“Every film should have its own world, a logic and feel to it that expands beyond the exact image that the audience is seeing.” – Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan is certainly responsible for creating some of the most imaginative worlds to be put on screen in the last 20 years. As seen in that quote, world building is clearly incredibly important to Nolan. Whether he is making a movie starring Batman or telling an original sci-fi story based on ideas derived from quantum physics, Nolan understands the importance of creating an immersive world for the audience. Nolan’s stories that make up those worlds have been some of the most beloved and talked about movies of the past two decades. Throughout that time, Nolan has established himself as one of the most important directors in Hollywood. He has also earned an extremely dedicated fanbase, which has helped make his films incredibly successful at the box office as well. At the age of 50, Nolan has already attained a level of success and acclaim that most directors could only dream of.
Perhaps the best place to begin a discussion on Nolan and his films is with his current place in the Hollywood landscape. I’d argue that the name Christopher Nolan helps sell a movie more than the name of any other director working today. This idea may sound like hyperbole to some, but the numbers do back it up. Throughout the past decade, Nolan’s films continuously did better at the box office than many of the films released by the other most popular directors in the world, including Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese. Obviously, Nolan has delved into the superhero genre with his Dark Knight trilogy, which has helped his total box office numbers as well as his overall popularity. But, his original films—such as Inception and Interstellar—also perform tremendously well at the box office. In a way, Nolan’s films have become a genre of their own. He has become the poster boy for modern, smart, big budget filmmaking. In fact, Nolan’s popularity is primarily derived from the fact that he makes movies that look like blockbusters, but contain themes and ideas that one does not often see in a typical blockbuster. In the past, Nolan’s films have explored themes such as self-deception, human morality, subjective reality, and the nature of time. Moreover, Nolan can be an incredibly important figure for some casual film fans—whose relationship with movies is primarily through big blockbusters and Marvel films—because his movies are possibly the only time they see some of these more grand and serious ideas explored on screen. The Dark Knight trilogy is a great example of this idea. Nolan’s three Batman films were unlike any superhero films that had come before them. He changed that genre forever by showing people that it was possible to tell realistic, grounded, and thought-provoking stories in a comic book world. I want to make one thing clear though, I am not saying that only casual movie fans appreciate the work of Nolan. Obviously, his films are appreciated by a wide variety of film fans.
Nolan’s filmmaking style is one that is easy to recognize. His films tend to share many of the same qualities such as the use of non-linear storytelling, a muted color palette, practical effects, and impressive set pieces. Non-linear storytelling has been a staple of Nolan’s since his 1998 debut film, Following. Since then, that technique has helped amplify some of his more psychologically intense films such as Memento, The Prestige, and Interstellar. Nolan utilizes non-linear story telling and a cross-cutting editing style to affect the way the audience receives information. As I noted earlier, one of Nolan’s most prevalent themes is subjective reality. He is fascinated with how human beings perceive their own reality. Seemingly, telling his stories in a non-linear fashion allows him to manipulate the audiences perception of reality. Also, it can help draw greater attention to some of the questions his main characters are attempting to find answers to. It is important to note the muted color palette of Nolan’s films as well, because the visual aesthetic of his films is one of the most noteworthy aspects of his entire career. Nolan, who is actually red-green color bind himself, does not often include a great amount of color in his films. This does not mean they are not beautiful though. Nolan has created some of the most visually stunning films of the past few years. Specifically, some of the shots in Interstellar and Dunkirk are, to this day, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a film. Not only has Nolan created some of the most stunning shots in film history, he is also the mastermind behind some of the most memorable set pieces of all time. It’s impossible to think about Nolan’s career and not conjure up images of the truck flipping over in The Dark Knight or the spiraling hallway fight in Inception. Nolan is truly one of the most imaginative filmmakers working today and that wild imagination has led to some incredible movie moments. Those moments have been aided by the use of practical effects as well. Nolan has made it clear over the years that he prefers to use practical effects, instead of CGI. This has given his films, and particularly his action sequences, an extraordinary sense of authenticity. It’s fair to say that Nolan’s films would not feel as special as they currently do, if he relied more heavily on CGI. Obviously, there are other aspects of Nolan’s films that help make up his overall style. Specifically, I think of his preference towards IMAX technology and his collaborations with prominent composer Hans Zimmer. There are so many things that go into creating the look and feel of one of Nolan’s films. He is a director that clearly puts a great amount of thought into every aspect of his films. That attention to detail has helped make his distinct and unique style so beloved amongst his fans.
