Ranking the Nolan Films
With the arrival of Dunkirk, some are already touting it as visionary director Christopher Nolan’s greatest cinematic achievement. For a director of such clout, he hasn’t produced an enormous number of movies—in fact, Dunkirk is his tenth feature film. Nolan’s style, however, his love of the psychological, his use of tension, his expertly crafted magic realism, and his proclivity to tell narratives through multiple and often non-linear timelines makes him one of the greatest, as well as most notable, active directors in Hollywood.
I’ve taken it upon myself to rank his oeuvre, from worst-to-best. This was especially difficult, since none of Nolan’s films are bad films. And as is with any list involving art, there is a certain level of subjectivity to my rankings. Feel free to make a list of your own and let me know—or just agree with me, that works fine!
Nolan’s first feature film is also his shortest, clocking in at around 70 minutes. It had a budget—if you want to call it that—of $6,000 and was shot on weekends when Nolan was able to gather up some of his actor friends and all of the scraps of material objects for the film he could find. Following is a film noir that has a better script than its actors, and its low budget style can feel cheesy at times. The story, however—like most of Nolan’s works—ropes you in fairly quickly and keeps you invested despite the backyard feel. The film utilizes black and white instead of colour—something we would see Nolan return to—not solely because of the budget, but because Nolan felt he could do more with natural lighting via black and white, giving the film the stylized look he desired. The film also introduces us to Nolan’s trademark non-linear storytelling, with scenes jumping back and forth between the young man (Jeremy Theobald) and his Holmesian partner in crime, Cobb (Alex Haw). Following is a film about being interested in people, in their lives, what they do behind closed doors, what they don’t want you to see and know, and how far people will go to discover themselves through others. It’s an impressive first attempt considering what Nolan had to work with, and within it can be seen the beginnings of the auteur we adore today.
9. The Dark Knight Rises
It’s difficult to follow up a great film with a better sequel. It’s even tougher to follow up that better sequel with a still-better third installment. The Dark Knight Rises proves this theory. It’s a fine Batman movie that wound up being too long, merging multiple comic book storylines into a trilogy finale that was supposed to go out on a soaring high of praise. But after the brilliant Dark Knight, its new brother just couldn’t reach the same peak. Bane (Tom Hardy) is a solid villain, but pales in comparison to Ledger’s Joker, whether fair or not. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is about as bland of a character as there is in the trilogy, and there are several story elements that—unusual for Nolan—ring harshly as too absurd or obvious. One such example is Batman (Christian Bale) recovering from a broken back, which he manages to do over the course of a couple months while left to die in a giant hole in the ground. The ending of the film is also dull and discernible from far before we reach it. That said, Rises begins with a great scene that takes place on a falling airplane, and is still entertaining enough to keep the viewer’s attention the whole way through.
Like Rises, one of Interstellar’s big problems is that it’s too long. In fact, it has the longest run time of all of Nolan’s films to date. A visual spectacle, the film centers around Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an astronaut who embarks on a dangerous mission through a wormhole in an effort to try and save humanity. The story may involve space travel, but it revolves around the connection between Cooper and his daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain), as Nolan explores the limits of the power of parental love. There are a few genuinely potent emotional moments in this film, and, again, the visual aspects can only be rivalled by Dunkirk and Inception, but it takes far too long to get off the ground—literally and figuratively—and falls apart in the third act, in which the twist turns out to be not only a Sixth Sense-style cliché, but rather too absurd for what the movie had set up to that point. Interstellar does have questions to ask, but the film comes off as so pretentious that that it’s difficult for the viewer to even want to think about them. It also must be noted that Anne Hathaway’s character, while she plays the role just fine, is written poorly, and thus the film gives off an unsavoury message about how it views the role and mindset of women. Interstellar is not an awful film, but it’s certainly not the best of Nolan’s efforts.
Insomnia is perhaps Nolan’s most straightforward film that doesn’t include the character of Batman. It’s his third film, another film noir, and stars Al Pacino as hardboiled detective Will Dormer, who is sent with his partner (Martin Donovan) to Alaska to track down the killer (Robin Williams) of a 17-year-old girl. In this town, the daylight never leaves, yet there are an innumerable amount of shots that are dark and wet and isolated, giving way to the grittiness that Nolan is well known for and reflecting the churning conscience of Dormer. Cynicism abounds in this film, with the killer being an average detective novelist—think about that one—and his counterpart a cop who, by always trying to do the right thing, has a sketchy past and lawless method. A small flicker of hope lives on in the form of intelligent newbie detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), whom Dormer warns to stay on the path of the law. Insomnia is thrilling and tense, with a conventional plot taken directly from classic detective fiction/films that’s twisted slightly—and not unpleasantly—in its pragmatic finale.
6. Batman Begins
If you ever want to know how to create a good superhero origin film, this is one to watch. Unlike its two younger brothers, Batman Begins feels like a smaller film, closer to the ground. It takes the time to get the viewer invested in the character of Bruce Wayne as a child (Gus Lewis) by using well-placed flashbacks. By the time we make it through the first half of the film, we care for adult Bruce (Christian Bale) more than enough. This is the only film of the three that feels like we’re watching Bruce Wayne more than we are Batman, and that’s not to the film’s detriment. The character of Batman is handled with care, while also creating a version that could seemingly exist in our real world. There was a good chance that trying something like this could have come across as incredibly cheesy, but Nolan manages to sell a gritty Batman—and a gritty superhero film overall, due in no small part to the cinematography—the likes of which had never been seen prior. The villain (Liam Neeson) is transfixing for the first half of the film, though the twist involved with him at the end falls flat. This is the best Batman origin film put to screen, and it still holds its own with most other superhero flicks.
