The rise of Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker has been a fascinating one. The guy is, undoubtedly, one of a very few number of directors who have the clout to make pretty much whatever they want. Even at a time when Steven Spielberg has trouble gathering financing for his projects, the combination of Christopher Nolan’s unfailing box office success and high critical praise makes him a low-risk prospect for any major studio, even if you’re greenlighting a budget of say $250 million for an original sci-fi espionage epic. But while Nolan is now pretty much the consummate “prestige blockbuster” filmmaker, he didn’t start off there. Nor did he take the now somewhat common route of churning out one well-received indie then immediately jumping into the big leagues. Nolan began by making incredibly small-scale films, then slowly worked his way up to his first blockbuster, all while throughout still keeping his filmmaking sensibilities intact: ambitious narrative structure, incredibly serious and high-stakes stories, and obsessive, trauma-filled characters. These hallmarks are just as prevalent in Nolan’s first feature, the $5,000-budgeted noir Following , as they are in The Dark Knight. As a result, Nolan’s razor sharp focus and consistent success with general audiences, he’s become one of the most beloved filmmakers working today. So given the importance, talent, and impact of Nolan, and in honor of his new film, Tenet, making its way around theaters, here’s my ranking of each piece of his filmography.
11. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Dubious proof that ending a trilogy well is always the hardest part, The Dark Knight Rises was never going to live up to Nolan’s previous Batman movie, but this was a steeper step down than expected. A clumsy, busy, politically confused attempt at manufacturing closure that steeped itself in far too many logic-leaps, Dark Knight Rises kind of feels like the work of a director who traversed atop a mountain but got lost on the way down. The result is possibly the messiest thing that Nolan has ever made, an overstuffed movie that shares its hero’s desperate need to put this story behind him. Frankly, Nolan’s last Batman movie doesn’t exactly build towards a resolution for its saga so much as it just circles the drain. Yet this is still far from a weak overall outing: There’s multiple great set pieces (in particularly the opening plane sequence) and Tom Hardy’s Bane is quite magnetically memorable. It just hurts that all that strength is brought down by so many missteps.
10. Following (1998)
A curiously shaggy debut for a filmmaker who would become famous for his severe formalism, Nolan’s first feature might seem like a inauspicious first step for someone whose path ultimately led to incredible fame and fortune. For one thing, this super lo-fi psychological thriller was made for a cool $5,000, shot for over a year (only on weekends), and promptly rejected from Sundance. And though, if Following didn’t exactly set the world on fire, this scrappy, sordid, sixty-nine minute black-and-white exercise in raw suspense hides a lot of clues about its maker’s brilliant future. It’s a nifty bit of foreshadowing, at the very least. The 16mm story of a broke young writer who seeks inspiration by stalking the people he sees on the street, the film’s innocent premise soon spirals into a monochrome mind-bender about the hazy border between finding a purpose and developing an obsession. His characters are already defining themselves by their jobs, their plots already feel less organic than engineered rather. There’s a guy named Cobb who says things like “You’re developing a taste for it,” and “Everyone has a box.” Sometimes, the connections are so uncanny that it feels like Nolan already knew where he was going, and the rest of us were just trying to keep up.
9. Tenet (2020)
Before Tenet was released, Christopher Nolan, in typical Nolan fashion, said the film was not about time travel but “time inversion.” What that means might remain a mystery to anyone who dips their toe in this sometimes hollow, often imaginative spectacle. As often as it gets lost in lulling exposition, Tenet as well is filled with bracing set pieces for a head-spinning James Bond riff that sees Nolan hit some almost impressive levels of polarity in quality. At one-hundred-and-fifty minutes, it’s pure clockwork with weak (but attempted) characterizations that aims very high and ultimately winds up being just solid.
