villain Lex Luthor and Jeremy Irons will be Alfred. The latter decision seems popular – Jeremy Irons is after all Jeremy Irons is Jeremy Irons and can therefore be relied on to turn in an excellent performance. By contrast, the mumbling nerdy Eisenberg seems a lot less Lex like – the most iconic Superman villain of all – than other names floated like Bryan Cranston and Joaquin Phoenix. This is not the first of Zack Snyder’s casting decision to provoke incredulity: Ben Affleck as Batman is to say the least not universally popular.

This continues a pattern of the Snyder/Nolan reboot of the Superman franchise creating controversy. Man of Steel split opinion between those who thought it was an exciting new take on the franchise and those who thought it was too grim. Despite branding it the most disappointing film of 2013, I am firmly in the pro camp. And it seems Batman vs Superman has even begun filming I’m defending that too.

I’d argue that in hindsight the casting of Eisenberg is actually quite obvious. One can easily imagine modelling a contemporary version of Luthor – a billionaire with delusions of grandeur and an inferiority complex – on Zuckerberg. And from there settling on the Social Network star is not exactly a great leap.

As for Affleck, several years ago I would have wholeheartedly agreed that he was a terrible choice. However, he has undergone a positively McConaugheyesque turnaround. If he was still in his Daredevil/Gigli phase then despondency would be in order. However, the Town and Argo have established him as an accomplished actor and director. There’s no reason to imagine he won’t deliver an equally sound performance in Batman vs Superman.

I’m glad Snyder has gone beyond the obvious actors. To be worthwhile a rebooted franchise has to do something different from what went before. Some fresh casting choices should help with that.

My concerns lie elsewhere. I’m nervous how Wonder Women with her supernatural origins will be fitted into what is essentially a sci-fi story. I also worry about how Snyder will perform as a director without the backstop of Christopher Nolan as producer. Not that this is a mistake: there is no way anyone should be expected to direct a Batman film with the definitive Batman director looking over their shoulder.

Still these are quibbles. I am excited to see what Snyder does with his new cast.

The Most Surprising and Disappointing Films of 2013

All this week I’ll be winners the winners in my personal award season. We kick off today with the surprises and disappointments.

Biggest Disappointment

Don't be too upset, Clarke!  I actually quite liked  your film

Don’t be too upset, Clarke!
I actually quite liked your film

I haven’t actually seen any bad films this year. If a film is awful then reviews and word of mouth will generally give me a heads up to avoid it. This protective system occasionally lets me down – hence going to see the Descendants and the Amazing Spider Man – but I’ve been lucky this year. So rather than picking my worst film, I thought I’d choose my biggest disappointment.

The weakest film I watched all year was Pacific Rim. At the time I rated it as a 4/10. It was poorly scripted, poorly acted and overwhelmed by CGI. However, I wouldn’t call it bad. It had Idris Elba, some nice moments and a certain B-movie charm. Plus, it wasn’t that much of a let-down that a film about giant robots and giant robots punching each other was not exactly Vertigo.

I didn’t find the Alan Partridge film as funny as the friends and critics who recommended it me. For me at least the humour didn’t scale up to the big screen. However, it worked well as a parody of digital radio. And given the chequered history of this kind of small to big screen adaptation this being anything other than a disaster was an achievement.

Surprisingly my biggest disappointment of the year was a film I liked and have defended. Man of Steel was never forgiven by a lot of people for not being the Christopher Reeve films. That was a shame because it did something interesting – taking a superhero narrative and retelling it as a more conventional sci-fi story. It had a good cast (and Russell Crowe). And it dealt with a lot of the dumber elements of previous adaptations – Louis Lane is no longer fooled by Superman’s ingenious disguise of a pair of glasses. In short, I liked it.

But I imagined that it was going to be a lot better than it actually was. The Dark Knight trilogy are some of my favourite films and given the involvement of their director Christopher Nolan I’d had very high hopes of Man of Steel. And it is disappointing when a film you expect to be amazing it is just good.

Biggest Surprise

Ben Kingsley's Mandarin was one of the better parts of the much improved Iron Man

Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin was one of the better parts of the much improved Iron Man

To balance out discussing disappointments, I should say that I’ve also had some pleasant surprises.

Rush and All is Lost took activities I have zero interest in and made them into films that I found utterly compelling. But while these films came out of nowhere for me, the winner in this category was a film I expected would be crap.

I was not a fan of the Iron Man films. I found the first one was flat and unremarkable. Its sequel was dire. I’d therefore planned to give Iron Man 3 a miss. However, I heard good things about it and so despite my doubts I went and watched it. I’m glad I did because it was actually really good. It was more restrained and subtle than you’d expect from a Marvel film, and did a lot to confound my expectations of where the story was going. The overall effect was a blockbuster that wound up being of all things quirky and was insightful about its characters.

So in an unintended piece of symmetry, my biggest surprise and disappointment are both superhero films.

