Across three Batman movies, five movies with cool-sounding one-word titles, and one movie you’ve probably never heard of, director Christopher Nolan has developed a distinctive style. So, with his latest film, Dunkirk, hitting theaters today, we’re going to answer a very important question. Instead of tackling the unanswerable question of which Nolan film is the best, we’re going to determine which Nolan film is the most typical of Nolan’s style. And we’re going to do it by running each of his movies through the following formula:
Overall Quality – 10 points: Nolan films are high in quality, so the higher quality a movie is, the more Nolany it is.
Information Withheld – 20 points: One of the many reasons that Nolan’s films are so engaging is that he forces us to play detective along with the characters, putting us in their shoes.
Narrative Complexity – 20 points: Where is the movie on the scale from “This is a really intricate story, and I need to really focus to make sure I get all of it” to “What the f*** am I watching right now?”
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist? – 15 points: Nolan’s least troubled protagonist is someone who dresses up in a million-dollar bat costume to help him get over his childhood trauma.
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop? – 15 points: A mic drop ending is exactly what you think it would mean: when the title card appears on the screen, you can’t help but imagine Nolan dropping his mic to signal the end of what he believes was a flawless directorial performance.
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars? – 10 points: I believe that Christopher Nolan is the best director working today, and yet he has never been nominated for Best Director. A friend of mine said, “That’s like Kobe Bryant only winning one MVP award,” but actually, it would be like if LeBron James had never been in the Top 5 of NBA MVP voting.
Frequent Collaborators – 5 points: Score composer Hans Zimmer and cinematographer Wally Pfister are the most important, but Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Christian Bale and a number of other actors also earn points.
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance – 5 points: Nolan has called Caine his “good luck charm,” including him in all six of his films since 2005. Then Mark Rylance showed up and was like…
… and I guess now he’s the new Michael Caine.
TOTAL – 100 POINTS
And here… we… GO! (Medium-sized spoilers ahead)
Overall Quality: A nearly flawless film with compelling characters and some intense action and dialogue scenes, but it’s certainly Nolan’s least out-of-the-box (most in-the-box?). 8/10
Withheld Information: The truths regarding the hero’s and villain’s actions aren’t even entirely clear by the end of Insomnia, and there’s a number of satisfying smaller reveals along the way, the best of which being the bold subversion of expectations that is Robin Williams’s first appearance on screen. 15/20
Narrative Complexity: 11/20
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist?: Detective Dormer is investigating a case above the arctic circle while there’s 24 hours of daylight, so his biggest problem is that he can’t sleep. Well, that and all the stuff about him not admitting to accidentally shooting his partner, bringing back repressed memories. 12/15
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop?: It’s a dramatic conclusion and gives the audience plenty to ponder, as a character makes a crucial decision within the final 60 seconds. Due to Hans Zimmer’s absence and a dull final shot, the “wow” factor is a little lost. 9/15
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars?: Robin Williams’s and Al Pacino’s performances make run-of-the-mill conversation riveting and evoke sympathy or disgust for their characters at the right moments. Certainly, one of them could have been nominated. Insomnia’s editing heightens the tension in key scenes, and could have received a nod. Nothing egregious, though. 3/10
Frequent Collaborators: Pfister. 1/5
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance: N/A. 0/5
Insomnia is 59% Nolany.