Now, even though Nolan’s films are in fact very popular, it’s important to note that he does have his fair share of critics. I bring this up because I actually find some of the criticisms of Nolan’s work to be fairly legitimate. These criticisms do not ruin his films for me, I still contend that Nolan has not yet made a bad film. However, I do understand why some people are less enthusiastic about his work than others. Detractors of Nolan’s films will often mention things such as convoluted plots, lack of emotional weight, poor dialogue, and large amounts of exposition in his scripts. Personally, I find these particular criticisms to be true with some of his films. I do not think Nolan is a flawless director by any means, and I do think there is a legitimate “style over substance” debate that could be had, when it comes to his filmmaking style. However, I tend to enjoy his films for the spectacles that they are. I am willing to forgive a somewhat confusing plot when it comes to Nolan because I know I will always be getting incredibly impressive visual filmmaking. Although, I will admit that the emotional success of his stories does indeed vary from film to film. Some of his films and characters resonate more with audiences than others. This is an aspect of Nolan’s filmography that I struggle with. Also, there is an argument to be made that Nolan’s films often ask big questions without supplying any real answers to those questions. That being said, I’m glad we have someone like Nolan who has the ability to create grand, expensive, and original films. Our mainstream blockbuster films would all be based on some sort of existing IP if it weren’t for directors like Nolan. I remain a fan of his, even if I am willing to admit that his films certainly contain their flaws.
The task of ranking Nolan’s ten films was not an easy one. As I stated earlier, I do not think Nolan has made a bad film. He has certainly had a varying degree of success throughout his career, but I wouldn’t classify any film as “bad.” Therefore, the lowest ranked film on this list is still a movie that I consider to be fairly enjoyable. Also, it was somewhat difficult to figure out how to compare the Batman trilogy to the rest of Nolan’s filmography. As I say with a lot of these lists, my rankings could shift if I were to write this blog tomorrow, a week from now, or a year from now. But, at this very moment this is my definitive ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
Now, without further ado let’s unnecessarily take a bunch of meaningful works of art from a brilliant filmmaker and pit them against each other for no apparent reason.
10. Insomnia (2002)
“I guess it’s about what you thought was right at the time. Then, what you’re willing to live with.”
The 2002 film Insomnia is an important moment in Nolan’s oeuvre, for a variety of reasons. It was Nolan’s first time working with an American studio. It was the first film he released after Memento, which helped launch him into the mainstream. And, it is the only film of Nolan’s career for which he does not have a screenwriting credit. Insomnia, an adaptation of a Norwegian film of the same name, was written by Hillary Seitz. I’d argue that Nolan’s lack of involvement in the screenplay can really be felt in the viewing of this film. This movie simply doesn’t have a lot of the trademarks that we expect from a typical Nolan film. Instead, it is much more of a straight forward genre film. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does feel like there’s something missing when compared to Nolan’s nine other films. The film is still fairly engaging however. It stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank. The story is centered on a LA police detective, who is sent to a small Alaskan town in order to help investigate a murder. A traumatic event then occurs, which results in the detective battling a bout of insomnia for the rest of his trip. Perhaps what sticks out most about this film is the talented cast. Pacino, Williams, and Swank all give fairly good performances, even if Pacino is giving a typical 2002 Al Pacino performance. Also, there is enough tension and intrigue in the story to keep the viewer entertained and engaged throughout. However, Insomnia is just not as memorable as the rest of Nolan’s filmography. This movie is very watchable, but it does not stick with the viewer once the credits roll. Insomnia feels like the most traditional, but also most forgettable, film of Nolan’s career. I would recommend it to anyone interested in well told psychological thrillers, but I do not consider it to be an accurate representation of Nolan’s filmmaking style.
9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
“You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.”
The Dark Knight Rises was one of the most anticipated movies of 2012. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, at that point, was the most acclaimed superhero trilogy ever made. Fans were incredibly eager to see what Nolan was going to do with the concluding film in the series. Unfortunately, what they ended up getting was the worst film of the three. That does not seem to be a controversial opinion either. Seemingly, most fans consider The Dark Knight Rises to be worse than both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. Nolan appeared to be creatively finished with these films at this point in his career, and that comes across on screen in The Dark Knight Rises. The flaws in this film are not hard to find. The film, as a whole, is bloated. There are simply too many characters and the runtime probably could have been reduced by about 30 minutes. The villain twist that comes near the end of the movie falls flat as well. The film has some grand ideas about class warfare and distribution of wealth. But, Nolan only seems to scratch the surface when it comes to actually exploring these ideas. I’d argue that the main flaw of the film is that it tries to bite off more than it can chew. Part of the reason why The Dark Knight was so successful is because it was a story contained to Gotham city. Gotham feels much more like a character in The Dark Knight, and even in Batman Begins, than it does in The Dark Knight Rises. Something begins to feel off once this story, and these characters, are taken out of Gotham. Despite all the flaws I just mentioned though, there are some things I love about this film. I am an avid defender of Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bane, and the character as a whole. I also greatly enjoy a lot of the tremendously ambitious action sequences that take place within this film. Moreover, I find the ending of this film to be a fairly satisfying close to this story. Also, I think this film had a nearly impossible job to do, in having to follow The Dark Knight. This film is still better than a lot of the blockbuster films we get nowadays. It certainly is not perfect, but it is still an enjoyable film if you’re a fan of Nolan and this franchise in particular.