Landing a Sock on Hitler’s Jaw: Superman and American Judaism’s journey to acceptance

Continuing our look at superheros, we see how Superman has evolved from his Jewish origins in the 1930s to his most recent onscreen outing being marketed to churches as a Christian allegory.

While Clarke Kent/Superman/Kal-El have always been nominally a Christian his roots are really Jewish:

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created their iconic comic book hero Superman in 1938, their character wasn’t just a representation of “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” but for many, a metaphor for Jewish immigrants in 1930s America. Created by two young Jewish men, Superman was an allusion to the Jewish faith and history, from his baby Moses-like origins to his golem-esque invincibility, to his outcast status and his ultimate struggle to assimilate in a new land.

In fact, there is a strong argument that superheros emerge as wish fulfillment for Jewish Americans. Not only Superman but also Captain America were devised by young Jewish authors as America weighed up entering WWII, and frequently fought Nazi enemies. As they watched apparently helplessly at the atrocities their coreligionists suffered, there must have been something cathartic about watching a real superman taking on the wannabe Aryan supermen of the Third Reich.

Superman confronts Hitler

Superman confronts Hitler

Incidentally, this was noticed by the Nazis. Goebbels announced that “Superman ist ein Jude!” and the character was the subject of an editorial in the SS’s paper.

However over time Superman seems to have become progressively more Christian. This culminated into the most recent superman film – Man of Steel – in which Superman becomes an allegory for Jesus:

While there isn’t a miraculous birth per se, Kal-El’s (Henry Cavill) father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) claims that his son is the first “natural” birth in centuries. All children on Krypton are genetically engineered to a pre-determined purpose and thus artificially inseminated. Not Kal-El. Jor-El and his wife Lara had some legitimate baby making going on.There is some Christ-like imagery planted throughout “Man of Steel.” One blaring symbol occurs during a climactic battle: Superman jumps from General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) ship and hovers in the sky with his arms out-stretched like the crucifix. Freeze-frame it and you can have your own Superman prayer card.

Kal-El says he is 33, a not-too-subtle reference to the same age as Jesus Christ when he was crucified.

In fact, the film was explicitly marketed to congregations as a Christian allegory. The marketing firm tasked with selling the film to Christians went as far as writing a model sermon called “Superman: The Original Superhero” that preachers could download.

If we hold Superman’s Jewish roots in mind, Man of Steel is actually quite telling. Our hero faces  figurative rather than literal Nazis. The villains are fellow refugees from the planet Krypton led by the megalomaniac General Zod, who intends to eradicate humanity so the earth can be transformed into a new Krypton. The people of Krypton thus go from being Jews to lebensraum seeking genocidal Nazis. And humanity – as the potential victims of a holocaust – is now in role of the Jewish people.

While making Superman Christian might at first glance seem like erasing Jews from American culture, it actually signifies the extent to which Americans have come to accept Jews. Their service in World War II served to remove doubts about their patriotism – as did Soviet oppression of its Jewish minority. The community’s traditional emphasis on education served it well and its members became increasingly prosperous. And with prosperity came suburbanisation and absorption into the American mainstream.

Thus rather than seeing them as sinister outsiders, Americans can embrace a film that requires them to put themselves in the position of Jews in the Third Reich.

All the films I saw this summer reviewed in a single post

As the summer went along I was grumbling about the films that were around but in hindsight it looks pretty good. I didn’t see any really bad films and the disappointments were pretty mild. That said I do wish Hollywood would focus more on original films than endless franchises.

Iron Man 3 (7/10)

I am not a fan of the franchise and only went to see this because a lot of people recommended it. I’m glad I did because it was a lot more exciting than its predecessors and also had a nice pinch of quirkiness. Disappointingly, it still contains Gwyneth Paltrow’s lame portrayal of Pepper Potts but this is off set by Ben Kingsley playing the Mandarin.

Star Trek Into Darkness (8/10)

All the fun of the first film with added War on Terror metaphors and a far superior villain.

Man of Steel (7/10)

Ok it’s clearly not as good as the Dark Knight trilogy – what is!? – or indeed its own trailer. Nonetheless, it didn’t deserve the derision it got. For a proper defence let me point you towards these two posts: ‘Man of Steel’ Is a Better Science Fiction Film than Superhero Movie and No, Man of Steel’s Superman is Not Your Superman. And That’s Okay.

Despicable Me 2 (8/10)

If you read this blog it won’t come as a surprise to you to know that I adored this.

Pacific Rim (4/10)

Loudest film ever. Otherwise wholly unremarkable.

Alan Patridge: Alpha Papa (5/10)

I don’t understand why but I found this funnier in theory than practice. It may have been that I watched it in almost empty cinema. At its most amusing when satirising local radio.

The Way Way Back (9/10)

Heartwarming and biting simultaneously. Pretty funny too. Everyone I’ve spoken to this agrees the performances are great but can’t agree which is the standout one – apart from Allison Janney who is brilliantly repulsive as a hedonistic divorcee who clearly shouldn’t be raising bread dough let alone children.