In a little over two decades, Christopher Nolan has gone from being a micro-budget independent filmmaker in London shooting his directorial debut on the weekends to one of the most respected and revered directors in Hollywood and across the globe. It was no easy feat.
The filmmaker is one of the rare directors working today who can sell a movie based solely on name recognition alone, and that mark of quality craftsmanship that comes with each of his movies is one of the few assurances in a changing Hollywood landscape. In short, Christopher Nolan is one of our truly great filmmakers.
That's why we're taking this time to celebrate him by looking back on all ten of his feature films, which have culminated into an incredible career — filled with films both big and small, expansive and intimate, visually stunning and intellectually stimulating. It is an enviable career, to be certain, and one that doesn't come about readily for most people in the movie-making business. It takes a lot of passion, wit, skill and care to make the movies that Christopher Nolan creates, and it's clear that this level of respect and dedication has earned him a great career.
Therefore, especially with the teaser for Christopher Nolan's next film, Tenet, premiering in front of screenings of Hobbs & Shaw this week, we wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate all the great movies that've created Nolan's filmmaking legacy and rank them accordingly, hoping to find the best of the best.
Now, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's address a couple key notices: 1) Christopher Nolan is a masterful filmmaker, so it should come to no real surprise that the British storyteller has never (at least in my opinion) misstepped and made an outright bad movie. While not every movie can be as good as the last, he is an supremely confident, dutifully assured craftsman, and he weaves elegant, engrossing, compelling and sometimes damn near impeccable movies.
So, when one film is ranked higher than the other, don't take it personally. It doesn't mean it's bad or less deserving of praise. Instead, it can come down to personal taste or recognizing that while one film is really good, the other one is even more amazing.
2) While Christopher Nolan incorporates his familiar, well-honed style into every one of his features, his films — notably in terms of focus and genre — can often be very different from each other. With the noted exception of his Dark Knight trilogy, each movie is striving to be something different and to do something different, which can make the task of ranking his individual movies a little tricky.
There is no exact science to this ranking. I'm not here to turn movies into math. I hate math. I'm just here to rank them as I see fit, and I'll do my best to explain why one movie is above (or below) another.
Now, without further ado, here's a ranking of all of Christopher Nolan's films to date — starting with the quite good ones, working through the genuinely great titles and finally walking up the ladder all the way to the masterpieces. It's not an easy task, but few things are truly easy with Nolan.
10. Following (1998)
Everyone had to get their start somewhere. For Christopher Nolan, his first brush at feature filmmaking came through the humble efforts that created Following, a lean, intriguing, intensely small-scale, micro-budget independent movie shot for 15 minutes on Saturdays throughout the course of three to four months and made on a small budget of $6,000 (which is basically less than the catering budget of any of his current works). While it doesn't quite reach the heights of his other, better movies, it's certainly easy to see why this early film paved the way for what came next.
It's a fractured narrative that follows a nondescript 20-something whose habit of following people throughout London results in some dangerous, high-stakes conclusions when he interacts with the wrong people. Following doesn't carry the director's smooth visual style, favoring a sort of French New Wave black-and-white vibe as the handheld camera frantically and intently follows our directionless lead throughout the perils that define his adventure.
Nevertheless, Following benefits nicely from sharp performances, a nicely-honed screenplay and smart low-budget filmmaking that proves that even on a minor scale like this movie, Christopher Nolan was a smart and commendable filmmaker really to challenge himself with each new turn.
9. Dunkirk (2017)
Right off the bat, I'm getting divisive. Certainly, there is a tremendous amount to admire in Christopher Nolan's latest film, Dunkirk. The sparse, tensely dramatic war picture is an incredible technical feat and narrative accomplishment, allowing the British director to hone in on his talents for building a wealth of suspense and dread with the perpetually ticking clock announcing the impending doom that is always felt in the hearts and minds of these soldiers.
