Every Christopher Nolan Movie, Ranked

Movies Lists Christopher Nolan
Every Christopher Nolan Movie, Ranked

A filmmaker concerned with time, with information, with magic tricks and reveals and all the things that go unnoticed when your attention is misdirected, Christopher Nolan has a reputation for making big movies that seem smarter than they actually are. Stereotypically, his fanboys love to seem that way too. But as we rank his movies, it becomes clear that Nolan’s greatness exists beyond this surface, in the details of his craft and the intersections of his ambitions.

As our Jesse Hassenger writes, Nolan is “prone to both methodically ascending his big, obvious building blocks and attempting to take wilder, more ambitious leaps.” That leads to massive blockbusters that ask more of an audience than most, and half-baked gestures towards weightier themes that those accustomed to more nuanced filmmaking may chafe against. His better movies find balance between these tendenciesHis best play them against one another. But they all are consuming, heady, highly practical showcases for his style and emotional earnestness. Whether he’s reinventing what the superhero movie could be, supplying college dorm rooms with poster-ready fan-theory machines, or simply reveling in the technical possibilities afforded to him, Christopher Nolan’s movies offer an exciting element that so few mainstream films do: An artistic depth that rewards you the more you think about them.

Here is every movie by Christopher Nolan, ranked:

12. Following (1998)

Square One: Christopher Nolan's Following (1998)

If the title of Christopher Nolan’s Following were a gerund, it would describe the actions of the film’s young male protagonist (Jeremy Theobald), who, as a means of ridding his life of boredom, aimlessness and likely some other, unspecified feeling of ennui, decides to tail random (and, eventually, not so random) strangers through the streets of London. If interpreted as a noun, however, the title could be presciently referencing the massive body of admirers Nolan will accrue in subsequent years thanks to the directorial trademarks first introduced in his debut. Most prominent among these include a brooding antihero driven to action by an idée fixe and, even more iconically, non-linear storytelling whose temporal fragmentation turns plot into a puzzle to be solved. In the end, the coming-together of Nolan’s first conundrum satisfies but feels a tad shallow, not least because the non-linearity on display is pure surface, an exercise in audience manipulation that lacks any clear narrative or thematic justification. Whereas a film like (500) Days of Summer chops up linearity to evoke the erratic movement of memory, and Nolan’s own Memento (released in 2000, only two years after Following) explicitly orients its non-chronological structure vis-à-vis the amnesiac hero’s fractured sense of time, Following would have been more or less the same movie had its story been told straight. The only missing thing would’ve been the fleeting, primordial pleasure of seeing the narrative gaps, forcibly generated by Nolan’s slice-n-dice storytelling, filled in—of seeing the incomplete made whole. Shot on black-and-white 16mm and starring non-professional actors, Following exhibits the visual sensibilities of the French New Wave, but its spirit straddles Hitchcock and classical film noir. The likes of Double Indemnity and Out of the Past are evoked in the heavy shadows, the femme fatale archetype and the fact that the bulk of the movie is told in flashback. The Master of Suspense, on the other hand, surfaces in numerous other details: the Rope-esque duo of the dandyist male criminal (Alex Haw) and his partner, the sudden bursts of psychopathic violence, the way in which the driving plot point of fetishistic burglary thematizes voyeurism in tandem with the seductive transgression of invaded privacy and crossed boundaries. Nolan had his start with a sparse, stylish little movie meticulously constructed around the director’s cinephilia and his sense of narrative play. Though the Nolan of titanic epics has his merits, we would do well to remember his more impish side as well.–Jonah Jeng

11. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises

At two hours and 44 minutes, The Dark Knight Rises is way too long … and way too short. Welcome to the temporal paradox that is the third, final and a bit overladen entry of Christopher Nolan’s tripartite take on the caped crusader. In the third film of his trilogy, Nolan brings his A game (and A team, for that matter) to bear in an attempt to at least match the billion-dollar-grossing, Heath Ledger-elevated The Dark Knight in tone, tenor and pace. But between multiple characters afflicted with “plotty mouth” and a need to have readers suspend disbelief early and (a bit too) often, this trilogy capper falls well short of the two films that preceded it. After all, nearly three hours may seem like a long time to maintain tension and viewer interest in anything not involving hobbits or the NFL, but it’s also all too short when you’re trying to juxtapose the slow burn of a hero’s psychological journey (and physical recovery) with a villain’s crisp, diabolical plan (and throwing in three to four additional character arcs for good measure). It’s at this intersection of hurry up and slow down that the film both bogs down and skips beats. It’s why 30 minutes more would have told a more convincing tale of Bruce Wayne, and 30 minutes less would have done wonders for the story of Batman’s battle with Bane. Still, though The Dark Knight Rises may have joined the long list of finales that did not measure up to what went immediately before, that doesn’t make it any easier of an act to follow.—Michael Burgin

