The Definitive (and Completely Uncontroversial) Ranking of the Movies of Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan is an important filmmaker. Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying the director’s status in the industry. He has his weaknesses, but that is by the by, and the fact remains that in a landscape overrun with sequels and remakes and reboots, the mild mannered Englishman is one of the very few figures capable of standing strong against the prevailing trend winds, repeatedly delivering original, standalone, often quite thoughtful blockbusters.
While it was his Batman movies that were Nolan’s first (and still biggest) financial successes, he has now for nigh-on a decade proven a remarkably consistent box office draw, essentially cementing his status as a paradoxical sort of filmmaker—‘indie’ in his commitment to unique projects and his disinterest in trends; yet very much ‘mainstream’ in terms of awareness, budgets, and the way A-listers flock to his movies. Frequently the writer or co-writer on his projects with his brother, Jonathan, Nolan does have a few set themes that he keeps returning to: Time’s passage and its effect on the human psyche; identity and illusion; perception and self-deception; memory; and a little bit of family sometimes thrown in for good measure. Often, his films are long. Similarly to David Fincher he is often seen as a ‘cold’ sort of filmmaker, ostensibly obsessed with the technical side of movie production; apparently more interested in the mechanical hows of his plots rather than the human concerns that drive stories. But just as Fincher’s best movies (e.g. Zodiac) reveal the humanist buried underneath that clinical exterior, so too is there more to Nolan than the oft-repeated, rather shallow characterisation of him would suggest. In his finest work, the whos are given equal spotlight to the hows, the puzzle boxes serving a purpose, highlighting rather than obscuring the people trapped inside it.
Nolan is the only director apart from James ‘King of the World’ Cameron to have two movies gross over $1 billion. For Cameron, those were obviously Titanic and Avatar. For Nolan, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan is also, for such a grand-scale sort of director, quite prolific. In the 2000’s he made, on average, one movie every two years. Cameron, by way of contrast, made just one feature (and two documentaries) in the same time frame. In the 2010’s Nolan is, at the time of writing, three for eight, while Cameron has so far sat this decade out (not that there is too much to be gained from continuing this comparison, as the two directors are, apart from the size of their budgets and their penchant for large practical effects, not exactly interested in similar things; the earlier Fincher comparison is a much richer mine).
Apart from the long-bubbling rumours about him tackling the next Bond movie—which the director has himself now (thankfully) put to rest—there has been very little information about what project Nolan might be tackling next. So while we wait in anticipation to see what direction the man from London will go from here, let’s do what the internet demands, and rank what he’s given us so far.
10. Interstellar (2014)
It’s not that one should call Interstellar a bad movie, per se. More a well-intentioned misstep. When judging films it’s always most instructive to measure what the filmmaker was trying to tell us—and how—against how well they managed to do so. In the case of Nolan’s expansive and ambitious spacefaring thesis, it seems that the director was going for some sort of grand unified theory of a number of his pet themes. There’s time (of course), family, and identity-via-legacy all mixed into the heady soup, but it never really gels together like it should. The dialogue is frequently wonky, occasionally outright bad; the emotion cloying and overwrought; and the pacing all over the place. The sheer spectacle of it all sometimes manages to compensate for these shortcomings, the grand scale almost proving enough to make you forget the George Lucas-like nature of lines like ‘Love is the one thing that transcends time and space!’ or mid-McConnoisance era Matthew McConaughey’s titanic amounts of intense, sincere, bookshelf-bound emoting. Nolan’s heart was clearly in the right place when making Interstellar, and there is plenty of technical excellence to marvel at here, but as a complete package it largely falls flat.
9. Batman Begins (2005)
Everybody and their grandma loves Batman Begins. It’s a canonical, important (there’s that word again!), universally adored game-changer.
Except it’s not nearly as amazing as you’re remembering it. Now before you start sharpening your pitchforks and dipping the tips in acid let me speedily reaffirm that I absolutely recognise how much of a big deal Nolan’s first Batman movie was when it came out. Still is, really. It was an almighty detonation of authorial intent, starkly confident in its tone and defiantly blind to precedent. It singlehandedly washed away the bad taste left in our mouths by Joel Schumacher’s campy take on the character and it added a previously unseen depth and pseudo-realism to the genre—suddenly, superheroes felt more three dimensional, almost as if they could exist in a reality that was only a little bit removed from ours. Of course, it didn’t take long before lesser filmmakers would confuse ‘grittiness’ for ‘depth’. Nicking the tonal palette of Nolan’s Batman while forgetting to study the foundations of the movie they would start delivering ever diminishing returns, but that regrettable development does not lie on Nolan’s head.
