Very few filmmakers can boast a resume like Christopher Nolan’s. The man seems incapable of making a bad or sub-par film, each one managing to somehow top the last. With only seven feature films to his credit, he is already being acclaimed as his generation’s Stanley Kubrick. In anticipation for his eighth and most epic feature, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, we countdown the top 20 scenes, sequences and moments from the work of a consistently innovative modern genius.
20. BATMAN BEGINS – The Construction of the Bat-suit
‘Bats frighten me, it’s time my enemies shared my dread.’
This is a sequence of short scenes depicting how a real-world Batman would adapt modern technology to build his famous armour. The elegantly simple look is to the credit of costume designer Lindy Hemming, whose Bat-suit presents a combination of Bruce Wayne’s ninja training, and military prototype high-tech.
How does one recover from the travesty of BATMAN & ROBIN? By reinventing the Batman legend at its roots. The conceit of Nolan’s Batman films is that they have to be set within the reality of our world. The core concept being ‘What if Batman was real?’ Upon reflection, this is not a wide stretch to make; the Batman graphic novels lend themselves most closely to a real-world setting than any other superhero property. The full realization of this concept is the film’s greatest achievement, allowing the mythos to be taken seriously by the public. It requires less suspension of disbelief than say THE PRESTIGE or INCEPTION, and fits the neo-noir tone of Nolan’s other work.
The sequence in question is expertly conceived and edited. The music is riveting. Each shot is rightly placed and portrays the function of a different Bat-tool. It serves as a plot point as well, as the culmination of Bruce Wayne’s years of training and research, and the overcoming of his fears by becoming an image of fear itself.
19. DOODLEBUG – The Twist Ending
This is a little gem of a short film that pre-dates FOLLOWING and can be found on YouTube. It is the earliest filmic display we have of Nolan’s deep interest in human psychology. It is also our earliest example of Nolan’s ability to deliver an intriguing twist, as well as in-camera effects on no budget.
A man holds a shoe attempting to squash what we think is a bug in his small apartment, until we see what the bug really is, twice. A glimpse into some of the complex themes Nolan would explore in his career.
18. FOLLOWING – The Opening Sequence
‘Your eyes rest on one person, then suddenly they’re no longer part of the crowd… they become an individual.’
With only his first feature film, Nolan can be defined as an auteur. The opening sequence to the low-to-no-budget FOLLOWING is fantastically captivating, and introduces a little trademark to be found in most of Nolan’s future films. Close-up shots of a character’s hands handling different objects, with quick cuts, one after another.
It is beautifully noir yet modern, and in this instance fully complemented by the black-and-white cinematography, as well as David Julyan’s thumping score. This is preceded by a montage of anonymous people on London streets, with the protagonist’s voice-over describing his obsession with trailing them.
Though the film is black-and-white for budgetary reasons, it becomes hard to imagine it any other way, as it’s used to full classic film-noir effect. The film exhibits Nolan’s first non-linear screenplay, introduces the concept of the unreliable narrator, and can thereby be seen as a fitting prelude to the monumental MEMENTO. An underrated masterwork; debut films do not get much better than this.
17. INSOMNIA – A Bright Light in Dormer’s Room
‘Getting much sleep Detective?’
This in-camera effect is cinematographer Wally Pfister’s moment to literally shine. It perfectly gives us the main character’s perception of the world around him without a literal POV shot.
Al Pacino’s insomniac Will Dormer has not had sleep for days. His eyes have become adjusted to the twilight of his Alaskan hotel room. One of the room lights is switched on, and Pfister’s camera lens jarringly overexposes us to the new synthetic light. The audience has to cope with the sudden brightness just as Dormer does.
16. THE PRESTIGE – The Reading of the Diaries
‘Yes, you Angier…’
‘Yes, you Borden… ‘
In actuality two scenes, which are closely connected and play out similarly. THE PRESTIGE has no shortage of compelling twists, and if we were to use the film as a magic trick analogy, then these scenes would comprise ‘The Turn’.