It's a captivating watch in the right moments, allowing itself to always feel urgent and dutifully true to life, even if the events themselves took place nearly 80 years prior. It's a movie that's always rich on atmosphere, tension and the jittery feeling that anything can go wrong at any moment.
As a cinematic experience, it's a ticking time bomb that's also willing to let itself breathe in moments of somber, sobering reality, realizing that tragedy is always at the door of triumph and that for every victory, there's the inevitable defeat of many good men. But while it's understandable to see why Dunkirk is the Christopher Nolan movie that finally got on the Academy's good notice, earning eight Oscar nominations and winning three awards, it is also the one that feels less-than-whole compared to Nolan's other, more involving, character-driven narratives.
The actors in this cast, including very strong work from Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan, a surprising Harry Styles and particularly Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, provide their good graces, but the characters are intentionally left distant, only rarely making us feel like we know these noble men in the midst of perpetual war and grave sacrifices.
It should be stressed that it's an incredible accomplishment as a film, but when it's all said and done, there is something a bit absent in Dunkirk compared to the other Christopher Nolan movies. It's a commendable film and one that's rich in its execution (particularly in how it juggles three totally separate narratives in the span of its surprisingly tight runtime). It is only a lesser movie by Nolan's incredibly high standards.
Still, compared to the rest of his filmography, this is one where it's easier to praise what it pulls off than it is to richly remember the characters and its story. For a movie that's meant to honor the everyday sacrifices of these war-torn soldiers, it's disappointing that we're often at a distance from these men — even though the movie itself is often great about making us feel how they feel during every intense moment they're left in the thrust of ongoing war.
8. Insomnia (2002)
Made in-between Memento and Batman Begins, it can be easy to see why Insomnia — much like his debut, Following — is often forgotten-about in the broader conversation about Christopher Nolan's oeuvre. The director's third feature film, a remake of the Norwegian film of the same name (and the director's one-and-only remake to date), was Nolan's first time working with an American studio, and it was the first time he was working with veteran acting titans like Al Pacino and Robin Williams.
It can be easy to see why this movie is seen more as a stepping stone for Christopher Nolan's career rather than a monumental achievement that should be revered in the same way a number of his other, better movies are often discussed and celebrated. But it would be inconsiderate to write Insomnia off as simply a lesser Nolan film, especially as it carries a number of underrated charms.
The story, which follows a sleep-deprived LAPD detective (Al Pacino) and his partner (Martin Donovan) investigating a murder in Alaska, where the sun will often not shine, in order to investigate the murder of a local teen. In terms of Nolan's more ambitious, narratively windy films, Insomnia can easily be seen as something a little more formal and potentially formulaic by the director's high expectations.
But while the story itself doesn't often try to push any new creative or thematic bounds, particularly as a remake, it shouldn't be readily dismissed for being a little more simplistic and focused. Indeed, Insomnia is a great showcase for Nolan's quieter, more tempered creative choices, particularly when it focuses on Al Pacino and a chilling supporting turn from Robin Williams, providing yet another showcase for what the comedic actor could accomplish outside of the laugh department.
In the broad conversation related to Christopher Nolan's filmmaking, Insomnia is certainly a little too somber and grim to be celebrated in full. It can be hard to champion this movie as readily as any number of other movies set to be listed. But Insomnia is, to state an obvious pun, a bit of sleeper hit, allowing Nolan to expand into a bit more traditional storytelling and allowing the director to reach a wider audience until he made his pivotal next film.
7. Interstellar (2014)
Two years after delivering the final entry of his Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan gave the masses Interstellar, his second foray into the realm of science fiction. Set in a dystopian future, the movie follows Matthew McConaughey's Joseph Cooper, an astronaut who embarks into the depths of space with his team to go through a wormhole near Saturn so that they can find a new home for humanity, resulting in a temporally-bending chain of consequences. Back on the increasingly desolate Earth, we also follow along with Joseph's daughter, Murphy, who continues to await her father's return and tries to fix Earth's problems her own way.