But aside from its seminal place in the narrative of the development of the genre, how does Batman Begins hold up on its own, as a movie? Watching it after what seems like a lifetime since its release the answer is: Meh. It’s fine. It does a good enough job setting things up for its superior follow-up, but as its own story it’s not half as compelling as it once felt. There are isolated segments on Bruce Wayne’s long, painful road to becoming Batman that are done well—and Christian Bale uses that famed intensity of his to good effect in selling Wayne’s almost nihilistic drive—but the film drags in long stretches, sometimes threatening to collapse under the weight of the mythos that it’s rebuilding. It’s watchable enough, and most of the players in it treat it with the respect it needs, but its biggest sin is probably the fact that it somehow makes Cillian Murphy uninteresting. In a way, I guess that’s kind of impressive.
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises is a sprawling, disjointed, messy milk-spill of a movie. There are strange plot holes, jarring concessions to its age rating, and the less said about large parts of the ending the better. But there is a tight and dramatic story of failure and redemption hiding in the mess. One with real pathos; and a palpable feeling of exhaustion as suffered by its protagonist. The physical and mental toll that being Batman takes on Bruce Wayne is one of the central pillars of Rises, and it is felt keenly indeed, thanks to Christian Bale’s assured and confident performance. But for all of Bale’s skill, it is Tom Hardy who steals the show here. He is spectacular as Bane, utilising his unmatched physicality and little idiosyncrasies to create an unyielding and elemental threat, both physical and intellectual. The questions first raised in The Dark Knight are followed through here. What kind of figure is Batman, actually? How does he relate to the city that spawned him? Is he its saviour, or a burden? And what price must a man pay to become a symbol? Cut out forty or so minutes of superfluous baggage—maybe by not hiring David S. Goyer in the first place—and The Dark Knight Rises could’ve been something quite special.
7. Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan entered his third decade of filmmaking in fine form with Inception—an original, big budget blockbuster with more smarts than most movies of that scale, as well as a quite dazzling series of new and innovative imagery. Werner Herzog once said that cinema should always be a medium striving to bring us new images—‘We are surrounded by worn-out images, and we deserve new ones.’—and this is probably Inception’s greatest success. Nolan spent almost a decade, on and off, writing the film, first pitching it in 2001 but deciding to get some experience with larger budgets first (oh, hello, Batman) before tackling it. And while the script is capable—often quite brisk and peppered with character-building colour—it really is the visual feast on display throughout that is what makes Inception work. Crumbling cliffs, rotating hallways, cities folding in on themselves, a perennially spinning top—there is an appropriate wealth of dazzling images packed into this story of a high-stakes heist set amidst dreams and multiple levels of consciousness. Nolan’s weaknesses—relatively thankless roles for women especially and characters on the whole that don’t quite feel like fully fleshed out human beings—are on show too, but the rollicking ride that is the (almost video game-like) multi-leveled heist, backed up by enough emotional heft to make it mean something, ensures that Inception remains a ‘Damned good, if not quite great’ bit of big spectacle movie-making.
Just, you know—you shoulda cast someone other than Leo, Chris. Just sayin’.
6. Following (1999)
Shot on a shoestring budget with a minimal cast and utilising mostly natural light, Following is a in many ways—and like with so many debuts—a taste of things to come, of themes and techniques to be revisited. There is a thief called Cobb; a fractured time line that plays with our perceptions as well as the characters’; and a few flip reveals when it comes to identity. Hell, there’s even a Batman symbol on a door at one point.
Following isn’t just a taster however. It is a very good movie in its own right. A young writer who enjoys following people decides one day to follow a man who turns out to be a very specific type of thief, their developing relationship bringing unforeseen complications to our protagonist’s life. Just shy of seventy minutes long, you can watch the full thing on YouTube, and I would urge you to do so if you haven’t. It’s an assured bit of movie making, especially for a debut, and it is a lot of fun.
5. The Prestige (2006)
You hear that? On the horizon, that sound? It’s the clamour of battle, as one Pajiba writer clashes with another about the merits (or lack thereof) of what is still probably Christopher Nolan’s most elaborate puzzle box. Watch this space…
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
If Batman Begins was a detonation, then The Dark Knight was an aftershock that triggered an earthquake. This was a leap in quality and ambition comparable to Metallica transitioning from the raw scrappy aggression of their debut ‘Kill Em All’ to the comprehensive bar-setting assault that was ‘Ride The Lightning’. We might’ve seen glimpses of what was to come, and even that tease had been seismic, but when the follow-up came, it knocked us for six.