Overall Quality: Nolan’s first film that he shot on weekends with a bunch of his friends for a grand total budget of $6,000, which is the most efficient use of money since Seward’s Folly, especially considering that $6,000 is how much each ¼ of a second of Spiderman 3 cost to make. Following is small in scope, but it does the best it can, and it’s extremely engrossing. Since you probably haven’t seen it, I’m just going to leave the rest of the scorecard uncommented. If you have seen it, I’m sure you love Nolan enough that you’ll keep reading despite your frustration. 7/10
Withheld Information: 17/20
Narrative Complexity: 16/20
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist?: 11/15
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop?: 11/15
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars?: 0/10
Frequent Collaborators: 0/5
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance: 0/5
Following is 62% Nolany.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Overall Quality: Most great movies have a one or two stand-out scenes. The Dark Knight has six (opening bank robbery, pencil trick, “why so serious?” monologue, car chase, interrogation, ending). I also must add that it produces the Nolan movie quote that I think most accurately summarizes his own filmography: “Sometimes, truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes, people deserve more. Sometimes, people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Sound like the endings of Memento and Inception, anyone? 10/10
Withheld Information: We’re constantly left guessing what the Joker will do next, but that’s just about it. 8/20
Narrative Complexity: It’s the only Nolan film not to extensively utilize flashbacks. 9/20
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist?: In his second iteration, Batman is over his childhood fears but still in his physical prime. His trouble here mainly stems from his chronic sore throat. 9/15
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop?: The Hans Zimmer / James Newton Howard crescendoing score with Gordon’s monologue as Batman drives off into the night with his cape flowing gives me chills every time. 13/15
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars?: Heath Ledger won for his performance as the Joker, and the film received eight nominations, but The Dark Knight’s not being nominated for Best Picture is one of the ultimate Oscar snubs, and was the direct cause of the category’s expansion to ten films from five. (I’ve always found this hilarious. The Academy was basically like, “Hey, we made bad Best Picture nominations, so instead of actually fixing the way we nominate films for Best Picture, let’s just nominate more films,” which is a lot like the NFL using the “player-safety” card to explain the overtime-shortening rules that will be instituted next season. The NFL is basically like, “Hey, football is really unsafe, so instead of actually fixing the way it’s played to make it more safe, let’s just play less of it.”) 7/10
Frequent Collaborators: Zimmer, Pfister, Christian Bale, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine. 4/5
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance: I’ll just leave this here. 5/5
The Dark Knight is 65% Nolany.
Batman Begins (2005)
Overall Quality: The only cinematic superhero origin story that actually makes you believe that a guy would dress up in a costume and fight crime. It gets a point docked only because Nolan hadn’t yet figured out how to shoot action scenes. Like… at all. 9/10
Withheld Information: A standard third-act twist. 11/20
Narrative Complexity: Jumping back and forth between Bruce’s training period and his childhood brilliantly and Nolan-ly (yup, he’s an adverb too) intersperses the “how” of becoming Batman with the “why.” I also love that the story has three villains. More movies should do that. Bad guys wouldn’t just wait around until other bad guys have been defeated to emerge, right? 15/20
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist: The guilt and anger that Bruce carries over his parents’ death nearly leads to him killing a man in public. 10/15
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop: The last scene doesn’t tie together the rest of the film the way his other endings do, but there’s the cute Joker teaser and a great concluding shot. 9/15
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars: One Oscar nomination seems low, so you start think, “Why no Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for what’s been hailed as one of the most ‘realistic’ comic-book movies ever?” Then you remember that the villain’s master plan is to incite The Purge by vaporizing Gotham’s water supply using a giant microwave. 3/10
Frequent Collaborators: Zimmer, Pfister, Christian Bale, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine and an incredibly low-key Ken Watanabe performance. 4/5
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance: He successfully creates the endearing character of Bruce’s loyal butler, Alfred, and has a bunch of solid zingers. This is Michael Caine in peak “not pronouncing his R’s” form. 5/5
Batman Begins is 66% Nolany.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Overall Quality: A film so epic that you quickly ignore perfectly good questions like “how did Bane hide motorcycles in the Stock Exchange?” 9/10
Withheld Information: Literally every single line that Bane says is withheld information. 12/20
Narrative Complexity: Nolan’s simplest movie to follow still has some awesome flashbacks to the first two Batman movies, including one of my favorite moments of the series. Now that’s how you end a trilogy! 10/20
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist?: Batman is crippled for the movie’s first hour, then puts on a magic knee brace so that he can get demolished by Bane for two minutes, which cripples him for another hour of the movie. 11/15
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop?: If Batman Begins is the best superhero origin story, than this is certainly the best superhero retirement story. 13/15
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars?: I know the Best Supporting Actor field was particularly stacked this year, but come on! Yes, I’m talking about Michael Caine, but I’m also secretly talking about Tom Hardy. 4/10
Frequent Collaborators: Zimmer, Pfister, Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and the Nolan All-Star Team a.k.a. The cast of Inception (Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) 5/5
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance: I still tear up watching this even though it’s revealed like two minutes later that Bruce is still alive. 5/5
The Dark Knight Rises is 69% Nolany.
