Christopher Nolan is without a doubt one of the greatest movie directors working today. He’s the modern generation’s natural successor of the brilliant Stanley Kubrick. Their movies share that sharp precision, like you know that every single one of their frames has been carefully considered and meticulously composed. They’re both masters of their craft. When Kubrick died, it was like he was handing on the baton to Nolan. Nolan’s movies are structured mathematically. He plays his audience like a fiddle, and that’s what makes his movies so darn great. After Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Michael Bay, James Cameron, and David Yates (the guy who directed most of the Harry Potter movies), Christopher Nolan is the sixth highest grossing film director of all time. That may have been helped along by his Batman trilogy, but there are two counter arguments to that: first of all, the reason that his Batman movies did particularly well was because they were amazing, and second of all, that was just the beginning. Now, he’s solidified his place as a director whose name attached to a movie is enough to attract a massive mainstream audience. He’s made complex, intellectual, mind-bending sci-fi movies that have grossed as much as the brainless trash that no-talent directors churn out to appeal to the lowest common denominator masses. No one else can do that. To date, Nolan has directed a nice, round total of 10 feature length movies. Here are all of those movies, ranked from worst to best.
Christopher Nolan began his legendary film directing career with this short but sweet Hitchcockian thriller, and naturally, what with it being his first and all, it’s his weakest movie. Following is good for what it is, but it fails to stack up to the visually stunning big-budget epics that the director would go on to do when Warner Bros. got a hold of him. The movie suffers from an inexperienced cast of actors, who don’t have the dramatic chops to pull off all the mystery and red herrings that Nolan’s screenplay is trying to create. Nolan found creative ways to get around a tiny budget (a measly $6,000, which he funded himself out of his own wages), but this is nothing compared to what he would eventually be able to do with budgets of over $100 million. Following doesn’t even really work that well as a calling card for the director, because it’s simply too small and too limited to do his unbridled filmmaking talents justice. Still, it has all the complex plotting and mathematical structure that we’ve now come to expect from Mr. Attention to Detail. It’s not a bad movie – it just isn’t as good as Nolan’s best work.
9. Batman Begins
After its sequel The Dark Knight exceeded it in every way possible – scope, character development, plot, direction, action sequences, pretty much every aspect of it – everyone sort of forgot that Batman Begins existed. It got quickly swept under the rug, because there was a new sheriff in town. Batman Begins was like Woody, and The Dark Knight was like Buzz Lightyear. If you go back and watch Batman Begins, it is a good movie. It reintroduces Batman with an angle that we’ve never seen before, and it doesn’t skim over his training like most versions of his origin story do. So, as a superhero origin story movie, it’s pretty darn good. It ranks alongside Tobey Maguire’s first Spider-Man movie and last year’s Wonder Woman as one of the very best. But still, it is the superhero origin story genre – it’s limited. The key problem with these movies is that they’re difficult to rewatch. Once you’ve seen them once and you know how it plays out, a second viewing can be a little boring. This is a lovingly crafted Christopher Nolan movie and it still has Christian Bale’s Batman, so it’s far from unwatchable, but it was definitely improved on as the trilogy progressed.
Christopher Nolan is a natural heir to Stanley Kubrick, the movie mastermind behind A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, so when he decided to make a deep, philosophical, planet-hopping science fiction epic about the meaning of life and humanity’s reason for being, there was a huge pressure for it to be the next 2001: A Space Odyssey. In many ways, that’s what it is. It has an underlying social commentary about the way we’re heading. The Earth at the beginning of Interstellar has run out of natural resources and humanity needs a new home. We’re not that far away from that being our own reality. This is the same message as WALL-E, but this one goes in a different direction. It’s a little more like Star Wars, with a team of intergalactic adventurers and a robot exploring new planets. The scene in which Matthew McConaughey returns to the ship after spending like two hours on a planet where times moves differently and finds that a few decades have past and he’s missed his kids growing up into adults and he weeps as the video messages play is one of the most tragic and emotionally charged scenes in any Nolan movie. Your heart is made of stone if you’re not affected by that. All in all, Interstellar is a fine sci-fi extravaganza, but it doesn’t quite live up to the sum of its parts.
Memento wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s debut movie, but it was his first movie that reached a wide audience and introduced the world to their new favorite director. We’ve got the story of a guy who can’t remember anything and is trying to work his way backwards through the murder of his wife – and it’s presented to us all out of order. It’s really two movies. One is shot in black and white – that one is shown in order. The other is shot in color – that one is all out of place and topsy turvy. Those two movies are mixed together and tossed up like a salad and presented to you as what appears to be a complete mess. But then, at the end, just when you think this complicated narrative can’t possibly be salvaged, Nolan pulls it all together. Those two movies converge and reveal themselves to be the linking arms of a clear and coherent plot. It’s an immensely satisfying moviegoing experience. Is there any director in the world who could’ve pulled off such a complex movie besides Christopher Nolan? The answer to that question is that no, there is not. It’s a great movie – but as Nolan’s later work showed us, he was capable of even better.
6. The Dark Knight Rises
Unfortunately for Nolan’s Batman trilogy closer The Dark Knight Rises, it suffered from immense expectations. This was the sequel to The Dark Knight! This was the sequel to the greatest superhero movie ever made! Nolan had to somehow find a way to follow that up with a story that was bigger, better, more extravagant, more triumphant, and more epic than its predecessor. And not only that, he had to follow up the Joker, one of the most iconic and beloved villains in cinematic history, with another, equally memorable villain. And not only that, he had to wrap up the journey of Bruce Wayne in a satisfactory way. This was the big finale! It was simply impossible that The Dark Knight Rises would live up to the benchmark set by The Dark Knight. But still, it was much better and more satisfying that it could’ve been. Tom Hardy’s Bane did a good job of creating a memorable villain without stepping on Heath Ledger’s toes and the action sequences in The Dark Knight Rises manages to live up to the standard set by some of the sequences in The Dark Knight. Oh, and having Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Robin take up Batman’s mantle at the end was a nice touch that brought things full circle.
