EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, films like Oppenheimer and others mentioned here might not exist.
Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the most exciting and innovative directors working today. His movies are event movies: when he has a new movie coming out, everyone gets excited. What sort of tricks will Nolan pull this time? How will he blow our minds this time? Nolan has dabbled in several genres, from superhero to sci-fi to war, and every time he has delivered something fascinating.
And we all know the makings of a Christopher Nolan movie. His films are meticulously made using as many practical effects as possible. His stories and plots play with time and space more than any other filmmaker. He works with themes of regret, loss, love, obsession, curiosity, and the inner turmoil of the human mind. The films are often centered around a male protagonist struggling with the death of a past lover. And they are exciting, action-packed, and mind-bending, which has cemented Nolan as one of the best directors working today. Here is my ranking of every Christopher Nolan movie, from Following to Oppenheimer.
12. Following (1998)
Nolan’s debut film Following lands at the bottom of the list, but it is still a very good movie and an even more impressive debut. The film follows a writer (Jeremy Theobold) who follows strangers for material and meets a thief (Alex Haw) who takes him under his wing and teaches him the ways of crime. Nolan made the movie for a measly $6,000, so the film isn’t aesthetically the best, but the black and white cinematography and the rawness of the dialog and acting gives the film a French New Wave vibe.
Even with making a film that runs barely over an hour on such a small budget, Following is a great calling card movie for future Nolan movies. It features con men in suits, a non-linear storyline, a femme fatale, and a mystery at the center with plenty of twists and turns, all things we would see again Nolan throughout his career.
11. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
After the massive success of The Dark Knight, everyone was hyped for the final chapter in the Dark Knight Trilogy. While not nearly as good as the previous two films, The Dark Knight Rises is a bold and epic superhero movie that barely features its titular superhero and focuses more on Gotham City and the people in it and how they’ve used Batman as inspiration to defend themselves against the film’s villains. It’s bloated, messy, disjointed, and doesn’t have the focus and polish Nolan, Bale, and co. put into the first two films.
All that said, The Dark Knight Rises is still a very entertaining film. Tom Hardy is as swole and menacing as ever as Bane, Anne Hathaway is a lot of fun as Celina Kyle, and there are some fantastic set pieces, like the blowing up of the football stadium and the brutal fight between Bane and Batman. It may not rank high in Nolan’s career, but The Dark Knight Rises was a solid end to one of cinema’s finest trilogies.
10. Tenet (2020)
Nolan’s movies can be confusing at times. With his non-linear storytelling, heavy exposition, and constant time loops, it’s easy to get lost during his films. But of all of Nolan’s films, I would argue Tenet is his most confusing, which is why it lands near the bottom of this list. Having seen the film a few times now, including twice in theaters (which is insane to think about since Tenet came out in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic), there are still elements of the film I don’t fully understand and scenes that don’t make a ton of sense. I understood its basic idea, but I have found the film lacking deeper meaning
That said, Tenet is still awesome. If you don’t think about the overly complicated plot and the lack of character development and just ride with the film, it’s a great trip. This is Nolan’s version of James Bond—a time-bending, globe-trotting espionage thriller with the fate of the world in our lead character’s hands. The general concept is original, the action is unique and well-constructed, and Ludwig Göransson’s score is superb. It’s a confusing film, but a great one if you go with the vibes.
9. Insomnia (2002)
It’s tough to call any of Nolan’s movies underrated, seeing as they all have been received well critically and financially. But if there was one I would call underrated it would be his 2002 crime thriller, Insomnia, a remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller. The film follows Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino), a Los Angeles homicide detective, who is sent to Nightmute, Alaska, a town where the sun never sets, to solve the murder of a teenager. With the lack of darkness and mountains of guilt hanging over his head, Dormer has trouble sleeping and finds his mind wandering and questioning his every move.
Pacino gives one of his best performances of the 2000s as Dormer and Robin Williams is terrifyingly brilliant as the murderer. Nolan’s erratic editing shows us how disorienting Dormer’s mind is and the cinematography of Nightmute is excellent: it was the first time Nolan worked with now-frequent collaborator Wally Pfister.
