Few filmmakers stoke the kind of loyalty and obsessive deconstruction as Christopher Nolan does.
Over 12 films and 25 years, he has made head-spinning, intricately constructed journeys into the mind, time, magic and Gotham City. And audiences have been more than happy to go along for the ride. He is one of the few filmmakers working today who can also get hugely expensive, original movies made.
And this year he returned with his latest film, “Oppenheimer,” a historical epic about J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the man who oversaw the construction of the first nuclear weapon in the waning days of World War II. Full of gorgeous, IMAX-captured imagery and structural ingeniousness, it feels in many ways like the ultimate Nolan movie. That is, of course, until the next Nolan movie.
In celebration of “Oppenheimer” and because it’s fun to talk about his movies, we’ve decided to rank Nolan’s movies, not worst to best but least-great to the-greatest:
12. “Following” (1998)
Nolan’s first film is also his least effective. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise, exactly. For a director known for his big screen bombast (and shooting on formats like 70mm and IMAX), it’s pretty jarring re-watching his debut feature, a micro-budgeted, 80-minute crime thriller shot in black-and-white 16mm. (The price of the film stock came out of his pocket.) Jeremy Theobald, who has popped up in a couple of later Nolan movies in small roles, plays an Englishman who has taken to following people as he looks for inspiration for his novel. He soon crosses paths with a shadowy figure named Cobb (Alex Haw) and is drawn into a sinister plot. While not exactly a Rosetta stone, you can still see the Nolan-to-come in “Following,” from the twisty plot to the use of the name Cobb (who would be Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Inception”). This one might be for die-hards Nolan-heads only. Think of it as Nolan begins.
11. “Insomnia” (2002)
Nolan’s first studio film following the success of “Memento” was a remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 thriller. Al Pacino plays a dogged detective (a role originated by Stellan Skarsgård) who travels to a small fishing town in Alaska to investigate the murder of a young girl. Of course, the town is bathed in perpetual daylight, leading the detective to become unglued as his prime suspect (an unsettling Robin Williams) evades capture. (Fun fact: the remake was originally developed by Jonathan Demme with Harrison Ford in the Pacino/Skarsgård role.) Arguably Nolan’s most straightforward movie and his least stylistically adventurous, “Insomnia” is still a terrific little thriller, one in which, as in all of his films, madness and determination become increasingly blurry as the quest wears on. It might be the most notable for being Nolan’s first film at Warner Bros., a place he would make his creative home for nearly 20 years. If you haven’t ever seen “Insomnia,” seek out both versions, especially if you can’t sleep. It might take all night.
10. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
Was there any way that “The Dark Knight Rises” would top – or even match – the success of “The Dark Knight,” a movie so profoundly important that it redefined what IMAX was for and forced the Academy Awards to bump out the number of Best Picture nominations? Probably not. Especially since Nolan undoubtedly had plans to use Heath Ledger’s Joker in the third chapter of the franchise before the actor’s untimely death. And “The Dark Knight Rises” is still a terrific movie, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of the previous entries. At times the film, about a Batman (Christian Bale) confronted with a powerful new villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) along with the ghosts of his past, feels overstuffed and searching for focus, as Nolan crams a number of ideas and inspirations (everything from the influential “Knightfall” comic book arc to Nolan’s discarded Howard Hughes biography) that all compete for attention and screen time.
That said, some of the best sequences from the series are all captured here, including the mid-air extraction cold open and a very literal ticking clock climax, and Hardy, Anne Hathaway (as a prototypical Catwoman), Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gary Oldman all contribute fine performances. With “The Dark Knight Rises,” its voluminous sprawl is both its biggest asset and most obvious problem.
9. “Interstellar” (2014)
“Interstellar” is such an obvious Christopher Nolan project that it is downright shocking that the project didn’t originate with him. Originally conceived by Linda Obst and physicist Kip Thorne following the making of “Contact,” the eventual screenplay was written by Jonathan Nolan, Chris’ brother and frequent collaborator, for Steven Spielberg. When Spielberg stepped away, Chris stepped in, reworking his brother’s script into something more plausibly realistic. This, as it turns out, is one of the bummers of “Interstellar” – it’s a space opera that feels strangely earthbound. Matthew McConaughey plays a former scientist recruited for a secret program after the Earth experiences another Dust Bowl. He hops to different planets looking one for that can suitably house humanity, all while those on Earth (including his children) continue to age.
The planets he visits are pretty humdrum (imagine what James Cameron would have done) and even when the movie goes full woo-woo in the third act, it feels oddly unimaginative. Still, Bill Irwin plays a weird robot named TARS and Matt Damon shows up as a duplicitous astronaut so it’s not all bad. It’s hard to think of a movie with the scope and ambition of “Interstellar” being one of the filmmaker’s lesser works. And yet here we stand. Right next to the magic bookshelf.
8. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Few films are a genuine phenomenon. “The Dark Knight” is one of those films. The follow-up to his immensely successful (and artistically satisfying) “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” follows Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) dealing with a Gotham in decline. There’s a madman on the loose (the Joker, played by Heath Ledger in an Oscar-winning performance) and a heroic district attorney turned disfigured and villainous (Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face). Inspired more by crime capers than comic books, “The Dark Knight” was proof that a superhero movie could be serious and involving; we should remember that it opened within weeks of “Iron Man,” the opening salvo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And its importance, not only normalizing the use of IMAX footage for a narrative feature but also bumping the Academy to open up the Best Picture race (among other things), cannot be overstated. But there are still some things that don’t quite work – the “two boats” climax is sort of lame and the frenzied editorial style that blurs time and space also sometimes borders on the incomprehensible (also it borrows so much from “Heat” that Michael Mann should have had a screenwriting credit). Still, we love “The Dark Knight.”
7. “Batman Begins” (2005)
At the time, re-launching the Batman film franchise less than a decade after the last entry in the previous series felt bold and dicey. But “Batman Begins,” the darker course correction to the garish “Batman and Robin,” turned out to be the perfect antidote. Not as dark as some of the attempts at projects that were ultimately never made (like Darren Aronofsky’s “Batman: Year One”), Nolan looked to ground the Bruce Wayne/Batman character (Christian Bale), both psychologically and storytelling-wise. A rich kid whose parents died, he travels to the far east, finds training (courtesy of Liam Neeson) and then comes home to confront a Gotham that has been utterly corrupted, both by warring gangsters and some more comic book-y villains (exemplified by Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow).
Perhaps the best, most gratifying moment is towards the third act, when Nolan finally delivers the bold, old school blockbuster theatrics that we are so desperate for. You can feel that Nolan is putting Batman – and the audience – through its paces, before finally delivering one of the most satisfying climaxes to any superhero story ever. The movie literally becomes a rollercoaster. Without that emotional bedrock, it wouldn’t have meant anything. But after the arduous journey, it was good to let loose. In the nearly 20 years that have followed, only a handful of comic book movies have even orbited the same space as “Batman Begins.” It’s still that good.
6. “Inception” (2010)
In between trips to Gotham, Nolan revisited an idea he had first worked on following “Insomnia” – an epic about dream thieves (back then it was conceived as a horror movie). The resulting film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the leader of a group of thieves hired to implant (or “incept”) a specific idea within the subconscious of a wealthy industrialist, exemplifies the best and worst of Nolan. At its best, the movie is multilayered and deeply impressive, with extravagant action set pieces that pile on top of one another as DiCaprio and the gang burrow deeper into the dream realm. (How one level impacts the other is also tremendously exciting and exemplified by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s zero-G hotel hallway fight.)
On the other hand, some of the characters, particularly DiCaprio’s wife played by Marion Cotillard, feel thinly written and the movie feels oddly undersexed, especially given that the movie is about dreams. Instead of any real psychological depth, Nolan instead chooses to stage a snow fort sequence that could have been plucked out of a James Bond adventure (likely on purpose as Nolan is admittedly a big Bond fan). “Inception” is a triumph, for sure, as is evidenced by its $800 million+ box office and its array of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and wins (Cinematography and Visual Effects among others). It would be fascinating to see what Nolan, as a filmmaker that has matured for 10 years and only further honed his craft, could do with the same basic set up. Oh wait …
5. “Tenet” (2020)
Yes, in some ways “Tenet” is revisiting elements that made “Inception” so much fun. It’s set in the world of high-stakes espionage but – surprise! – there’s a weird metaphysical twist. Instead of dreams, “Tenet” fulcrums around the concept of time travel or, in its own offbeat vernacular, inversion. John David Washington stars as an unnamed CIA operative recruited to help in a mission to stop a Russian arms dealer (a scenery-chewing Kenneth Branagh) from brokering a deal with the future to end the world.
Nolan’s script is complicated to the point of incomprehensibility, but the plot is the least important thing in a movie full of fight sequences that happen across two timelines, a high-speed heist that involves a fire engine and several large trucks and a full-scale third act battle with teams of fighters traveling backwards and forwards in time. Nolan freshened up his usual core creative team, with editor Jennifer Lame and Ludwig Göransson offering some much-needed fresh blood (they both return for “Oppenheimer”), and it really does feel like a filmmaker who is reinvigorated and ready to venture into uncharted territory.
One of the great disappointments of the pandemic was not being to see “Tenet” in a theater; the messy, pre-vaccine release ultimately resulted in shifting release dates, disappointing box office and Nolan severing his longstanding partnership with Warner Bros. But with time (ha), “Tenet” will rightfully be seen as one of Nolan’s crowing achievements – a whip smart, aggressively artistic thriller about friendship, time travel and the end of the world.
