The 10 Best Christopher Nolan Scenes

Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan

This week marks the arrival of the latest film from one of Hollywood’s best and biggest directors, Christopher Nolan. His new film, Dunkirk, is an even bigger event than usual for a couple reasons: first, the entire film was shot in a mix of IMAX and 65mm film, and second, it’s the first time Nolan has made a fictional film based on real events. Dunkirk, being about the infamous Battle of Dunkirk in World War II, is also the first time Nolan has stepped into the war-film genre after years in the world of comic books and science fiction. No doubt Dunkirk will have at least one or two memorable scenes or sequences, but today, I’d like to highlight the 10 best scenes of Nolan’s filmography up to Dunkirk. There are plenty of contenders that didn’t make the cut, especially from The Prestige and The Dark Knight, but let’s get on with the list.

Batman Interrogates The Joker in The Dark Knight

Though we’ve already gotten a new version of the Joker in the DC Extended Universe, there may be no more instantly brilliant take on the character than that of Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Ledger’s death still hovers over the film (as well as the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won posthumously), but does not dim the impact of his deliberately chaotic villain, no more so than in the brutally intense face-off between the Joker and Batman after an abduction goes south. As grim as the scene gets, with Batman calmly barricading the door from the inside so Jim Gordon can’t stop him from wailing on the Joker, it also references, of all things, Jerry Maguire as the Joker says he wouldn’t dare kill Batman because they complete each other. Nolan’s films have plenty of visceral, arresting moments, none greater than this showdown for the ages.

The Final Scene of Memento

From the opening, played-backwards shots of Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film Memento, it’s clear that he and brother/co-writer Jonathan are telling audience members to pay attention. This neo-noir about Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, delivering one of his best performances), who has short-term memory loss and is trying to figure out who killed his wife, is presented in two disparate timelines: one half is in backwards chronology while the other is in forward chronology. Eventually, the two meet up in the climax, as Leonard is told by his twitchy, prickly cohort Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) that a) he’s already killed the fabled John G and b) Leonard himself inadvertently killed his wife after suffering the memory loss. Leonard, skeptical and cynical as ever, chooses to believe otherwise, telling himself that Teddy is now his John G, leading to the final (and also first) scene of the movie. Memento remains one of the more haunting films Nolan’s made, and the final screw being turned here solidifies its status.

The Truck Chase in The Dark Knight

In just over 15 years, Christopher Nolan has become one of the most famous modern directors, a name almost as well known as Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock. One of his hallmarks, to his credit, is using practical effects whenever possible. A perfect example of his practical wizardry occurs in a major setpiece of The Dark Knight, wherein the Joker tries to abduct and kill Harvey Dent from a heavily armored SWAT vehicle. Batman sheds his Tumbler, riding the motorcycle-on-steroids Bat-Pod to save Dent. He does so by rigging wires underneath the semi-truck the Joker is driving, causing it to flip end over end. The actual truck-flip only takes up about ten seconds of the 153-minute film, but the wide-shot where the moment occurs is all the more thrilling because of how evident it is that Nolan and his crew really did flip an 18-wheeler over in the middle of the night in downtown Chicago. The Dark Knight remains a high point in Nolan’s career, and this scene is one of the standouts.

“Am I Chasing This Guy?” in Memento

An easy (and not entirely inaccurate) criticism of Nolan’s work is that it’s dour and humorless. His films are largely serious-minded and intense, with characters reflecting that tone. His breakthrough film, Memento, isn’t much different, but one of its best scenes suggests Nolan’s dry but explosive sense of humor. The way the film is pieced together, all of the scenes presented in color are played backwards; thus, when we open a scene in color with Guy Pearce’s character Leonard Shelby and a blurry nearby figure chasing each other, we can’t know who is in pursuit. “Oh, I’m chasing this guy?” Leonard says in voiceover, until an instant later, the “guy” fires a gun at Leonard. “No…he’s chasing me,” Leonard says, hightailing it away. It’s a brief moment, but extremely funny, and proof that, when he wants to be, Nolan knows how to go for the laugh.

The Hallway Fight in Inception

The second half of Inception, after all the necessary set-up of how the dream world works, is a series of setpieces piled on top of each other. Each layer of reality in which Dom Cobb and his crew operate (the real world, as they sit sleeping on a plane to Los Angeles; the first layer of dreaming, where they sit in a van toppling over a bridge in slow-motion; the second layer of dreaming, at a fancy hotel to convince a businessman he’s in danger; and the third layer of dreaming, at a snow-covered mountain) allows for Nolan and editor Lee Smith to cut back and forth with expert ease. As such, there are mini-setpieces and scenes within each layer, with the true highlight being Cobb’s right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tussling with a couple of heavies in a hotel hallway that’s untethered from gravity. Akin to a fight scene taking place in the hotel room where Fred Astaire danced atop the ceiling in the musical Royal Wedding, this hand-to-hand combat in Inception is one of the most visually exciting scenes in Nolan’s career, as daring as it is thrilling.

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