Besides the Batman films, Insomnia is arguably Nolan’s most conventional film in terms of story and structure. But it also showed growth in him as a filmmaker. It showed that he could work with and get great performances out of movie stars (three Oscar winners are in the movie) and work with bigger budgets.
8. Batman Begins (2005)
Before Batman Begins, the last time we saw the Caped Crusader was George Clooney donning the cape and cowl in Joel Schumacher’s neon camp-fest, Batman & Robin. Arguably the worst Batman film ever made, Batman & Robin was a rough way for such an iconic superhero to go out on the big screen. Hiring Nolan to direct and Christian Bale to star as Bruce Wayne/Batman, both of whom were not household names at the time, was a bold choice following the Schumacher disaster but one that paid off immensely.
Batman Begins is one of the most important superhero movies ever made and one of the best superhero intro movies ever made. Nolan showed us the origins of Batman from when Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed, to his journey west and meeting Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), to becoming the hero the decrepit Gotham City needed. This is a gritty, street-level superhero movie that established Nolan and Bale as household names and gave reinvigorated people’s love for Batman at the movies.
7. The Prestige (2009)
Pardon the pun, but The Prestige is a truly magical film. Nolan’s look at two rival magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) obsessed with trying to one-up each other and be the best magician is a complicated tale of obsession and sacrifice.
The Prestige is Nolan’s fifth feature film and watching it is watching a director come into his own. As a writer, his characters have more depth, the non-linear plot moves with ease, and the film could is arguably Nolan’s best-looking film to date. The ending features one of the great, jaw-dropping twists of the 2000s and in a similar fashion to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, knowing the twist doesn’t ruin the movie on rewatches but enhances it, making you question elements of the film. While slightly overshadowed by another magician movie, The Illusionist, back in 2006 and being one of Nolan’s lowest-grossing films, appreciation for the film has grown over the years with many considering it one of Nolan’s best.
6. Memento (2001)
Adapted from the short story written by his brother, Jonathan Nolan, Memento is a film that starts at the end and works its way towards the beginning to tell the story of a man (Guy Pearce) with short-term memory loss who is trying to find his wife’s murderer. While Nolan constantly plays with non-linear storytelling and time throughout his career, the structure of Memento is smart and crafty and different from anything anyone had seen before at that time. While the beginning of the story is technically at the end, the third act revelation is perfect writing and only makes the repeat viewings more rewarding.
Memento is one of the most important films in Nolan’s career because it is the one that put him on the map. The film made the film festival rounds and earned tons of praise for its lead performance by Pearce, direction, and screenplay. Nolan even received a nomination at the Directors Guild of America and an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
5. Oppenheimer (2023)
Oppenheimer is a biopic as only Christopher Nolan could make. A multilayered look a J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, in a career-defining performance) the scientist who led the Manhattan Project and the creation of the A-bomb. Nolan looks at Oppenheimer’s younger years leading up to the Manhattan Project, the creation of the A-bomb, and the after-effects in the years that followed and paints him as a curious and complicated man who always wanted to learn and struggled with the consequences of his wonder.
Oppenheimer boasts Nolan’s most impressive ensemble to date. The cast is loaded with talent, as big as Robert Downey Jr. (one of the best performances of his career), Emily Blunt, and Matt Damon to actors like Dane DeHaan, Josh Hartnett, and Alden Ehrenreich. Every actor in the film, no matter how big or small the role is, brings their A-game. This is also Nolan’s best screenplay to date. The dialog crackles and the structure keeps you riveted. The best action scenes here don’t include bombs but are intense dialog exchanges between two characters.
While Oppenheimer may land at the number five spot on this list, a spot relatively high for a new film, the film is so good that it has the possibility to move closer to the top with time and more rewatches. I cannot wait to watch this one again.
4. Inception (2010)
Following the success of The Dark Knight, Nolan was given what seemed like carté blanché as a director. Hollywood gave him a proverbial “blank check” to make whatever he wanted and he used that to make a big-budget, sci-fi epic, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Inception is the most Christopher Nolan movie. All the tropes, motives, stylistic choices, and character beats that we associate with Nolan are here at the highest level. We got criminals in suits, a dead wife, non-linear storytelling, the deconstruction of time, sleep, and a story of obsession, guilt, and lost love. It features several frequent Nolan collaborators and boasts a stellar cast with a male star at the center (a terrific Leonardo DiCaprio).