4. “Memento” (2000)
Nolan’s breakthrough feature came just two years after his postage stamp-sized debut. Both relatively straightforward and deceptively complex, “Memento” follows a man (Guy Pearce) who is suffering from short-term memory loss and is searching for his beloved wife’s killer. Of course that is a cool concept alone, but the way that Nolan structured the movie – with most of the narrative happening in reverse, while a secondary timeline (in black-and-white) is moving forward – turns it into something that is downright ingenious. Watching “Memento,” which premiered in the fall of 2000 at the Venice Film Festival before being released in 2001, made you aware that you were in the hands of a true visionary, someone with a real point-of-view and a master of both storytelling and craft. Of course, some of Nolan’s less desirable attributes, which would fuel critics of his later work, are on full display here (his tendency to unceremoniously kill female characters being one of them). But it’s still pretty amazing how in control of narrative and technique he already was, and how so many of the themes that he would explore throughout his career (including the nature of time, the duplicitous of man) were being worked on all those years ago.
3. “Dunkirk” (2017)
Leave it to Christopher Nolan to take what could have been a relatively straightforward war movie (recreating the Dunkirk Evacuation of World War II) and turn it into one of his most deeply felt and formally adventurous films. Instead of your typical overwrought historical epic, Nolan sought to make a lean, mean film with little dialogue and sequences of prolonged suspense. While he was working from a pared-down script (the final running time is only 106 minutes), this being a Nolan movie, there are complications – with the movie unfolding over three locations (land, sea and air) over three sets of time (one week, one day, one hour). And, of course, he used IMAX cameras to capture most of the action, resulting in some of the most jaw-dropping sequences of combat ever committed to film. Nolan has always been obsessed with the juxtaposition of large-scale action and almost uncomfortable emotional intimacy. But at the time, he had never achieved something as remarkable as “Dunkirk.” Considered by some (including Quentin Tarantino) to be his very best film, it finally earned Nolan a Best Director Oscar nomination, along with Best Picture (it won three others). It was hugely deserved. And long overdue.
2. “The Prestige” (2006)
Nolan’s best movies feel like a magic trick – you are at once awed, moved and desperate to learn how he pulled it off. It makes sense that he would actually make a movie about magic, adapted by himself and his brother Jonathan and based on an obscure novel from a decade earlier. In “The Prestige” (named after one stage of a magic trick), Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play friends-turned-battling magicians in Victorian England whose rivalry escalates to a dangerous level. Nolan is a process guy, digging into the complexities of how an everyday man becomes a superhero or how an atomic bomb is put together, and you can feel him reveling in every detail of both the stagecraft of the magic and the obsessiveness off of the stage. There’s also a meta quality to the narrative, in so much as the movie is about the process of making movies and the desire to deliver an increasingly dazzling show, no matter the cost.
“The Prestige” is arguably Nolan’s most beautiful-looking movie and its smaller scale (no cities are destroyed or collapse in on themselves) means that he can dig into the emotional underpinning of characters with that much more acuity. “The Prestige” also showcases Nolan’s underrated knack for casting; in particular him allowing David Bowie to play Nikola Tesla as a svelte, morally ambiguous genie who comes to the aid of one of the magicians with a Faustian bargain. If for some reason you’ve never seen it, “The Prestige” was, for a long time, Nolan’s very best film.
1. “Oppenheimer” (2023)
Nolan’s latest is also his best. “Oppenheimer” feels like a director, still in his prime, taking a big swing and knocking it clear out of the park. What could have been a stuffy biopic is instead, in the hands of Nolan, a thrilling historical recreation and a chilling call for peace. Cillian Murphy, a Nolan regular, fully inhabits the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer, more openly known as the father of the atomic bomb. The movie traces Oppenheimer’s professional career, first as a student in Europe and then as a professor and theorist in America, as his loyalty is questioned even as he spearheaded what was, at the time, the most complicated (and important) covert military operation in history.
Nolan places you fully in the mind (and heart) of Oppenheimer, a man whose hubris and ego were only matched by his self-doubt and self-loathing. (Nolan wrote the script in the first person, using “I” to indicate where Oppenheimer was.) Interspersed with his career trajectory (and a mounting sense of impending doom) are sequences of extreme beauty as Oppenheimer is haunted by the hidden world just beyond our own – the subatomic realm. Aided greatly by Ludwig Göransson’s evocative score (that liberally mixes traditional symphonic arrangements alongside electronic elements), these moments are haunting and beautiful, even more so because we know about how this unseen world aided in the creation of unspeakable horror.
Filming almost exclusively in IMAX (including in never-before-seen black-and-white IMAX) with a star-studded cast of dozens (Robert Downey, Jr. does particularly standout work as Oppenheimer’s chief foil), “Oppenheimer” is a towering achievement – it’s Nolan’s most mature, complicated, emotionally rich movie to date. And it’s a reminder of a time, not all that long ago, where movies like “JFK” and “Malcolm X” were mainstream Hollywood offerings. What a movie.