The rise of Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker has been a fascinating one. The guy is, undoubtedly, one of the very few directors who have the clout to make pretty much whatever they want. At a time when Steven Spielberg has trouble gathering financing for his projects, the combination of Nolan’s unfailing box office success and high critical praise makes him a low-risk prospect for any major studio, even if you’re greenlighting a budget of say $165 million for an original sci-fi epic.
But while Nolan is now pretty much the consummate “prestige blockbuster” filmmaker, he didn’t start off making massive films. Nor did he take the now somewhat common route of churning out a well-received indie and then immediately jumping into the big leagues. Nolan began by making incredibly small-scale films, slowly working his way up to his first blockbuster, but throughout he kept his filmmaking sensibilities intact: ambitious narrative structure, incredibly serious and high-stakes stories, and intense character focus. These hallmarks are just as prevalent in Nolan’s first feature, the $6,000 noir Following, as they are in something like The Dark Knight.
As a result of Nolan’s razor-sharp focus and, starting with Batman Begins, consistent success with general audiences, he’s become one of the most beloved filmmakers working today. Nolan has so much clout that he pretty much saved film photography from being rendered obsolete by digital. So given the importance, talent, and impact of Nolan, it feels prudent to look back on his filmography as a whole. In what format, you ask? Well by ranking each and every film from worst to best, of course. Behold, Christopher Nolan movies ranked.
Tenet is a frustrating film. As with every Nolan feature there are a lot of great ideas in there, but in execution, this finally feels like the Christopher Nolan movie where his reach was beyond his grasp. It’s kind of baked into the DNA of the material, as the entire concept of “time inversion” is wildly confusing, and in contrast to something like Inception where the concept is explained through action, this whole “time inversion” thing is still hard to latch onto until you’re well into the third act. This is also the film where Nolan’s propensity for crafting muddled sound mix really gets away from him — when you’re having trouble understanding the movie and the dialogue that’s a frustrating problem. And yet the spectacle is admittedly jaw-dropping, and John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are charismatic leads (or as much as they can be in these muted roles). By the time you reach the film’s final scene everything locks into place, and while I found the experience of watching Tenet alternatively befuddling and a little boring, that ending makes me eager to revisit this world and these characters in a follow-up or sequel.
11. The Dark Knight Rises
Here’s the thing about The Dark Knight Rises: it’s actually pretty good, until it isn’t. It begins compellingly enough, with the time jump giving Nolan and co-writer Jonathan Nolan the opportunity to bring to light a completely different shade of Batman, and seeing Christian Bale’s hobbling Bruce Wayne getting back into fighting shape is a fun little montage sequence. And hey, Anne Hathaway is pretty swell as Catwoman isn’t she? But as soon as Bane’s master plan takes hold, the film starts to fall apart. There are huge logic leaps in The Dark Knight Rises—like Joseph Gordon-Levitt knowing Bruce Wayne is Batman “because of the eyes” while folks like Gordon or Rachel were hoodwinked. And its narrative is incredibly convoluted, with Nolan kinda-sorta half-assing a statement on Occupy Wall Street with no follow-through, all the while, an entire city is quarantined for months because some maniac says he’s got a bomb.
But this is a comic book movie. It doesn’t all have to make sense. If only the second half of the film was as interesting as it thinks it is, these logic leaps could be brushed over. But this second time jump is misguided, as it lets all the air out of the balloon so to speak, and we’re left wondering just exactly how the mechanics of a madman holding a city hostage for five months works. And we still don’t really know why Bane is doing all this, which gives little weight to his actions while Tom Hardy—one of the most interesting performers working today—is hindered by a poorly conceived character, not to mention a mask that drains Bane of any and all charisma. The pacing is all over the place, the big Talia Al Ghul reveal is too little too late (she should’ve been set up as the villain much earlier, to give us a sense of emotional stakes), and John Blake’s “twist” name reveal is weightless. For someone so interested in carving his own path, much of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy-capper feels like fan service, and it’s ill-fitting.