If you’re curious about the title of this film, it comes from the Latin memento mori, meaning “reminder of death.” How do I know this? Well, the film is based on a short story written by Nolan’s brother called “Memento Mori.” It’s a perfect title for this film, as the entire movie revolves around the character of Leonard (Guy Pearce), who suffers from short term memory loss and whose only motivation to continue living is to avenge the murder of his wife. Memento is expertly crafted, presenting the viewer with concepts, ideas, and questions that can be talked about forever, especially due to the fact that the film answers very little of what it sets up. It’s the type of film that’s open to interpretation, and can be rewatched multiple times over and given different—yet still acceptable—readings. Nolan here is interested in memory, the mind, and morality—how reliable are your own memories? Is reality dictated by facts? If you don’t remember something, did it happen? How much do we project onto ourselves and others? The film features another non-linear plot, with two separate timelines as the film unfolds—one is told linearly (and is in black and white) and the other is told backwards, starting with the plot’s finale (and is told in colour). This could be considered what Following was always leading up to—Nolan’s ultimate puzzle film.
4. The Prestige
Containing arguably the greatest third act twist in Nolan’s oeuvre, The Prestige narrowly edges out Memento on this list. As perhaps the most underrated Nolan movie, the film focuses on two stage magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who wind up becoming obsessed with one another and constantly attempt to outdo the other with each new trick. The structure of the film itself is splendidly set up just like a magic trick, with a premise, misdirection, and final reveal. Cleverly, The Prestige manages to keep the viewer guessing over and over, and quickly we become as enamoured with figuring out how the magicians’ tricks work as the magicians themselves. There are even elements of sci-fi intermixed within the film, involving a unique and bizarre take on Tesla and his experiments. Nolan’s style and themes come across in his characters’ extreme quest to know not only truths, but one another, as well as in his use of flashbacks. The Prestige is a fascinating look at how far someone will go to protect their secrets and the people they love—you’ll never see it coming.
Owing itself to not only influential war films like All Quiet on the Western Front, but also to flicks like Speed and Unstoppable, Dunkirk is Nolan’s shortest film since Following, but it’s jammed packed with action, violence, and copious amounts of tension. A time-clock thriller of the highest degree, viewers are exposed to a tick tick ticking that carries on throughout the course of the film, never allowing for a moment’s relaxation. The film kicks off in the middle of war, dropping you into the town of Dunkirk with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), an English soldier, and from the get-go wastes no time presenting to you exactly what it is—a visual spectacle about the horrors of war and, most saliently, the human will to survive. True, the movie does not take the standard route of war films and attempt to tell a specific human story, nor does it hardly tell you much of anything about its characters. The film feels cold, unrelenting, and desperate. But that’s the point—that’s what war is. Like most of Nolan’s other works, Dunkirk contains separate timelines and isn’t told linearly, with the viewer following spitfires in the air, soldiers on the beach, and ordinary people in boats coming across the canal. It is evident that Nolan set out to do one job with this film, and for what it is and what it does, there is little to take issue with. Dunkirk is one of the best war films produced in some time.
2. The Dark Knight
As one of the greatest comic book movies ever made and a staple of the superhero genre, The Dark Knight is by far the superior film of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Containing a transcendent performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker, a well-thought out narrative that manages to balance multiple villains, a fantastic score, and tight dialogue, this is also probably the most re-watchable of Nolan’s films for the casual movie goer. Overall the darkest of the trilogy, Nolan’s aptitude for suspense and gritty realism make for a film that not only worked well for the characters within it, but also spawned an entire cinematic universe attempting to follow in his filmic footsteps. The importance of this film almost outweighs the actual contents. Interestingly, Nolan manages to find aspects of the Batman (Christian Bale) character that play to his interests, and uses them as core focuses in the story. For example, the Joker attempts to have Batman break his “one rule” and kill/let someone die. Batman spends the majority of the film dealing with the psychological as well as the physical consequences of keeping to his personal moral code. Despite the batpods and fistfights, the undercurrent of The Dark Knight is still quite Nolanian, and the film is all the better for it.
What can I say? This is still the best Nolan film, hands down. It is one of the most visually stunning films of all-time, has great acting, a unique storyline, challenging ideas and questions that are worth exploring, and a kick-ass closing scene that still drives people mad when they watch it. Inception boasts an all-star cast that consists of Leonard DiCaprio—whose character is interestingly enough named Cobb, the same as the secret-stealing thief in Following—as a thief who steals corporate secrets through dreams, Ellen Page as Ariadne—that name is pretty on the nose, I’ll let you look it up—Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, and more. This is Nolan diving headfirst into one of his recurring fascinations, creating a film that quite literally deals with the psychological, dreams, the uncertainty of reality, and the depth of the human mind. This is Memento on steroids. Through Cobb’s journey, we the viewers are forced to question many of the same things he does for ourselves, including but not limited to the notion of manipulation on a subconscious plain. Inception is a whirlwind of a film, refusing to slow down for any period of time while throwing big questions—maybe some even unanswerable questions—at the viewer in rapid succession. It is the rare film that is able to match spectacle and layered intelligence, and for that it reigns as number one on this list.