Throughout his career, Christopher Nolan has been making films that double as puzzle boxes; mysteries that unravel with satisfying, precise logic. Toward the end of his 2014 opus Interstellar, an astronaut (Matthew McConaughey) enters a black hole and finds he can manipulate time itself, now manifested as a chamber of memories he can flip through. It’s an epic concept, but also essentially a grander version of a trick Nolan first pulled in 2001 when he made Memento—his second film, an indie smash that vaulted him to the top of the Hollywood heap. Its budget was small, and its story lacked the ambitious sweep that would later define Nolan’s movies, but 15 years after its release, it’s a movie that clearly set the framework for one of modern cinema’s most distinctive directors.
Leonard (Guy Pearce) is seeking to avenge the murder of his wife, who was killed in an attack that also robbed him of his short-term memory. Because of his condition, he’s covered in tattoos to remind him of his mission, and he has pockets full of Polaroids that help him keep track of his friends and enemies. The film immerses the audience in Leonard’s perpetual state of confusion by running backwards: Each scene is followed by whatever happened right before it, proceeding from a murder committed in the first scene through to Leonard’s decision to commit it in the last. It remains a dazzling trick that holds up on repeat viewings, and the chilly precision with which Nolan executed it helped define the indie movies of the aughts, from the time-traveling mathematics of Primer to the high school neo-noir of Brick.