As I mentioned before, Nolan’s filmography is a very calculated stepladder of sorts. He didn’t jump from his debut feature to a big blockbuster sequel—he grew both in prominence and in talent incrementally, and if Following was the tiny-budget picture that got his foot in the door and Memento was the breakout indie that put him on the map, Insomnia is where he proved he can capable work inside the studio system. Insomnia isn’t a bad film, but it is wholly forgettable. While at first glance it seems like he may have tackled this remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name as a studio assignment, the fact is he was interested in making Insomnia even before Memento, so it’s as much a passion project as anything. It’s just…very plain.
Nolan has a tremendous ensemble at his disposal with Al Pacino playing a somewhat dirty cop haunted by a guilty conscience from possibly killing his partner. Robin Williams plays a hidden killer in the Alaskan landscape, and Hilary Swank is the fresh-faced small-town cop who idolizes Pacino’s big city detective who’s come to help solve the homicide. The film aims to take us inside the increasingly fatigued mind of Pacino’s character, and Nolan certainly succeeds in putting us in a daze, but the whole movie just kinda sits there, not terrible, not boring, but also not quite compelling either. Williams is the highlight of the film, showing off his dramatic skills that were far too undervalued throughout his career, and Nolan gets the chance to paint with a much larger canvas—this is where his staple aerial helicopter shots were born.
Insomnia is a perfectly fine film and a solid enough studio debut, but most importantly it showed that Nolan could deftly handle A-list ensembles and a larger scope while maintaining his penchant for tightly wound suspense. It’s a stepping stone, at the end of the day. A perfectly good stepping stone, but not one you’re eager to revisit as often as the others.
Christopher Nolan’s debut feature Following is all the more impressive in hindsight. The 1998 noir was a passion project for the director, who took a full year to complete production as his cast and crew all had day jobs. But the result is a solid yarn in which Nolan’s confidence as a director is already fully formed. This is not the work of someone who is trying to be a filmmaker; it’s the work of a born filmmaker. The twisty story of a struggling young writer who follows strangers around the streets of London only to find himself being followed by a stranger as well is classic noir, and visually Nolan captures the intensity and paranoia of his lead character through plenty of handheld, striking black-and-white photography (Nolan served as his own cinematographer). The story unfolds in a fractured narrative—which would become a hallmark of Nolan’s films going forward—and while its conclusion is somewhat contrived, it’s satisfying nonetheless.
Nolan here takes plenty of inspiration from the greats of the noir genre, but what makes Following stand out is that Nolan makes this story his own. It’s not simply a riff on a tried-and-true format; it’s an original film that evokes that format. While the picture has trouble stacking up against Nolan’s more accomplished works, it’s a hell of a debut feature that was absolutely a signpost of things to come.
Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s most frustrating film. Coming off of completing his Dark Knight trilogy, the filmmaker aimed to expand his horizons further with a genuine sci-fi epic. At the same time, Nolan attempted to stretch his emotional range by grounding the film with a father-daughter relationship. Like The Dark Knight Rises before it, Interstellar is good until it’s not—although in this case, it’s great until it’s not. The world-building of both the earthbound near-future landscape and new planet scenes is tremendous, with Nolan, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and production designer Nathan Crowley offering up a range of different landscapes that keep the visual palate dynamic. And it’s anchored by a truly terrific performance from Matthew McConaughey, a wildly ambitious script, and some of the best work of composer Hans Zimmer’s career. And then, well, Dr. Mann shows up.
The problem with Interstellar is Nolan’s need to throw in “one last twist” to surprise his audience, and the arrival and subsequent sabotaging from Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann is a stumble from which the film is unable to recover. The metaphor is so obvious it loses all impact, and this “turn” is ultimately a detour that the story doesn’t need. The driving emotional heart of Interstellar is the internal struggle between Coop’s desire to see his family again and aim to further propagate the human species, with the character doing everything in his power to accomplish both. This Mann detour only serves to “surprise” the audience and throw in another pair of set pieces, which somewhat detract from the emotional engagement of the story.