It's a beautiful and devastating film, allowing Christopher Nolan to continue to push himself in bold, invigorating ways while also appearing to be one of the more personal films in Nolan's resume, touching on the connections we lose while we push ourselves farther and father into our work, and how our inherent desire to be at the forefront of humanity's greatness can often remove us from what makes us human in the first place.
It's a rich movie to dissect, and it's clear that Nolan had big ambitions here. Unfortunately, though, some of those ambitions can get a little too heavy-handed and a bit too broad-reaching, resulting in an occasionally messy and over-extended film that doesn't entirely reach the full scope of its huge, incredible desires.
Interstellar is often a long and frustrating film, one that is often at the peak of greatness but never fully accomplishing what it sets out to achieve. There is a tremendous amount to appreciate, particularly from its great performances of its talented ensemble to its rousing score and stunning cinematography. And it is clearly a movie that intriguingly challenges what one can accomplish in a single film, resulting in Nolan's arguably biggest and most elaborate film.
But while Interstellar has a lot working in its favor, the downsides are often glaring. And while it is an intriguing step forward (in many respects) for the acclaimed director, it's also one that doesn't quite get fully out of the stratosphere or prove itself to be one of Nolan's most engaging or impeccable films — though it's arguably one of his most meaningful.
6. Batman Begins (2005)
In many ways, Batman Begins was the film that put Christopher Nolan into the general public's gaze, lifting him up from arthouse darling to one of the most culturally-distinguished and acclaimed filmmakers of our times. Batman Begins wasn't the movie that fully made that transition just yet (that film was set to come in just a few short years), but it was this superhero film that announced Nolan's presence in a major way.
And it was the movie that turned this rising British director into a staple of ambitious blockbuster filmmaking in Hollywood, allowing him to make movies on bigger, bolder scales and become one of the most influential storytellers of the early 21st century. That is a hell of a lot for a mere superhero origin story to accomplish.
Meant to turn Batman's tarnished reputation after the ill-fated Batman & Robin into something worthy of the legendary comic book character, Batman Begins was a revisionist take on the origin story of this classic hero, allowing the Dark Knight to become something that was both more grounded and more thematically dense that your typical light-hearted superhero affair.
The resulting 2005 film became a cornerstone for how the ever-expanding superhero genre was set to shine (or, rather, darken) in the next ten to fifteen years, giving validity to the notion that men in tights could also be richly-realized and intellectually-stimulating characters through which broader social, political commentary could be infused on a major scale in Hollywood.
Batman Begins was a vital film for how superhero movies would currently be seen and taken seriously in Hollywood, and its sequel, The Dark Knight, would only continue to impress upon those concepts in key and vital ways in blockbuster filmmaking. But as a film, you can tell that Batman Begins is the director's first attempt at blockbuster filmmaking, considering that the transition can often be a little bumpy.
The action sequences don't pack the same punch as the character and conversation-driven sequences, lacking the technical prowess the director would hone in future films, and the third act can feel a little bombastic compared to the more somber, quieter first two-thirds. But at its best moments, Batman Begins is an astounding achievement for the filmmaker, and it's undoubtedly the movie that would pave the way for how moviegoers around the globe view the director today.
5. Inception (2010)
Movies are often considered dreams projected into life, and Inception is one film that certainly tackles that notion head-on. Christopher Nolan's loopy, brain-splitting science-fiction film, centered around a team of thieves who steal information by breaking into people's subconscious minds, is a movie that often blurs the line between how we see reality and what can be become reality in a dream.
It's an engrossing, sometimes even maddening mind-bender of a film, and one of the director's most formally-challenging films at the early to mid-point of his career. It also announced Nolan's presence in a major way as a top-tier director, proving to audiences what he could accomplish after The Dark Knight and how he could play with form and structure.
