These days, if you’re talking about movies, you’re probably talking about Christopher Nolan. Oh sure, some really good movies have premiered on streaming during the pandemic, but all eyes have been on the latest blockbuster from Nolan, Tenet, which many expect to usher in a return to movie theaters post-covid-19.
Unfortunately, that isn’t happening just yet. However, news of Tenet’s constant delays comes near the 10th anniversary of another Nolan film, Inception, as well as the 12th anniversary of The Dark Knight, and... movie screenings in Fortnite. Basically, there’s a lot of Nolan talk out there right now and we’re taking the occasion to revisit his entire filmography. Without further ado, here’s io9's ranking of the films of Christopher Nolan, pre-Tenet.
If this list proves anything, it’s that Christopher Nolan has made some amazing movies. The one where it all came together, though, was 2010's Inception. The film is a spectacle among spectacles, featuring production design and visual effects to rival any movie of its time. Most important, though, is its originality. Almost nothing about Inception is like anything you’ve seen before. The idea of going into someone’s dreams, being able to manipulate time and space because you are there, the mechanics of going in and out, all of it is mindblowing. Then, the story does to its audience what the characters are doing to themselves, and leaves you questioning everything you thought you knew about the movie. Huge scope, original storytelling, fascinating ideas, it’s all here in Inception.
Yes, I feel Batman Begins is better than The Dark Knight and I’ll tell you why. By the time The Dark Knight came out, audiences had a slightly better understanding of what a gritty, grounded, Nolan Batman movie could be. The director also knew that formula could be a success. With Batman Begins, though, there was no such roadmap. The idea of a new kind of believable Batman origin story was almost shocking in its simplicity and audacity. Take that, add in the execution, pitch-perfect casting, and excellent design, and you’ve got a filmmaker taking huge risks with a very well-known, popular character—and it all paid off.
Like Leonard, the main character of Memento, maybe you’re starting to see a pattern here. The films of Nolan’s I think are the best are the ones where originality triumphs over everything else. And such is the case with Memento, Nolan’s (somehow only) second feature, where he takes the idea of short term memory loss, and tells the whole story backward. It’s shocking, riveting, and unforgettable. Though the film is considerably smaller in scale than his later works, the grandiose, original ideas were already there.
Okay, yes. The Dark Knight. It’s incredible. Not just because Heath Ledger delivers one of the all-time best villain performances or the size and scale of the production and action. Those things certainly factor in. However, The Dark Knight truly shines because of the way it deals with good and evil, the way it makes you think about the morality of Batman, Harvey Dent, and the Joker all in similar ways. There’s real meat on the movie’s bones, in addition to its big-budget blockbuster DNA. Like I said above, the only reason it comes in fourth is that it’s a sequel. One that Nolan had to know was going to work. And he’s at his absolute best when there’s a seed of doubt that it may not.
The Prestige is either your favorite Nolan movie or you don’t remember the last time you saw it. I, sadly, fall into the second group. Which is not to say the film is bad in any way. On the contrary. It’s just that, when I think of Nolan movies, it doesn’t immediately jump to mind. Much like his other films, the grand scale and original ideas are there. The casting, of course, is top-notch (Batman vs. Wolverine!) and the twist ending is a revelatory gut punch. If only... he hadn’t done something similarly shocking in Memento, and if only it wasn’t one of three movies released about magic in 2006. The Prestige is the best of that bunch, without question, and still wildly entertaining. This is just a tough list to crack.
When Nolan makes a war movie, he doesn’t just “make a war movie.” He tries to do it like no one else ever has before him. In this case, he picked one specific battle and told the story from multiple points of view, giving audiences a broader understanding of heroism and struggle. Dunkirk does that exceedingly well and may be one of Nolan’s most beautiful, and impressive, technical achievements. But... is Dunkirk a movie you ever want to revisit? Do you ever sit down and say “Let’s watch Dunkirk tonight?” Certainly, some people might, but that lack of palpable excitement or cultural permanence knocks it down a few pegs.
Like The Prestige before it, Interstellar is one of those Nolan films that is more polarizing than not. The story of a man who goes into space to save humanity and ends up missing his daughter’s childhood, while also impacting it in metaphysical, spiritual ways, is ambitious to say the least. It’s filled with emotion, tension, and stunning visuals, and yet it might all be a little too much for its own good. Interstellar almost feels like a movie where Nolan had not just one good idea, but several, and stuffed them together. The result is a solid, watchable film that would rank higher if the Nolan standard wasn’t so high.
Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank—for Nolan’s third film he really upped the ante in terms of star power. The resulting film is a chilling, slow burn of a murder mystery, as detectives from Los Angeles go to Alaska and get into all kinds of shit. The film works, there’s no question about it, it’s just that in comparison to the epic and original films that would follow, Insomnia was basically a stepping stone for Nolan to prove he could make a good movie with bigger stakes. He did and his next film was Batman Begins.
For a debut feature, Following is impressive. The confidence Nolan shows in telling this partially original, partially familiar tale—of underworld crime and double-crossing characters—screams of a filmmaker with great potential. It’s a solid film that keeps you guessing and interested. Ultimately, though, that’s all it is: a little film with a handful of moments that lodge it in your memory. Its most distinguishing characteristics are that it’s Nolan’s first film, and how much of it (the plot devices, character names) he’d use again later in his career. Nevertheless, despite its ranking on this list, Following is still pretty great.
The first time I saw The Dark Knight Rises, I loved it. Then I watched it again and haven’t watched it since. Coming after the first two out-of-this-world Batman movies, expectations going into this finale were so high. Yet the film was all hype and no payoff; the story is muddled and weird, just like Bane’s voice, Catwoman doesn’t get nearly enough to do, Bruce isn’t Batman that much, we could go on and on and on. (And have). The fact of the matter is, The Dark Knight Rises simply doesn’t feel like Nolan’s heart is in it. Nothing comes together in quite as grand a fashion as his other movies. And while surely there are fans, for my money, it’s his worst movie.
But still, the worst Christopher Nolan movie still ain’t half bad.
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