Moreover, when Coop does finally get back to his daughter, he spends all of five minutes with her before jetting back out into space, because reasons. The entire film is about Coop wanting to see his daughter again, and now you’re telling me he’s not going to spend every last waking moment she has left by her side? The conclusion undermines the emotional drive of the movie in service of the “man’s need to expand its reach” theme, and it rings emotionally false.
And yet, the first 2/3 or so of the film are wonderfully engaging and inventive, with Nolan conjuring some truly spectacular blends of practical and visual effects to offer up a space landscape the likes of which we’ve never seen before. And the supporting cast is really solid too, with Anne Hathaway delivering a show-stopping monologue about love and science. Which, again, makes the final act of the film that much more frustrating. So while the movie falls short of greatness due to Nolan giving into his worst tendencies, it remains part of a great movie, and is a notable (and curious) entry in Nolan’s filmography all the same.
7. Batman Begins
It’s weird to think that Batman Begins wasn’t an immediate sensation given its widespread impact on the superhero genre, but while the film was certainly a success, it wasn’t quite a “phenomenon” upon release. And yet, for years to come pitches started flooding in for projects described as “a gritty reboot in the vein of Batman Begins,” as Nolan essentially created an entire subgenre with his new take on the Batman character. By grounding the superhero film in a hard reality with no trace of supernatural or otherworldly abilities, Batman Begins transcends genre and becomes, essentially, a large-scale drama.
It was a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and it not only spawned a slew of imitators, but it also launched one of the most memorable trilogies in history. We don’t even see Christian Bale in the Batsuit until well into the movie, but it doesn’t matter because the script—by Nolan and David S. Goyer—is enthralling in and of itself, offering up a superhero take unlike any we’d seen before.
Bale is an inspired choice to take on the Bruce Wayne/Batman mantle, injecting the character with a range and humanity that only Michael Keaton ever came close to touching before, and likewise, Michael Caine’s entirely new take on Alfred proves to be a stroke of brilliance. And while Batman Begins is certainly grounded and gritty, it’s also the funniest film of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, with plenty of humor arising from Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox and the relationship between Bruce and Alfred. Katie Holmes’ Rachel Dawes proves to be a crucial connection to Bruce’s past as well as a fascinating character in her own right, and Cillian Murphy is delightfully mad as the villainous Scarecrow.
While the film starts to waver slightly in its third act as Batman’s “no-kill” code is given an easy out that’s really not an out at all, the reveal of Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul serves to reinforce why Bruce chose to become The Batman in the first place and wraps the film up in a manner that is both thematically and viscerally satisfying. Batman Begins is the film that proved Nolan had something wholly unique to bring to the blockbuster genre, and he’s been taking ambitious swings ever since.
6. The Prestige
The Prestige is the most essential film to unlocking Christopher Nolan the filmmaker. It speaks to his overall philosophy when it comes to storytelling, and its themes are prevalent in nearly every single one of his films. It also happens to be one of his best movies to date.
Batman Begins was Nolan’s first foray into major blockbuster territory, and while it took a few months for it to sink in that Nolan had essentially created a brand new kind of superhero movie, the director moved on to a project he had been thinking about making for a while: The Prestige. The film is an adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel of the same name about dueling magicians in early 1900s London, but its themes of obsession, ambition, and sacrifice for work/art are timeless and ever-present in all of Nolan’s films.
The ensemble of The Prestige is fantastic, but Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale shine brightest as the aforementioned dueling magicians. This is a film that has to work on multiple levels, and Jackman and Bale rise to the occasion and absolutely nail the dynamic performances that are required of them. There are twists and turns to spare in The Prestige, but given that this is a movie about magicians, it’s perfectly in keeping with the themes of the film. The entire picture itself is summed up in the opening scene, as Michael Caine explains the three keys to any good magic trick: The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige.
