Ranking the Movies of Christopher Nolan

Ranking the Movies of Christopher Nolan

There is one single director working in Hollywood today whose movie releases are an event tantamount to a new Marvel or Pixar film.  That director is no longer Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese.  It isn’t quite Denis Villeneuve yet. No. It is Christopher Nolan.  Ever since he astonished moviegoers across the world with his mind-bending Memento, Nolan is the man with the clout, the inspiration, and the talent to make movies that no other director seems to be able to.  Christopher Nolan movies are just head-and-shoulders above almost every other blockbuster in regards to scale and creativity.

To make a ranked list of Christopher Nolan’s films makes it seem like there are bad movies and great movies.  This is not so. Not since Stanley Kubrick has a director’s filmography been so near flawless.  Also, all of his films are different.  They include science fiction, thriller, war, and even superhero movies. There can almost be an argument for each and every one of his films to be #1.  However, the attempt will be made to rank all of Christopher Nolan’s astonishing movies.

#10:  Following (1998)

Following is Christopher Nolan’s first feature-length film (barely at 69 minutes).  It definitely shows hints of what kind of director he would become with a bit of polish and money.  The film follows a strange voyeur who picks random people out of a crowd and follows them. He explains that it is part of his research. However, it may be more subversively voyeuristic just like Gerald Foos in 2017’s Voyeur.  Also, there is a man named Cobb who is a stealer of memories.  Not in the sense of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Inception character of the same name.  Though, in the sense that he enters people’s homes and steals items that will most affect them.  With that basis, Nolan brings in his cross-cut edits and timeline jumps to make a pretty cool, intricate mystery.  It doesn’t look as good as his later works, but it does have that genius control that Nolan has always had with his films.  Following is to Christopher Nolan just as Pi is to Darren Aronofsky.

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#9:  Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia is down this low because if the simple fact that its aspirations are not nearly as lofty as every other Christopher Nolan film.  The film is a remake of a 1998 Norwegian film of the same name, though with Nolan’s moody, atmospheric direction, Insomnia is a lot better than its simplistic story should be.  Al Pacino is a cop being investigated by Internal Affairs and is sent up to Alaska to assist in a murder investigation.  Events occur that provide a massive moral/ethical conundrum that involves a surprisingly subdues Robin Williams. The film is a solid thriller with a lot of depth, but it just lacks a bit of the genius that we crave from Mr. Nolan.

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#8:  The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

After a perfect origin story and the modern masterpiece that is The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises could only have disappointed.  Well, it does, because it could never have lived up to what Christopher Nolan had done before, Batman or otherwise.  Still, it is vintage Nolan. The world perked up in excitement with the release of the entire opening sequence on the IMAX screen.  However, it is now opening bank sequence from The Dark Knight.  But it did introduce us to Tom Hardy as Bane.  Bane is an incredible force of nature but he is no Joker.  There are many, many instances where The Dark Knight Rises is just a lesser film to the phenomenal The Dark Knight, and it is palpable throughout.  You could do a whole lot worse with the Caped Crusader, but this film is the worst of Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

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#7:  Interstellar (2014)

If it weren’t for the vague, confusing, almost vapid climax, Interstellar could have been a science fiction masterpiece at the level of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Still, this epic about mankind’s attempt to find a new planet to replace a dying Earth is an incredible achievement.  Matthew McConaughey continues to prove that his Oscar for 2013’s The Dallas Buyers Club was not a fluke.  Out of all of Nolan’s films, the section where Cooper watches Murph over a recording after he had been lost for decades is the most excruciatingly sad and emotional.  However, Interstellar’s brilliance comes through the technical mastery it contains to exhibit space travel, alien planets, and the effect of relative physics.  For 100% of the time, you believe that these people are in space or another world. It is absolutely flawless and equates to Alfonso Cuaron’s astonishing Gravity.  To watch the spaceship encounter black holes, attempt high-speed docking procedures, and escape monumental tidal waves will have you profusely sweating and in total and utter awe.

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#6:  Batman Begins (2005)

After the Joel Schumacher debacles that were Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, Warner Brothers and DC felt the need to reboot the franchise.  They passed the torch on to Christopher Nolan, who at the time only had Memento and Insomnia under his belt that had any notoriety.  Despite a sparse resume, early on in Batman Begins, it is obvious that this is something special.  Christian Bale is a wonderful Bruce Wayne. The film doesn’t delve into the cartoonish nonsense that almost every comic book movie does.  Bruce is full of dark angst and depression, as any Batman should, and he essentially is trained as a ninja. Liam Neeson is superb as Bruce’s dangerous mentor, and the film brilliantly balances several villains.  Usually, multiple antagonists sink comic book movies (see Spider-Man 3), but Batman Begins thrives in it.  Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow, Tom Wilkinson as mob boss Carmine Falcone, and Ra’s Al Ghul all have their chance to shine and fit together like a perfect puzzle.  This film kicked off the best comic book trilogy of all time. It certainly puts the modern DC universe and Batman to shame.

