As the most powerful creative force currently working in Hollywood, director Christopher Nolan’s ability to make original films that connect both with audiences and critics have made him a beacon of hope in a movie landscape that continues to become more saturated with sequels and franchises every year. Earlier this month marked the tenth anniversary of the release of Batman Begins, the first installment in his critically acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy. And there’s reason to think Nolan isn’t yet at the height of his powers, which makes it all the more exciting to see what he’ll come up with in years to come.
With that in mind, let’s take a step back and look at some of the great films Nolan has made in order to get to where he is today. Here are the 16 greatest scenes of Nolan’s career, including his 1998 debut, Following.
16. The Dark Knight Rises – Escaping the Pit
One of Nolan’s strengths as a director has always been pushing a story arc to its limit before satisfying audiences, and never has it been more evident than watching as Gotham City underwent its most epic conflict, with Batman relegated to the sidelines for nearly the entire second act. At the same time, Nolan layers audience anticipation to see Batman return to Gotham by introducing an arc of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s successful climb out of the pit, which he finally does without the aid of a rope in one of the most thrilling sequences in the film. Altogether, the buildup to Batman’s escape and his final successful attempt makes for one of the most cathartic and exciting scenes in the film, one that sets the tone for the final act and a conclusion to the entire trilogy.
15. Memento – Searching for the Pen
Memento’s style of moving backwards in time to reflect the experience of Leonard and his anterograde amnesia makes for a one-of-a-kind puzzle-thriller, and it isn’t difficult to see why the film put Nolan on the map. In a scene in which Leonard desperately searches for a pen so that he can remember that Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) is manipulating him, we see the tension that fills every moment, and the fact that Leonard can discover a key piece of information and lose it just as quickly.
As Leonard’s voice overlays the scene, reminding himself to keep the information in mind as he scrambles for pens (all of which Natalie has taken), Nolan keeps us inside the character’s headspace by using tight close-ups and only breaking away to show Natalie outside and waiting to come back in. When Natalie finally walks back in the door, Leonard immediately forgets everything that has proceeded it, and you can’t help but wonder what else he has forgotten in similar circumstances.
14. Batman Begins – Calling Card
While the “calling card” scene in Batman Begins could be considered an Easter egg of sorts, there’s no doubt that the inclusion of the joker card at the end of the film immediately dialed up the anticipation for the next film in the series. At the same time, it’s easy to forget that a lot of people still weren’t sure about Nolan’s take on Batman or whether the Joker should even be a villain in the next film after Jack Nicholson’s take on the character in Tim Burton’s Batman was considered a classic. When The Dark Knight arrived in 2008 with Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as the Joker, all doubts would be instantly cast aside.
13. Insomnia – Chase Into Fog
Following his breakout hit Memento, Warner Bros. brought on Nolan to direct the psychological thriller Insomnia in what would be the director’s first test with a larger budget ($46 million). It’s scenes like the one in which Will Dormer (Al Pacino) chases the killer into a heavy fog that proved his ability to direct on the big stage. Following a trapdoor passageway that led out into the forest, Dormer and his team find themselves in a bind when they are all split up, making it impossible to know who’s the killer and who’s with the police. As the tension builds with Dormer seemingly getting closer and closer, he shoots at a figure, setting in motion the events of the last two acts of the film. Considering Warner Bros. would soon after give Nolan the keys to the Batman franchise, there’s no doubt he passed the test.
12. Following – Cobb’s Plan Is Revealed
Nolan’s first feature film, Following, is a tightly crafted, 70-minute neo-noir thriller in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. Shot for only $6,000, Following is one of the least expensive films in history and begins to show many of the distinctive styles that would later define Nolan’s career — particularly the film’s editing, which jumps back and forth through time, hinting at the future style of Memento. The ending of the film is particularly powerful, in which both the viewer and the protagonist (never specifically named) discover that seemingly every single event of the film has been manipulated by Cobb in order to deflect blame from himself. In the final shot, Nolan follows Cobb in slow motion into a crowded London street as he disappears.
11. Memento – Chase Scene
A much-needed moment of humor in an otherwise bleak film, the scene begins with Leonard running through a trailer park and asking himself in voiceover, “OK, so what I am doing?” — the same question the audience has. He sees a man with a gun running on the other side of the trailers and thinks, “Oh, I’m chasing this guy,” cutting between some trailers toward him, much to the man’s confusion, who stops and takes a shot at him. “No, he’s chasing me,” Leonard realizes as he bolts the other way.
10. The Dark Knight – Joker Escapes
The Dark Knight is arguably Nolan’s best film to date, so it’s hard to pick individual scenes when so many pop out: the “pencil trick,” the chase scene, the bank heist. But one of the best of the bunch is a relatively quiet scene immediately after the Joker has escaped police custody and successfully pulled off his master plan to push Batman, Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon to the limit. Following a thrilling cross-cutting sequence between a series of high-stakes events, Nolan cuts back to the Joker as he escapes in a police cruiser while it weaves back and forth down the dark streets of Gotham City. Like a dog in the back of a car, the Joker hangs his head out as the sounds of the streets slowly fade into a low drone.
