Christopher Nolan is a unique breed of filmmaker. Auteur driven blockbuster filmmaking is few and far between, so he’s a rare bird. Like many writer/directors, he began with independent roots, before growing to studio cinema. Of course, Nolan also revolutionized comic book and superhero films, paving the way for him to essentially have a blank check. His movies are consistently the biggest and most ambitious in Hollywood. With his latest flick in Oppenheimer now out and drawing raves, it seems like a perfect time to look at his entire directorial career.
Below, you can see how I rank Nolan’s work to date. My list will probably be a bit different from yours, though nothing will strike you as particularly wild (Tenet isn’t number one or anything). He’s one of the most consistent filmmakers out there, drawing a legion of hardcore fans, so the man is clearly doing something right. Now a dozen films deep, he’s on the way to an all-timer of a career.
Here now is my current ranking of the movies helmed by Christopher Nolan…
12. Following – It’s hard to place Nolan’s directorial debut, as it’s almost a student film. At the same time, Following clearly shows a filmmaker beginning to grasp with the themes he’d become obsessed with later in life. Your mileage may vary, and it’s lesser Nolan, but the infancy of his mastery is in evidence.
11. Tenet – This is the one Christopher Nolan misfire (relatively speaking), and yet, Tenet does have plenty that works. Some of the action sequences are terrific, and if he outsmarts himself a bit, this is one of the flicks that shows how the director would have helmed a James Bond picture. Was it worth getting COVID to watch in a theater? Not in the slightest? Does it play decently well now, removed from expectations? To some degree, sure.
10. The Prestige – I’m lower on this one than most, but I fully acknowledge that The Prestige is high quality cinema. A palate cleanser for Nolan and Christian Bale (among others) between Batman pictures, it’s a genre work as well as a period piece. In some ways, this is where you can find the breadcrumbs of what would eventually become Oppenheimer.
9. Insomnia – As close to a for hire gig as Nolan would ever take, Insomnia is still very much in his wheelhouse. It seems wild that he would make something with Robin Williams, but in the latter’s creepy/dark period, it really works. Williams is the highlight, for sure. Just directing, Nolan takes something a bit ordinary and lends it his usual impeccable craftsmanship.
8. Batman Begins – It doesn’t hold a candle to its two bigger and better sequels, but Batman Begins is one of the great superhero origin stories. Not only is the grounded nature a brilliant choice, but the casting would give us Michael Caine as the best Alfred, not to mention Bale and Morgan Freeman, among others. Even if it’s a test run for the next two installments, it’s still wildly successful and an easy watch.
7. Inception – This is probably heresy to some, but I only find Inception very good, as opposed to utterly great. Now, I don’t really have any flaws that I see within it, it’s just never quite grabbed me like it has for others. His other “in between Batman” outings, he pairs with Leonardo DiCaprio for a science fiction Bond epic. This may be the most revisited of Nolan’s original works, in part due to how much fun it’s clear he’s having with the material.
6. Dunkirk – Now we’re into the top tier Christopher Nolan works, starting with Dunkirk. Every master storyteller makes their war epic, often focused on World War II, and Nolan is no exception. Mixing that sort of old-fashioned film with his obsession with time results in a structurally fascinating work. I have a hunch that this is among his least revisited efforts, but that takes nothing away from how impeccably made it is.
5. Memento – This is where we fully met Nolan. Memento is as twisty a tale as he’s ever taken on, yet it’s always crystal clear. Even this early, the confidence, interest in time, and tinkering of conventions are out in full force. This is the kind of movie that, when done well, launches careers, so it’s no surprise that something this great springboarded him to the major leagues in short order.
4. The Dark Knight Rises – I have more affection for his final Batman outing than most. The Dark Knight Rises is as big as it gets, with bold choices, from Tom Hardy‘s Bane voice, to a dour nature that almost forgoes a happy ending. Is it a bit unwieldy? Sure. Do I absolutely adore it anyway? You better believe it. We’ll never know what it was originally intended to be, but what we got was still pretty spectacular.
3. Oppenheimer – Nolan’s newest work, Oppenheimer is fresh in my mind but immediately top three quality. Here is some of my rave review of the movie: “Oppenheimer is an epic character study as well as a dire warning. This engrossing experience builds to an endgame that places no less than the fate of humanity almost at death’s door. It’s heady stuff for summer cinema, but in Nolan’s hands, the urgency is never ignored, but the riveting nature of it makes for one of is most unique works to date. Frankly, given the choice between more work like this and more explorations of the action genre, I’ll take ten more Oppenheimer types before he goes back to Tenet. We’ve seen him master action. Now, he’s mastered the biopic and character study.”
2. Interstellar – Catch me on the right day and I might threaten to rank Interstellar number one here. I was so very taken by this sci-fi spectacular, which also sees Nolan get as emotional as he ever has. Some found the mixture not to work, but this is the only time that the filmmaker has brought me to tears. The sequence of Matthew McConaughey watching the years of recorded videos from his children, ending with a grown Jessica Chastain, is devastating. Try not to cry, I dare you. Throw in an incredibly bold ending and I love this big swing.
1. The Dark Knight – No surprises, but The Dark Knight is the pinnacle of Christopher Nolan’s achievements. It’s pretty perfect and as good as this kind of flick can be. Plus, as we all know, Heath Ledger is iconic and gives an all-timer of a performance as The Joker. There’s not a ton of space between my top three picks, but when you look at Nolan’s resume, it’s hard not to land on this as number one.
How would you rank Christopher Nolan’s filmography? Let us know!