After the release of Tenet in 2020, Christopher Nolan has now put out a film in each of the three decades that comprise the twenty-first century. Some of his most popular releases—including Inception and Interstellar—came from the 2010s, but his first real decade on the Hollywood map saw a rise to prominence akin to Scorsese in the 70s or Hughes in the 80s, even Tarantino in the 90s.
His films from the 2000s received thirteen total nominations at the Academy Awards and grossed more than $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office. Those aren’t the most impressive numbers in either respect, and James Cameron nearly beats him out with Avatar alone.
But when accounting for Oscar bait in tandem with the average filmgoer’s innate want for a thriving science-fiction landscape and finally throwing film criticism into the mix, things become quite clear with regard to Christopher Nolan and the legacy he cemented in just nine years from 2000 to 2008.
To accentuate his impact from the decade aside from critical analyses of each film he released therein, I’ll also be accounting for prominent accolades and box office results while detailing the legacy of his filmography compared to those of his contemporaries.
Some guys like Clint Eastwood had several acting roles on top of their directorial efforts, while others such as Quentin Tarantino wrote the scripts to each of their movies. And both of those guys provided great competition for Nolan—along with Peter Jackson—but ultimately failed short in the “quality” territory thanks to films like Blood Work, Deathproof and The Lovely Bones respectively.
Activity, quality/quantity, all of that is judged with different merits in mind, but those three elements of filmmaking—directing, writing and acting—shouldn’t be tough to keep up with.
Nolan burst onto the big-league scene with Memento, a psychological thriller about a man with short-term memory loss attempting to track down his wife’s killer. Most movie fans today are familiar with this piece, as it received great acclaim from critics along with a couple of Oscar nominations and has since been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Those are seriously impressive numbers for a second directorial effort on independent restrictions, and by dint of those statistics Nolan transitioned seamlessly to studio filmmaking with his 2002 release, Insomnia, starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hillary Swank. Working with Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss in his prior film gave Nolan great experience with talented stars, but none of his collaborators came close to the esteem of Pacino and Williams.
Aside from a 92% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes—obviously indicating stellar reviews—there isn’t much to write home about with regard to Insomnia. Not on paper, at least. Although it garnered over $100 million on a $46 million budget, it remains Nolan’s only film from the decade without an Oscar nod. It’s also the only movie under his belt that he didn’t have a hand in writing, as Insomnia was written by Hillary Seitz.
I tend to knock directors in the grand scheme of things for not writing their own scripts, especially when comparing them to those who did, like the Coen Brothers for instance. They gave Nolan arguably the closest run for his money in terms of quality, quantity, and accolades at the Oscars. And while No Country for Old Men may be the finest pick of the entire litter, it wasn’t enough to make up for their middling results in theaters or, well, The Ladykillers.
On the other hand, some of the biggest names relied on the screenplay efforts of other people throughout the 2000’s: Spielberg, Scorsese, Soderberg—all of those “S” guys just directed their movies and played no part in the writing process.Insomnia put Chris Nolan in that same boat for a time, but the movie’s decent showing at the box office in tandem with tremendous ratings from critics only bolsters his spot in the rankings.
At first appearing as the second coming of David Fincher with his first two films—heavy on psychological thrills and shocking plot points—no one anticipated Nolan’s subsequent project.
Although superhero films had been reinvigorated at the top of the century with X-Men in 2000, the market for a new Batman movie was slim at the time thanks to Batman Forever and, even worse, Batman and Robin—two Joel Schumacher films from 1995 and 1997, respectively.
Nevertheless, Christopher Nolan had a vision for the Caped Crusader and faced the stigma head on with his release of Batman Begins in 2005.
A profound retelling of Batman’s origin story, the performances here really steal the show on top of the camera work, the score, the meaningful dialogue, and, well, yeah. Pretty much everything about the movie is great, a situation polar opposite to the atrocities of Schumacher in the 1990s.
While it only received one nomination at the Academy Awards—shout-out to the cinematography—it definitely made waves in theaters, and its impact on the industry remains tangible to this day.
As I said, superhero films had seen a recent resurgence (particularly within the realm of origin stories) at the time of its release and while X-Men set the bar high for the tag-team dynamics of recent years (see: The Avengers, Justice League and Guardians of the Galaxy), Batman Begins set a new standard for grounding these more speculative stories with verisimilitude via personalized dialogue, gritty plot points and realistic action sequences, as Nolan utilized live stunts opposed to CGI.
An onslaught of Hollywood reboots followed in the subsequent years: Casino Royale in 2006, Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011—even Iron Man (2008) director Jon Favreau cited Batman Begins as a direct inspiration, with the President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige going as far to say, “Chris Nolan’s Batman is the greatest thing that happened [to superhero films] because it bolstered everything.”
Nolan’s penultimate film of the decade—2006’s The Prestige—also emerges as the most underrated. With a cast of Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine, the Nolans capitalized on a 1995 novel of the same name (penned by Christopher Priest) and converted it into a brilliant script with thought-out dialogue and tantalizing plot lines.
Despite achieving decent numbers at the box office, critics seemed mixed upon release—it still sits at a relatively average score of 76% on Rotten Tomatoes with a more underwhelming 66 on Metacritic. It did receive acclaim (as well as two Oscar nods) for its cinematography and art design, but those statistics don’t do justice to the story’s finality or the passion of the actors.
Replete with all of Nolan’s greatest trademarks—nonlinear structure, ambiguous plot lines, etc.—The Prestige came in at number 66 on Empire’s ranking of the 100 best films of the 21st century, a list concocted at the end of 2020. Also featured on the list are Batman Begins at 94, Memento at 26, and at number 3, well… I think we all know what made that spot.
I could likely write a novel on this movie, Nolan’s last of the 2000s, The Dark Knight. Chapter one would be Nolan’s direction. Chapter two would revolve around both brothers and their script, chapter three on the score by Hans Zimmer, chapter four might detail the set design, but pretty much the rest of the book—some twenty-odd chapters—would be completely focused on Heath Ledger’s near-mythical performance as Joker.
It’s in fact likely that each of you who clicked on this article (and even those who simply perused the headline) saw any given image of Joker in your head as you did it, and that supposition does no justice whatsoever to the other cast members like Christian Bale as the eponymous Bats, Michael Caine as his butler Alfred, Gary freaking Oldman as James Gordon, and, everyone’s favorite narrator, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox.
With over a billion bucks brought in at the box office and eight nominations at the Oscars, The Dark Knight immediately cemented itself as one of the preeminent films of the century, not just the decade. Its legacy really can’t be overstated, and I feel like most of you know that.
But when you combine one of the most popular pictures ever put to screen with an array of other admirable efforts throughout a single decade, Christopher Nolan’s status as the leading director of the 2000s becomes undeniable.
As a screenwriter, I know pretty well the time and effort it takes to pen a script, and I need to highlight the fact that this man wrote four movies (with the help of his brother), directed them all by himself, and directed another film on top of that for a total of five acclaimed movies in just nine years. An astonishing feat, and one that will never be done justice through my words alone.
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What was your favorite Christopher Nolan title from the 2000’s? Do you agree that he was the most valuable filmmaker thereof? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!