Christopher Nolan has emerged over the last two decades to become one of the most distinct voices in modern filmmaking, but what is the best movie in our ranking of all his films? Nolan’s career has been something of a slow burn, moving steadily from low-budget indies to studio assignments and eventually becoming a name general audiences have come to trust. A new Christopher Nolan movie is now an event in itself, with the director maintaining control from initial concept down to the final edit.
While some viewers can find Nolan’s style too controlled or cold, a lot of his best work is rooted in emotion, with recurring themes that include characters haunted (sometimes literally) by the death of a loved one or fighting to be reunited with them. Memory, non-linear plot structure and time are repeating elements too, as are ensemble casts, including the ever-present Michael Caine. In much the same way James Cameron can be considered an engineer in addition to being a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan seems fascinated by the architecture of storytelling, and always seems to give him a fresh challenge with each movie.
10. The Dark Knight Rises
The concluding chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is his worst film by a pretty substantial margin. Here’s the thing about The Dark Knight Rises: it’s actually pretty good until it isn’t. It begins compellingly enough, with the time jump giving Nolan and co-writer Jonathan Nolan the opportunity to bring to light a completely different shade of Batman, and seeing Christian Bale’s hobbling Bruce Wayne getting back into fighting shape is a fun little montage. And hey, Anne Hathaway’s pretty swell as Catwoman isn’t she? But as soon as Bane’s master plan takes hold, the film starts to fall apart. There are huge logic leaps in The Dark Knight Rises—like Joseph Gordon-Levitt knowing Bruce Wayne is Batman “because of the eyes” while folks like Gordon or Rachel were hoodwinked. And its narrative is incredibly convoluted, with Nolan kinda-sorta half-assing a statement on Occupy Wall Street with no follow through, all the while an entire city is quarantined for months because some maniac says he’s got a bomb.
But this is a comic book movie. It doesn’t all have to make sense. If only the second half of the film was as interesting as it thinks it is, these logic leaps could be brushed over. But this second time jump is misguided, as it lets all the air out of the balloon so to speak and we’re left wondering just exactly how the mechanics of a madman holding a city hostage for five months works. And we still don’t really know why Bane is doing all this, which gives little weight to his actions while Tom Hardy—one of the most interesting performers working today—is hindered by a poorly conceived character, not to mention a mask that drains Bane of any and all charisma. The pacing is all over the place, the big Talia Al Ghul reveal is too little too late—she should’ve been set up as the villain much earlier, to give us a sense of emotional stakes—and John Blake’s “twist” name reveal is unnecessary. For someone so interested in carving his own path, much of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy-capper feels like fan-service, and it’s ill-fitting.
Visually, The Dark Knight Rises is at least dynamic, with Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister once again conjuring some terrific imagery even if the film’s prologue leaves something to be desired. Nolan’s technical prowess can’t be denied, but as a storyteller, The Dark Knight Rises is his biggest misstep.
Insomnia was Nolan’s move into studio filmmaking and he delivers an elegant, visually engaging thriller that occasionally feels too chilly for its own good. Insomnia is actually a remake of a Norwegian thriller, with Al Pacino starring as a detective investigating a murder in a small Alaskan town. Pacino’s character is plagued by insomnia, brought on by the guilt of accidentally shooting a fellow cop and covering up the crime.
Insomnia is a taut psychological character study, and while Pacino is typically great, its Robin Williams icy turn as the villain that makes the movie. In every sense, the film is a fine thriller, but compared to Nolan’s later filmography it can’t help but feel like a minor work.
Christopher Nolan’s debut feature Following is all the more impressive in hindsight. The 1998 noir was a passion project for the director, who took a full year to complete production as his cast and crew all had day jobs. But the result is a solid yarn in which Nolan’s confidence as a director is already fully formed. This is not the work of someone who is trying to be a filmmaker; it’s the work of a born filmmaker. The twisty story of a struggling young writer who follows strangers around the streets of London only to find himself being followed by a stranger as well is classic noir, and visually Nolan captures the intensity and paranoia of his lead character through plenty of handheld, striking black-and-white photography (Nolan served as his own cinematographer). The story unfolds in a fractured narrative—which would become a hallmark of Nolan’s films going forward—and while its conclusion is somewhat contrived, it’s satisfying nonetheless.
Nolan here takes plenty of inspiration from the greats of the noir genre, but what makes Following stand out is that Nolan makes this story his own. It’s not simply a riff on a tried-and-true format; it’s an original film that evokes that format. While the picture has trouble stacking up against Nolan’s more accomplished works, it’s a hell of a debut feature that was absolutely a signpost of things to come.