Overall Quality: Similar to The Dark Knight, this movie is just epic scene after epic scene. It attempts to be 2001: A Space Odyssey with a plot and, after a second viewing, I think it comes a lot closer than I originally thought. 8/10
Withheld Information: In addition to the mystery of Murph’s ghost, every outer space phenomenon that the characters encounter is unknown to them (and us) beforehand, which makes for gripping moments of discovery. 17/20
Narrative Complexity: [Takes deep breath]… There’s a four-dimensional bookshelf inside a black hole where Cooper can communicate with his younger self and his older daughter through a wrist watch by creating gravitational anomalies using the power of love. Now, whether you think that’s genius or stupid, it’s complex enough to distract you from the fact that Cooper egregiously named his daughter “Murph.” 16/20
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist?: Cooper ultimately has to decide between seeing his daughter again or saving humanity, an incredible dilemma conceived by Nolan. He does mostly manage to keep his cool when talking through decisions with his crew, but he also sounds like he has a wormhole stuck in his larynx. 10/15
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop?: The movie nearly ended here, with one of the most mesmerizing visual sequences ever put to film, but Nolan decided to spend ten more minutes wrapping up loose ends in a neat bow, which actually just raises more questions than it answers. 8/15
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars?: (1) Not even a nomination for Best Cinematography? F*** that. (2) A Best Original Score loss for Hans Zimmer, who composed one of the greatest soundtracks of all-time by basically lying down on all the organ keys and taking a nap. (3) No recognition for Matthew McConaughey’s terrific performance as Matthew McConaughey… all jokes aside, who else could have pulled of that 47-second continuous shot from the “Years of Messages” scene? We’re talking Tom Hanks, Will Smith, and maybe Michael Fassbender. 6/10
Frequent Collaborators: Zimmer, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine. 3/5
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance: I feel like this role could have been played by anyone. 3/5
Interstellar is 71% Nolany.
Overall Quality: An original, meticulously-crafted, head-scratching, existential thriller. 10/10
Withheld Information: This is the brilliance of Memento. Leonard has no idea what’s happening in any given moment and, due to the reverse-chronological storytelling, neither do we. Similarly, Leonard never doubts the facts that he believes to be true, so they’re presented to us as indisputable, leaving us just as shocked as Leonard at every turn. 20/20
Narrative Complexity: After I first saw it, I spent two whole weeks of subway rides to and from school reading Memento theories. 18/20
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist?: Like, the most troubled. 15/15
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop?: Obviously the twist is mind-blowing, but the final monologue that Leonard gives tugs at the core of human existence. It’s either soothing or dread-inducing depending on what mood I’m in. 14/15
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars?: One of the best movies of all-time wasn’t even considered one of the five best movies of its year. 8/10
Frequent Collaborators: Pfister. 1/5
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance: N/A. 0/5
Memento is 86% Nolany.
