Whatever one’s motivation, the joy of uncovering the lineage of a favorite director by watching the films that inspired him or her adds another layer of pleasure to the pursuit of excellent movies. To that end, let’s look at the unofficial ancestors: a list of films that influenced great directors.
Christopher Nolan makes blockbusters with the loving obsession of an auteurist director held close to the bosom of the cinaphilic community. His 9 feature films track an increasingly expansive canvas of human endeavor: from the tight, paranoid, neo-noir calling-card to the movie business that was 1998’s Following, to this year’s $165 million dollar, 169 minute long space epic, Interstellar.
Unlike many contemporary film directors adapting to a business model that runs on self-promotion, Christopher Nolan does not enjoy discussing his films and he refuses to talk about his family life. The portrait assembled from interviews with his collaborators and the instances where he discusses other directors’ work suggests a personality driven to perfection, emanating calm control. These ten films provide us with clues as to where Nolan’s understanding of cinema perfection originates.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s space epic begins at the inception of humanness: when one monkey beats its competitor with the aid of a bone. In the iconic jump-cut for the ages, the bone is replaced with a spaceship floating through the galaxy. What follows is a story of humanity and fate…at least that’s how some people have interpreted it. 2001 is a movie experience, more than a story.
For Christopher Nolan, this is the rosebud of a brilliantly flowering career. “I saw 2001 when I was about seven years old. They re-released it after Star Wars so my dad took me and my brother to see it at the Odeon Leicester Square on the huge screen. It was just a mind-blowing experience and I’ve been a huge Kubrick fan ever since. All my friends at the time saw it and loved it; we didn’t understand it, but we used to argue about what it meant. It just has that sensory stimulation of pure cinema that speaks to people of all ages.” (quoted from Empire Magazine)
Hallmarks of Christopher Nolan’s cinema passion are in the above quote. The huge screen suggests his future championing of IMAX and the continuance of film in the digital age. The mind-blowing experience suggests his own use of non-linear storytelling to wow audiences. The suggestion that all ages respond to the “sensory stimulation of pure cinema” could be the declaration of an ideal. For however personal the film might be for Christopher Nolan as a person, his loyalty is to the audience and to the purity of experience in a film story.
Memento and Inception have been criticized for being too complicated to understand. Critics of the Batman trilogy have taken umbrage with relocating Gotham to Chicago, and with the editing of action sequences. Interstellar is the first of Mr. Nolan’s 9 feature films to have significant screen time devoted to the emotional response of characters to events.
No doubt these movies are not flawless, but they are reaching for an ideal. Pure cinema for Christopher Nolan must dazzle while it thinks. An individual filmgoer’s understanding of the story is beneath the priority of giving the audience as a whole an experience similar to watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
2. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Fritz Lang)
A wave of crime plagues the city and the evidence points to the criminal mastermind of Dr. Mabuse, but he has been imprisoned in a mental asylum for ten years. A conspiracy is revealed and an obsession leads to a pathetic end. On the Criterion website Christopher Nolan calls this, “Essential research for anyone attempting to write a supervillain.”
Fritz Lang revived the character of Dr. Mabuse from one of his earlier silent-era projects to tell an exciting tale of brutality, conspiracy, and corruption in modern Germany. It has been supposed that the rise of Nazism was not coincident to the director’s intentions, especially when Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda banned it.
Fritz Lang dramatized the anxieties with technology and industrialism for 20th century audiences. The dream of progress quickly becomes the nightmare of oppression when considering the nefarious power of brilliant, immoral minds. For Christopher Nolan and his 21st century audiences, that anxiety has transferred to the realm of privacy and the threat of terrorism.
Dr. Mabuse might be the hypnotist exerting influence upon the will of dangerous men, but the Joker needs no willing minds to influence. He can construct situations that surface latent antipathies, egotisms, dark tendencies. Both super villains relish the collapse of civilization, law and order.
More prevalent in the whole of Christopher Nolan’s filmography is the power of obsession. The true instigator of the crime wave in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the victim of an obsession. Like the struggling writer in Following, he acts out of impulse, against his better judgment, and to his ultimate demise.
In Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce) is tracking down the man who raped and murdered his wife despite an inability to form new short-term memories. His obsession with justice is, like Bruce Wayne’s, born out of a personal grievance and fueled by that trauma. The rival magicians in The Prestige are obsessed with besting each other’s dedication to the art of illusions.
The destructive and awe-inspiring power of obsession: a mental state that can produce profound effects on the external world through the sheer doggedness of the Obsessive’s focus. It’s the true power of a master magician tirelessly working at his tricks. It is the compass at the center of a moral character’s integrity, and it is a pretty valuable trait to have as a director. Perhaps this summarizes Christopher Nolan protagonists’ distinction from the other characters, and Christopher Nolan among his peers.
3. The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)
The film event at the end of Christopher Nolan’s college years, The Usual Suspects made a Hollywood darling of director Bryan Singer, who like Nolan took control of a superhero franchise. The story takes off with a massive explosion ripping through a ship at harbor in a San Pedro, CA. Along with casualties there is 91 million dollars’ worth of cocaine missing.
Detective Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) interrogates the only witness and key suspect, “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). In a series of dizzying flashbacks, Verbal spins the tale of his group of thieves and their contact with the mysterious arch-crime lord Keyser Soze.
Keyser Soze is no diabolical mentalist like Dr. Mabuse, but his enigmatic influence is the prime mystery tickling audience, including the detective. The Usual Suspects hinges on a twist ending, one that astounds audiences while disappointing their expectations in a way similar to the endings of The Prestige and Inception.
The added value of influence on Christopher Nolan’s particular brand of neo-noir fiction is the way flashbacks and twists give the audience information strategically. The story goes backwards as it goes forwards, much like Memento. Audience memory is tested while acts of faulty memory recall become essential turns in the mystery. The result is a noir-ish retread that shifts the narrative tension from the traditional “what will happen” to “what will have happened if…”
4. The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer)
Another thriller leveraging the flaws of memory from hypnotism. This time the conspiracy is political. Gore Vidal once suggested that the Kennedy assassination launched the Cold War paranoid political thriller genre into the popular consciousness. This film predated the assassination, but just barely. Rumor spread that The Manchurian Candidate’s release was curtailed out of respect to the departed. It was actually a disagreement between Sinatra’s people and the studio over revenue distribution.
A celebrated Korean vet (Laurence Harvey) has been brainwashed by the Communists to assassinate persons deemed obstructive to their subversion of America and the free world. The operative agent in control is the man’s own mother (Angela Lansbury). His old army buddy (Frank Sinatra) is also responsible for uncovering the conspiracy before the henpecked step-father is planted to get elected President. Freudian family dynamics blend with Red Scare anxieties seamlessly in this paranoid tragedy.
Technically, the wit of the story is matched by the composition of shots and the cinematic shorthand that efficiently depth of character. For example, one political family uses Abraham Lincoln as a decorative motif while the rival’s home is decked out in eagles and bunting.
The first is quaint, almost folksy, and by comparison to the symbolic bluster of abstraction favored by the latter, it is specific as to which America they align with. It’s also an adroit satire on the American bombast en vogue at the time. Senator Joe McCarthy was dead and disgraced by that time, but his hysterical denouncement of communists in every branch of the government was still believed by some.
Inception’s approach to brainwashing is more compelling today than the mid-century fascination with Oedipal complexes, but the plot exploits the same paranoid suspicion that one’s thoughts are not one’s own. That the privacy of one’s inner life and the sanctity of one’s will is not an impenetrable fortress, but rather a complex of symbolic mechanisms capable of manipulation.
The process of simplifying the foreign concept to critical impact and receiver acceptability should bring to mind the work of Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising kingpins that put Margaret Thatcher’s Tory party in power with “Labour isn’t working” and who developed the one-word message technique now used by corporations—Priceless— political campaigns—Hope, Forward—and even movies, like Inception. Or Following. Or Memento. Or Interstellar.
