There’s certain directors that simply by having the name attached to a project turn a film into an event and an absolute must-see. However, in this age of formula, mega franchises, interconnected universes, and risk-free ultra budget spectacles, the film auteur that is guaranteed to pack the multiplex is starting to go the way of the dinosaur. Quentin Tarantino not withstanding, not even Hollywood’s most experienced and bankable directors can guarantee a smash hit, and it’s rare for any director to have a perfect batting record, decades into their career. Even guys like Spielberg (The BFG), Scorcese (Did anyone see Silence? Didn’t think so), Zemeckis (those animated uncanny valley films of his are unwatchable), The Coen Brothers (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty) and Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) lay an egg once in a while.
One guy who is seemingly incapable of making a bad film and is one of our only sources of original, big idea, big budget filmmaking is Christopher Nolan. The guy has officially been in the game for 20 years now, and with the release of his tenth film and his latest epic Dunkirk, I thought it would be fun to go through his canon of films and rank his films from great to masterpiece. Strap on in, because much like most of his films, we’re going out of chronological order for this one.
PS, we’re only going to focus on the films that Nolan directed, not produced, so no Batman V Superman, Man of Steel, or Transcendence, but rest assured that all three would bring up the rear on this list anyway.
10) Following (1998) – A lightning quick 71 minute experiment from a college aged Nolan, this is the forgotten film in Nolan’s oeuvre, and not without good reason. By no means a bad film, this micro-budgeted film has some great ideas but somewhat limited execution that would be refined in his breakthough hit Memento two years later and throughout the rest of his career. These days, it’s really only worth checking out Following as a cultural curiosity for the roots of Nolan’s style and filmmaking tendencies. With that said, there is some suspense and entertainment value to be found in the tale of a writer who cures his writer’s block by following strangers around on the street, only to find himself entangled with a couple with mysterious motives. Even at this early stage, it’s neat to watch Nolan slice up his film out of chronological order and keep you guessing through clever editing.
9) The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – I don’t care what anyone says, I love Nolan’s conclusion to his epic Batman trilogy, even if it took me a while to warm up to it and it’s clearly the best of example of a film in Nolan’s career that got away from him. Perhaps the most bloated, long, over-stuffed, and frustrating film in the Nolan canon, there’s still tons to like and admire in this film. From the incredible opening stunt that sets a tone of intensity that the film never quite reaches again, to the stellar performances, to the satisfying conclusion, this film can only really be considered a disappointment when directly compared to its predecessors. There’s maybe just a little too much going on and the film is a little too big for its own good.
8) The Prestige (2006) – Another great film filled with huge ideas, stunning production, and fantastic performances, this is still mid-range Nolan at best. Of course, for 99 percent of filmmakers, achieving the heights of mid-range Nolan would be considered a career peak. Somehow juggling a simple and heartfelt story of turn of the century magicians and their years long rivalry with huge ideas about ethics in the face of technological advancement and the nature of obsession, The Prestige is a great film that suffers slightly from a messy climax and an aura of being a little too clever for its own good.
7) Insomnia (2002) – After Following, this is easily Nolan’s most forgotten and least talked about film, which is a shame. Featuring Al Pacino’s last good performance before swan diving into garbage projects, a height-of-her-power Hillary Swank, and a never more terrifying and creepy Robin Williams, this is Nolan’s most conventional film both in terms of story and execution. A remake of a Norwegian film of the same name, this fairly straight-forward tale of a murder investigation during the perpetual sunlight time of year in a small Alaska town ratchets up the tension and suspense using minimal action and very well written dialogue. There’s a few plot twists here and there, but the film lacks the BIG REVEAL that you get in most of Nolan’s other work. What you get here is an expertly executed thriller for adults that respects your intelligence and patience.
6) Memento (2000) – Nolan’s breakthrough hit about a man who’s incapable of creating new memories investigating the murder of his wife is both surprisingly dated now while still being a very engaging and engrossing thriller. One of the first of a wave of thrillers at the turn of the millennium that shows the audience the ending first and is more concerned with the “why” of the events instead of the “what happens at the end.” Memento’s strength comes from committed supporting performances and very clever writing and editing, but also suffers from a weak leading performance from Guy Pearce and a story that heavily relies on outdated technology like Polaroid film and landline phones. If you watch the film in chronological order it loses nearly all of its punch. The order in which things are revealed as the movie worms its way to the middle of the story is paramount. Memento certainly holds up, but Nolan has greatly grown as a filmmaker in the 17 years since this release.
5) Interstellar (2014) – Easily Nolan’s most ambitious film in a career defined by ambition, you’d be forgiven for dismissing Interstellar as a bloated, drawn out slog with a baffling climax. Upon my first viewing (in amazing 3D IMAX), I was ready to dismiss it myself as Nolan’s worst film, a visually stunning misfire with some cool ideas. While most of Nolan’s films reward repeat viewings and reveal loads of subtle details on upon rewatching, there’s no film in his career that’s more true than here. Having now seen the film four times, I’m completely blown away by the scope, the meticulous level of scientific accuracy, and even Nolan’s most personal and intimate moments anchored by spectacular performances from an incredible cast. What once felt overstuffed now breezes by, even with the near three hour running time. At times both tragically pessimistic about the future and cheerfully hopeful and optimistic about the resiliency of the human spirit, this tale of space pioneers led by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to explore potential planets for humanity to continue surviving as the Earth dies, this is big idea, big budget, big execution film making at its near finest. Just make the time to watch it at least twice.
