The career of Christopher Nolan has been, thusfar, fascinating. In less than 20 years, the British-American writer-director has left a notable imprint on cinema no less than three times (though I would argue four). It's not easy to make an effective blockbuster, nor is it easy to make a film that adeptly handles big and weighty issues. But Nolan has proven talented at both. Known for his cerebral, sometimes non-linear style of storytelling, Nolan has given us nine films that offer ponderous explorations of our human psyches, while also managing to be tremendously entertaining. While his films have often been acclaimed, they have also proven highly divisive, which is why I have decided to throw my hat into the arena, with a definitive and objectively fair ranking of Christopher Nolan's filmography.
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9. Following (1998)
While it was his first feature-length offering, I would also argue that Following was Nolan's weakest. It exhibited the typical traits of a directorial debut, in somtimes-shaky pacing, and characters that weren't fully fleshed out. But what it did have, it had in spades: cool ideas, a well-written script, and stylish execution. Following follows a man who is fascinated with, well, following people. Is that too many uses of the word "follow?" Anyway, one of the people he follows catches on, and pulls him into a world of thievery in the London underground. I have my objections to it, but it's a good little movie, that showed us some pretty cool promise of what was to come from Nolan and co.
8. Interstellar (2014)
I'm sure to catch some heat for this, but after seeing it several times, dissecting it, and formulating my thoughts, I can't help but say that Nolan's 2014 offering was his weakest mainstream film. For starters, Nolan took on a heck of an ambition in trying to tell a relatable, human story using complex scientific elements. And while I admire the ambition, the result was a movie for physicists, more than for the general public. It was, without a doubt, his least accessible film. And furthermore, without spoiling too much, the ending is emotionally stunted. The film spends almost three hours building to a big, emotional conclusion, and then the whole thing is wrapped up and dismissed within two minutes, literally. But qualms aside, Interstellar was still a really good movie, and did a good job of telling a human story. The acting was superb all around, the visuals were phenomenal, and the film juggled a lot of big ideas, mostly successfully. That has to be said when talking about this film.
7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
This one kills me, because I loved The Dark Knight Rises. But I have to face the facts; chief among those facts is that this movie has the worst writing of any Nolan film. Someone literally greets another person in this film by saying "I'm CIA." And on top of the occasionally wooden and soliloquy-laden dialogue, the film is so full of holes that Louis Sachar could write a book about it. But, in spite of its many shortcomings, there was something about Nolan's third Batman outing that was just plain powerful. All of the actors were great, the film was a visual powerhouse and the epic score by the legendary Hans Zimmer certainly didn't hurt. Also, the ending packed a serious punch. It didn't come up perfect, but Dark Knight Rises came up a winner.
6. Insomnia (2002)
With the exception of Following, this is Nolan's most unknown and underseen film. Believe it or not, it's actually a remake of a Norwegian film of the same name. So I look to Insomnia as an example of how to do remakes right. Taut, tense, and terrifically atmospheric, the film is an incredibly effective and chilling mystery/thriller. And the acting is up to snuff, with awesome performances by Al Pacino and Hillary Swank, and even Robin Williams in the rare villainous role. If you haven't seen Insomnia, please do. The occasional narrative lull is easily forgivable in this awesome movie.
5. Batman Begins (2005)
Though its immediate sequel may be regarded as a better film (and rightly so), Nolan's reboot of Batman did a lot to restore the integrity of the character after Joel Schumacher and the other powers that be effectively destroyed it. And on top of that, Batman Begins is just a terrific movie, and arguably the most perfect Batman film to date, hearkening back to the dark, sensational storylines of Frank Miller's Batman comics, and treating its characters with obvious reverence for their history. Its worst shortcoming is that it tells a story we all know in its entirety (the Batman origin story). Now, it did put a fresh spin on the proceedings, but facts are facts; we had all seen the murder of the Waynes countless times. So that sadly counts as a strike. There's also the occasional narrative lull from which Nolan films seem to commonly suffer. And furthermore, you could endlessly debate the morality of "I'm not going to kill you, but I don't have to save you," but I'll leave that to internet forums and the folks at Cinemasins. Batman Begins is a jewel in the Nolan crown.
4. The Prestige (2006)
Without a doubt, this is Nolan's most severely underrated movie. I would never guess that a movie about 19th-century magicians could be so intoxicating, but I'll be darned if The Prestige isn't a riveting drama. The movie has it all: revenge, double-crossing, mystery, rivalry,The intense plot moves fast, and all of the actors are ferociously good in their roles (Hugh Jackman needs to be in more Nolan movies). Plus, some terrific sets and costuming and surprisingly appropriate science-fiction elements, and you have got a thrilling mystery that really doesn't get its due.
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
Ah, yes. My favorite film. The Dark Knight is something Shakespeare would write if he were around today. Nolan's second and best Batman film had it all; drama, action, gang warfare, emotional intrigue, shocking violence and a tragic love story, all wrapped in a mask and a pitch-black cape. This film changed how we make movies in so many ways, not the least of which being the ushering in of dark and gritty superhero movies (for better or worse), and stood tall as an example of high-budget moviemaking with complex ideas and questions of morality. More than any other, The Dark Knight made Christopher Nolan a household name, and shocked us right to our core at the same time. Plus, the last ten minutes are amazing. Goodness, I'm getting goosebumps just thinking of it.
2. Memento (2000)
Just as The Dark Knight made Christopher Nolan a household name, Memento cemented him as an icon to cinephiles the world over, and did so eight years earlier; and quite frankly you'd have to be blind not to see why. Its unconventional (as in, literally backwards) narrative tells the story of a man with short-term memory loss who is trying to solve a mystery: to find the man who murdered his wife. It's a pitch-black crime thriller, with plenty of twists and turns and an unreliable narrator to keep you guessing. It's a perfect example of modern-day film noir, and should be mandatory viewing in film classes.
1. Inception (2010)
This movie is a modern masterpiece. If The Dark Knight was modern-day Shakespeare, Inception is modern-day Isaac Asimov; a film that was complex and brilliant without being inaccessible, a whirlwind of blockbuster cinematic nirvana that doesn't sacrifice characters or story. The effects are top-notch, the casting is pitch-perfect, the story is fast-paced and exciting, and the script handles themes of motivation, dreams, identity, and the way we perceive the people we love, without so much as a skipped beat or narrative lull. Literally the only problem with the film is that it moves at such a breakneck speed that we have no time to stop and get to know everyone, making the main characters the only ones who are truly fleshed out (Ocean's Eleven was another great movie with the same problem). But seriously, I don't hold that against Inception, if only because it is so wildly entertaining and masterfully assembled. Part drama, part action movie, part science-fiction thriller, part heist film, and all terrific filmmaking, Inception not only stands as one of the better films of the last decade, it is poised to be a classic in cinema.
Well, there you have it, my definitive ranking of the films of Christopher Nolan. I'm sure that many of you have objections, and that is great! Let me hear them in the comments, or better yet, come join us and share your own piece on the subject! I think we can all agree, however, that Nolan's barely begun, and that he has a great career of brilliant and mind-bending movies ahead of him. I, for one, am excited. Thanks for reading!