Christian Bale’s Borden and Hugh Jackman’s Angier have their secret diaries read by one another in different time-frames. They are perfect examples of the battling magicians attempting to top each other over the course of their lives. At the time of reading, both Borden and Angier believe the other is unaware of one of them having procured the other’s secret diary. This is until they reach the end of each respective diary, where one magician eerily communicates to the other across time and distance.
The use of the diaries also references the novel the film is based on, which is made up of the men’s diary entries.
15. INSOMNIA – The Confrontation
‘You had to have a wild card.’
Long before the World’s Greatest Detective interrogated the Clown Prince of Crime, Al Pacino’s Detective Dormer tried to intimidate this unlikely killer, played by Robin Williams. As troubled small time novelist Walter Finch, Williams turns in one of the best performances of his career, a frightening departure from the comedic roles he is best known for, and Al Pacino appears more exhausted that we’ve ever seen him.
Dormer may wield the gun, but Finch has his own leverage over him. Throughout the scene, we are never quite sure who has the upper hand, who is in the right or who is in the wrong. Morality becomes a blurred grey area, much like the landscape they reside in. We are made to question the reliability of our police, and the innocence of the ordinary people in our lives.
14. THE DARK KNIGHT – The Chase
‘Come on, HIT ME!’
The film’s central action set-piece is supremely well choreographed, and yet develops organically from the script. It references the Tumbler chase sequence of BATMAN BEGINS. We bear witness to the untimely destruction of said Bat-vehicle, and the very clever birth of a new one. It climaxes with a live-action truck flip that would leave Michael Bay in wonder, and culminates with an intense face-to-face between Batman and The Joker. Masterful stuff.
13. BATMAN BEGINS – The Batman escapes Arkham
‘What is that?’
The film takes its sweet time before showing the new Batman in full action mode. Though that’s the point, the film is about Bruce Wayne, and the creature he has created must be used sparingly for maximum impact. When we finally get a complete view of Batman in all his glory, using all his resources to infiltrate, and then escape Arkham Asylum, it’s proper badass!
The scene includes a direct reference to Frank Miller’s ‘Batman: Year One’, when the Batman uses a sonar device to summon an army of actual bats to his aid as ‘backup’. It then delivers one of the film’s most iconic images, when Batman deploys his parachute cape like wings between flights of stairs. The scene also serves as character development, showing Bruce having fully overcome his crippling phobia of bats.
The proceeding sequence is one if the best car chases in recent film history, featuring a new tank-like Batmobile, called the Tumbler. The realization of both the Arkham interior and the Tumbler are to the credit of production designer Nathan Crowley. It shows why he is Nolan’s go-to guy.
12. THE DARK KNIGHT – The Interrogation
‘You. Complete. Me!’
Christopher Nolan recalled this scene as his favourite to shoot from the movie, and his brother Jonathan described it as the hardest to write. It is the greatest hero versus his greatest villain, in conversation. It is no easy feat to condense the essence of a relationship, which has been explored in over seventy years worth of comics and novels, to a single scene. Chris Nolan with his team, and performers Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, give their best attempt at it.
The end result is nothing short of poetic. Others have come close, notably Alan Moore’s graphic novel ‘The Killing Joke’, but no other instance in the history of the characters so eloquently defines the dynamic between Batman and The Joker. This scene is given its perfect epilogue towards the end of the film when Batman finally captures Joker, in another scene that is as much a marvel of cinematography as of dialogue and performance.
11. BATMAN BEGINS – The Batman attacks
‘Where are you?’
For the Caped Crusader’s first appearance in the film after an hour’s worth of development, Christopher Nolan wanted to treat Batman like the Xenomorph creature from ALIEN. Working with Hitchcockian suspense, this scene follows mostly the criminals’ point of view. To them, the Batman is a nearly invisible, terrifying force; attacking each one from their party from the shadows. By the moment he takes down mob lord Falcone, one thing is clear: this ain’t your dad’s Batman movie!