8. Following (1998)
“You take it away, to show them what they had.”
Nolan’s first film, Following, is undoubtably the least seen movie he has ever made. This independent, black and white, noir-style film was made for a shoestring budget of only $6,000. It is also the shortest film of Nolan’s career by far, with a runtime of only 70 minutes. The story is a fairly simply, yet sophisticated, tale of a young writer who spends his time following strangers, and eventually meets a thief who he creates a relationship with. The most interesting thing about this film is that it contains many seeds of the filmmaker Nolan would eventually become. Like many of his later films, the story is told in a non-linear fashion and there are several twists within the plot. Also, the themes of identity and obsession included in this film would come up in several others throughout Nolan’s career. This film is more than just a template of the movies Nolan would eventually go on to make though. There is real value to be found in this film, despite its incredibly small budget. In fact, one of the things I love most about this film is the cleverness Nolan is forced to inject into the filmmaking, because of the limitations that come from the low budget. This film does not look like any other film in Nolan’s catalogue. It has a look and feel that is more similar to the French New Wave because of the black and white style and the utilization of handheld cameras. Another impressive thing about this film is that it truly has some of the best dialogue Nolan has ever written. Following may only be 70 minutes long. It may not be as rewatchable or visually exciting as some of Nolan’s other films. But, it was a great debut film and I found it to be both a fascinating and entertaining watch. I would recommend seeking this movie out if you have already seen every other film in Nolan’s filmography.
7. Batman Begins (2005)
“It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”
In 1997, Warner Brothers put the Batman character on a shelf following the disastrous Batman & Robin. Years later, they trusted Nolan to bring this character back in a way that no one had ever seen before on the big screen. It would be an understatement to say he succeeded. Nolan created one of, if not the, greatest superhero origin movie of all time with Batman Begins. Initially, I had this film ranked higher on my list but after a lot of consideration it got bumped down to number seven. It is still a film that I hold in very high regard though. There is no denying that Nolan’s trilogy helped change superhero movies forever. The second film in this trilogy certainly receives a lot of attention for the impact it had on the genre, but it all started with Batman Begins. This was a groundbreaking movie at the time. We had never seen this kind of a story told inside of this genre. I’d argue that this film also helped usher in the era of respected actors taking on roles in comic book movies. Nowadays, it is incredibly common to see Oscar winners and wildly talented actors appear in the MCU or other superhero films, but this was far less common back in 2005. Still, Nolan was able to attract names like Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, and Gary Oldman with this script. Speaking of the cast, I think it’s important to note Bale’s work in these films. I did not mention him at all really when discussing The Dark Knight Rises, but I am a big fan of Bale’s work in these three films. To me, he is the definitive Batman. I understand that I’m probably biased because I grew up with him as Batman. But, I think he mixed the physicality of Batman with the suave nature of Bruce Wayne better than any other actor to date. Ultimately, this is just a very good and very impactful film. It ended up falling to number seven because the action sequences in this film are definitely the sloppiest of Nolan’s entire career. To be fair, this was his first real foray into big budget action filmmaking, and he would definitely go on to improve later in his career.
6. The Prestige (2006)
“Are you watching closely?”
The film that followed Batman Begins in real life also follows Batman Begins on my list. The Prestige was released in 2006 and remains one of the least talked films of Nolan’s entire career. If Insomnia is just simply the forgotten film of his career, then The Prestige is the forgotten great film of his career. I’m not totally sure why it has become so forgotten either, especially when you consider the star power that exists amongst the cast. The Prestige stars Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, with supporting performances from Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Michael Caine, Andy Serkis, and David Bowie. In typical Nolan fashion, the story is somewhat convoluted. The plot centers on two magicians (Bale and Jackman) who spend years in a rivalry with one another, with each man attempting to outwit the other along the way. This film also marks Nolan’s first foray into the science fiction genre. A category of film he would later go on to dominate with movies like Inception and Interstellar. As I previously noted, the story of The Prestige is somewhat convoluted. However, I’d argue that this particular story is actually enhanced by its grand and potentially confounding twists. The story is about magicians attempting to trick their audiences in the most amazing way possible. Therefore, Nolan’s intricate, detailed, and surprising screenplay fits in with the narrative that is being told. I must give a shoutout to the performances of both Jackman and Bale as well. In many ways, this movie does not work without them. Their performances are the best parts of the film and the movie really feels at its most alive when they are on screen together. Also, I think it’s hard to make a movie that both relies on a twist ending and is rewatchable. The Prestige is an example of that kind of movie. This film can certainly get dark at times, but there is perhaps more fun to be had in it than in any of Nolan’s other works. Much like a great magic trick, this movie is not meant to be overanalyzed, it is meant to be enjoyed.