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#5:  Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is another directorial masterpiece that, seemingly, Nolan is the only man that could make it work.  It tells the story of the WWII fiasco at Dunkirk where 400,000 British and French soldiers were trapped on the coastal beach with no rescue available.  A lesser director would just tell that story straightforwardly, as it is exciting enough a story to tell. But no, not Christopher Nolan.  He splits the film into 3 parts.  First, one week of the soldiers on the beach and what they face.  Second, one day of the civilian navy, represented by Mark Rylance, as he crosses the English Channel to rescue who he can.  Finally, one hour of a British spitfire pilot trying to give his fellow soldiers some cover from German aircraft. Not only that, Nolan edits all these stories together until the timelines ultimately catch up with each other at the end.  Is there anything this man can’t do?

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#4:  The Prestige (2006)

Outside of Wolverine, Hugh Jackman’s performance as Robert Angier may be the best of his career.  Teaming up again with his brother Jonathan, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is a gorgeous, mind-freak exercise.  The film tells the story of two rival magicians in 19th Century England. After a tragic mistake, they branch off from each other to attempt to make the ultimate illusion.  Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) has a hold on his. Angier recruits the enigmatic Nikola Tesla to assist him.  In true Christopher Nolan creativity and editing, the story bounces around through the magicians’ timelines.  The man does not ever want to just use narrative storytelling. Even so, he is again brilliant, keeping the mysteries of Angier and Borden hidden just behind the curtain until we can’t quite take it anymore.  The exciting, philosophically dreadful finale is something you don’t expect. Also, The Prestige might have the best final frame shot of Nolan’s career.

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#3:  Inception (2010)

Even though many people may not be able to explain exactly what happens throughout Inception, it is a visual epic in a scale we haven’t seen in many years.  The central conceit is that this world has a technology where people can enter each others’ dreams.  As long as you get over that leap of faith, you can hit the ground running and indulge in the films grandiosity.  Leonardo DiCaprio is at his usual best as Cobb, a master manipulator through this dream technology. He enlists an all-star cast of characters (Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy) to assist him in implanting an idea in the mind of his target.  As we learn the rules of building a dream world, cities bend through the sky, laws of nature cease to exist, and anything is possible.  However, Christopher Nolan develops a certain level of rules that keep the audience on board. When the film enriches into a dream within a dream within a dream….and within another dream, I think, brains begin to hurt and melt.  Even so, it is a confusion and excitement that every single viewer will love.

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#2:  Memento (2000)

Memento is so high on this list because it is an IMPOSSIBLE screenplay to make into a film, and Christopher Nolan pulled it off to absolute perfection. The film is about Leonard (Guy Pearce).  He is a man with short-term memory loss and is trying to figure out the identity of his wife’s murderer. The brilliance of the film is that the main portion of the film plays in reverse.  A scene develops where, of course, Leonard does not remember how it came to pass. When said scene is over, the movie flashes to the scene immediately proceeding it, explaining the scene you just saw.  This pattern repeats as Leonard’s past is filled in.  Memento is just an astonishing film that tells the story of a man with no memory by manipulating the audience into the exact same scenario.  You will be on the edge of your seat as you watch Leonard use different methods to keep his facts straight. This early film from Christopher and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, is an absolute Masterpiece.

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#1:  The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight lands on the top of this list.  When Christopher Nolan was releasing his Batman sequel in 2008, the world was incredibly excited.  His Batman Begins was a solid movie and fanboys were happy with his treatment of the franchise.  Also, cinephiles knew of his screenwriting brilliance (Memento) and control of high-budget dark epics (The Prestige).  However, how could Heath Ledger’s Joker possibly eclipse Jack Nicholson’s in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman?

Well, he does.  Not only that, but Christopher Nolan directed a masterpiece of action and inner conflict.  To fawn over Ledger is boring. Everyone everywhere is now familiar with the anarchic brilliance of that performance.  It is so good that Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is forgotten, even though he is also fantastic. Even so, with all of those performances hitting the right notes, the film would not be what it is without the direction.  If a film school wanted to give a masterclass about how to direct, they should use The Dark Knight.  That cold open bank robbery is riveting and the truck chase action sequence is some of the most astonishing stuff of that year, or any year.  

This movie not being nominated for a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar is one of the worst snubs in modern Academy Award history.

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