8. Interstellar (2014)
I’ve never been asked about a movie more than I have about Interstellar. It’s one of the few movies where it’s a little hard for me to fathom how someone could completely love or hate it. Those calling the film a masterpiece seem to be willfully ignoring its most embarrassing and-or questionable moments/elements. Or, to be more rude, just maybe they haven’t seen the movies that inspired Interstellar or even haven’t seen much abstract sci-fi, in general. I’ve never been able to grasp how people were continually making comparisons to Kubrick and Tarkovsky. Obviously, this is visually awe-inspiring throughout and the 2001 influence clearly peeks its head at moments, but I still just continually think Spielberg and Shyamalan before those former two. From the clunky dialogue and thin characterizations, the undeniable formal pleasures, the second-rate Spielbergian family dynamics, the gooey New Age spirituality — all feel like vintage M. Night. The aesthetic and formal pleasures are abundant: Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography in particular is lush, free-flowingly grand yet precise. Nolan’s direction is mixed but more on the positive side (the sappiness gets to be a bit much). At the same time, though, anyone who can sit stone-faced during that 23-years-of-messages scene is more of a robot than TARS. Overall, though, Interstellar is a film almost perversely uncommercial in many respects, and I can’t help but be grateful for that principle alone, even as I wish if Nolan had put more of his efforts towards characterization. A little too gushy, but still largely ambitious near-misfire spectacle, I will always take.
7. Batman Begins (2005)
It didn’t seem at all likely that Christopher Nolan would be the one to reinvent the modern superhero movie; his forte seemed to be more mind-bending thrillers, not action spectacles. But his take on Batman (Christian Bale) was both brilliant and deceptively simple: Batman had always been the “relatable” superhero — the one who didn’t have powers, just money, vengeance, and will — so why not give us a Batman grounded in something resembling reality? Some will point to this movie as the beginning of turning everything into a “dark, gritty reboot,” but Nolan’s model borrowed the DNA of Richard Donner’s original Superman, with its matter-of-fact, ground-level approach to capes-and-tights heroism. Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the Dark Knight is presented with uncommon psychological realism, set in motion by a somewhat-plausible series of events that explain how he became such a determined, effective fighter. The film only really falters in its last act, with a somewhat underwhelming final train set piece. (Oh, and Katie Holmes is strangely miscast.) But, overall, it sets the an intriguing foundation and precedent not just for a trilogy but for comic-book cinema to come.
6. Insomnia (2002)
On the surface, Nolan’s first Hollywood feature seems like something of a calculated anomaly, a low-risk/high-reward studio gig designed to finesse the auteur’s transition from low-budget indies to massive summer blockbusters. A remake of a bleak 1997 Norwegian thriller that probably didn’t need to be remade, Insomnia remains the only one of Nolan’s films on which the director doesn’t also have a writing credit. The protagonist doesn’t even have a dead wife! In other words, it feels — at first glance — like the least personal of his projects. And maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t. Either way, Insomnia is still a crucial piece of the puzzle. Set in the Twin Peaks-esque town of Nightmute, Alaska, Nolan’s third feature is an absorbing morality tale in the guise of a boilerplate murder-mystery. Al Pacino, put right on the sweet spot of his big emotions, plays a detective with a guilty conscience — Nightmute’s constant daylight isn’t the only thing keeping this guy up at night. Like so many of Nolan’s protagonists, Will Dormer is an ambitious and exceedingly capable (but profoundly lonely) middle-aged man who’s tortured by his past and struggling to find the best way forward. He’s a man whose cold exterior hides a raw underbelly, a man whose job — whose function — has become both the cause and solution to all of his problems. This is easily the most straightforward film that Nolan has ever made, but that doesn’t hold it back: Pacino and Robin Williams shine in their respective roles and Nolan’s control of atmosphere and a somnambulant mood takes this procedural to higher grounds.