5. Inception (2010)
“They say we only use a fraction of our brain’s true potential. Now that’s when we’re awake. When we’re asleep, we can do almost anything.”
Inception is one of those films a film that, no matter where it landed on this list, some would argue that it was ranked too high while others would argue that it was ranked too low. One of the most talked about movies of the last ten years, Inception, is still debated and discussed at great lengths today. This film was a massive deal at the time of its release. Even though Nolan had already made the best superhero movie ever created two years earlier than this, I think Inception launched his career to an even higher level because he proved he could make smart, big budget films that didn’t just star Batman. I’m not even going to try to give a plot synopsis of this film because A) I trust that most people have some understanding of what happens in Inception and B) I don’t even think I totally know how to state what happens in this film in an accurate and clear way. Interestingly enough, that particular notion is the main problem for detractors of Inception. I don’t totally have a great defense for them either. This story is convoluted, and certain things are just not explained very well. I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand the intricacies of this plot. What I do understand however, is that I consider Inception to be one of the more enthralling film experiences of my life, despite its flaws. This film seemed like a step up for Nolan as an action director, even after The Dark Knight. As I mentioned in the opening, the hallway fight scene is one of the most memorable movie scenes of the last decade. Some of the visuals during the final set piece in the snow are still awe-inspiring to this day. Furthermore, Hans Zimmer’s iconic score brings this film to another level. It is one of the special film scores that feels completely essential to the overall experience of the film. This film and this story are incredibly gripping even if you don’t totally understand what’s going on 100% of the time. I’ll agree with some of the critics and say that this film may not be a sci-fi masterpiece, but it is a damn great heist film.
4. Interstellar (2014)
“Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.”
Speaking of convoluted plots, Interstellar is the number four film on my list. This film is even more polarizing than Inception. It divided audiences when it was released back in 2014, and it continues to do so today. Personally, I really love this film. I’ll admit, I don’t really have any valid defenses for the logical flaws that exist in this film. This film is, in many ways, a good microcosm for Nolan’s entire career for me because although I understand the criticisms, I still enjoy the overall product. For those unaware, Interstellar was released in 2014 and had a star studded cast that included Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, and David Gyasi. The story centers on a team of explorers attempting to travel through a wormhole and find a suitable planet for mankind to move to, before Earth’s resources completely run out. This film is 170 minutes long and as I stated previously, there are many flaws in the logic and confusing elements to the science found in the film. Interestingly enough, I was reminded of something I wrote in my Aaron Sorkin – Ranked blog when I was thinking about where to rank this movie on this list. In that blog, I discussed how Sorkin has a propensity to change or exaggerate certain things when writing the scripts for his films based on a true story. I also discussed how it didn’t bother me that much. The fact that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t create Facebook because he got dumped at a bar does not ruin The Social Network for me. Similarly, the fact that the science doesn’t totally make sense in Interstellar, doesn’t ruin the film for me. Regardless of its flaws, I still find this to be one of Nolan’s most successful films from an emotional standpoint. The relationship between Matthew McConaughey’s character and his daughter creates some of the most emotionally effective moments in all of Nolan’s oeuvre. I’ll admit, you may have to ignore some questions you have about the plot in order to fully enjoy those moments, but that is not a difficult roadblock for me. Also, there is no denying that this is one of the most visually interesting films of this entire century. All in all, there are just too many genuinely great aspects of Interstellar for someone to dismiss it solely because Nolan may not fully understand quantum physics.
3. Memento (2000)
“We all lie to ourselves to be happy.”