5. The Prestige
An adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel of the same name, Christopher Nolan’s period thriller The Prestige, the story of two feuding magicians, is a brilliant piece of work. The movie is dark and mysterious and disturbing in parts and, without spoiling anything in particular for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, it’s rammed with unsettling twists that leave your jaw on the floor and your mind blown. The Prestige also has a terrific cast of actors in it: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale (reuniting with Nolan at the height of the production of their Batman trilogy), Nolan regular Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, and Andy Serkis. Plus, the great musical genius David Bowie plays the historical figure Nikola Tesla. Back in late 2006, The Prestige faced competition from The Illusionist, yet another period piece about magicians. This was like an Armageddon/Deep Impact or White House Down/Olympus Has Fallen situation. Luckily for Nolan, fine filmmaking and powerful storytelling prevailed, and his, the superior film, won the box office race. The Prestige isn’t on the level of an Inception or a Dunkirk, but at the same time, it goes above and beyond a Batman Begins or even a Memento. It’s a fine movie.
Christopher Nolan doesn’t normally base his movies on any source material. They usually come from his particularly astute mind. But Insomnia was a remake – and he stuck pretty close to the original, too (which the original movie’s director was happy about). Still, this is a Nolan movie, through and through, and it’s one of his greatest and most underrated works. The movie is a chilly serial killer thriller shot in cold locations like Alaska and Canada (locations that contribute to the cold and unnerving tone of the film), and it’s the tale of two cops on the hunt for a murderer. Al Pacino and Hilary Swank play the cops, while Robin Williams plays the killer in one of his most underappreciated and brilliant performances. Nolan attributed the whole success of the movie to him: “What I thought of Robin was, well, he is an extraordinary guy to work with and he really gave what I consider to be a flawless performance. I wound up watching the film hundreds of times as we cut it, and I never hit that point with the performance where you start to see the acting. Most performances, at a point, bits start to peel off and away, but with Robin’s, he was very much in that character. Not that he’s a very dark person to work with – he’s very lively and friendly and amusing to work with. He really found something within himself. I think it’s a very underrated bit of work on his part.” And that’s what makes Insomnia so great.
For the summer of 2010, Inception was everyone’s favorite movie. Everyone fell in love with this twisted odyssey through dreams within dreams within dreams. Inception is Christopher Nolan’s The Matrix – the fiercely original, action-packed, big-budget sci-fi extravaganza that makes you think. Nolan originally wrote Inception as a horror movie, but he made the wise decision to recontextualize it as a slick thriller. So, what we get in the final product is a mind-boggling epic, the likes of which we’d never seen before. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, and Ellen Page – along with regular Nolan collaborators Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Michael Caine – round out a terrific cast to convey to us this truly unique thing that we are seeing. Inception is a movie that is genuinely remarkable and jaw-dropping, and the cast helped to make that palatable to us – especially Page, who acts as the audience surrogate in the movie’s strange world. Never before had a movie explored the world of our dreams in such depth before, and rarely had a big-budget blockbuster been so smart. Nolan gave us a movie here that is truly one of a kind. It’s a visually stunning thinker – it’s unheard of for Hollywood blockbusters.
When Christopher Nolan sets out to make a World War II movie, it blows people’s minds and has them considering that it might genuinely be the greatest World War II movie they’ve ever seen. That’s just the way it goes. That’s a fact. He chose an interesting story from the war to tell, too. The Dunkirk evacuation is the kind of story that you don’t often get to see in Hollywood movies. It didn’t involve any American troops and it was a defeat for the Allies, so it’s not the sort of thing that you’d get from a major Hollywood studio. And still, it managed to be an uplifting and patriotic movie. Remember at the end, when all the soldiers come home? They’re worried about being rejected by society and being made into pariahs for having abandoned the battlefield and lost to the Germans – but then they get there and everyone’s just proud of them for trying! That’s the Allied spirit! And aside from that, this is a masterfully crafted movie. You wouldn’t expect anything less from Christopher Nolan, of course, but this one is special. Its narrative structure is mathematically precise and the score makes use of a Shepard tone, meaning that the tension is ratcheted up gradually throughout the movie. A truly stunning cinematic work.
1. The Dark Knight
Is there really any question about this? Not only is The Dark Knight the best movie directed by Christopher Nolan – it’s one of the best movies ever directed by anyone. It’s a modern classic, tantamount to Pulp Fiction or The Godfather. It’s had a permanent fixture on the IMDb Top 100 list ever since it was first released. The movie is absurdly popular, and there’s a very good reason for that. Actually, there are a lot of very good reasons. Heath Ledger gave us one of the most powerful and unsettling and brilliant performances ever put on the silver screen in the role of the sadistic and iconic Joker. His portrayal was so incredible that it earned him a posthumous Academy Award, following his tragic early death. The writing of The Dark Knight was also fantastic. Nolan crafted a complex and engaging story with David S. Goyer before putting together a full, fleshed-out screenplay with his brother Jonathan, eventually writing a sequel that went deeper and darker than Batman Begins. The movie’s just amazing. It redefined the comic book movie. That whole opening sequence, the bank heist shot in slick, sumptuous IMAX – that’s filmmaking at its finest, and it only gets better from there.