Christopher Nolan is a director that has had an immense impact on my love for filmmaking, and though there are some valid critiques you could throw towards his movies, he still pushes boundaries and engages his audience in a way few filmmakers do. Here are my rankings of his movies before I see Tenet later this week:
Whenever I explain my dislike of Dunkirk, I’m always asked the same question: “If you love Nolan’s other time-bending movies so much, why don’t you like Dunkirk?” My issue with Dunkirk isn’t that it features all the typical hallmarks of a Nolan movie, but that it features them in a way that lacks all the purpose and swagger of his other movies. Yes, I’m aware that it’s a deliberate structural choice to not center the movie around a central protagonist, but does that make it a good choice? Perhaps it could work under a different context, but within the movie it creates a barrier between the audience that gives them little reason to care about what is occurring on-screen, which is especially problematic in a movie that is instantly turned to 11 and reveals all its tricks within the first 30 minutes. This is Nolan at the peak of his ambition without knowing how to properly use it, resulting in a movie that would be better served as an experimental short-film or impressive tech demo as opposed to a headache-inducing, drawn-out feature film.
It might seem like a blow toward Following to place it second-to-last on my list, but the reality is that Nolan has done so many worthwhile films that it just so happens that Following falls here, despite me liking it overall. Coming in at a brisk 67 minutes, Nolan’s directorial debut wastes no time in establishing the foundation for what his career will become, particularly with his direct follow-up, Memento.
A Christopher Nolan movie starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank? Insomnia is so underappreciated that most people don’t even know it exists, which is unfortunate given the fact that it is a really solid crime film. The whole idea of morally ambiguous detectives and the murky relationship between detectives and killers is nothing new, but Insomnia manages to bring some fresh light to tired tropes due to some great performances from Pacino and Williams, as well as some solid direction from Nolan like always. It’s equally fascinating and tragic to see Williams in this, as his performance is such a departure from the characters he usually plays, and it’s also impossible not to miss him dearly while watching it.
7. Batman Begins
The beginning of Nolan’s Batman trilogy sets the tone right off the bat, letting us know that this is a Batman incarnation we’ve never seen on-screen before. I feel like we’re all a bit sick of seeing Batman’s parents die at this point, but Batman Begins still holds up well on rewatches due to how well it grounds such a familiar origin story in Bruce Wayne’s values and motivations, as we see him face his fears both from childhood trauma, as well as The Scarecrow. The only things that don’t work occur when the third act quite literally goes off the rails a bit, but Nolan somehow makes any chaotic action still feel consistent in the movie’s realistic tone and delivers a great first entry into what will become a beloved trilogy.
6. The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises is a movie that shoots for the moon, and make no mistake: it doesn’t exactly land upright. However, by shooting so high and managing to land at all — regardless of how sloppily it does so — it delivers an epic sense of scale that few other blockbusters can deliver, all while ultimately ending on a satisfying note to cap off one of cinema’s greatest trilogies.
A heist within a heist; a dream within a dream. So goes the premise of Inception, a remarkable heist of the mind that serves as an example of Nolan’s unrivaled ability to combine plot and spectacle. When you take a step back and examine the concepts that Nolan explains in the movie, the fact that it is coherent to the audience at all is impressive enough, yet it just so happens to be thrilling at the same time with its hallway-tilting action scenes and career-defining score from Hans Zimmer. Also, the fact that the heist crew effectively serves as a representation for the process of making movies is a delightful cherry on top.
Outside of the intense effort put into researching the physics of black holes, the hardest part of making Interstellar for Nolan might have been having to tell a story about the power of love. Nearly all Nolan’s films are calculated to a fault, leaving not much room to feel genuine emotional attachment in his stories, but Interstellar is the rare case where he puts his heart on his sleeve and the result is exceptional. It also features the most jaw-dropping spectacle he has ever delivered, and arguably anybody has ever delivered, taking us to galaxies so distant over such a vast period of time that once the movie ends, it’s nearly impossible not to look up at the stars and wonder about your place in the universe. Sure, it has a lot of narrative issues and it isn’t as polished or refined as Inception, but the sheer impact of the movie is one that proves the power of cinema in a way only few movies can.
Memento boasts one of the all-time great premises: a murder-mystery told in reverse, with the first scene that the audience sees really being the last scene that takes place in the movie. If you haven’t seen Memento, this might sound ludicrous, because isn’t the whole point of a mystery that the big reveal occurs only at the very end? Well, you would think, but Nolan manages to recreate a traditional three-act structure all while telling a story in reverse, a feat which is even more impressive given the fact that it is no mere gimmick. Nolan wants us to get into the headspace of our protagonist, a detective with a severe case of short-term memory loss, so we see the world as he does when scenes abruptly begin with no context for how he — or the audience — got there. It’s a premise so effectively executed that rewatching the movie, I often feel just as disoriented and confused as I did the first time watching it, despite knowing all the major plot beats and reveals. For a movie about the importance of memories and identity, what more could you ask for?
2. The Dark Knight
What more is there to say about The Dark Knight? Its seismic impact on comic-book films is still felt today, with many movies failing to replicate its grounded take on the superhero genre. It almost feels like other directors took the wrong lesson from The Dark Knight, as it didn’t work necessarily because it was dark, but because the source material of Batman justifies a story that is equal parts crime film and superhero film. Its execution is also unrivaled, telling an epic story of corruption that never feels at odds with action scenes of a guy in a cape driving around on a motorcycle, which is a testament to Nolan’s ability to push storytelling boundaries while still having some fun along the way. Of course, the movie’s most notable aspect is Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, which has gone on to reach such legendary status that there is no doubt whether it’s one of the most iconic performances ever. The fact that the Joker has gone on to be the defining quality of the movie is rather fitting, both as a tribute to Ledger as well as the fact that the Joker is just as terrifying as he is darkly comedic and entertaining, a perfect representation of a movie known for being gritty all while being unafraid to ask “why so serious?”
1. The Prestige
The Prestige will forever and always be Christopher Nolan’s greatest accomplishment. It might seem to odd say this given that Nolan surely has many movies left in the tank and that he has already made some pretty fantastic ones, yet I can’t imagine him ever topping the brilliance of The Prestige, which I consider to be the world’s greatest magic trick. This tale of dueling magicians is the culmination of everything Nolan has ever done — and probably ever will do — as a filmmaker. Dead wives, nonlinear storytelling, emotionally detached and obsessive characters — it’s all there in The Prestige, and never has Nolan embraced the tools in his toolkit in a more effective way. To speak at length about the movie’s structure is nearly impossible without delving into spoilers, but suffice to say that The Prestige is at least three steps ahead of its audience at all times, delivering surprise after surprise leading up to its grand finale, a showstopper so perfect that you expect Christopher Nolan to come up on stage and take a bow once the credits roll. Forget being Nolan’s best — this is one of the best movies of the 21st century.