Christopher Nolan Movies, Ranked
Why so serious?
The trajectory of director Christopher Nolan's career is often framed in terms of scale: bigger budgets, bigger ideas, and bigger headaches for audiences trying to untangle the plots of his increasingly convoluted puzzle-movies. In addition to shooting sequences of his action blockbusters with IMAX cameras and screening them in the 70 mm format, he's also become an outspoken advocate for the moviegoing experience, a global pastime that's been put largely on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic. For months, the future of moviegoing has spun like that damn spinning top from Inception.
Now, Tenet, his latest science-fiction brain-teaser starring John David Washington and future-Batman Robert Pattison, will be released in select markets in America after premiering internationally last month. It might not be a great idea to rush out to theaters -- in fact, it might be a very bad idea -- but Nolan's other movies are all available to watch (or endlessly re-watch!) in the comfort of your own home, where you might discover a new favorite or poke fresh plot holes afterwards. If you turn on the subtitles, you can finally understand all of Tom Hardy's garbled Bane dialogue.
Though the London-born filmmaker has a reputation for producing cerebral, dour, and chilly movies, his work also displays an admirable commitment to old-fashioned suspense and unapologetic spectacle. He loves a pulse-pounding shoot-out, an eyebrow-singeing explosion, and a back-breaking fistfight between beefy movie stars. So, let's cut to the chase: We've ranked all of his features, including the endlessly mysterious Tenet, below -- from 11 to 1, with no time-shifting funny business. We'll leave that to the expert.
11. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises, the finale of Nolan's box-office conquering and Oscar-winning Batman trilogy, is where his ambition, particularly his love of stacking narrative blocks on top of each other, finally got the best of him. This is a movie with a great opening (the plane sequence!) and a poignant ending (the shot of Michael Caine on vacation!). But the movie's long middle, with its exploding stadium, roving reactor core, and monologuing side characters, is often a slog, loaded up with empty political signifiers and belabored plot contrivances. (Even Anne Hathaway's charming turn as Selina Kyle/Catwoman gets lost in the shuffle.) Despite all this whirring activity, the movie is also oddly repetitive, with Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne rebuilding himself into Batman not just once but twice, which makes watching the 165-minute movie as arduous as climbing out of an underground desert prison. In attempting to fuse the propulsive style of The Dark Knight with the more lofty heroic myth-making of Batman Begins, while working in references to Charles Dickens and Occupy Wall Street, Nolan blows up his own franchise from within, leaving you to sort through the wreckage. -- Dan Jackson
10. Insomnia (2002)
As the only remake and the only movie he doesn't have a screenwriting credit on (Hillary Seitz wrote the screenplay), Insomnia can look like the least personal film from an artist not exactly known for bristling self-analysis. But with its mentally unraveling, sleep-deprived detective protagonist played by Al Pacino, and its moral hand-wringing over questions of guilt and integrity, this fog-drenched neo-noir still reflects all the core Nolan thematic obsessions, even with the scene of the crime located in Alaska instead of Gotham City or the subconscious. In his first movie for a major studio -- Warner Bros., which has maintained a professional relationship with the director ever since -- Nolan proved he could work with A-list movie stars, getting one of the stronger "restrained" dramatic turns from Robin Williams. He also showed he could deliver a hit. The movie is mostly fine, the work of an ambitious filmmaker just beginning to, in the words of Tom Hardy, dream a little bigger, darling. -- DJ
9. Following (1998)
Nolan's first feature is decidedly more low tech than anything he would make in the future, but in a slight 69 minutes he sets the groundwork for all his future preoccupations. Following charts an unnamed man (Jeremy Theobald) who is ensnared in the aura of a charming thief (Alex Haw) who goes by the name of Cobb. (Is it coincidence that Leonardo DiCaprio's dream architect in Inception is also named Cobb? Probably not.) Even at a micro scale, Following has everything you associate with Nolan: mercurial figures, an internal universe with a strict set of rules, and a big twist. Made on a tiny budget, it can't help but feel a little roughshod, and the shoestring nature highlights Nolan's foibles as well as his strengths, especially when it comes to character development. On its own, Following is an intriguing lark, but in context it's a valuable sign of things to come. -- Esther Zuckerman
8. Interstellar (2014)
