Most of Christopher Nolan’s films are considered ‘great’. So how do you determine which is the best one?
How do you decide what is ‘best’ among a group of great things? With much difficulty. That is a good description of the task at hand when trying to rank Christopher Nolan’s films. Nolan is a rare filmmaker where all of his films are considered to be good, both by critics and audiences alike. Sure, there are ones which are clearly better than others, but at least half of the films he has made can be considered ‘great’ or modern classics. Indeed, if any other filmmaker had made just ONE of Nolan’s greatest films, they would be considered a great filmmaker.
And so, the task mostly falls to personal taste. In that regard, my ranking of Nolan’s films is based on my own experience with them. The higher the ranking of the film, the more I was entertained watching it, the more I have thought about it, and the more important I think it is in the grand scope of cinema. Others will certainly have different opinions than mine. In fact, with so many good films to choose from, I would expect Nolan’s filmography to have more discrepancy in rankings among fans because of how consistent he has been.
- Following (1998)
Everyone has their beginnings, and this one was Nolan’s within the realm of feature films. For years he tried to attract the attention of studios to get funding for his projects, but was unsuccessful. He scrounged up enough money to make this (short) noir film, which certainly previews the type of time-skipping and thrilling films Nolan was capable of making. It is also a clear homage to the types of Hitchcockian films which have inspired Nolan. However, it is not as polished as his later films, and the fact that it didn’t garner much attention is proof that Nolan still had a little ways to go before striking a chord with audiences, critics, and studios alike. The most impressive thing about Following is what it accomplishes despite its microscopic budget. Following serves as an interesting, and solid beginning for Nolan, but easily pales in comparison to what he would come up with next.
- The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
All of Nolan’s films tend to impress us, to build on what he had done before. Well, all of them except this one. Taking place a number of years after The Dark Knight, this finale to Nolan’s trilogy felt more like a contractual denouement rather than a natural continuation of the story. Nolan’s inspiration for exploring a more realistic version of Batman/Bruce Wayne falters to become a generic comic book film. It cuts some storytelling corners, and relies on the events of the previous two films for its dramatic impact. Like all of Nolan’s films, it isn’t a bad movie. In fact, for a comic book movie it is very good. But it just doesn’t have that spark of inspiration, or that perfection of production which can be found in the films ranked higher on this list.
- Insomnia (2002)
Insomnia was Nolan’s first opportunity to direct a big budget movie, and so it is also his first opportunity to direct someone else’s script. It was a remake of a Norweigian film, but doesn’t feel like one. Nolan’s creativity and abilities as a visionary filmmaker are clearly on display. He gets some excellent performances out of Al Pacino and Robin Williams, and the film’s cinematography and setting are unforgettable. Likewise, as a thriller, it manages to remain entertaining without a lot of action. By all accounts, Insomnia is a good film. But, in comparison with everything else Nolan has done, it seems more plain and by-the-numbers. What other filmmakers have a film that is rated 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, but be considered one of their worst films?
- Batman Begins (2005)
While Raimi’s Spider Man trilogy arguably ushered in the modern era of superhero films, the contribution of Nolan’s Batman trilogy is equally important. Batman Begins was supposed to be the origin of Batman, but it was much more than just that. It was the first deeper exploration of a comic book character, and a reimagining for the big screen. Unlike the 90’s Batman films, and to a degree Raimi’s Spider Man films, Nolan’s Batman films took its subject more seriously. It wasn’t just trying to be entertaining, it had actual depth, darkness, and truths to discover. It gave birth to the brooding hero, something which pop culture of the time embraced with open arms and has been duplicated countless times since.
Batman Begins was an excellent introduction for many people to Nolan and to Christian Bale. It proved that blockbuster style films didn’t need to be mindless, and it would preview what was yet to come from Nolan himself. However, compared with his later output, Batman Begins is more pedestrian, simpler, and more naive. Plus, I couldn’t in good conscious rate it any higher than what comes next on this list, and so it stays here at #7.
- Interstellar (2014)
In terms of storytelling, Interstellar leaves a little to be desired compared to Nolan’s best films. But what it may lack in compelling drive, it makes up for in sheer spectacle and heart. The film is clearly an ode to such groundbreaking science fiction films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff, or a Terrance Malick film. And even if it does a good job replicating some of the success of those films, it isn’t void of its own ideas. Compared to the rest of Nolan’s films, this one is more about big concepts than little details. We see a focus on the family, the implications of climate change, the influence of time travel, and of course the path towards the future of humanity.
With such big concepts floating around, it is no surprise that Interstellar isn’t as focused as Nolan’s other films. But as a cinematic experience, it works. This is an adventure film, exploring the unknown as much as it explores the known. Fantastic special effects, a great cast, and impeccable sound and picture make Interstellar one of the most spellbinding films of the decade.
- Memento (2000)
Memento is where it all started for Nolan, even if it is his second film. This was the film that made people take notice of him as a filmmaker. It was incredibly original, because nothing else like it had ever been accomplished before. Here Nolan introduces us to his puzzle-like method of storytelling. With a concept developed along with his brother, it shows a lot of sophistication in writing and planning.
But more than just an experiment in backwards storytelling, Nolan’s execution as director takes it to a different level. What he does best is guide his audience through the confusion. This makes it interesting to watch, rather than confounding. I’m not sure many other film makers could have pulled it off. The shock and impact of this film has still not worn off. Here we are, 20 years later, and we still can’t get it out of our minds.