This is a formula that Nolan clearly took to heart, and the importance to these magicians of wowing the audience, if only for a second, with something truly out of this world mimics Nolan’s aim with each and every one of his movies—sometimes to a fault. But this being Christopher Nolan and all, the story can’t just be told in chronological order, and the fractured narrative serves to further obfuscate the various tricks hidden up the movie’s sleeve. And once you’ve seen “The Pledge”, the experience of watching the film again is like new, as the intricacy and care with which Nolan handles (and hides) the various reveals is stunning.
But if the film is simply about surprising the audience, it’s an empty vessel, and The Prestige stands as one of Nolan’s most emotionally satisfying films. With Jackman’s Angier and Bale’s Borden, we have two men driven by the desire to become successful magicians, albeit each with their own value set of how far they’re willing to go to be truly memorable. Both are driven by obsession, ultimately to tragic ends, and Nolan expertly telegraphs the emotional drive for each so that the audience is genuinely invested in the outcome of their personal stories, not just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The Prestige is a film that gets overshadowed by Nolan’s bigger or flashier films, and I’ll admit before rewatching it recently I had my reservations about just how high up this list it would be. But it’s one of Nolan’s most successful films in terms of blending narrative, character, and emotion, and a decade later it stands as one of the best—and most essential—movies of his career.
Inception is a high-wire act of the most ambitious sort, and I still kind of can’t believe Nolan pulled it off. The initial logline for the film was “a heist thriller set within the architecture of the mind,” and that’s about as succinct—and accurate—as one could put the premise of this original sci-fi thriller. The scope of the film is at once massive and incredibly specific, and that Nolan was able to craft this multi-layered ensemble narrative with such precision and clarity is a minor miracle.
In terms of pure entertainment, Inception is hard to beat. Nolan’s execution here, working with cinematographer Wally Pfister, is mind-blowingly gorgeous but also incredibly dynamic, as the filmmaker sets each portion of the story in a visually distinct setting. The set pieces in Inception are some Matrix-level stuff, from the zero-gravity hallway fight with Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the snowbound, James Bond-esque compound assault.
But while action and spectacle are great, they’re ultimately unfulfilling. Luckily, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb provides emotional shading to spare, as the character’s “one last job” involves emotional stakes of the highest order. Nolan slowly unfurls the mystery behind Cobb’s relationship with his wife, played by Marion Cotillard, and DiCaprio does a tremendous job of putting the audience on its toes. Cobb is the guy with all the answers, but the look on DiCaprio’s face as Mal becomes more and more intensely involved in the Inception telegraphs fear, doubt, and sheer terror, giving us an unease about the job as a whole. On top of that, Nolan’s handle on tension is masterful as he meticulously crafts the entire Inception job—basically the final two acts of the movie—as one continuous edge-of-your-seat set piece.
Inception works on a number of levels, and one that’s mighty engaging is the correlation between this group and a filmmaking team. Cobb is the film director, Ellen Page’s architect is his screenwriter, Tom Hardy’s forger is his actor, Ken Watanabe’s moneyman is the studio head, etc. and they’re all working towards one goal: to make dream become reality.
Nolan’s work on Inception is truly masterful, with all of the pieces coming together just perfectly to craft not only one hell of a film, but one hell of an original film. That the movie went on to gross over $800 million at the box office speaks to Nolan’s ability to conjure original prestige entertainment for the masses without the need to hedge one’s bets with pandering or clichés, and it’s the reason he’s one of the biggest filmmakers working today.
Dunkirk is a purely experiential piece of filmmaking—a completely immersive, wholly unique take on a “World War II movie.” Instead of choosing a couple of characters to follow or creating a fictional dramatic narrative within the overall structure of the evacuation of Dunkirk, Nolan instead decides to put his audiences in this event using his greatest tool: cinema.
In hindsight, films like Inception and Interstellar worked to prepare audiences for the narrative complexity of Dunkirk. Nolan tells three stories taking place on different timelines simultaneously—by air, by sea, and by land. Audiences quickly fall into the groove of what Nolan is doing here because they’ve seen Inception, and that shorthand allows Nolan to quickly immerse the viewers in this experience.