5. Inception (2010)
Consider this for a second: Christopher Nolan made a movie about high-tech thieves who break into people’s dreams and steal hidden ideas from them, but this time they are tasked to secretly plant an idea in a person’s head, so they go into that person’s dream, but in order to hide their actions they have to go several dreams down, so they have to create a dream inside the guy’s dream so they can go into the next dream, then do it again, but they can’t go too far down the dream levels because if they do they’ll be stuck in the dream forever and their brains will melt, and also each level of a dream happens at a different speed, so that five minutes in the real world is an hour in dream time, and things slow down even further the deeper you go within the dreams, but anything that happens in one dream can affect the dream in the next level. Now consider this: Inception was beloved by many and made $825 million worldwide. Sure, its intended emotional impact doesn’t really hit, but wow is the scope, mechanics, and overall captive direction so impressive.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
If nothing else, this is one of the most influential movies of our time — the entire DC Universe of superhero tentpoles has basically been built around its success. But none of its imitators have come close to matching the sweep and power of Nolan’s second Batman entry, which is really a Michael Mann-esque gangster epic masquerading as a superhero flick. And at the center of it all is one of the great performances of the decade, with the late Heath Ledger’s wild, disturbing, charismatic turn as the Joker making a perfect foil for Christian Bale’s stolid, wounded, tormented Batman. With a story that could easily have made for three separate movies (and maybe should’ve been) and each insane set piece topped by the next one, this is the rare comic-book film that earns the obsessive quality of its fandom. That’s also because Nolan doesn’t shy away from tackling philosophical, moral, and political issues: When Batman turns all of Gotham’s cell phones into a citywide sonar system, is he essentially confirming the U.S. government’s surveillance tactics? Or is he simply debasing himself and betraying his own ideals — essentially falling into the Joker’s trap? If so, what do we make of the fact that he succeeds? But wait, does he even succeed, or is it the people of Gotham who redeem him by refusing to blow each other up? Nearly a decade after its release, you can still go down any number of rabbit holes thinking about The Dark Knight. And not many movies can that still be said.
3. The Prestige (2006)
Nolan’s sole literary adaptation — based on Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel — also features his most subtle, complex characters. As dueling magicians in turn of the century London, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are both charming and sinister in their obsessions with one another. Maybe that’s why, unlike so many other films that rely on “puzzle” structures and big twists, The Prestige continues to work so well on repeat viewings; if anything, it improves and gains depth the more you watch it. You can argue that this whole film is nothing but themes (doubling, self-destruction, life as performance, etc.), the thing is, they’re treated so literally that they end pushing the film into the category of the dreamlike and transcendent. The film itself is a dazzling magic trick in its own right, with an intricate plot that doubles back on itself and is filled with illusions. But it’s also a film that remains rewatchable, frequently ridiculous, occasionally funny, deeply melancholic, completely absorbing, a showcase of directorial sleight of hand.
2. Dunkirk (2017)
War is banal. War is madness. War offers no reason behind who lives and who dies. Of course Christopher Nolan needed to try and figure out how it works. More Old Hollywood avant-garde than a throwback to the glory days of 70mm celluloid, Dunkirk sees Nolan craft another blunt force exercise that uses every piece of the cinematic language to interfuse the borders between time and space, deconstructing the physical world in order to explore the immaterial forces that make it tick. A historical blockbuster may seem like a bold change of pace for Nolan, but it’s still the work of someone who’s part watchmaker and part showman, someone who disassembles each of his stories for the thrill of putting them back together. A virtually bloodless but profoundly unnerving assault on the senses, Dunkirk is a visual symphony of stunningly raw spectacle that searches for order and collective humanity in the midst of chaos.
1. Memento (2000)
A non-linear story about a middle-aged white man who desperately needs to crack a code in order to forgive himself for failing a dead woman, Memento isn’t a Christopher Nolan movie so much as it’s the Christopher Nolan movie. A wholly brilliant marriage between form and function, the director’s 2000 breakthrough has become the template for the rest of his career. Memento works so well because its cleverness never interferes with its genius, its structure never gets in the way of its soul. On the contrary, how this movie unfolds is utterly inextricable from what it’s about. For so many contemporary directors, film is just an information delivery service, but for Nolan the medium is indivisible from the message (that might explain why he’s such a celluloid purist, why he’ll probably never switch to TV). The story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) runs in two directions at once, each scene simultaneously stretching forwards and backwards in time so that what’s happened is just as exciting as what might happen next: It’s truly an ingenious piece of structing for a thriller. Putting the audience entirely in the perspective of Leonard’s amnesiac state, Memento is a simple noir that requires a cipher to unlock, the movie becomes a thrilling meditation on time, memory, and the power of self-deception because it recognizes how every good movie requires us to reckon with all three of those things. It’s a story about the stories we tell ourselves, and Nolan delivers it in a way that requires our participation. And it’s a form of participation that feels endlessly engrossing to this day.