- Dunkirk (2017)
In some ways, I would say that Dunkirk is Nolan’s best film. In terms of cinematography, direction, sound, music, attention to detail, and general technical execution – it is quite the achievement. As spectacle entertainment, it makes a loud statement. With Dunkirk, Nolan does something different than he had done before. He takes an existing and somewhat well-known event, and makes it surprising. Unlike in most of his other films, Nolan doesn’t have control over what happens, only the way he depicts what happens on screen. Despite this, his ability to interestingly tell a story is not compromised, but enhanced.
However, for me personally, Dunkirk was not the most exciting or entertaining Nolan film. It is indeed an impressive spectacle, but it lacks that audience involvement which is part of his other films. Lack of proper characters and characteristics is part to blame (but I realize it as necessary for the type of storytelling Nolan utilizes). As a war movie, it is something we have (kind of) seen before, and doesn’t really bring any new ideas to filmmaking itself (besides the method of storytelling). For these reasons, I couldn’t put it in the top three…
- The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige doesn’t seem to get as much attention as some of Nolan’s other films, but it is as well executed, creative, and intriguing as anything he has come up with. It also happens to be my favorite Nolan film, and one of my all-time favorite films, which is why it ranks so high. The only reason I don’t rank it higher is because of the culture impact the next two films have had. The Prestige just isn’t as important, even if (IMO) it is more entertaining, exciting, and interesting.
The brilliance of Nolan is to make a film about magicians, which itself is a magic trick. Nolan weaves his story back and forth through time to tell a tale of two rivals. Pitting Christian Bale against Hugh Jackman is an opportunity to see fireworks between two of the most impressive actors of our generation. Throw in some impeccable production, an intriguing turn-of-the 20th century setting, and a little bit of sleight of hand – The Prestige becomes one of those films which you can watch over and over and it will never get boring. There’s always something new to pick up on, small little easter eggs which enhance the viewing experience. The Prestige is a movie made with passion by Nolan for people who have a passion for watching movies.
- The Dark Knight (2008)
If Nolan’s other films are too complicated, too much invested in science fiction, or too high-concept, you always have The Dark Knight to fall back on. Not only is The Dark Knight one of the greatest comic book movies ever made (arguably the best one), it also happens to be one of the best films of the 21st century so far. Comic book based films have a reputation of being simplistic entertainment. They are all spectacle and no guts. The Dark Knight is heavy in the guts department, but also heavy in the spectacle department. That a comic book film can be a dark crime thriller, a character-driven drama, and an edge-of-your seat action blockbuster at the same time was unprecedented in 2008. It broke the mold, and essentially allowed us to take comic book movies seriously. It showed us that with the right talent behind the camera, we didn’t have to fear remakes and reboots (or sequels for that matter).
Unlike Nolan’s other two Batman films, it is not burdened with the task of setting up the protagonist/world building or maintaining a legacy. This is a film which can focus on villains, rather than the heroes. It proves that there isn’t always a firm line between good and bad, and sometimes the good guys aren’t as blameless to turmoil as we think they are. This added complexity gives new life to the tried and true comic book-based film. It has a vicious hook which embeds itself in you, courtesy of Heath Ledger’s striking performance. That alone would be enough to make this a very good film, but it keeps on building. Nolan is the maestro extraordinaire as he conducts a symphony of terror and revenge. The only thing that can top The Dark Knight, is what Nolan did next…
- Inception (2010)
Inception single-handedly broke the mold for the modern blockbuster. While there are certainly examples of heady-yet-fun action films during the first decade of the 21st century (including #2 on this list), Inception was something different. This was a film which took Nolan’s ability to tell complex stories, and put that ability to the best use yet. Add in an all-star cast, impressive visuals, one of the most memorable soundtracks of a modern film, pristine production and you have one of those films where all of the pieces just seem to fit together perfectly. There are arguments about how the characters are on the boring side, or the story loses a bit of fidelity as it goes along, but those are minor squabbles compared to the onrush of accomplishments the gutsy film actually pulls off.
Like many of Nolan’s films, Inception is a play off of an established idea. Here he takes the classic heist film, and turns it in reverse. The dream aspect gives it an almost Phillip K. Dick premise, which is combined with the mysterious approach of Hitchcock and the mind-bending nature of The Matrix. But unlike a standard heist film, Nolan adds an additional risk. It isn’t just about getting caught, the film follows the protagonist’s plight for sanity.movielinx It allows for a more beautiful, and emotional composition. Unlike Hitchcock, Nolan isn’t constrained by the expectations of a feature film. His experience allows him to tell a story with a layered approach, without fear of losing his audience. And unlike The Matrix, Inception was released when special effects had developed sufficiently to support the vision without compromise.
All of this leads to the most quintessential Nolan film yet. A movie which feels as fresh today, 10 years later, as it did when it was released. It is a film which has only grown in following and has gotten more interesting as time has gone on and given us new perspectives to watch it from. It has influenced countless others, many of which have failed to pick up on the attention to detail Nolan is able to apply to his craft. Inception is a movie that is entertaining in a classic way – full of excitement, energy, and a thought-provoking script. But at the same time, it is entertaining because it is also unconventional. It is a perfect marriage between what we know works well in film, and what we didn’t know. For this reason, it earns my #1 spot.