After a string of comic book movies and sci-fi blockbusters, Dunkirk was a pleasant change of pace for Nolan, which allowed his history buff to come out too. The film details the true story of the evacuation of allied soldiers from Dunkirk in 1940, with the film unfolding from three different perspectives – land, sea, and air. The first thing to note about Dunkirk is how lean it is, with a tight runtime and sparse dialogue. The film doesn’t even feature any German soldiers, with the film playing them off as shadowy threats.
Old hands like Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance bring a touch of warmth to Dunkirk, but while the film’s lack of character development is realistic, given the condensed timeframe, it does make it hard to really invest in the fates of the main characters since they feel like ciphers
6. Batman Begins
This movie is the true embodiment of the origin movie DC and Marvel have been searching for a while. ‘Bruce Wayne‘, a truly flawed person uplifting an immense amount of guilt on his shoulders, consumed by anger and the desire for vengeance just wins over the hearts of fans. Moreover, the protagonist being sort of a brat makes his transformation just that much precise and effective. As a matter of fact, this movie put forward the idea that a more humane approach to superhero characters can provide utter justice to the storyline and movie in general.
Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s most frustrating film. Coming off of completing his Dark Knight trilogy, the filmmaker aimed to expand his horizons further with a genuine sci-fi epic. At the same time, Nolan attempted to stretch his emotional range by grounding the film with a father-daughter relationship. Like The Dark Knight Rises before it, Interstellar is good until it’s not—although in this case, it’s great until it’s not. The world building of both the earthbound near-future landscape and new planet scenes is tremendous, with Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytemaoffering up a range of different landscapes that keep the visual palate dynamic. And it’s anchored by a truly terrific performance from Matthew McConaughey, a wildly ambitious script, and some of the best work of composer Hans Zimmer’s career. And then, well, Dr. Mann shows up.
The problem with Interstellar is Nolan’s need to throw in “one last twist” to surprise his audience, and the arrival and subsequent sabotaging from Matt Damon’s Dr. Mann is a stumble from which the film is unable to recover. The metaphor is so obvious it loses all impact, and this “turn” is ultimately a detour that the story doesn’t need. The driving emotional heart of Interstellar is the internal struggle between Coop’s desire to see his family again and aim to further propagate the human species, with the character doing everything in his power to accomplish both. This Mann detour only serves to “surprise” the audience and throw in another pair of set pieces, which somewhat detract from the emotional engagement of the story.
Moreover, when Coop does finally get back to his daughter, he spends all of five minutes with her before jetting back out into space, because reasons. The entire film is about Coop wanting to see his daughter again, and now you’re telling me he’s not going to spend every last waking moment she has left by her side? The conclusion undermines the emotional drive of the movie in service of the “man’s need to expand its reach” theme, and it rings emotionally false.
And yet, the first 2/3 or so of the film are wonderfully engaging and inventive, with Nolan conjuring some truly spectacular blends of practical and visual effects to offer up a space landscape the likes of which we’ve never seen before. And the supporting cast is really solid too, with Anne Hathaway delivering a show-stopping monologue about love and science. Which, again, makes the final act of the film that much more frustrating. So while the movie falls short of greatness due to Nolan giving into his worst tendencies, it remains part of a great movie, and is a notable (and curious) entry in Nolan’s filmography all the same.
4. The Prestige
The Prestige is the most essential film to unlocking Christopher Nolan the filmmaker. It speaks to his overall philosophy when it comes to storytelling, and its themes are prevalent in nearly every single one of his films. It also happens to be one of his best movies to date.
Batman Begins was Nolan’s first foray into major blockbuster territory, and while it took a few months for it to sink in that Nolan had essentially created a brand new kind of superhero movie, the director moved on to a project he had been thinking about making for a while: The Prestige. The film is an adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel of the same name about dueling magicians in early 1900s London, but its themes of obsession, ambition, and sacrifice for work/art are timeless and ever-present in all of Nolan’s films.
The ensemble of The Prestige is fantastic, but Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale shine brightest as the aforementioned dueling magicians. This is a film that has to work on multiple levels, and Jackman and Bale rise to the occasion and absolutely nail the dynamic performances that are required of them. There are twists and turns to spare in The Prestige, but given that this is a movie about magicians, it’s perfectly in keeping with the themes of the film. The entire picture itself is summed up in the opening scene, as Michael Caine explains the three keys to any good magic trick: The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige.
This is a formula that Nolan clearly took to heart, and the importance to these magicians of wowing the audience, if only for a second, with something truly out of this world mimics Nolan’s aim with each and every one of his movies—sometimes to a fault. But this being Christopher Nolan and all, the story can’t just be told in chronological order, and the fractured narrative serves to further obfuscate the various tricks hidden up the movie’s sleeve. And once you’ve seen “The Pledge”, the experience of watching the film again is like new, as the intricacy and care with which Nolan handles (and hides) the various reveals is stunning.