4) Batman Begins (2005) – Unpopular opinion time! While I’m ranking Batman Begins below The Dark Knight on this list, I actually personally like Batman Begins more. Made a time when superhero movies where generally campy, cheerful, or at least over-stylized (even darker comic book films like Batman Returns and X-Men were heavily stylized films that feared allowing the film to breathe and stay true to the comic book roots), Nolan dared to take a beaten-down but beloved property and find that perfect balance between gritty realism and just enough of the fantastic to feel grounded and plausible within the framework of rules that the universe sets. While The Dark Knight is the bigger achievement and is a more tightly executed vision, I personally find myself revisiting Begins more often for one key reason; even to date, this is the ONLY Batman film where Bruce Wayne/Batman is actually the central and very interesting character, and the film isn’t completely defined by its villain. Burton’s Batman films were defined by their villains, Heath Ledger/Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hardy/Anne Hathway but run away with their Begins sequels. Too many Bat-films present us with a fully formed Batman who’s already completed his character arc in plots that are solely focused on his conflict with (insert villain here). It’s actually kind of sad that the next most interesting and nuanced Batman portrayal so far comes from Ben Affleck’s performance in the underrated but also crucially flawed Batman V Superman (Aside: The three hour ultimate cut of BvS is the one to see by the way. It improves the film greatly). Also, out of all of Nolan’s movies, this one is easily the one that’s simply the most fun in career where the big ideas can sometimes get in the way of an old fashioned adventure and good time.
3) Inception (2010) – If nothing else, the raging success of Nolan’s hyper-complex dream heist thriller officially guaranteed him carte-blanche to make whatever crazy ideas him and his equally talented brother Jonathan came up with. I can picture the pitch meeting for this one. “Thanks for making us a billion dollars with the Dark Knight there Chris! What are you thinking of making next? A heist thriller about a team of dream thieves entering someone’s subconscious to plant an idea in a CEO’s head to destroy a real world energy monopoly? Sounds great! How does $200 million sound? Get Leo on the phone!” Inception somehow manages to breeze past opening exposition scenes that clearly and expertly define the rules of the film in a visually stunning way that would cripple most lesser science fiction stories. Aided by a breakneck pace, stunning practical effects, and a second-to-none filmmaking technique, Inception is spectacular blockbuster filmmaking at its most bold and engrossing. I’ll bet it’s been a while since you’ve seen this one, given that it was released nearly a decade ago now. I think you and I are both due for a rewatch on this one.
2) The Dark Knight (2008) – Pretty much the perfect sequel and a strong contender for the best sequel ever made, no comic book film before or since has taken its source material so seriously and treated it with more respect and reverence. What could have easily become your by-the-numbers comic book film is a shockingly grounded, fantastically executed crime thriller that leans heavily to the realism and pessimism of the times without toppling over into depressing despair. Obviously the film’s legacy is Heath Ledger’s legendary and terrifying performance as the Joker, and absolutely everything in the film ties back to him. Heath Ledger IS this movie, which has the positive and unexpected side effect of allowing all the other concepts and supporting performances a chance to breathe and unfold at a pace that doesn’t feel overstuffed, a primary flaw with the next sequel. Ledger also infuses just enough dark gallows humor so that the darkest plot turns in this rather violent film don’t become overbearing and derail the entertainment value of the film. Gallons of ink have been spilled analyzing every corner of this astonishing film, beloved by comic book fans and film fans the world over, so I won’t attempt to dive any deeper into it. See it again and be prepared to be blown away all over again.
1) Dunkirk (2017) – Too soon to declare this film to be Nolan’s masterpiece? I don’t think so, and even with his track record, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film stands up as Nolan’s all time best. An absolutely stunning menagerie of sight, sound, and fury, this film stands up as Nolan’s best because it is the one that proved that he can overcome his biggest deficiencies as a filmmaker. At times (rightly) accused of relying heavily on long exposition scenes, manufactured emotional beats, stiff writing, gimmicky time editing, and plots too complex to be sorted through in a single viewing, Dunkirk sees Nolan taking a real life historical event and either eliminating his few poorer tendencies or refining them to the benefit of the story. Did you think Interstellar and Inception spent way too much time explaining everything? Dunkirk has barely any dialogue at all in service of meticulously detailed visual storytelling. Does the timewarping of Memento and Inception take you out of the story? Dunkirk plays with time in a way that compresses the events of a full week with seamless editing that is never distracting like it can be in his other films. Did you find Anne Hathaway’s love speech in Interstellar or the coffee shop scene at the end of Dark Knight Rises too manufactured and on the nose to be emotionally satisfying? Look no further than the everyday heroism of Mark Rylance’s civilian boat captain and try not to get a lump in your throat as a fleet of civilian boats finally arrives to deliver these troops home. Do you find Nolan’s films too overstuffed? That’s fair, but here he’s at his minimalist best, packing in details visually and not even referring to the Germans by name or any term other than “The Enemy.” Maybe you appreciate Nolan’s bigger ideas but are turned off by the over-the-top action scenes found the Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception? Marvel as all of Nolan’s technical filmmaking expertise comes together to deliver terrifying Stuka dive bomber runs (the screeching sound design on these bombing runs is an experience to behold), absolutely dizzying aerial dogfights that use no computer graphics, seamless practical effects, subdued and brilliant performances by A-list actors leaving their ego at the door, and a unique and perfectly calculated Hans Zimmer score that come together in full service to the affecting and true story, told with reverence and respect. Dunkirk is probably Nolan’s least complex story, a multi-perspective tale of small acts of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds and certain defeat. With the world in the disturbing state it is in, the message of the film becomes that if we can all find ways to help each other and be a hero in our own limited means in service of a larger goal, we can still make the world a better place. An absolute must-see on a big screen and better sound system, Dunkirk should be the film to finally score Nolan some Oscar gold and is a towering achievement of filmmaking technique. Nolan has topped himself yet again.
How would you rank the films of Christopher Nolan? Let us know in the comments below or on the SzteinCreative Facebook page! Toss us a like on there while you’re at it!