THE LISTS: Top 10 performances in Christopher Nolan films

Posted by · 10:25 am · July 13th, 2010

The word of the day Friday will most certainly be “Inception,” as casually interested movie-goers and anxious fanboys alike line up to take in Christopher Nolan’s latest effort.

Now, I have suggested in this space that the film’s ensemble is an organic one, alive and driven.  And that the performances are separately less than their sum impact. It nevertheless seemed a good time to look back over Nolan’s septet of offerings thus far and cherry pick the best portrayals for a return to this semi-regular feature at In Contention.

Nolan always puts together a great cast. His carefully selected leads tend to ably balance themes of identity, control and psychosis, while highlighted supporting parts always prove to be charming outside-the-box considerations.

With the latter in mind, I’d have loved to make room for the Steven Tobolowskys, Rutger Hauers, David Bowies, Ritchie Costers and Tom Berengers, but I naturally kept settling on the larger roles when push came to shove.

So, without further ado…

10. Michael Caine, “The Prestige”
A list like this had better not go without a mention of one of the screen’s living legends. At four films and counting, Michael Caine is Nolan’s most frequent collaborator, and in this mind-bending hocus-pocus adaptation from 2006, he brought a warm center to otherwise chilling proceedings with the swagger and grace we’ve come to expect of the actor. Caine’s seasoned ingeneur is a cheerful spirit full of as much piss and vinegar as fatherly heart. In a film rife with abhorrent characters, he holds the spotlight firm as perhaps the only man who still owns his own (however weathered) soul.

9. Christian Bale, “Batman Begins”
When Nolan set about reviving the Batman franchise just eight years after  Joel Schumacher sucked the life from its veins, it was important to cast the lead role with talent, not star appeal, in mind. The fan choice was Christian Bale, based largely on his performance in “American Psycho,” and he was well up to the task. Anyone, Bale included, can strap on the cape and cowl and be Gotham City’s dark defender, but it takes something extra to properly sell the complex character of Bruce Wayne. Aided by an origin tale that helped with the heavy lifting, Bale did just that and set a new standard for the sub-genre

8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Inception”
As mentioned previously, the performance that most sticks out from Nolan’s latest film is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s serious-as-cancer right-hand man with a plan. It’s less about the internal components of the portrayal than the outward visage of a professional fully in control. And when the role dictates impressive physicality, the actor is ready to deliver, jumping headlong into a fantastical scenario and selling it with straight-faced ease. Gordon-Levitt has made a name for himself as an indie leading man go-to guy, but here he brings a lot to the high concept studio filmmaking table.

7. Guy Pearce, “Memento”
Nolan’s neo-noir sophomore effort got a lot of ink for its unconventional structure and weighty thematic resilience.  But Guy Pearce’s leading man portrayal could have dealt with a few more nods of respect and commendation.  As a man afflicted with short-term memory loss, aching for closure to a recent tragedy but struggling through his condition to put the pieces together, Pearce dives right in, game for wherever the narrative may take him.  He maintains a tightrope walk along the thin line between passion and obsession, leaving the viewer guessing which way he’ll fall when the chips are down.

6. Robin Williams, “Insomnia”
Look carefully at Nolan’s filmography and you’ll notice a trend in his antagonists: complexity. They’re not out for simplistic gratification and they can’t be squeezed into a form-fitting mold of typical villainy. Robin Williams’s Walter Finch in the director’s 2002 remake of a Norwegian thriller is no exception. The subtleties of the performance really stick out on repeat viewings, but most striking is the actor’s slow, rolling boil of ambiguity and cerebral assault. His psychosis is so elaborate it infects the viewer, conjuring self-doubt, and it’s perhaps Williams’s best work yet, a masterful depiction of manipulation at its most precise.

5. Jeremy Theobald, “Following”
Most seem to be impressed by Alex Haw’s one-time-only work in Nolan’s directorial debut, but I’ve always found his choices in the film to be a bit extravagant. More significant to me is the authenticity Jeremy Theobald brings to the main character, a writer on the brink of obsession who gets in way over his head. Naturalism is probably the most important necessity of performance, the kind that is virtually impossible to teach and equally impossible to arrive at through half-measures. Theobald was a first-time actor when the film was shot, but that might have been what gave his work the right touch of truth.