5. The Thin Red Line (1998, Terence Malick)
It’s 1942 and the US Army is fighting a bloody offensive north through the island of Guadalcanal. Japanese resistance is stiff, desperate, and both sides experience inhuman acts of violence. The scale is not historical but mythical. The Thin Red Line aspires to be an epic writ in the lyric of Malick’s coolly observant camera and metaphysical sensibility. The battle gains specificity by following the lives of a group of soldiers in C—Company over a period of a couple of weeks. Frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer also composed the score for The Thin Red Line.
Christopher Nolan has said of The Thin Red Line, “It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that, even though it’s based on a book, could only really be done in cinema. It’s just the essence of cinematic storytelling. It has a hypnotic quality where the viewer’s relationship with the photography, and the sound particularly, creates narrative points; it creates emotions that drive the narrative.
These things are created by the combination of picture and sound rather than the dialogue. A lot of films, a lot of great films in fact, could also be radio plays or television programmes or stage plays. The Thin Red Line is pure cinematic storytelling.”
The book from which the movie is loosely adapted has all the trappings of mid-century Americana. The urge to create an American mythos out of the senseless bloodletting on a remote Pacific Island requires some very stiff characters with the philosophical breadth of either fatalism or existentialism. This is good country for humorless white men inspired by warrior culture. The movie suppresses the homosexual awakening of one character and makes the Jewish captain into a Greek.
Nolan’s territory is reflected in the relationship—or Socratic dialog—between Sergeant Welsh and Private Witt. Welsh (Sean Penn) believes there is no other world than the one he senses and knows. He reduces war to a disagreement over property and human life to meat. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) believes that there are other worlds, other ways, and his eventual sacrifice can be taken as a leap of faith that the individual is illusory and the whole of people is the true life lived.
Compare that to the ineffable mystery in Interstellar and we might have a glimpse at where Christopher Nolan’s ambitions are taking him. The sci-fi adventure is a big change from the neo-noir territory of Following, Memento, Insomnia, and his take on the Batman mythos. Inception introduced a sci-fi element to his film work but Interstellar is something entirely different and extremely ambitious.
6. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
This is purportedly the example Christopher Nolan offered to his cast and crew to illustrate the kind of movie they were going to make out of Batman Begins. It was also his favorite movie of all time as a college student. And before that, it was discovering the Ridley Scott connection between Blade Runner and Aliens that made him decide that he wanted to direct films.
Biography aside, the atmosphere of Blade Runner is important to understanding the type of cinema illusion Christopher Nolan wants to impart to the audience. It is what he describes as “that feeling that there was this whole world outside the frame of the scene…That’s something I’ve always tried to carry with me. Every film should have its own world, a logic and feel to it that expands beyond the exact image that the audience is seeing.”
In the future, mega-corporations use bio-engineered humanoids called Replicants to perform slave labor on the off-world colonies. They are banned from Earth and when they come, special police operatives called Blade Runners kill them. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a retiring Blade Runner coerced by his former Boss to do one last mission.
Four Replicants at large are responsible for the death of a police officer. Having learned that their model’s lifespan is four years, they are seeking out their creator in Los Angeles to induce him to extend it. Deckard falls in love with another Replicant, one implanted with false memories, and has to choose how far he is willing go to fulfill his duty.
The neo-noir elements are established firmly in this cult classic sci-fi film. Harrison Ford’s Deckard is an anti-hero trying to make decent decisions in a moral vacuum of a city. The conflict between institutions of power and the beings who are byproducts of that power inform the battles fought in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and Inception. Blade Runner showed the way neo-noir creates a world outside the frame.
7. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
San Francisco detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is forced to retire after his fear of heights causes the death of a fellow officer. He accepts a private job following the movements of his old college friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). She is obsessed with her dead great-grandmother who committed suicide at her same age.
Scottie saves her from a suicide attempt and the two start to fall in love. She disavows memory or intention of committing suicide, claiming instead to be plagued by strange dreams and possessed by the ghost of her great-grandmother. Scottie tries to dissuade her of the belief by taking her to the San Juan Bautista, where her dream memories are located.
When she rushes up the tower to jump to her death, Scottie is stricken helpless by his acrophobia. It’s only much later that Scottie, in a state of recovery but obsessed with Madeleine, discovers that all is not what it seemed to be.