There are very few stories about a doomed human race on a dying Earth as hopeful as Interstellar, which launches Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway into the far reaches of another galaxy in search for the future, traversing time, space, and more dimensions than we ourselves can perceive. McConaughey, at the tail end of the McConaissance, plays Cooper, an astronaut sent forth to search for habitable planets in a new solar system, but forever tied to his home world by his love for his brilliant daughter Murph (played as a young girl by Mackenzie Foy, and by Jessica Chastain as an adult), who continues to age as Cooper stays the same, until she is old enough to solve an inter-dimensional riddle. Cooper, his fellow spacefarers, and one charming robot named TARS, brave hostile temperatures, mountainous tidal waves, and the deceptions of desperate compatriots to keep their descendants from wasting away in the dust. Interstellar is a space odyssey on a massive scale, using complex physical theories about the inner workings of black holes and time dilation to disguise its true purpose: a love story told through the irresistible gravitational force that binds one person to another. -- Emma Stefansky
7. Tenet (2020)
It seemed improbable that Tenet would ever see the light of day, especially given the general state of the world at the time it was released, but if any director can bend space and time to fit his needs, it's Christopher Nolan. Part heist caper, part James Bond flick, part sci-fi battle for control over the very fabric of the universe, Tenet plays at times like Inception's darker, more convoluted sibling, whose heroes, played by John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, are car-flipping time-cops who shoot bullets backwards and kick and punch their way through fight scenes in two different directions. The movie is perhaps Nolan's most complex, with characters giving long, expository info-dumps for nearly the entirety of its lengthy runtime, but its density is burst open by showy action set-pieces that are some of the best of Nolan's career. Don't let yourself be intimidated by long speeches about paradoxes and the nature of the continuum -- even the characters themselves repeatedly let each other off the hook, cautioning against thinking about everything too much. As one says to another right at the beginning of the movie: "Don't try to understand it. Feel it." -- ES
6. Batman Begins (2005)
Before the glut of comic book movies came to dominate pop culture, and before the word "grimdark" was used to describe the members of the Justice League, Christopher Nolan brought one of the most famous superheroes into the real world. His Batman trilogy marked the beginnings of a new moment in the telling of superhero stories on film, yet none have come close to the grounded optimism of Nolan's Bruce Wayne. By now, we've seen tons of hero origin stories on the big screen and become so familiar with their beats that we could predict them with our eyes closed, but Nolan's approach to myth-making in Batman Begins, which follows Bruce through his tragic childhood and his training at the hands of Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the villainous League of Shadows before returning him to Gotham City, is careful and considered. Batman Begins treats its comic-book references -- the Tumbler, the Batsignal, etc. -- with reverence and presents its hero with awe, standing him on rooftops and plunging him into the air, yet the movie reminds us, again and again, that Bruce Wayne is just a man, doing what he knows is the right thing. -- ES
5. Inception (2010)
The movie that first popularized the "BWAAAAAM" sound effect (thanks, Hans Zimmer) and made Nolan notorious for his convoluted, metaphysical plots that require diagrams to understand is also, arguably, the director at his most whimsical, introducing a fictional underworld of dream thieves who enter into people's subconscious minds to steal information and implant ideas, building entire worlds in which to play around with space, time, and genre itself. "Architects" dictate what dreams will look like; "chemists" concoct sleeping sedatives to knock a target out for a set amount of time; "forgers" shape-shift into any person by imitating their mannerisms; and "extractors" manipulate the mark's perception, stealing memories hidden in safes deep inside their minds. Yet underneath the bombastic, brain-rattling score and gravity-defying action scenes, Inception is about human relationships: a man's grief at never measuring up to his brilliant father and another's primal need to reunite his broken family, whose grief manifests itself as a murderous dream-specter. You'll never listen to Edith Piaf again in quite the same way. -- ES
4. Dunkirk (2017)