4. Gary Oldman, “The Dark Knight”
The most undervalued piece of work in Nolan’s Caped Crusader franchise has to be Gary Oldman’s portrayal of police fixture James Gordon. While most eyes were on the villain of this blockbuster, record-smashing superhero sequel, Oldman flew under the radar as the emotional center of a vast, complex narrative. The actor’s steely resolve, balanced with a warm, fatherly disposition, nailed the classic character to a T, to say nothing of how his physical embodiment felt ripped right off the pages. His task was perhaps the most daunting of all: grounding the material with tangible sentiment.

3. Al Pacino, “Insomnia”
In what is largely considered to be Nolan’s least accomplished effort, Al Pacino navigated a role Stellan Skarsgård originated with ease and remarkably (given certain tendencies) held the histrionics in check. He put out a marinated, measured performance that sells a sort of emotional fatigue that’s difficult to convey, and he barely broke a sweat.  And the film itself is one of those modest gems that keeps on giving every time you give it another look. It may be the director’s most intense performance piece, actually, so no surprise that a second turn from the film pops up on the list.

2. Christian Bale, “The Prestige”
Christian Bale lands on the list a second time, and with three leading turns for Nolan to date, the odds were certainly in his favor. But in one of the director’s most tonally and structurally impressive efforts yet, Bale faced a unique challenge. His performance(s) as a master magician butting heads with a jealous rival reveals (reveal) an acuteness and attention to detail that only grows upon repeat viewings. Alfred Borden is something of an underrated, overlooked treasure in the actor’s portfolio, frankly, a divided persona handled with the precision and exactitude we’ve come to expect from this dedicated performer.

1. Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
This would probably be the definition of “anti-climactic” in your handy Webster’s or OED, but alas, it’s rather difficult to argue in favor of anyone else. Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning supporting performance as the Joker, Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime spun dark and dire, transcended comic film villainy in the summer of 2008. It marked a commitment level arguably higher than the franchise deserved, but nevertheless one that further legitimized the property as more than a mere pulp fiction adaptation. Ledger’s performance is the finest to come under Nolan’s helm to date, a delightfully twisted work of art.

And there you have it. Feel free to cut loose with your own list in the comments section below, or revisit this post with your take after “Inception” hits theaters this weekend!

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72 responses so far

  • 1 7-14-2010 at 1:30 pm

    MovieMan said...

    I’m a double-posting monster.

    Anyway, my list:

    10: Christian Bale, “The Prestige”
    9. Al Pacino, “Insomnia”
    8. Aaron Eckhart, “The Dark Knight”
    7. Hilary Swank, “Insomnia”
    6. Liam Neeson, “Batman Begins” (yeah, I said it)
    5. Guy Pearce, “Memento”
    4. Christian Bale, “Batman Begins”
    3. Gary Oldman, “The Dark Knight”
    2. Robin Williams, “Insomnia”
    1. Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”

  • 2 7-14-2010 at 11:45 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    I would definitely rank Rebecca Hall if I made a list like this. But I haven’t seen Inception yet, or Following, and it’s been ages since I’ve seen Insomnia (which I got a bad impression of because the sound quality on the DVD was poor).

  • 3 7-15-2010 at 9:01 am

    R. Kurt Osenlund said...

    I thought Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy were extraordinary in Inception. Page’s delivery was instrumental in helping to make the whole milieu convincing, and Murphy brought a heap of emotion to his role. I’ve never seen such confidence or maturity in either actor. But, then, I could surely say the same for Gordon-Levitt, who was indeed the s**t. The entire cast of this film was just ridiculous.

  • 4 7-15-2010 at 5:53 pm

    Pablo (BOG) said...

    Its kind of evident which movie is a frontrunner in this site.

  • 5 7-15-2010 at 7:51 pm

    Stacy said...

    Bale and Dicaprio are indeed guilty of the whole overacting spiel. except that Bale is far more willing to bring risk, nuance, and originality to the table. Dicaprio readily dropped out of American Psycho after a bit of controversy, whereas Bale turned the role of Patrick Bateman into one of the best of the decade. That says everything about these two actors.