It's an impressively layered marvel of a movie, pleasing the eyes and the mind as it plays with how the cinema can twist and turn the logics of reality, all while staying grounded and true to the core foundation of these rooted characters. But in addition to its stellar cast, lead by Leonardo DiCaprio, it is also an astounding technical feat that never sacrifices intelligence or original ideas even while appealing to a broad audience. The film's impressive mix of practical effects and CG are often enhanced by the weighted notions of morality and possibility that are at the core of this logic-hopping movie.
Inception is a wonderment of a film that continued to astound audiences massively impressed with the director's most recent film. Inception is the film that allowed Nolan to be a major commercial selling point — the mere mention of his name became enough validation to make whatever he wish to make. And it was the film that suggested that Nolan's expertise could expand beyond what we initially perceived, becoming a wholly inventive storyteller who'd continue to push and challenge himself with each new film, continuously creating daring, invigorating art with commercial appeal.
4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Once again, I expect this choice this ruffle a few feathers. But similar to Christopher Nolan, you have to make some bold choices. The Dark Knight Rises has unfairly been perceived as the lesser of the three Nolan Batman movies, with the reputation of being overlong, over-indulgent and narratively unwieldily. And while there are quite a few flaws to be gleaned from Nolan's astoundingly ambitious trilogy-capper, it also feels definitive and rousingly epic in a way few superhero movies — or other films, for that matter — often do.
It's also, undeniably, one of the most towering and grand movies ever presented onto the big screen, and it's certainly one of the most impressive superhero movies to be made in cinematic history, providing a fitting and formidable finale to what might possibly be the greatest superhero trilogy to date — much to the distress of Marvel lovers.
Left with the nearly-impossible task of making a sequel to arguably the greatest superhero movie in history, The Dark Knight Rises could've easily played it safe and made a more conventional, formulaic finale that tied up loose ends in cheesy, familiar ways. But it's clear that for Nolan to feel as though the effort is worth the while, he needed to make something that was appropriately worthy of the legacy he founded, resulting in a movie event that is often grand and impressive in its use of practical effects and visually splendid set pieces. At the same time, it also felt rich and cinematic —and intensely stripped down and character-focused — through its exploration what truly makes the man in Batman, and what becomes of our heroes during their greatest fights.
The result is a movie that carries the weight of finality in a manner that few superhero movies are willing to, especially these days, while also feeling justified in its completion. It feels vindicated to make our lead character a fragile and often weak man, broken in several different respects, who must earn the right to be Gotham's savior — whether they deserve him or not — during its greatest moment of peril. We feel the perseverance of this wounded character, and we're made to see a very familiar larger-than-life character in a new and intensely realistic way.
It's also a very political and thematically dense film, with an abundance of ideas constantly streaming through its free-flowing conscious. The result is a richly-realized look at the legacy of our heroes, and how they can be both human and larger-than-life during their greatest failures and triumphs. What makes a hero is often what makes a man, and The Dark Knight Rises is the rare superhero movie that respects both the super and the human of this super-heroic send-off.
3. The Prestige (2006)
At its core, making movies is a magic act. At its earliest days, cinema were often used as a luxurious, encapsulating way to dazzle and spellbind audiences through the art of editing and photography. Once again, Christopher Nolan pays his respects to the foundations of filmmaking through his work, particularly with his fifth film, The Prestige, which can often be ignored for what it is: one of Christopher Nolan's best, most enrapturing feats.
Boasting two impeccable turns from Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, The Prestige is the director's twisty, intensely (and inventively) suspenseful mystery-thriller which provides a number of twists and turns, while never using them solely as a cheap way to keep the audience's attention — particularly from its constantly moving slight-of-hand.
Instead, The Prestige is a dynamic, vigorous look at obsession and deception, reminding viewers of the great wonders and thrills that can come from an incredible bit of magic, while also providing a pulsating, head-spinning look at the world of magic-makers, and how the concept of creating a twist of fate can often leave one removed from what should be obvious in front of them, and how playing God can often make someone disconnected from their own fragile reality. Plus, this is also a wonderfully entertaining movie to boot.