The Dark Knight opens perfectly, with a taut, bravura bank heist sequence that lovingly pays homage to Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat while simultaneously managing to provide a textbook example of quick, efficient, contextual exposition—usually another one of Nolan’s weak points. The heist, playing almost like a self-contained movie before the main plot begins, serves a dual purpose. It immerses us into a Hans Zimmer-driven tension that will be with us for significant portions of the movie’s running time, but it also introduces our antagonist in a most effective way: By allowing us to watch him work. And it really is something to behold. Before five minutes are up we see exactly what we are dealing with. We see how with a terrifyingly methodical madness this ghastly apparition comes out of nowhere, invading an amoral world that nevertheless runs on some sort of rules, and like an oil slick he proceeds to taint everything he touches, altering irreversibly the environment around him.
That’s a lot of words to spill on a movie’s villain, but they are more than justified. The Dark Knight, as a movie as a whole, is excellent. The action is well-balanced against its character moments; the emotional stakes are there, and they feel real; and it’s packed full of resonant symbolism, really building a mythology around its character and city that feels grand, almost operatic (another echo of Heat). But despite all that it’s a film with the opposite problem of 95% of comic book-based movies: Its villain is almost too good. Heath Ledger’s Joker threatens to overshadow the whole movie. Every single scene he is in he is pure electricity. It goes out beyond the genre’s usual constraints too—there is no need for a qualifier; the Joker is an amazing character, not just for a comic book movie, but for a movie, full stop. The Dark Knight might never quite manage to sustain the level of greatness seen in its Mann-esque opening, and Heath Ledger might be leagues above everything else going on around him, but it nevertheless remains, ten years after its release, almost as good as superhero movies get.
3. Insomnia (2002)
Insomnia is a strange blip in Christopher Nolan’s filmography. For a start it is much more straight ahead when compared to a lot of his movies. There is no time-fractured narrative and everybody is basically who they appear to be. It is also, uniquely for Nolan, a remake (of an earlier Norwegian movie starring the Skarsgard patriarch). It is much more than a curiosity however, and as its ranking here attests, it’s a film that deserves to be seen by everyone, not just Nolan completists.
A psychological thriller with neo-noir overtones, Insomnia follows a morally compromised veteran detective and his junior partner into a small Alaskan town where they attempt to catch the killer of a teenage girl. In one of his best dramatic roles, the late Robin Williams plays the killer, amazingly against type (a la One Hour Photo), all sad eyes and smooth tongue. The detective on his trail is brought to life by Al Pacino, and it is one of the great actor’s finest latter-period performances. Chronically sleep deprived by the never setting Arctic sun, his mind fraying and judgement failing him, Pacino eschews the loud, bombastic tics that would come to otherwise dominate his career during this era. Instead he creates a layered, sympathetic portrayal of a complicated man, reminding us just why he deserves all the accolades that he has received throughout his long career.
The movie itself is impeccably shot. It has a remarkably specific sense of place, and through clever editing and camera work it also lets us feel what Pacino is going through. Insomnia is often overlooked in Nolan’s oeuvre. It shouldn’t be. It’s a tight, emotional, powerful watch, and Christopher Nolan himself could stand to rewatch it to remind himself of what he can do.
2. Dunkirk (2017)
Dunkirk is a masterpiece. There’s no two ways about it. In so many ways it proves that Christopher Nolan is, whatever his weaknesses, one of the best filmmakers of our time.
