The Movie: Memento

Where You Can Stream It: IMDb TV

The Pitch: A man who has lost his ability to make new memories must rely on his own notes and tattoos to piece together clues about the man who murdered his wife.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Watching Memento is crucial if you want to begin to understand the mind of one of the most successful working filmmakers today. Christopher Nolan made the one hour and nine-minute movie Following two years before this, but it’s kind of astonishing how much 2000’s Memento feels like a leap into the big leagues, even though this was still made with a relatively small budget. Twenty years after its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival (I’m jumping the gun on its 20-year anniversary in the U.S., which isn’t until March of next year), the film still holds up as a smart, twisty thriller that contains so many of the ideas that Nolan remains fascinated by and continues to explore in his work.

Much has been written about Nolan’s obsession with time, which was on full display in this movie. There’s an entire video of him explaining the movie’s structure, which cleverly juxtaposes black and white footage moving forward in time with color footage moving backward. Like almost all of Nolan’s movies, this introduces a concept or structural layout that’s more sophisticated and complex than typical blockbuster fare, helping his work to stand out even if it’s not always as brain-exploding as people make it out to be.

Memento‘s structure is so unique that it was basically all I concentrated on the first time I saw it. But on this viewing, after not having seen it for at least 15 years, I was more interested in other themes that come up again and again in Nolan’s work: obsession and identity.

“You don’t know who you are anymore,” Joe Pantoliano‘s Teddy tells Guy Pearce‘s Leonard at one point.

“Of course I do. I’m Leonard Shelby. I’m from San Francisco,” Leonard responds.

“No, that’s who you were. Maybe it’s time you started investigating yourself.”

Looking at Nolan’s protagonists over the years, these ideas resurface in almost every movie: the thief at the center of Following, the investigators in Insomnia, Bruce Wayne/Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy, the magicians of The Prestige, Dom Cobb in Inception, and Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar. They’re all obsessed with something, and all of them grapple with how those obsessions are gradually reshaping their identities and gnawing away at who they once were. And it was all there two decades ago, swirled up into the neo-noir package of Memento.

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