But if the film is simply about surprising the audience, it’s an empty vessel, and The Prestige stands as one of Nolan’s most emotionally satisfying films. With Jackman’s Angier and Bale’s Borden we have two men driven by the desire to become successful magicians, albeit each with their own value set of how far they’re willing to go to be truly memorable. Both are driven by obsession, ultimately to tragic ends, and Nolan expertly telegraphs the emotional drive for each so that the audience is genuinely invested in the outcome of their personal stories, not just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The Prestige is a film that gets overshadowed by Nolan’s bigger or flashier films, and I’ll admit before rewatching it recently I had my reservations about just how high up this list it would be. But it’s one of Nolan’s most successful films in terms of blending narrative, character, and emotion, and a decade later it stands as one of the best—and most essential—movies of his career.
This movie is one of those revolutionary ones which just changed the cinema scene forever. Not only that, Memento gave rise to a new storytelling style for Nollan. Taking full advantage of the medium as we’ve never seen before. To add up, the combination of themes and various cinematic device creating a spectral and unforgettable masterpiece that makes you question your own memory. We get a taste of Nolan’s signature storytelling traits through these time jumps, inserts, and an elaborate mind-f*c* showcasing us the pinnacle of film making.
The runaway success of The Dark Knight bought Christopher Nolan a blank cheque with Warner Bros, which he enthusiastically cashed on Inception. Nolan originally conceived of the project as a horror film but decided a heist story allowed more possibilities. Not only did the concept give Nolan to play with the nature of dreams and reality, but it also allowed him to explore the relationship between filmmakers and the audience too.
Inception features all the exciting setpieces and special effects expected of a blockbuster, but its thematic underpinnings, and likable cast of characters are what make it discussed to this day. Inception is also a movie that rewards more than one viewing because like the multiple dream layers the character’s descent into, there’s always more to explore.
1. The Dark Knight
While one could make the argument that Dunkirk is Nolan’s best film (and indeed it’s really close), it’s his 2008 masterpiece The Dark Knight that takes the top spot for the purposes of this list. The Batman Begins sequel is, quite frankly, the best superhero film of all time. While Begins got the Batman franchise off to a swell start, The Dark Knight took the series—and the genre—to another level by melding blockbuster sensibilities with thematically relevant material to result in a film that’s stimulating on a visceral, intellectual, and emotional level.
The Dark Knight is about escalation. If Bruce Wayne dresses up as a Bat and runs around Gotham City fighting for justice, how do criminals respond? It is Bruce’s decision to take justice into his own hands in a big way that opens the door for someone like The Joker to reign down chaos on the city, leaving Bruce at a loss for how to craft an appropriate response. How does one reason with that which is without reason?
The screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan is a crime drama of epic proportions with tight plotting and cleverly drawn characters. In a world where every superhero movie is trying to jam as many superheroes and villains as possible into one film, The Dark Knight masterfully navigates not only Batman’s tet-a-tet with his most iconic villain, but an entire, emotionally satisfying rise-and-fall arc for Harvey Dent’s descent into Two-Face. It’s a miracle to conjure just one iconic villain, but to also juggle the creation, terror, and death of another at the same time is some kind of dark magic.
Of course, The Dark Knight would not be what it is without Heath Ledger’s possessed performance as The Joker. This is not just the best Joker performance or the best superhero movie performance, this is one of the best film performances of all time. Ledger disappears fully into the Joker and can swing from hilarious to seriously terrifying within a matter of seconds. To appreciate the brilliance of what Ledger accomplished here is to also lament how many more tremendous performances we would have had if not for the actor’s untimely passing.
But while Ledger’s The Joker is the standout character in The Dark Knight, Aaron Eckhart delivers one of his best performances as Harvey Dent, offering up a sort of mirror to the Bruce Wayne/Dark Knight dynamic that leads up to his tragic fall from grace. Eckhart is terrific here, and his final scene with Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon is at once frightening and heartbreaking.
While the film itself is one set piece too long, it doesn’t matter because the rest of the movie is so damn phenomenal. The action is thrilling and dynamic, the Joker is iconic, the emotional turmoil that Bruce Wayne suffers is impactful, and the thematic resonance is searing. This is Nolan swinging for the fences and knocking the ball into the next county. All ambition, no fear. The confidence that was evident in Following is turned to 11, and he’s got every reason to hold his head high.
The Dark Knight is still Nolan’s best film so far (by a very slight margin vs. Dunkirk), but given the guy’s track record, there’s no reason to believe it won’t ever be usurped.