10. Insomnia (2002)

Released squarely between Christopher Nolan’s introduction to the world as an intriguing British import with Memento and his ascension to box-office god with the revamped Batman trilogy, Insomnia is a film that often falls between the cracks. And that’s a shame. Taking its title and premise from a 1997 Norwegian thriller starring Stellan Skarsgard, the film casts Al Pacino in the central role of an insomnia-ailed police detective who travels to a remote Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a young teenage girl. His chief suspect is a true crime writer named Walter Finch (played, with surprising menace, by Robin Williams). Typically known for their gleefully over-the-top histrionics, both Pacino and Williams are refreshingly understated here, giving their scenes together a quiet, yet tense pulse.–Mark Rozeman

9. Tenet (2020)

A classic Christopher Nolan puzzle box, at first glance Tenet is a lot like Inception. The central conceit that powers it is both cerebral and requires copious on-screen exposition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Nolan’s films always have at least one person trying to get their head around what exactly is going on, and it makes sense the audience would be as confused as the Protagonist (John David Washington), especially early on. Also, as with Inception, Tenet is basically a series of heists—smaller puzzle boxes within the larger one—which means while the viewer may not understand exactly what’s going on big picture, they will find the immediate action briskly paced and compellingly presented. Still, despite a compelling performance from Kenneth Branagh as antagonist Andrei Sator, the cerebral underpinnings and and even as the exact mechanics of this particular puzzle may demand more from the filmmaker than the audience, no amount of painstakingly crafted “time-inverted” action sequences nor Ludwig Göransson’s sweeping score can fill that hole occupied by a sympathetic main character, which Tenet lacks. None of this rests on Washington. Past Nolan protagonists like McConaughey (Interstellar), Pearce (Memento) and DiCaprio (Inception) not only had actual names, they had relatable motives and discernible emotional arcs. And though personal growth and emotional depth are hardly necessary ingredients in a spy thriller—just look at Bond, classic Bond—with so much else about Nolan’s script a mental exercise made real, some emotional stakes would be helpful to bring it alive. That might keep Tenet from the #1 slot on this year’s Best Sci-Fi list, but it shouldn’t keep lovers of the genre from seeing the only big budget science fiction to debut in theaters in 2020. —Michael Burgin

8. The Prestige (2006)

In The Prestige two competing magicians, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, try to outdo each other, but are really trying to achieve a brand of immortality. They are competing for the same audience’s faith, and they need all of it, because it is not something that can be shared (many religious institutions hold similar dogma for similar reasons). Each wants to invoke utter and absolute belief in their audiences, much like Nolan wants to do in his own, as if that achievement grants the doer divinity, whether or not it is built on tricks and illusions. Nolan begins the film with a trick, in fact, a shot of top hats littering the forest floor, with the voice-over asking, “Are you watching closely?” It is a shot out of time and place from the rest of the film, Nolan once again doing as he pleases, manipulating our perception of what we’re seeing and when so as to emulate the pledge, turn and prestige of the “magic” acts the film portrays. Our faith is built on lies we tell ourselves and others, Nolan seems to posit, and it’s a thesis on which he elaborates with his Dark Knight trilogy, insinuating that symbols are sacred not for their truth, but simply for what they inspire. —Chet Betz

7. Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins is a classic case of a superhero movie arriving at exactly the right time and place. It had been eight years since Batman & Robin, almost an unfathomable stretch of time by today’s franchise standards, but you can consider that to be a mourning and healing period. Rejecting the gaudy, cartoonish excesses of the ’90s Schumacher movies, and in a time before audiences had come to reflexively roll their eyes at the idea of a “dark and gritty reboot,” Begins was simply, exactly what the character of Batman needed in that moment. Hewing more closely to its comic source material, it gave us what will likely be the definitive portrait of Bruce Wayne’s training to become the Batman, a la the influential comic Year One, and it made the wise decision of making the film’s true villain one of Batman’s greatest but least-utilized rogues, Ra’s al Ghul. It’s a film that codifies what makes Batman, Batman—a psychological warrior unafraid of brutality but unwilling to go all the way to judgement and execution (see also: Dredd). It helps that it launched an impeccably cast trilogy of Nolan films as well, featuring iconic turns by Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson and of course Christian Bale as probably the best take on “millionaire playboy asshole” Bruce Wayne. With all that, you can overlook a little Katie Holmes in this one. —Jim Vorel