Vertigo is a stalker film before stalking was thought of as a crime. The fact that Scottie was hired to follow Madeleine does not discount the sexual tension of his gaze. The story suggests that obsession is contagious, as Madeleine’s obsession with her great-grandmother transfers to Scotties obsession with Madeleine, fueled by the long hours of following her throughout San Francisco.
Hitchcock is at the height of his power in Hollywood when this film was made, and much like Christopher Nolan he is obsessed with the darker side of humanity; obsession, madness, greed, and the slippery hold one has on reality are all themes shared by the two directors of English extraction.
Hitchcock was the master instructor to legions of filmmakers on the power small details exert to twist the plot in surprising new directions, like the necklace in Vertigo that enlightens Scottie to the trick that has been played on him, or the spinning top at the end of Inception. The first necessity in the school of Hitchcock is that character must never be who they seem. Someone who isn’t running from something or concealing something from their past is not a very promising character.
But what makes Vertigo so essential to the formation of Christopher Nolan’s film worlds is the way the camera becomes a participant for the audience. Rear Window is a strong case as well, but the camera is too much a character in that very excellent film.
Christopher Nolan does not make movies about people using cameras, but he does use the film camera to carry the audience along for the ride. A key example is the shot that walks us into a room behind a character. It does the work of an establishing shot and also conveys how a character enters the situation on the other end of the room.
The audience is encouraged by these decisions to keep close to the point-of-view of the players in the drama—an essential matter of dramatic tension when the rooms of a story form a maze to disorient and disturb the audience.
8. Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Sidney Lumet)
Somewhere between police procedural and character-study there is Dog Day Afternoon, set in a New York City on edge after the Stonewall riots, when anti-establishmentarianism was in the air and exploitation media was being practiced in different ways in the porn houses in Times Square and on the local news.
It is August 22nd, 1972 and two men attempt to rob the Brooklyn branch of the Chase Manhattan bank. The police barricade the place as the robbers take hostages and a media circus ensues. One of the robbers attempts to negotiate. He ends up spending 6 years in prison while his partner gets gunned down by the FBI.
That’s where the movie ends, but the real life bank robber made enough money selling the movie rights to his life to pay for his partner’s sex change, revealed to be his character’s motivation for attempting the robbery in the first place. His name was John Wojtowicz, but in the movie made from that deal his name was changed to Sonny. He was played by Al Pacino.
Al Pacino was not looking to do another movie when he was approached to star in Insomnia. When he watched Christopher Nolan’s Memento, he knew he wanted to work for him. He played Los Angeles detective Will Dormer, who along with his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) fly to Alaska to help the local police solve the murder of a seventeen-year old girl. The land of the midnight sun does not suit his biological clock and the inability to sleep affects his ability to think.
Both films are carried by the dramatic spectacle of Al Pacino’s disintegration. Both use the moody character study element to distract and enthrall audiences while the police procedural proceeds to build towards climax.
For a director whose reputation was minted in the stylistic bravado of Memento and continues to be lauded in most of his other films, Insomnia feels out of sync. But as Dog Day Afternoon’s director, Sidney Lumet once said of style: “the important thing in style is stripping away everything except what that picture needs.”
The influence was not limited to Insomnia. In conceiving the terror that would be the catalyst for the plot of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan took permission from Dog Day Afternoon’s chilling realism. Namely, that the scarier robbery is the one conducted in broad daylight when the bank is open for business and thus full of civilians.
Batman is a vigilante, so law enforcement for him is a personal matter, a private passion that requires a certain level of concealment. Sonny is a wildcat robber on the other side of the law, but like Batman he plays out the mini-dramas of moral decision-making in a way that is bigger-than-life. As Christopher Nolan has said, “We all wake up in the morning wanting to live our lives the way we know we should, but we usually don’t, in small ways.”
9. The Bad Sleep Well (1960, Akira Kurosawa)
Along with High & Low made three years later, Akira Kurosawa went to the dark places in the post-war society of Japan’s corporate culture to tell a tale anathematic to his more humanist tendencies. The Bad Sleep Well is a suit-and-tie noir about an individual’s bid for revenge and justice against a system of mutual protection and craven greed.
Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) has married the crippled daughter of the Vice President of a construction company. Press and wedding guests gossip about the handsome young man’s ulterior motives until the police arrive to arrest two junior corporate executives for bribing government officials. Like a previous scandal involving the company, the investigation is interrupted when the junior officials commit suicide to protect their bosses.
Nishi is able to stop one disgraced executive, assistant officer Wada, from jumping into an active volcano by convincing him that his superiors are not worthy of his sacrifice. It is revealed that Nishi is the secret son of another executive whose death ended the earlier police investigation. He is certain that his father did not commit suicide, rather he was killed to prevent him from cooperating with the police. Nishi has vowed revenge on the leaders of the construction company responsible for his father’s death.
At times the acting veers into camp. What resuscitates it is the utter blackness of this movie’s hope for humanity. The shadowy reaches of corporate power stay off-screen at critical moments, putting one to mind of the conspicuous absence of Thomas Edison in The Prestige.
Nikola Tesla is brilliantly played by David Bowie. He provides an essential assistance to Victorian magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) in his fierce rivalry with Alfred Broden (Christian Bale) after their biggest trick together goes fatally wrong. The desire for revenge does not touch the corporate lords in either film, though they are compelled to order extreme countermeasures to suppress upstarts like Tesla and Nishi.
Robert Angier’s competition with Alfred Broden is personal as well as professional, but the obsession he has with uncovering the illusion—not just besting it with slick showmanship—drives him to his own extremes.
10. Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)
On the other side of the sci-fi space epic galaxy from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the soviet meditation on grief and the impact of space exploration on human understanding—Solaris. Equally slow-moving but more emotionally engaged in the personal costs of space exploration, Solaris is a closer antecedent to Interstellar than 2001.
Both movies have a widower protagonist who we meet in rural surrounds on Earth. Both protagonists weigh the years of life on earth lost to space travel. In Solaris, Kris Kelvin must say goodbye to his niece and father. Coop, in Interstellar, leaves behind a daughter, a son, and a father-in-law. While the bigger cost in Coop’s case is the rage of his daughter against his leaving, in Solaris it is the inexplicable re-appearance of Kelvin’s dead wife that ravages.
The cosmonauts on the space station above the ocean planet of Solaris have been afflicted with “visitors”, apparitions from their past that disturb them. Kelvin’s wife is one such visitor, and she gradually gains the capacity to exist away from Kelvin’s presence. One of the scientists theorizes that Solaris is a sentient planet. After they blasted it with radiation the visitors began to appear.
It is also theorized that it is possible to communicate their desire for the apparitions to stop. Eventually this works and islands begin to form on the surface of the planet. Like Coop in Interstellar, Kelvin must choose whether to return to Earth or go in pursuit of a new life. The ending is in many respects the same as Inception.
Like the strange watery planet of Solaris, Coop’s crew encounter two planets where water features extreme manifestation. On the first there are waves taller than skyscrapers and on the second the clouds have frozen into a second shell around the planet’s surface. However, it is the worlds that are shared between people that form the crux of Interstellar and Solaris. Coop and his daughter Murph have a connection that transcends space-time.
Kelvin’s grief over the suicide of his wife is the very power that induces the sentience of Solaris to recreate her out of his memories. In both cases, memory is as much an affliction for the suffering space travelers as it is their guide back to humanity. When faced with the unknown, it is the conflicting impulses to preserve individuality and annihilate the barriers of separateness that work upon the human soul.
Suspecting that the world might not be real is not as prevalent in this list of films as perhaps suspecting that you, the character, might not be real. Solaris is the exception, on a grand scale. Perceptions of reality and their malleability is a theme striking to the very core of what cinema is and can be. Whether or not that is pure cinema is beyond the scope of this list. Perhaps it is the traditionalist influence in the forward-thinking filmography of Christopher Nolan that insists on playing with time and space.
Author Bio: Chris is a 29 year old grant-writer for a meditation retreat center in the Colorado Rockies, but he came here first to make short videos about the center. His favorite directors are Federico Fellini, Kurosawa, Billy Wilder, the Coen Bros., Stanley Kubrick, and Edgar Wright.