Ranking the Films of Christopher Nolan

This weekend, Christopher Nolan’s latest feature Dunkirk debuted in theaters nationwide. The film depicts the ill-fated evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II. With this film’s release, we look back at the filmography of Christopher Nolan and rank his films from 10 to one.

Whelp, no need to belabor the point any further:


10. The Dark Night Rises


Nolan’s conclusion to his Dark Knight Trilogy, the revamp of Bob Kane’s Batman that breathed new life into the DC universe on the big screen, is certainly the bumpiest of the three. Overlong and over-cluttered without the benefit of The Dark Knight‘s taut anarchistic story and transcendent performances, The Dark Knight Rises flounders more than any other Nolan film. As kitschy and fun as Tom Hardy’s Bane is, the film as a whole simply does not stand up to the other films in Nolan’s oeuvre.


9. Interstellar


As with The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar is a film that is hampered by its length, which gives the film a tedious quality in the middle. Nolan’s grand design makes for a visual achievement that is awe-inspiring, but the film lacks longevity. As such, the gripping nature of the visuals wanes as the film continues on into its second hour. Heady themes and melodramatic acting also act to pull the film down.


8. Following


Using 16mm film, Nolan began his film career with a black and white neo-noir suspense picture. To be perfectly honest, Following is a film I’ve only seen once, so it is hard to judge its merits against the others in Nolan’s filmography. But the low-budget, low-production value of Nolan’s debut is undoubtedly impressive given its success. This said, the film is Nolan just starting to work out the themes and plot structuring that will eventually give him his auteur success. It does not have the tightness and technical glory that these later films have.


7. Insomnia


Insomnia is the only film that Nolan has not also penned. This in part causes the film to feel less like the other films in his filmography. While not a bad film by any means—Al Pacino’s descent into guilt-ridden madness is exhilarating to behold—Insomnia does not have the gravitas of other Nolan films. While this could ring positive to detractors of Nolan’s work, the film just can’t live up to his later films, which punch with much more taut cinematic power.


6. The Prestige


If Nolan’s penchant for intricately-woven storytelling is ever at its strangest and most strained, it is with The Prestige. It is an intriguing story with a lot of twists and turns, but by the end the yarn seems to run thin given the ultimate payoff. Terse performances from Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman raise the film up a rung or two, but their characters lack the emotional depth necessary to make watching them for two hours worthwhile.


5. Inception


Over time it feels like Inception has fallen by the wayside given its initial shock and awe success. After it had been picked apart, often to no conclusive results, people began tossing it off as a failed experiment in storytelling and mystery. But the film makes great use of its cross-cut levels of storytelling. While not complex when the strands are pulled apart, this story is engaging and purely fun. It is cold and calculated, but it is also inventive and at times jaw-dropping. Even though it wanes with multiple viewings, it at least begs for two or three viewings to truly get all of the angles.


4. Batman Begins


Batman Begins feels forgotten. With the immense success of The Dark Knight, both critically and financially, Nolan’s first stab at Batman was dwarfed. But this first installment is a technically sound film with a lot of lively action. It is somewhat hard to see in retrospect, but the Batman name on film had been made laughable by previous iterations. Joel Schumacher’s pair of Batman films really tanked the intellectual property. It took Nolan stepping in to adequately reboot the character and essentially create the modern conception of the gritty comic book film.


3. Dunkirk


Nolan’s newest feature, Dunkirk, is perhaps too fresh to equate to his other films. But it is irrefutably sound on a technical level. Cinematography and sound design in this film is utterly awe-inspiring, and it is perhaps Nolan’s most technically proficient film to date. While the film lacks the emotional resonance (on a character-by-character basis) that a war film requires, it succeeds in pitting you in the midst of the utter chaos of war itself.

You can read a full review of Dunkirk here.


2. Memento


Memento is famous for what is now a well-known calling card of Nolan’s films: non-linear storytelling. Novel in that it is (mostly) told backwards, the narrative construction of Memento requires multiple viewings to get the most out of the film. It is a film that feels and lives differently with multiple watches. And it is as tight a narrative as one could ask for. Small moments are fat to be cut, but for the most part the backwards trajectory of Guy Pearce’s Leonard is fascinating and heartbreaking.


1. The Dark Knight


Memento is as close to number one as a number two can be. But Nolan also made The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight is nearly a perfect film. It is not a film that demands multiple viewings as other Nolan films do, but it is a film that invites multiple viewings given its technical pulse and hero-villain dynamic. Yes, the film adds an extra storyline that some may find bog down the film’s pacing (this being the Aaron Eckhart Harvey Dent character).

But the film does not feel its length, as there is so much going on visually and sonically that is mouth-wateringly enjoyable. The Dark Knight has suffered from the over-hype detractors, but when viewed as a piece of cinema it is an incredible achievement that cements Nolan’s place as a Hollywood auteur.



As always, thanks for reading!

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)


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