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Nolan Films Ranked

July 31, 2017

Right, that’s it. Dunkirk is the tenth feature film released – as director – by Christopher Nolan, so what better opportunity to appraise his work than by putting those movies into a rank order. Without further ado, in reverse order, here goes. (Please note, this was updated with Tenet in January 2021.)

11. Tenet (2020)

Christopher Nolan's Tenet to be released in August – but not in the US |  Film | The Guardian

Nolan’s reverence for tech and the pure cleverness of pulling off a metaphysical narrative puzzle finally swamps his awareness of whether the thing in question is actually any good or even if it carries any aesthetic distinction. Tenet is a narrative and spectatorial dead weight.

Full Review:

10. Dunkirk (2017)

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A straightforward, moneyed exercise in military recreation. Any emotional resonance extracted by the story’s end is due more to the inherent gravitas of the history itself than through Nolan’s actual craft.

Full Review:

9. Batman Begins (2005)

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It’s ironic that Nolan’s opener to what went on to be heralded as one of the great cinematic trilogies was the weakest entrant to that series. At least the movie’s runaway commercial success ensured Nolan would get to see the trilogy out. Wrapped up in Batman Begins are all Nolan’s aggravating foibles. It’s such an earnest attempt to fashion a realistic genesis for the concept of Batman that it winds up – particularly in its opening act – being a solemn and didactic trudge through its seminal themes of terror, social responsibility and vigilantism. Just count how many times the word “fear” is incanted through the film’s somewhat tiresome exposition. The juxtaposition between this solemnity and the inherent pulpiness of the superhero source material that Nolan the ‘genre nut’ evidently loves – tech, weaponry, pyrotechnics – makes for an unwieldy combo.

Full Review:

8. Following (1998)

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Following isn’t ranked low for its relative unfamiliarity per se, but more because it’s so clearly Nolan’s freshman work; full of teething problems and inconsistencies he would go on to perfect with impressive haste by the time of his next film, Memento. On the plus side, Following clearly evidences Nolan’s hallmark style, being a tricky, narratologically inventive work understanding the ethics behind its genre hook – this one’s about a ‘follower’ caught up in a criminal conspiracy. Following’s clear limitations are its amateur lead actors, and also the sense that Nolan’s visual choice – the monochrome photography – feels gimmicky and one-note stylistically.

Full Review:

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

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A pulverising, nihilistic film in tone that somehow works – at times, inadvertently – in approximating a world on the precipice of political and social anarchy. It doesn’t look like a Batman film, and Gotham City here appears jarringly different from the visual iterations Nolan found for it in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And yet, it’s a concentrically brutal and gripping piece of work. Bruce Wayne’s character arc of going full circle and having to regenerate himself in Bane’s prison is a clever echo of his seminal childhood fall down a bat-infested well, and the film’s spectacular ending is undeniably operatic blockbuster storytelling par excellence.

Full Review:

6. Insomnia (2002)


Nolan’s first foray into big budget, industrial Hollywood storytelling is one of his most generic works, where his signature is somewhat unrecognisable – but the film is none the poorer for that. If you scroll through your Netflix algorithms, there are dozens of hokum cop thrillers, and Insomnia is essentially a variant on that – but with its little quirks and stylistic tics adding a crucial layer of class (also due in part to the original Norwegian film on which this is based). Alaska during its summer guise of 24-hour sunlight is mined for its surreality, and Al Pacino absolutely revels in the lead role – staggering around the deserted streets of the Alaskan smalltown like a distant version of the antihero, Leonard Shelby, from Nolan’s previous film, Memento. Robin Williams nicely characterises his part too, and the notion that cop and killer might strike a de facto bargain over one’s ability to frame the other is an ingenious scenario well played out by, what was at the time, two of Hollywood’s most interesting A-listers.

Full Review:

5. Inception (2010)

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It’s easy to mock the instruction manual dialogue, the fetishised designer lifestyle, and the spuriously heavy action quota of Inception, but if viewed from the understanding that Nolan was operating from well inside Hollywood’s commercial machinery, then his attempt to smuggle some superior genre fare into the multiplex commands respect. There is a unity of operatic intent that makes Inception such an entertaining treatise on relativity and temporality: from the compelling dream/reality scenario, and Hans Zimmer’s exemplary score, to the committed performances from an excellent ensemble. The past master of intense roles, Leonardo DiCaprio, was a fitting icon for Inception’s bludgeoning aesthetic.

Full Review:

4. The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight's Legacy, 10 Years Later - The Atlantic

Right up there with Nolan’s more consciously tricksy works – think MementoThe Prestige and Inception – the enduring excellence of The Dark Knight is not so much Heath Ledger’s hugely mythologised performance, but for being a rare case in the Nolan oeuvre where his blending of spectacle and thematics to structural complexity wasn’t leaden, but exhilaratingly justified.

Full Review:

3. The Prestige (2006)

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It’s important to acknowledge Nolan’s frequent collaborators before ascribing absolute auteurism to his work, and The Prestige owes much to the craft of Nolan’s DP of choice right up until Interstellar, Wally Pfister. Pfister turns The Prestige’s visually unpromising scenario into arguably Nolan’s most beautiful film. The Prestige is also arguably Nolan’s most fully realised achievement when it comes to his career-long interest in structure (read below review for more thoughts on this). It also features the clearest mandate one can find in his work for the alluring dichotomy of magic and loss at the heart of the illusory (read – cinematic) medium.

Full Review:

2. Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar Movie Review: Christopher Nolan's Journey Into Space | Time

Nolan is obsessed by the emotional resonance of temporality. He even attempted to shoehorn this in to his otherwise straightforward WW2 piece, DunkirkInterstellar is Nolan’s ode to the poignancy to be found in the simple passing of time, and to explore the full potential of this, he (much like other greats of the medium – Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky) had to go to the far reaches of the universe to articulate his most simple, sincere and humane message – the transcendence of love. Interstellar also featured the crowning glory of Zimmer’s musical contributions to the films of Nolan.

Full Review:

1. Memento (2000)

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Mementos cult reputation has suffered something of a backlash in more recent years – chief among the jibes are that its reverse chronology structure and narrative content are essentially re-spun tropes of generic, conventional storytelling. No sh*t Sherlock! I thought that was entirely the point. I never took Memento as a conceit or an exercise in pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes; it’s more an experiment in deconstructing those staple genre conventions. Chief among its stunning successes are the way it so riotously subverts classic character identification structures (just who is the ‘good guy’ in this film?), it refutes the balm of catharsis, and far from providing audiences with a neatly solvable puzzle at the end, it provides a Faustian abyss of interminability at the narrative possibilities.

Full Review:

(July 2017)

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