This devotion to experiential cinema is ambitious to say the least, but it completely works. Nolan wisely dispatches with reams of dialogue or giving his characters complex backstories that allow audiences to “relate.” We relate because we feel the pressure these characters are under, and the strong performances from the ensemble allow the audience to put themselves in literally anyone’s shoes. We’re scared, we’re anxious, we’re angry—we feel all the same emotions as these characters because Nolan has so carefully immersed us in their story, not because he had a character give a monologue about a girl back home.
On a filmmaking level, Dunkirk is astounding. Working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema on IMAX and 65mm film, Nolan captures imagery that’s herculean in its clarity, but he also doesn’t forget he’s working in film, which can be a majestic medium. There are images in this movie that are almost otherworldly, but Nolan isn’t using visual effects or camera tricks—he’s just using the best tools at his disposal with great skill to bring these images to life. This is a story about heroism in the face of defeat; about men working together to survive. It’s simple enough, but Nolan understands the emotional power of that base idea, and relies on his filmmaking instincts to bring it through.
Oppenheimer might not be Nolan’s best film (it’s close!), but it does feel like his most mature film, one that utilizes all the skills he’s taken away from the last 25 years of filmmaking into one of the most remarkable works of his career. Oppenheimer is a dense, nearly-three-hour spectacle, one full of varying and conflicting narratives, a gargantuan cast, and a ton of information to disseminate, yet Nolan uses all his talents as a writer and director to make this all go down smooth, a stunning, cohesive vision, led by an incredible performance by Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Behind the camera, again, Nolan is returning to some of his old techniques and talents, but in a way that feels more refined and careful than ever before. He knows he can impress—he’s done that before—but now, he knows how to utilize these skills in a way that puts story first, not as a way to awe the audience. All of these tools come together to the point that it almost feels as if Nolan’s entire career has been building to this film. Oppenheimer allows Nolan to be bombastic, but never over-the-top in a manner that distracts from the narrative. The performances and Oppenheimer’s troubled story is more important than the technical achievements Nolan creates, and while he has frequently felt like he’s the true star of his own films, he knows how to stand aside here to let the story take precedence over bombast.
This all also works because Murphy is giving the best performance of his career, and one of the best performances ever in a Nolan film. Despite Oppenheimer being a relatively quiet, meek man, we can read everything we need to know through Murphy’s mannerisms or a simple glance. For the actor who has long been a supporting player in Nolan’s work, Murphy proves that he belongs in the spotlight. Nolan also compiled one of the most gargantuan casts in modern cinema, with actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Emily Blunt doing some of their finest work.
Oppenheimer has already planted itself as one of the best films of the 2020s, and shows both the incredible growth that Nolan has made as a filmmaker in just a few decades, and how he’s managed to take some of his favorite topics and ideas and improve them over the course of his career. The fact that Oppenheimer is only third on this list only goes to show just how strong Nolan’s filmography is. — Ross Bonaime
2. The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is, quite frankly, the best superhero film of all time. While Begins got the Batman franchise off to a swell start, The Dark Knight took the series—and the genre—to another level by melding blockbuster sensibilities with thematically relevant material to result in a film that’s stimulating on a visceral, intellectual, and emotional level.
The Dark Knight is about escalation. If Bruce Wayne dresses up as a Bat and runs around Gotham City fighting for justice, how do criminals respond? It is Bruce’s decision to take justice into his own hands in a big way that opens the door for someone like The Joker to reign down chaos on the city, leaving Bruce at a loss for how to craft an appropriate response. How does one reason with that which is without reason?
The screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan is a crime drama of epic proportions with tight plotting and cleverly drawn characters. In a world where every superhero movie is trying to jam as many superheroes and villains as possible into one film, The Dark Knight masterfully navigates not only Batman’s tet-a-tet with his most iconic villain, but an entire, emotionally satisfying rise-and-fall arc for Harvey Dent’s descent into Two-Face. It’s a miracle to conjure just one iconic villain, but to also juggle the creation, terror, and death of another at the same time is some kind of dark magic.