As I stated earlier in this blog, Memento was the film that truly launched Nolan’s career. This film was released in 2000, and 20 years later it remains one of the most inventive and imaginative films of the century. On the surface, the story is fairly simple. Memento centers on a man with short term memory loss attempting to track down his wife’s murderer. It is the ingenious structure of this film that makes it so special and so memorable. The film is told in reverse. The brilliance of this unique structure is Nolan makes it so much more than just an interesting gimmick. He uses the backwards storytelling to shine on a greater light on the unreliable nature of the film’s narrator, Leonard played by Guy Pearce, which ultimately adds extra weight to the twist that comes at the end of the film. That twist is an effective one that adds to the enjoyment of the film. But, it is the choice that Leonard makes once the twist is revealed that ultimately makes the ending of this film so brilliant. Memento explores some very interesting ideas such as how people sometimes need to distort their own reality in order to give their life purpose. A film like this needs a great central performance and Pearce gives it just that. He allows the audience to understand what it would feel like to be this man and have this condition. It is crucial that the audience feels empathy for this character in order for the twist ending to be as effective as it is, and Pearce’s performance makes the audience truly care for Leonard and the journey that he is on. Following was technically Nolan’s first film but Memento was his true introduction. There is a tangible energy that comes with this film that can only be described as youthful. That same energy is not totally felt in some of Nolan’s later films. Those later films are more polished and more slick, but Memento contains a difficult to describe vibe that can only come from a young, talented director trying to make a name for himself. Nolan’s name was certainly known after this film.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
There is not a whole lot to say about 2008’s The Dark Knight that hasn’t already been said before. Since the time of its release, this film has been considered the greatest superhero movie ever made. In my opinion, it still holds that title today. It’s interesting to look back at the year 2008, in which the world saw the release of both The Dark Knight and Iron Man. At the time, we didn’t know that those two releases would be the two biggest catalysts for the change in moviemaking that would come over the next 12 years. Those films led to the superhero movie era as we know it. The Dark Knight launched a more serious, gritty, and dark line of films. Iron Man, of course, launched the most successful film franchise of all time, the MCU. Back in 2008 though, The Dark Knight was like nothing we had ever seen before. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker is undeniably one of the most iconic performances of this century. I was only 11 years old when this film was released and I like to say that Ledger’s performance was one of the first times I was really able to grasp and recognize what an incredible acting performance looked like. He owned every single scene he was in, and he stayed in the viewers mind even when he was off screen. As great as Bale is as Batman, this movie still belongs to Ledger. Another thing I love about this movie, and its influence, is that it proved that filmmakers with distinct voices and styles can work within the studio system and make successful and unique franchise films, as long as they’re given the room to create. Nolan did not compromise his vision or his style just because he was working in a pre-existing world. Instead, he created a crime thriller, with elements of horror, and incredible action set pieces that just happened to star Batman and The Joker. I may have some issues with the third act of this film and I do think it could probably benefit from being just a little bit shorter, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is the greatest film of its kind and one of the true high marks of Nolan’s career.
1. Dunkirk (2017)
“Well done, lads. Well done.”
Perhaps this is a controversial choice, but I consider Nolan’s most recent film, Dunkirk, to be his best. Dunkirk, which tells the true story of the Dunkirk evacuations that took place during the Battle of France in World War II, is Nolan’s war epic. In my opinion, this film quickly established itself as one of the all time great war films in history. I’m not alone in my praise of this film either. It received a Best Picture nomination back in 2018, and Quentin Tarantino actually named it his number two film of the decade during a podcast recorded near the end of 2019. There is an obvious reason why Dunkirk is Nolan’s best film for me. That reason is, he is the master of set pieces and, with Dunkirk, he made an entire movie that is just one giant set piece. That’s the beauty of this film, it contains everything that Nolan does best. He gets rid of the convoluted sci-fi plots for this film, and instead just focuses on visually stunning, anxiety inducing, masterful filmmaking. Somehow, this film managed to feel like a step up for Nolan in terms of visuals, even after the staggeringly magnificent Interstellar, which was released three years earlier. The impressive thing about Dunkirk though is that despite the lack of dialogue or a conventional plot, there is still real emotion in the story. Unlike other Nolan films though, that emotion isn’t wrapped up inside of some sort of convoluted storytelling. Instead, the emotional weight of this film comes the real life stakes of the story that are made clear by the brilliant directing. Essentially, Nolan captures the feeling you have while watching the third act of a great film, and spreads that feeling out across an entire movie. There is an incredibly effective tension to this film that remains prevalent throughout the entirety of the 106 minute runtime. That runtime is important to note as well. Some other Nolan films are hurt by their 150+ minute runtimes, but Dunkirk feels like the perfect length. There is no denying that this film can potentially be just an overwhelming spectacle on one’s first watch, and it may take multiple viewings to realize that it’s much more than just a spectacle. But, when that realization is made then one begins to see Dunkirk for what it is, which is the best film of Christopher Nolan’s career.