Inception is filmmaking on the biggest scale. While the script can lean heavily on the exposition, it is a masterclass on a technical level, with award-winning cinematography, editing, and a Hans Zimmer score that might be the most iconic score of the last twenty years. Inception took Nolan to new heights as a filmmaker.
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
What more is there to say about The Dark Knight that hasn’t already been said? The sequel to Batman Begins was to star Heath Ledger as the Joker, in a controversial casting decision at the time, and bring in Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. While everyone was excited about the film, nobody anticipated that it would be the juggernaut and game-changer that it ended up being.
The Dark Knight could be argued as the most important film of the 21st century. It broke box office records, it elevated the superhero genre to new levels and was the key film in changing the rules at the Academy Awards to have ten films nominated for Best Picture instead of five after it was egregiously snubbed for Best Picture and Best Director.
The film itself is an outstanding piece of cinema. Nolan’s usage of practical effects for action looks spectacular, especially compared to the CGI-heavy superhero films that followed. The story of one man pushing a hero to his limits is perfectly written and developed. And, of course, Heath Ledger’s iconic performance may be the greatest ever in a superhero movie. Full of menace, intelligence, and dark humor, it is one of the most iconic performances we have ever seen.
2. Dunkirk (2017)
While Inception is the most Nolan movie, Dunkirk feels the least Nolan. Yes, he does play with time by focusing on three moments, ‘The Mole’ (one week), ‘The Sea’ (one day), and ‘The Air’ (one hour) to show us the horrors and events that took place in Dunkirk during World War II, and it does feature some familiar Nolan actors like Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh, but that’s really it. There isn’t a lot of dialog, there are no con men in suits, there is no dead wife, there is no real main character, and the film is under two hours. It almost felt like a Nolan experimental film, which is fascinating in the grand scheme of his filmography.
A visual spectacle and visceral from minute one, the most impressive aspect of Dunkirk is Nolan’s screenplay. His dissection of time and making each section have their own stories and their own subplots and then all three of them come together perfectly at the end is nothing short of brilliant. And the craziest part: you never see the Germans once in the film. You see their planes and hear their gunshots, but, like the characters in the film, we are never once face to face with the villain but we know their presence and are constantly on edge knowing that at any time they could strike. Dunkirk is an all-time war film about the soldiers trying to get out of the war, the average citizens trying to help and the heroes trying to save the day.
1. Interstellar (2014)
One common critique of Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker, arguably the biggest, is that his movies lack true emotion in them. In rewatching his filmography, you can definitely see that. There is a tactile approach to Nolan’s movies where it feels like Nolan is focusing on the filmmaking and plot and less on his characters. This isn’t the case with all of his movies, but it’s definitely true of some of them.
This is the main reason why I rank Interstellar as the best Christopher Nolan movie. The film is a science fiction masterpiece. Not since Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey has anyone shown space this way on screen. The depths, the terror, the wonder, and the vastness of it all are on the screen and it is simply astonishing. But the film’s emotional core about a father (a career-best Matthew McConaughey) trying to keep a promise to his daughter while also trying to save humanity is the most emotional storyline in any Nolan film and one that hits every heartstring possible (the video-message scene between Cooper and Murph is soul-shattering).
Before rewatching Nolan’s films for this list, Interstellar landed in the middle of the rankings. I really enjoyed the film but found others significantly better. But the last two times I saw the film, one of them being a 70mm projection at the Music Box Theater in Chicago (a jaw-dropping experience) and my most recent watch at home, the film hit harder for me on every level and rose to the top of the rankings. Interstellar is the best Christopher Nolan movie and one of the best movies of the 21st century.
Watching all of Christopher Nolan’s movies was a daunting task, but a rewarding one. His films can be dense and complicated but masterfully made. Nobody makes movies like Nolan and I will be excited for any movie he makes.