  • 6 7-16-2010 at 6:46 am

    Tara said...

    I would add Jackman and Eckhart to your list. I think Jackman was so much better in The Prestige than Bale. And as much as I love Gary Oldman, Eckhart was definitely one of the best in TDK. I think that I remember him most from the whole movie.

  • 7 7-17-2010 at 5:58 pm

    ThreeOfAKind said...

    I wanted to wait until after I saw Inception to make my list. Now that I have, here’s what I think:

    10. Carrie-Anne Moss, “Memento”
    9. Michael Caine, “Batman Begins”
    8. Leonardo DiCaprio, “Inception”
    7. Tom Hardy, “Inception”
    6. Joe Pantoliano, “Memento”
    5. Christian Bale, “Batman Begins”
    4. Christian Bale, “The Prestige”
    3. Gary Oldman, “The Dark Knight”
    2. Guy Pearce, “Memento”
    1. Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”

  • 8 7-20-2010 at 6:09 pm

    Jack said...

    1. Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight
    2. Al Pacino: Insomnia
    3. Guy Pearce: Memento
    4. Gary Oldman: The Dark Knight
    5. Marion Cotillard: Inception
    6. Liam Neeson: Batman Begins
    7. Leonardo DiCaprio: Inception
    8. Hugh Jackman: The Prestige
    9. Christian Bale: The Prestige
    10. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt: Inception

  • 9 7-22-2010 at 6:23 pm

    Cranly said...

    1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
    2. Guy Pearce, Memento
    3. Al Pacino, Insomnia
    4. Christian Bale, The Prestige
    5. Lucy Russell, Following
    6. Robin Williams, Insomnia
    7. Joe Pantoliano, Memento
    8. Christian Bale, Batman Begins
    9. Jeremy Theobald, Following
    10. David Bowie, The Prestige

  • 10 7-23-2010 at 7:52 am

    Talli said...

    Very skewed ranking

    JGL’s performance over Bale in Batman Begins? Its so monotone and barely has any flesh, it was a waste of his talent.

    Watch Inception again and watch Tom Hardy. Look how full of life his portrayal is…the facial ticks, the vibrancy and flexibility of his voice, the full use of his body(his hands, and his feet). When he’s sitting there he’s not just sitting there waiting for the actor to say his lines, he’s living and breathing. As a result he automatically captures your attention. He makes it painfully obvious that Leo is acting while he is there as a life force thrown in the mix of actors.

    The only other actor, in American Film, who I have seen bring so much nuance and charisma to their performance died 2 and a half years ago….his name was Heath Ledger.

  • 11 7-23-2010 at 8:16 am

    Talli said...

    And as awe-inspiring as Tom Hardy’s acting I still wouldnt place him on that list. The character has no flesh. The only actors from Inception who maybe deserve to be on that list are Dicaprio, Cotillard and Murphy. They have an emotional backbone.

    I find it tough to rank performances so ill just list a couple that stick out to me

    Nobody from following.

    I always thought guy pearce’s performance was largely overrated and mistaken for the intricate writing of the character. Cary-Ann Moss and Joe Pant. Were really the actors who made Pearce look good.

    Bale in Prestige and BB.

    Williams and Pacino in Insomnia

    Ledger in DK, ofcourse, at number 1.

    Dicaprio and Cotillard in Inception.

    Cillian in Inception

  • 12 7-23-2010 at 5:08 pm

    Big Braveheart said...

    10. Al Pacino ( Insomnia )
    9. Hugh Jackman ( The Prestige )
    8. Leonardo Di Caprio ( Inception )
    7. Aaron Eckhart ( The Dark Knight )
    6. Robin Williams ( Insomnia )
    5. Marion Cotillard ( Inception )
    4. Liam Neeson ( Batman Begins )
    3. Gary Oldman ( The Dark Knight )
    2. Christian Bale ( Batman Begins )
    1. Heath Ledger ( The Dark Knight )

    So many great roles in all of Nolan’s films so very difficult choose and hard for me to leave Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano out top 10 but also Cillian Murphy great in Inception, Tom Wilkinson in Batman Begins,
    Hilary Swank in Insomnia, Morgan Freeman in both Batman films, Michael Caine magnificent in all the films, Tom Hardy in Inception and Ken Watanabe in Batman Begins and Inception.

