Christopher Nolan Netflix

If you held an elimination tournament to determine the movie director who was best representative of the 2000s, there are many names that might make it into the final round. Taste is subjective, of course, but by now there is enough distance between us and the decade that we should be able to look back on it with a degree of clarity.

Going by the criteria of the National Film Registry — whereby motion pictures are evaluated as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” — there is one director whose total output in the 2000s (including teaser trailers for 2010 films) arguably had the most pervasive influence. You would not have to be a “Nolanite” to make a strong case for Christopher Nolan being that director.

Nolan’s influence can indeed be felt culturally, historically, and aesthetically, with the director’s popularity among critics and general audiences being bolstered by his impact on commercial Hollywood and the artistic methods of other filmmakers. Since his filmography already provides a good framework, let’s move through the decade chronologically, taking a look at each of Nolan’s films, and how they contributed to his evolution as the quintessential filmmaker of the 2000s.

Memento Honest Trailer

Memento (2000)

Quentin Tarantino may have owned the 1990s, but at the outset of the new millennium, the poster boy for independent cinema was in the middle of a six-year limbo period. In 2000, however, two new filmmakers popped up with daring sophomore features to fill the void left by Tarantino’s absence. One was Darren Aronofsky; the other was Christopher Nolan.

The arrival of Requiem for a Dream and Memento heralded Aronofsky and Nolan as breakthrough talents whose names held enough interest for movie fans that even their lesser-known first features, Pi and Following, started showing up on the shelves at Blockbuster Video.

For its part, Memento earned standing ovations at film festivals, and by the time it expanded from 11 to 500 theaters in the U.S., word-of-mouth had already established it as something of an instant classic. The way it played with narrative structure, its use of non-linear chapters, had film-lovers mentioning it in the same breath as Pulp Fiction.

Yet Memento was very much its own thing: employing, as it did, the high concept of short-term memory loss to tell a story backwards. Part of what gives Nolan’s films such resonance is their thematic depth. With Memento, the mystery unfurled into a parable about self-deception.

The film earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and within a few years, professors would be integrating Memento into college courses. Even if Nolan had not gone on to have the career that he did later, this film, in and of itself, would still be a milestone. As it is, Memento immediately gave him artistic credibility; but unlike Nicolas Winding Refn after Drive, Nolan was able to capitalize on that in a way that would sustain critical acclaim.

Meanwhile, it was Aronofsky’s name that first became attached to the fifth entry in the Batman film franchise, a project called Batman: Year One, which he was co-writing with Frank Miller, based on Miller’s comic book storyline of the same name. Aronofsky even courted Christian Bale to play the lead, but the project soon fell through, leaving this Nolan contemporary with a six-year gap in his filmography, much like Tarantino.

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Insomnia (2002)

While Insomnia is probably the least invoked Nolan film of the 2000s, perhaps its very significance lies in the tendency people have to disregard it. Studio bosses would do well to remember Insomnia. This is the all-important bridge film, the one that allowed Nolan to cut his teeth on a feature with a mid-level budget. Nolan commented on this once in a THR interview, talking about how he moved from a “little indie film” to a “medium-sized studio film” before he ever dared to take on a character as beloved as Batman.

In its rush to repeat the success of the Nolan model, Hollywood often skips this step, drafting independent filmmakers straight up from the minor leagues, into the world of big-budget tentpole features. Part of the problem is that the “medium-sized studio film” is disappearing, in favor of peak TV and simultaneous releases. Yet this does not change the fact that having young untested directors like Josh Trank or Marc Webb at the helm of tentpole features often leads to production problems.

For Nolan, Insomnia marked a transitional step, one that enabled him to hone his craft and add to his pedigree while adjusting to the pressures of working inside the studio system with movie stars like Al Pacino. Here again, the budding auteur would play with memory, with flashes of recollection informing key moments in the film, such as the tensely edited scene where a character recounts the details of a murder over the phone.

As our own Josh Spiegel recently pointed out, Nolan had the foresight to cast the late comedian Robin Williams against type: a move echoed by director Mark Romanek, who wrangled a similarly disquieting performance out of Williams for a film called One Hour Photo, which would hit theaters later in 2002. Fifteen years later, Insomnia remains one of Nolan’s highest rated films on Rotten Tomatoes.

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