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The Best Performances in Christopher Nolan Films

Like a writer pushing his deadline, guest-writer Greg Rouleau has stepped in to deliver the first of a three-part Movie List of the Month featuring the magnificent Christopher Nolan just before the calendar changed to August (June's list). To begin the upcoming movie list series Greg begins by highlighting the Top 10 performances featured in Nolan's film catalog. Here's a look at the selections:

#10. Matthew McConaughey - Interstellar (2014)

The apex of the “McConaissance” came when McConaughey, fresh off an Academy Award win for Best Actor, signed on to star in Nolan’s big-budget sci-fi epic, with an ensemble that included its fair share of Oscar winners and nominees.  Heading this cast in impressive fashion, McConaughey’s Cooper perfectly embodies the rural American family man who can’t deny his dormant thrill for exploration when he’s chosen to lead a team through a wormhole in hopes of discovering a new home for Earth’s inhabitants.  Coop’s great balance of heart, heroism and exuberance captain us through the equally emotional and thrilling time-bending odyssey as he faces the possibility of never seeing his family again, in a mission that – while however bleak - he deems as completely necessary.  

#9. Al Pacino - Insomnia (2002)

Al Pacino (Will Dormer) has never had an issue with playing it big -- chewing up the scenery was almost his shtick around the time he won an Oscar in 1992 -- but what Nolan pulls out of Pacino in Insomnia is a tremendously subtle, nuanced performance.  He never allows his performance to overshadow the story.  The movie is a masterclass in atmosphere and much of that is aided by the veteran Pacino as a guilt-stricken detective suffering from major sleep deprivation as he tracks down the suspected killer.

#8. Guy Pearce - Memento (2000)

Memento is the movie that made Christopher Nolan a name on the indie scene, and much of that can be attributed to the strong performance by Guy Pearce as the short-term memory deficient Leonard Shelby.  Pearce brings Nolan’s screenplay to life with his ability to have us empathize with Leonard as he struggles to deal with his condition.  If it weren’t bad enough that he spends half the movie tattooing notes on his body that serve as reminders of mundane tasks, we also come to understand his desire for vengeance that motivates him as he tracks down his wife’s killer. 

#7. Marion Cotillard - Inception (2010)

Much of Nolan’s films are male dominated with the actresses relegated to background roles and love interests.  With Inception, the French Oscar winner was tasked with arguably the most well rounded role for a woman in a Nolan movie to date.  As Mal, she is both the ambiguous villain whose projection haunts Cobb and creates a barrier between him and his team’s goal.  And through flashbacks, she is the loving wife that our protagonist left behind and stands as a symbol of what he once had.  Cotillard conveys both sides of her character flawlessly and delivers one of the finest performances in a Nolan movie, regardless of gender.  

#6. Robin Williams - Insomnia (2002)

What makes Al Pacino’s role in Insomnia work incredibly well is that he’s playing opposite of another major star at the top of his game, in Robin Williams as the obsessed author, Walter Finch.  In a year that saw Williams shed his typical funnyman reputation in favor of darker, edgier roles -- also seen in the underrated One Hour Photo -- it was truly remarkable to see how easily he could make the transition.  Williams had always shown a knack for the dramatic, but it was eerie to see just how well he could play sadistic.  

#5. Gary Oldman - The Dark Knight (2008)

In The Dark Knight, Gary Oldman turns in one of the best performances in the entire Dark Knight trilogy.  Ironically -- in a film with an all-time classic villain portrayal -- Oldman, usually known for being cast as the antagonist, slips further into the straight-edged Gordon with grace and ease.  It was evident from Batman Begins that Oldman had a strong grasp on the character and here he’s given much more to do including facing off against both the Joker and Two-Face and delivering the rousing final monologue that hammers home why Batman truly is the “Dark Knight”.

#4. Christian Bale - Batman Begins (2006)

Christian Bale was a relative unknown when he was cast as Bruce Wayne in the summer of 2003.  In his audition, Christopher Nolan mentioned he could see in Bale’s eyes the determination of someone who would go to such great lengths to create something as extraordinary as the Batman.  Thankfully, the movie works because of what Nolan saw in that audition.  It’s difficult to remember now after a successful trilogy, but the Batman franchise was on life support after the critically panned Batman & Robin.  Batman Begins success rested on the shoulders of Bale who not only revived the franchise but sent it to new heights with his impeccable portrayal of both Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader.   

#3. Mark Rylance - Dunkirk (2016)

In a movie where dialogue is kept to a minimum, it takes a true artist to give the kind of performance that Mark Rylance pulls off in Dunkirk.  As the stiff upper-lipped Mr. Dawson, Rylance portrays him with such poise as he heads into a situation where the odds of survival are grim.  One standout moment is late in the film when Dawson must acknowledge that his son made the right move to pacify a shell-shocked soldier, as he nods approvingly at his son’s coming to terms with the gravity of the situation.  It’s the work of a master craftsman who for most of the movie conveys so much while saying so little.  

#2. Christian Bale - The Prestige (2006)

Following their successful venture into Gotham City, Nolan and Christian Bale teamed up again for what would be their second of four collaborations, in The Prestige.  As Alfred Borden, a working-class magician obsessed with pushing the boundaries and maintaining the illusion of his artform, even if the consequences are deadly, Bale adeptly depicts the con-man side of magic.  What makes the performance even more impressive is on subsequent viewings -- after you’ve learned the twist -- you see how Bale adds subtle differences to both characters he portrays but maintains enough similarities to keep the illusion alive.  

#1. Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight (2008)

It’s somewhat remarkable to think about how the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker was met with such criticism.  Despite showcasing a broad range of talent in a diverse filmography, the late actor had some naysayers to prove wrong.  As it turned out, Ledger’s take on the Clown Prince of Gotham was seemingly the role he was born to play.  Inspired by A Clockwork Orange, his anarchic Joker seamlessly fit into the dark, twisted Gotham that Nolan created and will go down as one of the greatest villains ever put to screen.  As the film opened to a record setting box-office debut (at the time) and heaps of critical and fan adulation, Heath removed all doubt of what was once a suspicious casting decision and enforced Nolan’s keen eye for talent.  No amount of hyperbolic praise can do justice to what Heath created with this character. 


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