Director Christopher Nolan knows how to cast a spell

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Christopher Nolan had us at hello ... or should that be goodbye, given his 2001 thriller "Memento"?

The writer-director is back in theaters today with a brainteaser called "Inception" starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Mr. Nolan is the filmmaker equivalent of Pixar; he has yet to break a winning streak that started with the very modest "Following."

If you're a latecomer to his cinematic charms, here's a look at movies he directed, all of which are available for rental or purchase:

"Following" (1999)

2 1/2 stars = Average
Ratings explained

Mr. Nolan wrote and directed this black-and-white film about an unemployed aspiring writer in London who is obsessed with following strangers. He made this movie, just 70 minutes long, for a reported $6,000 by shooting on weekends.

"Memento" (2001)

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

Ninety minutes into this $5 million movie, Mr. Nolan gives the audience a momentary but monumental clue to the movie's mystery. By that point, we already know how it ends, because the psychological thriller starts at the shocking and bloody conclusion and then spins back to the beginning.

Guy Pearce is terrific as a former insurance investigator who suffered a head trauma that left him unable to form new memories. While he hunts for the man who raped and murdered his wife, he takes Polaroids and tattoos clues on his body in this mesmerizing movie.

"Insomnia" (2002)

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

Mr. Nolan directed this remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgard. Al Pacino plays a Los Angeles police detective who is sent to Alaska with his partner (Martin Donovan) to help the locals find a teenage girl's killer.

Mr. Pacino's character makes a fatal mistake during a stakeout on a foggy beach and he tries to cover it up, even as the murder suspect (Robin Williams) attempts to exploit the accident and a young Alaskan officer (Hilary Swank) enters the investigative fray.

Put "Insomnia" on your Netflix list and feel Mr. Pacino's pain as sun and sin hauntingly keep him awake.

"Batman Begins" (2005)

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

Just as comic book fans wondered whether Michael Keaton could wear the cape and cowl, some asked why Mr. Nolan hired Christian Bale. No one questioned the casting once the movie was released.

He reinvigorated the franchise, tapping into its action roots, its disturbing origins and its rich roles for actors such as Mr. Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy. He set the stage for a stunning sequel.

"The Prestige" (2006)

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

London at the turn of the 20th century provides the backdrop for this movie about a pair of rival magicians, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, and an experienced elder, Michael Caine, who designs illusions.

Mr. Bale portrays a creative genius whose stage skills leave something to be desired, while Mr. Jackman is a magician who makes up for his shortcomings with razzle-dazzle. When a trick involving the two goes awry, the men turn into enemies and spend years trying to outwit the other, even as Mr. Nolan unfolds his movie as if it were a magic act ... a very nifty trick, indeed.

"The Dark Knight" (2008)

4 stars = Outstanding
Ratings explained

You could argue that this movie is (partly) why we now have 10 best picture Oscar nominees rather than five. It scored eight nominations but none for picture or director, although it earned a well-deserved posthumous Academy Award for Heath Ledger as The Joker.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at . First Published July 16, 2010 4:00 AM


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