The Best (and Worst) of Christopher Nolan: His Films Ranked

Thanks to blockbusters like Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan is among the most popular filmmakers working today, to the point that any details surrounding his upcoming projects becomes a red-letter news item. Recently, we have received word that Nolan will be turning his attention to World War II with the 2017 release of Dunkirk. [Update, 12/14/16: Added first ‘Dunkirk’ trailer, above.]

So now is as good a time as any to look back on his accomplished career to date. Here’s our ranking of Nolan’s directorial efforts thus far. 

9. Insomnia (2002)

Al Pacino in Insomnia

Source: Warner Bros.

A remake of the 1997 Norwegian film, this release stars Al Pacino as a sleep-deprived homicide detective who  along with Hilary Swank’s young detective  must investigate a murder in an Alaskan town. Insomnia features winning performances all around by its Oscar-winning cast, including a chilling turn by Robin Williams. However, though the film is well-shot and thrilling in its own right, it pales in comparison to Nolan’s more distinctive works.

8. Following (1998)


Source: Columbia Tristar

In Nolan’s directorial feature debut, this under-seen release  which was reportedly made for only $6,000  stars Jeremy Theobald as a young man who follows strangers around the streets of London and winds up inadvertently wrapped up in the criminal underworld. Shot in black and white, the film is remarkably effective given its limited scope, but more than anything, it signals at the promise that Nolan would later fulfill in future projects.

7. Interstellar (2014)

Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy in Interstellar

Source: Warner Bros.

Marketed as a mystery thinkpiece in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, this sci-fi drama is perhaps Nolan’s most ambitious project to date. Matthew McConaughey delivers an emotionally charged performance as a single father who leaves his children behind to embark on a mission to save the human race from extinction. The visual effects and theoretical science involved in the tale are inspiring, but the film still comes across as overlong and a bit sprawling by the end.

6. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises

Source: Warner Bros.

After films like Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand botched their respective franchises’ chances to deliver near-perfect superhero trilogies, The Dark Knight Rises comes the closest to accomplishing this task. While the film is clearly the weakest of Nolan’s Bat-films (and doesn’t particularly withstand repeat viewings), it does feature stunning performances by Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and Anne Hathaway as well as a final sequence that almost redeems its mediocre third act. Almost.

5. Batman Begins (2005)

Christian Bale in Batman Begins

Source: Warner Bros.

Batman & Robin may have brought the box office appeal of the Caped Crusader to an all-time low, but thankfully, Nolan restored order in Gotham City with his more grounded take on Bruce Wayne’s road to the cape and cowl. With a cast of gifted actors (and Katie Holmes, for some reason) in front of the camera, the film draws audiences into to the hero’s story like never before. We don’t even mind that Bale doesn’t even don the iconic costume until midway through the film. That’s how strong the film’s character-driven approach to Bruce Wayne is.

4. The Prestige (2006)

Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige

Source: Touchstone Pictures

One year after bringing Batman back to theaters, Nolan and Bale reunited for this plot twist-heavy drama about two 19th-century magicians engaged in a battle to create the ultimate illusion. Like many of Nolan’s projects, the film deals with themes of obsession and delves into how much its characters are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve their objectives. Structured like a magic trick itself, the film’s final reveal set a buzz-worthy precedent that Nolan himself would top a few years later.

3. Inception (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception

Source: Warner Bros.

The debate rages on about the ending of this Leonardo DiCaprio sci-fi thriller, but regardless of how one interprets the film’s final image, it’s clear that Inception‘s ground-breaking dream-within-a-dream narrative was one of the few recent blockbusters to prove that mainstream entertainment doesn’t have to be dumbed down to rack up impressive box office numbers. Rather, the film’s multi-faceted ideas about dreams and reality  which many have come to interpret as a metaphor for cinema itself  challenged audiences and cemented Nolan’s status as a gifted next-level storyteller.

2. Memento (2000)

Guy Pearce in Memento

Source: Columbia Tristar

Without this neo-noir thriller, it’s quite likely that Nolan wouldn’t be the A-list filmmaker he is today. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator who  following a mysterious “incident”  is no longer capable of forming new memories. The film employs a distinctive backwards-linear narrative to tell Leonard’s story, essentially putting viewers in the same confused state as the character himself throughout. One of the most incredibly original and mind-blowing films in recent memory, Memento features a final scene that subverts the entire film, making a second viewing an absolute necessity.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

Source: Warner Bros.

Although Memento and Inception could each arguably be viewed as Nolan’s creative apex, the mainstream success of this Batman Begins sequel gives it the edge to top his projects to date. Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker notwithstanding, the film plays like a crime thriller that just so happens to center on a costumed vigilante and his clown-like nemesis. The best sequel to hit theaters since The Empire Strikes Back nearly 30 years earlier, The Dark Knight proved that comic book films could be just as creatively rich as they are profitable, taking the genre to unforeseen heights that haven’t been reached since.

Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable

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