6. Memento (2000)

During a brutal attack in which he believes his wife was raped and murdered, insurance-fraud investigator Leonard Shelby (played with unequivocal intensity, frustration and panic by Guy Pearce) suffers head trauma so severe it leads to his inability to retain new memories for more than a few minutes. This device allows Nolan to brilliantly deconstruct traditional cinematic storytelling, toggling between chronological black-and-white vignettes and full-color five-minute segments that unfold in reverse order while Pearce frantically searches for his wife’s killer. The film is jarring, inventive and adventurous, and the payoff is every bit worth the mind-bending descent into madness. —Steve LaBate

5. Interstellar (2014)

Whether he’s making superhero movies or blockbuster puzzle boxes, Christopher Nolan doesn’t usually bandy with emotion. But Interstellar is a nearly three-hour ode to the interconnecting power of love. It’s also his personal attempt at doing in 2014 what Stanley Kubrick did in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey, less of an ode or homage than a challenge to Kubrick’s highly polarizing contribution to cinematic canon. Interstellar wants to uplift us with its visceral strengths, weaving a myth about the great American spirit of invention gone dormant. It’s an ambitious paean to ambition itself. The film begins in a not-too-distant future, where drought, blight and dust storms have battered the world down into a regressively agrarian society. Textbooks cite the Apollo missions as hoaxes, and children are groomed to be farmers rather than engineers. This is a world where hope is dead, where spaceships sit on shelves collecting dust, and which former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) bristles against. He’s long resigned to his fate but still despondent over mankind’s failure to think beyond its galactic borders. But then Cooper falls in with a troop of underground NASA scientists, led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who plan on sending a small team through a wormhole to explore three potentially habitable planets and ostensibly secure the human race’s continued survival. But the film succeeds more as a visual tour of the cosmos than as an actual story. The rah-rah optimism of the film’s pro-NASA stance is stirring, and on some level that tribute to human endeavor keeps the entire yarn afloat. But no amount of scientific positivism can offset the weight of poetic repetition and platitudes about love. —Andy Crump

4. Inception (2010)

In the history of cinema, there is no twist more groan-inducing than the “it was all a dream” trope (notable exceptions like The Wizard of Oz aside). With Inception, director Christopher Nolan crafts a bracing and high-octane piece of sci-fi drama wherein that conceit isn’t just a plot device, but the totality of the story. The measured and ever-steady pace and precision with which the plot and visuals unfold, and Nolan mainstay wally Pfister’s gorgeous, globe-spanning on-location cinematography, implies a near-obsessive attention to detail. The film winds up and plays out like a clockwork beast, each additional bit of minutia coalescing to form a towering whole. Nolan’s filmmaking and Inception’s dream-delving work toward the same end: to offer us a simulation that toys with our notions of reality. As that, and as a piece of summer popcorn-flick fare, Inception succeeds quite admirably, leaving behind imagery and memories that tug and twist our perceptions—daring us to ask whether we’ve wrapped our heads around it, or we’re only half-remembering a waking dream. Director Andrei Tarkovsky wrote a book about his philosophy towards filmmaking, calling it Sculpting in Time; Nolan, on the other hand, doesn’t sculpt, he deconstructs. He uses filmmaking to tear time apart so he can put it back together as he wills. A spiritual person, Tarkovsky’s films were an expression of poetic transcendence. For Nolan, a rationalist, he wants to cheat time, cheat death. His films often avoid dealing with death head-on, though they certainly depict it. What Nolan is able to convey in a more potent fashion is the weight of time and how ephemeral and weak our grasp on existence. Time is constantly running out in Nolan’s films; a ticking clock is a recurring motif for him, one that long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer aurally literalized in the scores for Interstellar and Dunkirk. Nolan revolts against temporal reality, and film is his weapon, his tool, the paradox stairs or mirror-upon-mirror of Inception. He devises and engineers filmic structures that emphasize time’s crunch while also providing a means of escape. In Inception different layers exist within the dream world, and the deeper one goes into the subconscious the more stretched out one’s mental experience of time. If one could just go deep enough, they could live a virtual eternity in their mind’s own bottomless pit. “To sleep perchance to dream”: the closest Nolan has ever gotten to touching an afterlife. —Michael Saba and Chad Betz