    Even the lesser known actors or supporting actors like Rebecca Hall, Eric Roberts, Mark Boone Junior, Rutger Hauer, Chin Han, Ritchie Coster and Linus Roache give their all and have something memorable or unique about their roles. In all honesty i’d struggle to say that i’ve seen a bad performance from any actor in a Chris Nolan film – and that is the truth! He gets the absolute max out of everybody he works with!!! Fantastic director and overall great guy!
    Well done mate!

  • 13 7-27-2010 at 10:38 pm

    Criddic said...

    Stacy, i wouldn’t be so sure that DiCaprio is afraid of controversy. Back in 1995, he played a gay poet and shared intimate scenes with David Thewlis. Granted, the film didn’t get the kind of attention that “Brokeback Mountain” did a decade later, but it was a risk. Consider that even today a major star like Jim Carrey has trouble getting a film released when the subject is controversial. (And yes Leo was a rising star then, having been nominated for an Oscar two years prior).

  • 14 8-01-2010 at 7:44 pm

    Jane said...

    Once again Tapley’s DiCaprio hating is showing. I mean, Penn, DeNiro, Pacino, Day-Lewis — they’ve never OVERACTED [rolls eyes]. If DiCaprio wasn’t as good looking he is (and he didn’t make “Titanic,” he’d be everyone’s Acting God by now.) I thought after “The Departed” it became “cool” to like DiCaprio again. Guess not.

  • 15 8-05-2010 at 1:32 am

    Douglas said...

    1. Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight” (of course)
    2. Leonardo DiCaprio, “Inception”
    3. Guy Pearce, “Memento”
    4. Christian Bale, “The Prestige”
    5. Gary Oldman, “The Dark Knight”
    6. Al Pacino, “Insomnia”
    7. Christian Bale, “Batman Begins”
    8. Liam Neeson, “Batman Begins”
    9. Joseph Gordon Levitt, “Inception”
    10. Rebecca Hall, “The Prestige”

  • 16 8-05-2010 at 9:26 am

    Tara said...

    I can´t take this list seriously – Hugh Jackman isn´t there. Are you kidding? He was much better than Bale in The Prestige.

  • 17 8-08-2010 at 7:41 am

    sarah said...

    I think Bale is so underrated.
    His performence in prestige is the best.
    He performed 2 character perfectly.

  • 18 8-10-2010 at 8:42 pm

    r. said...

    hey, where are the female characters?

  • 19 11-02-2010 at 6:45 pm

    Pepe said...

    What about Marion Cotillard in ‘Inception’? I think she should definitely get an Oscar Nomination, she was magnificent.

  • 20 11-16-2010 at 4:32 am

    TripleSeven said...

    Tom Hardy was nothing special in Inception. He performed well but so did everyone else. There were no nuances or depth to any character beyond Leo’s and possibly Cillian’s so what the brouhaha about Hardy ? It’s nowhere near close to his great performances in other movies. JGL on the other hand was just a BAMF. I can see more of a case for him than for Hardy quite frankly, if only because this portrayal showed a side of him that most of us would have never guessed he was capable of. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s career-transforming role, but it’s close.

  • 21 7-16-2011 at 1:15 am

    Jdsmoothe said...

    Dude…wtf. I haven’t heard one mention of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Inception. It was by far the best performance with JGL having the second best. Leo was amazing in it!

  • 22 7-24-2011 at 12:23 pm

    Andy O said...

    I don’t think Gordon-Levitt should be anywhere on here. I’d have replaced him with Hugh Jackman’s performance in The Prestige, another highly underrated role. Christian Bale on the other hand is the best actor of his generation, imo of course. If Gordon-Levitt had to be on the list, I’d stick him in the back, BEHIND Batman Begins (sorry, I’m a huge Bale fan :))
    I loved that you chose Jeremy Theobald! I thoroughly enjoyed watching and re-watching Following. Great, great flick.