At 1h 47 mins Dunkirk is Nolan’s second shortest movie, and it is exactly as long as it has to be. There is not a second’s worth of flab on it. It is light on dialogue, the characters in it almost speechless from terror or focus or both. Telling the story of the mass evacuation of Allied forces from French shores which saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of men in WWII, it is faced with a similar dilemma to the event it is depicting: How do you turn a retreat into a triumph? The answer is, of course, you don’t. Not quite. But by remembering that through escape you live to fight another day, you realise that ‘sometimes that’s enough’. There are a lot of complex emotions playing out in Dunkirk, and Nolan manages to evoke these deftly with little said, and a lot shown. Fear, despair, hope, determination. Nolan is a director often accused of being incapable of portraying the deeper, more nuanced sides of humanity. Dunkirk is a movie that gives the lie to that. It shows an empathetic maturity terminally lacking in movies that deal with war, and it does not shy away from complicated points of view. At the end of the movie, the soldiers, having made it back home alive despite overwhelming odds, fear they will be branded cowards. They squirm in shame, trying to make themselves smaller, hiding their faces. Instead they find themselves being hailed as heroes. They don’t understand. All they did is survive. Again that refrain, ‘Sometimes that’s enough’. Nevertheless they know: This is not the end. The war still rages. They will have to go back, possibly to their deaths. As the movie comes to a close with their return home to English shores, and one of them reads Churchill’s famous speech as published in a newspaper, the usual tones of that monologue are inverted—where most often we hear defiance and courage, here instead it is more akin to a melancholy resignation. War is terrifying. Pointless. An antithesis to life. And the real success of Nolan’s Dunkirk—quite apart from the breathtaking technical brilliance on display—is how he makes us feel this, deeply and keenly. As if we were right there with the soldiers on the ground, feeling the weight of the countless numbers of them, sacrificed over and over again down the years to mankind’s folly, with no end in sight.
If Dunkirk is a sign of things to come, then bring on whatever Nolan has planned next.
1. Memento (2001)
It’s funny that it apparently took Christopher Nolan so long to realise that discipline and brevity, rather than sprawl and scale, were the words to live by. Sixteen years before Dunkirk made us all exclaim in surprise at its ‘short’ running time, the director released Memento. It ran a neat two hours, was tightly plotted, intensely focused, and it is still—despite stiff competition from Dunkirk—the director’s best picture.
Although, really, it’s not a particularly fair comparison. Nor a very sensible one. Why anyone would deem it right or correct by any means to measure a story of the evacuation of Dunkirk against a small mystery about a man stuck in a perpetual loop of vengeance and forgetfulness is beyond me. But such is the inherent fascism of numbered lists, and here we are.
Memento is, of course, the story of Leonard Shelby, a man incapable of making new memories, trying to find the men who killed his wife. A never-better Guy Pearce plays Shelby as a person constantly scrabbling to keep the remaining pieces of his life from falling apart in his hands. He is a tragic figure, an empty vessel, drained by grief and driven by the need for some sort of closure. Pearce’s performance is a flat one, but that’s because it needs to be. That is the character’s survival mechanism. He cannot afford to get too worked up about anything, as he cannot fully judge the value, or truth, of something. Pearce conveys this, and the emotions nevertheless stirring inside of him, wonderfully. The flashes of deadpan, resigned humour he displays throughout serve to fully flesh him out, making him supremely relatable, despite his odd condition.
In Memento we find Nolan utilising his clever directorial tricks in ways that serve the plot perfectly—the conceit here being the the movie plays ‘backwards’, scene by scene, resetting each time after a certain period has elapsed, after which Shelby forgets everything that has just transpired. In lesser hands this could have been a cheap gimmick, but Nolan uses it to help us empathise with Shelby’s plight. We are piecing things together, just as he is. Nobody and nothing can quite fully be trusted, including our own senses. It is a puzzlebox, but one with a purpose. The joy of seeing the mechanics of its construction are matched by the pathos we feel for Shelby and his desperate quest. A quest that is helped along by an accumulated wealth of methods and tactics that Shelby employs. Maps, annotations, and most famously tattoos. It’s a striking and instantly iconic series of images, and for Leonard Shelby they are not just tools to help in his search—they are also pillars upon which his very identity ends up resting.
As a film, Memento is the complete package, but the really impressive thing about it is that it plays with a number of genre conventions—noir, mystery, thriller—while often eventually subverting them cleverly. I make it a policy to try and avoid spoilers as much as possible in any write-ups, so I will avoid going into depth here about the devastating reveals that pile up near the end of the film, but as anyone who has seen it will attest: The subversion of expectation is one of Memento’s most powerful tools. Indeed it’s one of the things that means that so many years later it still packs pretty much the same punch it did when it first came out. Many films with ‘twist’ endings wither and lose all power after their reveals. Here it just makes the whole experience that much more haunting, and all the more lasting.
Memento isn’t just a gripping mystery, however. It is also a moving treatise on memory and its integral status within the human condition; how it shapes us, limits us, and defines our relationship with the world outside our minds. It’s a movie that everyone should see.
‘I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?… Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.’
Petr Knava lives in London and plays music