Christopher Nolan is, in many respects, one of our greatest working magicians, creating spellbinding cinematic achievements that constantly dazzle and spellbind audiences of all ages. In that respect, The Prestige is the director's ode to the wonders (and dangers) that come from this deceptive profession, and how the greatest trick that a magician can pull is to make you believe that the impossible is possible, and how fiction can be a reality — at least, in the moment they have you under their spell.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Quite easily the director's most famous and monumental film, The Dark Knight is an absolute game-changer. Not merely for the superhero genre, which was given a validity and a reverence it only partially received prior to this movie's debut, but for blockbuster cinema as a whole. Particularly with blockbusters proving that they could be just as intellectually dense and thematically stimulating as any other form of media — while never sacrificing the enriching entertainment value and gripping stories that make going to the movies, at their peak, one of our most deeply satisfying experiences.
Meant as a continuation of Christopher Nolan's previous film, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight succeeds as both a sequel and as a standalone triumph, providing one of the most intensely dynamic and dramatic movies — especially of this size and scale —in cinema history. The film's bold, intrinsic influences on their well-celebrated characters provided a whole new depth and nuance to some of the most popular literary and cinematic characters in history, particularly with the introduction of Nolan's take on The Joker, played phenomenally by the late, great Heath Ledger, in what became the tragically young actor's best performance — even if he heartbreakingly never got to celebrate its powerful success.
Through the weighted dichotomy of order and chaos, civility and anarchy, which feeds The Dark Knight's incredibly well-realized morality play, Christopher Nolan made a masterpiece of this genre, a film that richly and impressively fed comic book adaptations with a vibrant and engaging look at humanity in heroes and what it means to be good or evil — if such concepts can be boiled down in such a simplistic manner — and whether or not it is in humanity's best interest to value themselves or each other in times of grave destruction and disorder. It is undoubtedly the finest adaptation of this character we've gotten to date, and it is easily one of the greatest superhero movies that has ever been made — and possibly the absolute best.
1. Memento (2000)
While it was through The Dark Knight trilogy and major films like Inception that audiences everywhere became aware of this prominent filmmaker's greatness, for many moviegoers, it was through their introduction to Christopher Nolan's sophomore feature, Memento, that they became aware of this formative British filmmaker's potential. And it was through this film that it became apparent that Nolan was a storyteller meant to shake up the filmmaking scene in an undeniably vital way, already producing original, structurally dexterous art even from the beginning of his impressive career.
An entirely inventive look at the mystery genre, which flipped the concept of distorted reality on its head by having the entire film be told in a backward fashion (i.e. the last scene of the story is the first one we see and visa versa), what could've easily been merely an amusing gimmick became a brilliant dissection of the unreliable narrator, and how the conclusions we draw from our main characters — even in a fractured presentation — can often be deceptively twisted, believing what we want to believe (or what we expect to believe) from our protagonist before the truth slaps us right in the face.
Aided wonderfully by a great lead performance from the excellent actor Guy Pearce, Memento is quite easily Christopher Nolan's most ingenious screenplay and the film that balances his thematic and formative desires with a wonderfully engaging screenplay that constantly leaves you in a state of suspense, guessing what has already happened even when we already know the intended outcome. It's a phenomenal feat of both storytelling and filmmaking, and it's the film that not only introduced Christopher Nolan's power and potential as a filmmaker, but (in my view) remains his best feature.
There is no denying that Christopher Nolan's filmography is an incredible roaster of astounding films, many of which are constantly the source of in-house fighting when it comes to which one is actually the best of the best. These are merely one man's picks, but we'll be happy to hear what you have to say (because surely, you have your own personal favorites) in the comment section below. The mark of a great filmmaker is knowing that nobody's list looks exactly the same as the next, and nearly all the films we listed could arguably be considered his greatest. Let us know your picks.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.