The Prestige (2006)
Overall Quality: An entertaining, well-made film that works as a period piece, a character study and a sci-fi mind-bender and demands repeat viewings, but is also very cold. 9/10
Withheld Information: Memento’s deception lies in giving the audience misleading information, knowing that they won’t question it. The Prestige is the opposite, giving the audience all the information they need, knowing that they won’t notice it. Although Nolan doesn’t withhold information in a literal sense (the film’s first two shots basically reveal how each of the two magicians’ tricks are performed), that makes his sleight of hand even more impressive. 20/20
Narrative Complexity: I didn’t fully appreciate until my third viewing Nolan’s neat trick of unraveling the story by having the two main characters read each other’s diaries. This is also the only Nolan movie that feels the need to ask, “Are you watching closely?” before the movie starts. 18/20
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist?: We get not one, but two male protagonists driven by obsession to make unthinkable sacrifices. This is dark stuff. 14/15
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop?: First we get the secret to Borden’s trick, and then, in a second whammy, the secret to Angier’s trick truly sinks in. Then we get this extraordinarily deep (and meta) monologue from Angier: “The audience knows the truth: The world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you got to see something really special.” Finally, we get a repeat of the opening monologue and a haunting final shot, in case hearing a guy describe killing himself every night wasn’t haunting enough. 14/15
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars?: No Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for a film with risky foreshadowing, thematic depth, and quotable lines is baffling, but the Academy was a little confused this year. It gave out one acting nomination for The Departed, but to the movie’s fifth best performance (Mark Wahlberg). 8/10
Frequent Collaborators: Pfister, Christian Bale, Michael Caine. 3/5
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance: “Every magic trick consists of three pahts, or acts. De fuhst paht, is called de pledge…” 5/5
The Prestige is 91% Nolany.
Before we finish, a fun aside for anyone who’s made it this far:
1) The Nolan-iest non-Nolan film is The Usual Suspects (69% Nolany), meaning that Nolan has made the four most Nolany movies of all-time. Only a few other movies managed to crack the 62% mark (The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Total Recall, Enemy and Arrival).
2) The least Nolany film of all-time is M. Night Shyamalan’s accidental comedic masterpiece The Happening (2% Nolany). It’s 1/10 quality, it’s twist is revealed in the first act, the story is as straightforward as can be, the only thing troubling Mark Wahlberg is that nobody will give him a second and the ending is literally just that the thing that was happening stops happening.
Overall Quality: Our Nolan-iest Nolan film combines popcorn blockbuster action and eye-candy with a thoughtful script to an extent only Nolan can. 10/10
Withheld Information: Trapped inside this frenetically paced heist/action/sci-fi movie is a slowly-unfolding and heartbreaking story about how to move on from a regretful relationship with your ex. 16/20
Narrative Complexity: There are anywhere between one and three main characters who are only in the movie to explain what’s going on. 20/20
How Troubled Is the Male Protagonist?: Even though Cobb may not seem incredibly troubled at first, one of the best things about Inception is that we get a visual depiction of Cobb’s mind, and it is very clearly the mind of a troubled person. You know who else is pretty troubled? The chemist, Yusuf. That dude is literally worst driver ever. I mean, Inception’s still a 10/10, but would it have been improved with Ansel Elgort in that role? Yes it would have. 14/15
To What Extent Is the Ending a Mic Drop?: The iconic spinning top followed by the title card appearing on the screen is like being jolted awake from a dream. The movie feels real while we’re in it. It’s only when we wake up from Nolan’s immersive world that we realize something was actually strange. 15/15
Was It Snubbed at the Oscars?: It got nominated for Best Picture (but only due to the aftermath of The Dark Knight’s snubbing two years earlier), which makes Nolan’s not being nominated for Best Director even more shocking. The dreamlike feel, awesome CGI and practical effects, 100% clarity regarding which characters are in which dream level… that’s all direction. 9/10
Frequent Collaborators: Zimmer, Pfister, Ken Watanabe and the Nolan All-Star Team a.k.a. The cast of The Dark Knight Rises (Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt). 5/5
Quality of the Michael Caine Performance: Playing the character of Old Man Who We Assume Is Wise Because He’s Played By Michael Caine, he makes a strong impression in just one scene. 4/5
Inception is 93% Nolany.