In the past few weeks, I have watched 3 movies by Christopher Nolan - The Dark Knight, The Prestige, and Inception. Each one I watched trying to find common threads and reasons why I like his directing style so much. Here's what I have decided.
1 - each movie uses Michael Caine. Way cool. But on a more serious note, his choice of actors is superb. He does not shy away from really popular actors (Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hugh Jackman), and yet he also chooses actors for characters that play decisive supporting roles in which you may have seen that actor in one or two movies beforehand, but not nearly enough to influence your opinion about him. Two examples of this are Arthur in Inception (played by Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) and Harvey Dent in Dark Knight (played by Aaron Eckhart). These actors are known, but not famous; and they fit their roles perfectly. Christopher Nolan can be credited then with an uncanny ability to fill his characters with actors who fit. This task seems way too hard for most directors (I mean, come on - who saw Nick Cage as Ghost Rider?). He has also benefitted from unseen dynamic performances, performances that knock your socks off, like Heath Ledger as the Joker, and Cyto in Inception. Sometimes the actor fits the mold impossibly well.
2 - Nolan's movies all feature spectacular cinematography, each according to the type of movie it is. Inception was breathtaking on so many levels. Who could have seen a city on top of another city, or a train careening through a street? Not to mention the Halo-like 3rd level, which was unbelievably cool. The Dark Knight was, well, unreal. The hospital scene actually featured a real building being blown up - credit Nolan for taking George Lucas-like consideration for real special effects and not just going to the computers for CGI.
3 - Nolan's movies (almost all of them) feature soundtracks composed by Hans Zimmer. This is comparable to Spielberg's reliance on John Williams, the Beethoven of movie soundtracks. Zimmer is Williams reincarnated, and the music only serves to support the movie (see tracks such as "Dream is Collapsing," "Time," and "Like a Dog Chasing Cars").
4 - Nolan's movies always leave you guessing, even if you know the outcome. The inherent problem with superhero movies is that you know how it is going to end. The superhero will come out on top, yada yada yada. However, Nolan's careful intertwining of the Joker and his madness throughout the Dark Knight left the audience (including myself) literally on their edge of their seat in suspense during the boat scene. The guessing happens throughout the movie, but never leaves you guessless. I was never completely lost in Inception.
5 - Nolan does not use pointless scenes as "filler." I recently saw a movie with Will Ferrell that included some scenes that were attempts to be funny, but had no bearing on the plot of the movie whatsoever. Nolan's films do not have these scenes. In fact, I was so aware of this fact that in Inception i was paying close attention to every single scene. Good thing, too; otherwise, I would have missed something.
6 - Nolan's films always include a Twist that, despite your best efforts, you do not see coming. Who pictured the last scene in the Prestige? Inception? Who saw Batman make the decision he did at the end? Not me. Stop being prideful and admit that you didn't either.
Those are just a few things I have noticed. I could go on. I hope to see this go on, and to see him continue at this position of prominence akin to Spielberg.