Of course, The Dark Knight would not be what it is without Heath Ledger’s possessed performance as The Joker. This is not just the best Joker performance or the best superhero movie performance, this is one of the best film performances of all time. Ledger disappears fully into the Joker and can swing from hilarious to seriously terrifying within a matter of seconds. To appreciate the brilliance of what Ledger accomplished here is to also lament how many more tremendous performances we would have had if not for the actor’s untimely passing.
But while Ledger’s The Joker is the standout character in The Dark Knight, Aaron Eckhart delivers one of his best performances as Harvey Dent, offering up a sort of mirror to the Bruce Wayne/Dark Knight dynamic that leads up to his tragic fall from grace. Eckhart is terrific here, and his final scene with Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon is at once frightening and heartbreaking.
While the film itself is one set piece too long, it doesn’t matter because the rest of the movie is so damn phenomenal. The action is thrilling and dynamic, the Joker is iconic, the emotional turmoil that Bruce Wayne suffers is impactful, and the thematic resonance is searing. This is Nolan swinging for the fences and knocking the ball into the next county. All ambition, no fear. The confidence that was evident in Following is turned to 11, and he’s got every reason to hold his head high.
While Nolan has expanded on the ideas of Memento (and to a lesser extent, Following) in the last twenty years of his career, utilizing multiple twisty timelines, flawed protagonists, and mind-bending finales, this breakthrough film remains his best. Nolan has certainly gone bigger and more ambitious with his films, but Nolan’s second film became such a massive indie hit and felt like such a breath of fresh air because Nolan felt like something wholly unique in cinema. Even though Nolan’s scale has grown and he’s made great films since, Memento remains a perfect encapsulation of what makes Nolan so great, in not just one of his best films, but in one of the best films of the 2000s.
With Memento, Nolan gives us his own approach to noir, exploring two different timelines differentiated by black-and-white and color film. Like Leonard Shelby (a never-better Guy Pearce), Nolan keeps the audience in the dark about what the hell is going on, and the construction of the film puts us in his shoes, always uncertain about what’s just happened or what’s about to occur. Along his quest to find the people who murdered his wife (Jorja Fox), Leonard has to choose whether to trust Nolan’s take on the femme fatale with Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), and the unreliable, shady Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Since Leonard has a type of amnesia that makes it so he can’t create new memories, he uses tattoos and photographs to reconstruct what he already knows, and these clues end up being as unreliable as Natalie, Teddy, and himself.
It’s hard to watch Memento now without seeing how Nolan would return to these concepts later on, yet never quite excel at them in the way he does here. Nolan would explore varying timelines in films like Dunkirk, Inception, Tenet, and even Oppenheimer. Nolan showed that he could handle complex ideas with ease, and more importantly, make sure the audience could figure out what the hell was going on. Nolan provided a stunning ending that recontextualizes the entire film, much like he would do in The Prestige, and Nolan also gets three of the best performances in any of his films with Pearce, Moss, and Pantoliano. And even though Nolan still struggles with the more emotional elements of his films to this day, Memento‘s story of grief, loss, and vengeance remains one of his most enthralling stories. Memento would go on to rightfully get nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing at the Oscars, and in 2017, Memento was added to the Library of Congress.
Nolan has certainly grown as a filmmaker in the 20+ years since Memento, and as his budgets have grown, so have the spectacle and scale of his projects. Yet in just his second film, and with a meager budget by his current standards, Nolan was able to show us everything we needed to know about this up-and-coming filmmaker, and through practical techniques and narrative decisions unlike we’ve ever seen, he would soon become one of the biggest directors of our generation. Nolan has certainly expanded his possibilities as a filmmaker, but he nearly perfected who he is as a filmmaker with Memento. — Ross Bonaime