9. Insomnia – Telephone Call
In a film that operates like a slow-burning powder keg, no scene matches the tension of Walter Finch’s (Robin Williams) late-night phone call to Dormer. With the two characters inextricably linked to each other despite Dormer’s contempt for Finch, Dormer is forced to listen as Finch outlines in detail how and why he murdered Kay Connell. Pacino and Williams work the scene masterfully as Pacino’s Dormer listens and interacts with Finch in such a way that you expect him to explode at any moment. Williams, on the other hand, unsettles viewers with his strangely serene descriptions of the murder in a way that only Williams could pull off.
8. Inception – The Ending Kick
In a film built like a cerebral house of cards, it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of just how masterful Nolan’s layering of dream worlds is until Inception reaches its climax. With four dream levels needing to collapse in perfect order, the final sequence, in which Nolan cross-cuts between all levels of the dreams, becomes one of the most cathartic moments in all of Nolan’s filmography. As the sequence reaches its conclusion, you can’t help but feel as if you’re getting sucked out of the dreams along with the characters as you marvel at the perfect Rube Goldberg machine that Nolan has constructed. By the time the scene is over, Nolan drops the booming score in order to allow the audience to take a breath and reflect on the madness they just witnessed.
7. The Prestige – Lightbulb Experiment
One of the most beautiful images in Nolan’s work comes as magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) follows rival magician Alfred Borden’s (Christian Bale) trail of clues to Nikola Tesla, played wonderfully by David Bowie. As Angier and Tesla’s assistant, Mr. Alley (Andy Serkis), stand in a field overlooking the town, the lights in the distance go dark as a field of light bulbs glow illuminate around them. Picking up a bulb, he realizes that there aren’t any wires attached; “Real magic,” he says.
6. The Dark Knight – Ending Scene
Finding a fitting ending has never been a problem for Nolan, who managed to end The Dark Knight in such a way as to give the audience one last chill. After taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s death and casting himself as an enemy to Gotham, Gordon explains to his son why Batman is being forced to take on a burden that isn’t his: “Because he’s the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. And so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. The Dark Knight.” Besides feeling like the perfect conclusion to the themes explored in the film, it also sets up Batman’s story arc through the end of the trilogy, when he ultimately finds redemption.
5. Memento – “You’ll Be My John G.”
In many ways Memento has as much riding on its conclusion as Inception does, despite the major differences in content, let alone budget. But unlike Inception, the mystery at the heart of Memento is so important to the film’s success that a misfire could have single handedly derailed the entire film — luckily, that’s not the case. As Memento reaches its conclusion and the past and present timelines meet, Leonard realizes the truth: He’s already killed John G., the man who murdered his wife.
Additionally, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), the cop who was handed Leonard’s case, has manipulated Leonard in such a way as to murder and rip off drug dealers using Leonard’s endless quest for revenge. And so, in the final moments of the film, Leonard writes down information on Teddy’s polaroid that results in the domino effect of events seen in the film, ultimately leading to Teddy’s death and perhaps an escape from the entire cycle.
4. The Dark Knight Rises – Breaking the Bat
As soon as Bane (Tom Hardy) was announced as the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, anticipation quickly grew that the film would feature a scene in which Bane broke Batman’s back: one of the most famous sequences in all the Batman comics. When the scene arrived in the film — in slightly tamer fashion than the comics — the sheer shock factor of seeing Batman outmatched and beaten was unlike anything that had ever been seen onscreen. With Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) looking on, Nolan unleashed one of the most thrilling and well-choreographed fight scenes in the entire trilogy. Once criticized for fast cutting and unintelligible fighting, Nolan gives the audience a clear view of Bane’s thrashing of Batman and pushes the sequence to its finale with huge story repercussions.
3. The Prestige – Revealing the Tricks
In a film based on surprise and deception, it was surely difficult to find a way to satisfy audiences who had been trained by the film to look for secrets, but Nolan’s shocking ending to The Prestige managed to just that. In the final scene, we find out the secrets to both magicians’ transported man tricks, which have driven the film’s plot.
Robert Angier, we discover, has has been creating clones of himself for every show using Tesla’s machine, drowning each one in a tank below the stage. Alfred Borden, however, has achieved his trick in shockingly simple way: him and his twin brother have shared a life as magicians, going as far as mimic each others’ injuries. For a film that in many ways lived or died by how well the ending worked, it’s a testament to the film’s climax that The Prestige is often considered among Nolan’s best films.
2. The Dark Knight – Interrogation Scene
Of the many great scenes in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the interrogation scene between Batman and Joker is easily the most memorable. With Ledger and Bale both at the top of their game, the scene seethes with energy as the Joker attempts to push Batman to the edge. The scene also touches upon many of the themes and philosophical musings that have always made Joker and Batman such thrilling rivals — themes that extend into the third film in the series The Dark Knight Rises.
1. Inception – Zero-G Hallway
Chances are that if there’s one scene you remember from Inception, it’s the scene in which Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fights two men in a hotel hallway while the corridor rotates around them. In only four years, the sequence has already earned the kind of iconic status usually reserved for films much, much older — and for good reason.
The scene is in many ways the perfect set piece for Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream concept, with choreography, cinematography, production design, and everything you can think of working in perfect unison for one of the most awe-inspiring big screen feats ever seen. And don’t forget about the fact that this was all done in-camera; in order to pull of the sequence, the filmmakers created a 100-foot corridor that was suspended by rings and actually rotated via massive electric motors. Truly a one-of-a-kind action experience that is likely to never be replicated again.