3. Oppenheimer (2023)

For a visionary director of big-budget, big-studio, big-idea sci-fi/fantasy movies, Christopher Nolan has often seemed, if not exactly at war with himself, somehow prone to both methodically ascending his big, obvious building blocks and attempting to take wilder, more ambitious leaps. The real test of Nolan’s mettle is something like the great-man biopic – not because he’s insufficiently reverent (or dad-ish in his WWII-era interests), but because of the temptation to give himself fully to that innate squareness. Is the guy who evoked terrorism, the surveillance state, and Occupy Wall Street in service of Batman-movie plot points really up for a nuanced exploration of the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb? Yes and no. Nolan’s Oppenheimer isn’t so much a great-man biopic as a great-man-but-maybe-not biopic, and at times, the writer-director seems hell-bent on channeling the instinctive, ethereal ambivalence of a Terrence Malick trip. It’s a fascinating spectacle in large part because Nolan isn’t especially Malickian at all (though at least that frame of reference might temporarily ease the overworked, underbaked Kubrick comparisons). Throughout the film, especially as it builds during its first hour, theoretical physicist Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is beset by cutaway visions of stars, waves, and eventually all-consuming fire, fragments of zoomed-in science, blown up to eye-dazzling, seat-rattling IMAX scale. Half the movie feels like a montage and three-quarters of it feels like a thriller; the clandestine elements of the Manhattan Project and the talk of Soviet spies give the movie a feeling of buttoned-up espionage. A showcase piece, of course, is the first atomic bomb test, where bits of nervous comic relief pop up until the blast drops out Nolan’s usually-booming sound mix, leaving only the sound of breathing for a minute or two. It’s an awe-inspiring and discomfiting climax that hurtles Oppenheimer out of his preferred theoretical realm and into a void of reality. As much peripheral stargazing as the movie offers, it’s more interested in wrapping its mind around a 20th century horror that is, for many Americans, both abstract and intensely nightmarish. There is a clenched, impacted sadness to this semi-opaque figure who spearheads the creation of a bomb whose purpose is all too scrutable in the broader historical view. It might seem reductive to relate Oppenheimer’s merging of theoretical physics and practical project management to the way Nolan balances indelible images with practicality, creating an unlikely workmanlike poetry. It does explain, though, where some of that poetry comes from, and why even some of the movie’s more obvious points are able to shake up the audience, not just the premium-large-format multiplex seats. Nolan-via-Oppenheimer offers an explanation for this early in the movie, talking about his chosen field: “It’s paradoxical, and yet it works”—Jesse Hassenger

2. Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk contains three storylines: “The Mole,” which takes place over a week and follows young British troops trying to get away from a Nazi-besieged Dunkirk; “The Sea,” a day in which a civilian man (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the son’s friend (Barry Keoghan) take a boat out to fetch the stranded soldiers back to England; and “The Air,” one hour of British air force pilots engaging the German Stukas and bombers who are picking off both the soldiers on the beach and the boats that come for them. These three storylines, though taking place over very different time frames, are given equal footing. From its dread-drenched beginning, through a whole lot of harrowing middle, to its resonant conclusion, Dunkirk constantly intercuts between these three fragments of time, vivid recreations of different accounts of the same epochal event brought together to combine, spin off each other and then unfurl. Memories meticulously preserved, but also lost. The cutting back and forth in time heightens the sense of disorientation for which Dunkirk strives in its depiction of war, but it also highlights textual connections (we see Cillian Murphy’s “Shivering Soldier” in the PTSD climax of his arc in “The Sea,” and in the next scene—from “The Mole” timeline—we see his composure as a commanding officer pre-PTSD), creates foreshadowing without having to indulge clichéd foreshadowing cues and allows the film to steadily build for over an hour to an extended sequence of catharsis. The film has perspective, but also respect for the dead and compassion for the past. It’s perhaps the most emotionally aware and honest of all of Christopher Nolan’s films—it is the wisest, while on the surface barely trying, for virtue of its minimal dialogue and scant exposition, which is a welcome change of pace not just from Nolan’s recent work but large-scale films in general. The ambivalence, the equal parts tragedy and triumph with which Dunkirk resounds, is not muted, but complete. And the non-linear weaving helps achieve this. Director Andrei Tarkovsky wrote a book about his philosophy towards filmmaking, calling it Sculpting in Time; Nolan, on the other hand, doesn’t sculpt, he deconstructs. He uses filmmaking to tear time apart so he can put it back together as he wills. —Chad Betz

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

christopher nolan ranked

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) deserves the collective sigh of relief it received in resuscitating the Caped Crusader’s cinematic reputation following Joel Schumacher’s 1997 neon-disco nightmare on ice that was Batman & Robin. And if Batman Begins represents the character’s tonal course correction, The Dark Knight provided an equally important act of rehabilitation—that of Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker. (Let’s face it, though not a crime of Schumacherian dimensions, Jack Nicholson’s Joker fell short of setting a standard for the character.) Though ostensibly part of the superhero stable, The Dark Knight is, at its center, a proper crime saga—just as was its source, spawning from the pages of Detective Comics, less Spider-Man than it is Heat, in rather dramatic costume. Significantly trading up in the villain department this round, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Clown Prince of Crime is a force of nature—brilliantly written as a crime boss who wants no less than Gotham’s very soul. Ledger’s Joker is as chilling as he is darkly funny, and the most bracing reminder to date of why he’s the most renowned foe of the World’s Greatest Detective. —Scott Wold

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