When it was announced that Christopher Nolan would be making a WWII movie, the question on most fans' minds was: What's the hook? Surely, there would be an element to this telling of this pivotal moment in British history that would make it, well, Nolan-y -- and, indeed, he delivered. Dunkirk is simultaneously one of his most straightforward films and his most innovative as he endeavors to unfold the narrative over three different timelines operating on different clocks that eventually converge. On land, the stranded soldiers are waiting to be rescued, helplessness and survival instincts spurring their actions. In the air, British pilots are beating back the German assault. Then, finally, on the open water, Mark Rylance embodies the everyday heroes that came to the rescue. Seemingly traditional and not all at the same time, it almost works like a silent film, exciting and lean in its commitment to immediacy. -- EZ
3. Memento (2001)
When praising a movie that relies on a clever narrative conceit, it's common for critics to underplay the structural gambit and instead focus on how the other elements of the film are really what make the story tick. But in the case of Memento, Nolan's chronologically fractured breakout indie about a guy named Leonard (Guy Pearce) tracking his wife's killer while battling short-term memory loss, the cleverness is the point. That doesn't mean the performances aren't captivating -- Pearce brings a comedic touch to a role that a lesser performer might've played in a weary register, Joe Pantoliano practically steals the movie with his scheming energy, and Carrie Anne-Moss delivers a wry twist on the femme fatale -- but they're all serving the movie's big idea, which was initially dreamed up by Nolan's brother Jonathan, who would go to on to construct the sprawling puzzle of Westworld. Set in a world of seedy motels and desolate bars, a far cry from the tech-obsessed GQ spreads of later Nolan works, Memento is a rare achievement: a movie about mental instability where everything is in its right place. -- DJ
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Where Batman Begins slowly, gradually, built a modern day ideal of a hero, The Dark Knight crashes him back down to earth, as Bruce Wayne learns that Gotham needs more than just a good man in a cape to save the day once in a while. The movie pits Batman against two more famous bad guys: the Joker (Heath Ledger), still one of the most terrifying movie villains ever, and an extra crispy Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), born out of Harvey Dent's need to find a kind of justice that makes sense after being unable to cope with heartbreak. Against the Joker's machinations, Batman and the people of Gotham can hold their own -- few scenes come close to the powerfully tense moments aboard the ferries, where a group of prisoners and a group of civilians refuse to blow each other up to survive -- but Bruce Wayne is no match for a city that believes it doesn't need him anymore. The breathless action scenes, the only-Nolan-would-do-that semi-truck flip, the migraine-inducing bat-sonar fistfight, and even the speeches from all sides about the nature of morality all fuel the movie's dread-soaked worldview. The story culminates in a final tragedy, a sacrifice, and a necessary lie. "Why is he running, Dad?" asks a young boy at the end. His father's response -- "Because we have to chase him" -- speaks to the notion that faith is more vital, sometimes, than truth. -- ES
1. The Prestige (2006)
"Are you watching closely?" That opening line could be the thesis statement for Christopher Nolan's entire career, but it's only one of the reasons The Prestige lands at the top of our list. When it arrived in 2006, Nolan's tale of warring magicians had to contend with the release of another magician movie with a similar aesthetic that very same year. But while Neil Burger's The Illusionist has largely faded from cultural memory, The Prestige has only risen in estimation. The Prestige is arguably the movie that most plumbs the director's own psyche: He's a man who loves to trick people, who here makes a piece of art about men trying to trick people. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale star as Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, respectively, colleagues-turned-rivals whose determination to stunt audiences into a state of wonder turns deadly. Angier is the showman, while Borden is the craftsman, but they are both obsessives. What elevates The Prestige above all of Nolan's other work are these two characters and the great performances behind them. (It's Jackman's finest work.) Whereas in Nolan's worst films the people feel like an afterthought, in The Prestige the characters' psychological pain motivates all of the director's cunning sleight-of-hand. Yes, you could say that The Prestige is all about its own prestige, pulling off that final twist, but it also perhaps gives us the greatest insight into Nolan's own madness. It's at times campy and flamboyant while also maintaining a sense of great tragedy. Also, no other Nolan film features David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. -- EZ
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