Years active: 1989-present
Notable films: Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk
Once a director goes into the world of franchise filmmaking, particularly as successfully as Christopher Nolan did with his Dark Knight trilogy, they rarely go back—at best, they fall into the old “one for them, one for me” cycle. But if Nolan has proven anything in the past decade, it’s that he can keep a big audience interested in big ideas, with or without caped crusaders and supervillains on-screen. And after wrapping up his Batman period with 2013’s overstuffed but memorable The Dark Knight Rises, he seems more invested than ever in telling original stories.
The heady concepts and novel narrative structures that Nolan made his name on with earlier films like Memento and The Prestige were successfully scaled up to the level of a summer tentpole movie with 2010’s Inception. And though Nolan stumbled with 2014’s sad astronaut opus Interstellar, his first film that seemed to crumple a little under the weight of its own ambition, he rebounded with perhaps his best work to date, 2017’s Dunkirk.
At a relatively tight 106 minutes, Dunkirk was nearly an hour shorter than Nolan’s last few features—surprising, given that other A-list directors have often gone maximalist with epic three-hour war movies. By zeroing in on one key moment in World War II—the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation—and telling the story on the land, in the sea and in the air with relatively little dialogue, Nolan showed his command of the fundamentals of filmmaking, his ability to tell a gripping story without clever bells and whistles. But with the time travel movie Tenet due out later this year, it’s clear that Christopher Nolan isn’t finished with high concept sci-fi. —Al Shipley