The 10 Best Christopher Nolan Scenes

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.

The Family Videos in Interstellar

It's only been a few years since Nolan's last film, the sci-fi epic Interstellar, but the film hasn't had quite the hold on people as Inception or The Dark Knight did upon their initial release. While Interstellar may be a tad overlong, it does feature one of the most baldly emotional and heart-rending scenes in the career of a director often typified as cold, calculated, and bloodless. Matthew McConaughey's Cooper and his crew are exploring a planet in another galaxy to gauge its ability to maintain human life, with the grave knowledge that each hour on this mysterious planet is the equivalent of seven years passing on Earth. So even though their trip to this planet is short, when Cooper and the crew returns, they learn that 23 years have elapsed on Earth. This hits hardest for Cooper when he watches a series of home movies made by his daughter Murph (played by Jessica Chastain as an adult), seeing her age, mature, and harden in the span of a few minutes. It's one of the most devastating scenes in Nolan's career, thanks in no small part to McConaughey's committed and raw work.

The Final Scene in The Prestige

Aside from Memento, Christopher Nolan's 2006 adaptation of The Prestige is easily his twistiest film. (Dunkirk is not likely to change that.) From the early going, when Michael Caine's impresario explains the three stages of a magic trick, it's clear that Nolan has something up his sleeve (#sorrynotsorry). After twist upon twist is revealed, the last scene reveals the final gut-punch: Hugh Jackman's determined magician Robert Angier has been thwarted by his rival Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), because Angier never realized that Borden was two twin brothers who would switch between being the magician and his backstage assistant. Neither man's hands are clean, but the film intimates that Angier's obsession with providing wonder to an audience pushed him too far beyond moral or ethical redemption. Memento's final scene is still tops for revealing a shocking twist, but The Prestige isn't too far behind.

The Opening Scene of The Dark Knight Rises

Outside of Nolan's first film, Following, his weakest film is arguably The Dark Knight Rises, which is both ambitious and overly bloated. The good news, at least, is that the movie opens with its best, most ominous scene. As was the case with The Dark Knight, Nolan shot part of the 2012 finale with IMAX cameras, including the prologue where we meet Batman's newest foe, the beefy, masked villain known as Bane. Tom Hardy's muffled, lilting accent as Bane was instantly odd and off-putting (intentionally and otherwise), but the practicality of the scene – where Bane escapes federal custody while he's on a plane flying high over a hilly landscape – still amazes. Even the best superhero movies use CGI effects, but when Nolan shows one plane flying above another here, the latter one being vivisected to extract Bane, it's plainly clear how much he relies on practical, in-the-moment effects. On a true IMAX screen, the impact of the scene is jaw-dropping. If only the rest of the film could echo the start.

The Fog Chase in Insomnia

Insomnia is one of the more forgotten films in Christopher Nolan's career. For Warner Bros. Pictures, it functioned as a test of Nolan's chops before they decided to revive Batman with him at the helm. But this tightly wound detective thriller is worth checking out again, if only for a stellar performance from Al Pacino as an exhausted detective on the hunt for a killer played by an against-type and unnerving Robin Williams (also excellent). Williams' character gets to turn the tables after the chase highlighted here, where Pacino's character and his partner search for the suspect in a massive, impenetrable fog, culminating in the former cop shooting and killing the latter, possibly not by accident. Insomnia is a more straightforward film than Memento, but with the same cinematographer and editor (Wally Pfister and Dody Dorn, respectively), Nolan is able to capture an intentionally confusing mood to clarify why Pacino would kill his partner in this genuinely eerie sequence.

Batman and Rachel in the Tumbler in Batman Begins

Nolan's take on the Caped Crusader is mostly very different from the quadrilogy begun in 1989 with Tim Burton at the helm. Batman Begins presents a radically different origin for Bruce Wayne, aside from the memorable moment where the young man sees his parents killed by a mugger. One moment that gets tweaked a great deal from other superhero films, including the original Batman, is when our hero, in costume, comes to the rescue of his love interest. While Christian Bale's Batman does get to save his longtime friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), she's too addled on a hallucinogenic drug administered by the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) to see anything other than a terrifying specter. Batman's escape from the authorities and his desperate attempt to give Rachel an antidote adds to the thrill of seeing his Bat-Tumbler, a much larger vehicle than the traditional Batmobile. In these moments, Nolan feels like he's getting fully comfortable with the superhero ethos.