By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Christopher Nolan has stood out over the past 20 years as one of the most powerful and singular storytellers working in modern cinema. His latest effort, Oppenheimer, continues to affirm Nolan as a must-see director whose every effort warrants the greatest of attention. In light of the release of Oppenheimer, we decided to break down Nolan’s filmography, ranking each of the installments from worst to best.
With his filmmaking career in its mere infancy, Christopher Nolan was still finding his creative footing with his directorial debut Following. The low-budget crime thriller tells the story of a young man who follows strangers around London and is soon drawn into a criminal underworld when he fails to keep his distance. Briskly paced and Hitchockian in its propensity for suspense, Following is an inspired debut from Nolan, with the director/writer already employing some of the complicated flashback structure of his later films. Following may be Nolan’s least impressive work, but this is more due to the strength of his greater filmography than the weaknesses of this first effort.
The first big-budget film to debut after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tenet marked a return for Nolan to the sci-fi genre he excelled with in Interstellar and Inception. Unfortunately, unlike those films, Tenet is frustratingly convoluted, with a premise that’s far too confusing and a narrative with so many points of ambiguity. Adding fuel to the fire is muddled sound mixing that amplifies the confusion in an already complicated cinematic experience. Despite these issues, the action is beautifully shot and Ludwig Göransson’s booming score is a character unto itself. If one can follow the advise of Clémence Poésy’s character and not “try to understand it – feel it,” Tenet proves a far more enjoyable experience.
Al Pacino and Robin Williams trade blows in one of Nolan’s most under-appreciated works. The film, which is a remake of an Icelandic film from 1997, captures an uncanny level of tension while simultaneously exploring all sorts of moral and existential questions. Long-time collaborator Wally Pfister provides beautiful cinematography and Williams should have received an Oscar nomination for his performance.
Nolan’s first effort after wrapping up his Batman trilogy is a resounding success. Interstellar is thought-provoking and nerve-racking in equal measure. Nolan plays around with all sorts of existential and ontological questions, while juggling the complicated physics of space travel. The sci-fi flavor is excellent, but it’s when the film explores its themes of family and legacy that it triumphs. Being too long and perhaps too ambitious are the only solid faults that can be said for one of Nolan’s most epic movies.
The film that put Nolan on the map, Memento affirmed the filmmaker as one of the most promising directors and writers in the industry. An intentionally fractured narrative makes for a tantalizing viewing experience in which unexpected revelations are uncovered seemingly every few moments. Nolan has a firm grasp on an intricately plotted film, one that is easily among the best psychological thrillers of all time.
7. The Dark Knight Rises
While regarded as one of Nolan’s weaker efforts by some, The Dark Knight Rises deserves more praise than it currently receives. Nolan had a gargantuan task to try and make a follow-up to a film as impactful and acclaimed as The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Rises is a crime epic, one that leans heavily into its Dickensian influences for a sprawling adventure about the fall of Gotham City. Tom Harry’s Bane has become one of cinema’s most recognizable villains, and Christian Bale delivers his best performance as Bruce Wayne. Try watching The Dark Knight Rises again – as a trilogy capper and a stand-alone superhero film, it’s a terrific film.
Nolan’s first genuine attempt at crafting a sci-fi film was a resounding success. Inception is undoubtedly ambitious, with an intricate plotting and premise seldom found in big-budget summer blockbusters. The film packs an emotional punch, albeit one less impactful than some of Nolan’s greatest hits. An ensemble cast bolster what is a fantastic sci-fi epic meets heist adventure, making it one of Nolan’s most memorable efforts.
A portrayal of war uncanny in its universality, Dunkirk is an astonishingly effective drama. Nolan tells the harrowing story of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II with minimal dialogue, a pulsating score from Hans Zimmer, and over 100 minutes of jaw-dropping visuals. While some of Nolan’s work may be lacking in emotional resonance and impact, Dunkirk remains his most touching film, as evidenced with the sub-plot centering around Barry Keoghan and Cillian Murphy’s characters. A technical achievement in every regard, Dunkirk is a tight, gripping masterpiece and one of Nolan’s finest works.
Oppenheimer is Nolan’s latest film, and is a tense biopic (of sorts) starring Cillian Murphy as the title character, who led the creation of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. This film loses steam in the last 45 minutes or so, but still retains that classic Nolan charm and suspense, and Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. shine in their respective roles.
3. The Prestige
Christopher Nolan teamed up with his brother Jonathan to adapt the 1995 novel The Prestige for the big screen. The film, which follows Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rival magicians in Victorian London, is a startlingly poignant saga of obsession, secrecy, ownership, and sacrifice. Filled to the brim with twists and turns, including one of cinema’s greatest ever plot twists in the final act, The Prestige shows Nolan actively challenging the audience in a rich period spectacle with extraordinary depth. To top it all off, Nolan cast the one and only David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, a masterstroke decision from a masterful filmmaker at the peak of his craft.
2. Batman Begins
Salvaging the caped crusader from his bleakest period to date, Christopher Nolan was the savior Batman and DC needed following the derided Batman & Robin. Batman Begins reflected a mature, grounded take on heightened concepts like superheroes that proved immensely influential for over a decade and continues to have far-reaching effects in the film industry. Nolan exercises his hallmark nonlinear storytelling to shape an origin story unlike any other, one that isn’t afraid to push boundaries and get into the psyche of Batman / Bruce Wayne in ways previous films didn’t. The dark tone coupled with a razor sharp script makes Batman Begins an accomplished superhero film and crime epic, and a film that is always deserving of a rewatch.
1. The Dark Knight
Although teasing apart the quality of Nolan’s filmography proves immensely difficult, the top of this list is arguably the easiest choice to make. The Dark Knight is a thematically rich and sophisticated film featuring one of cinema’s greatest villains in Heath Ledger as the Joker. Dark and grounded, but never becoming bleak, Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins features a visceral and unrelenting intensity from beginning to end. The Dark Knight was a cultural phenomenon, which broke the boundaries of what superhero, comic book, and blockbuster movies could achieve. With The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan simply crafted one of the best films ever made.