Christopher Nolan is one of cinema’s biggest and most reliable talents. The British filmmaker has drawn in huge crowds at the box office, often without leaning on existing franchise recognition. His work is known for its large scope, intellectually engaging ideas, and solid direction. It’s somewhat of a common opinion that Nolan has never made a bad film, and it’s easy to see why looking back at his numerous successes. So, with the mind-bending Tenet on the horizon (for some countries anyway), the Film Daze team took a trip back in time to look at his filmography and voted on which of his feature films impressed us the most. Without further ado, here’s how the chips fell:
10. INSOMNIA (2002)
Insomnia is easily Nolan’s most subdued film. A remake of the 1997 Norwegian film, this film would become his “proof” to Warner Bros. that he was willing to take on much more. A reasonably straightforward story of murder, corruption, and dealing with guilt, Nolan finds a delicate balance between story and execution. Al Pacino and Robin Williams deliver two of the best performances in Nolan’s films. Both are allowed to be calm, contemplative, and confused. It should also be noted that Hilary Swank as Detective Ellie Burr is probably the strongest female character Nolan has ever had. The fact that this is the only film that Nolan has directed but didn’t write (screenplay by Hillary Seitz) is worth noting.
— Aaron Linskey
9. FOLLOWING (1998)
Before Nolan gave us the films that made him a cinematic giant, there was his debut feature, Following. A monochromatic neo-noir about a man prone to trailing strangers, Following depicts the dangers of gazing into others’ private lives. This lonely stalker (billed as “The Young Man”) and his new “friend” Cobb — a moniker later assigned to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception — begin to burglarize homes for a very specific purpose.
While made on a modest budget, the film still typifies Nolan’s mind-bending vision, with sharp twists and turns neatly converging at its finish. Following was Nolan’s foot in the door that allowed him to make Memento and begin building a name for himself. While many people brush this film aside for heftier-budget works like The Dark Knight and Inception, this is Nolan at his purest. Being that the film was directed, written, shot, and edited by Nolan himself, we get a glimpse into how his mind worked as a budding filmmaker. It’s an hour and ten minutes of gritty 16mm footage that fans should indulge in.
— Saffron Maeve
8. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
Batman Begins is the perfect embodiment of Nolan’s early filmmaking career. Nolan’s Batman is calculated but slightly sloppy; Christian Bale can’t quite nail the voice. It alternates between sinister and somewhat silly. In 2005, Begins came off as exciting, gutsy, and a little haphazard — like a movie that was missing 15-20 minutes, with action sequences edited to look like we’re only seeing every fourth frame. It played like a movie by a person trying to be an action director. It wears the influences of Michael Mann, Richard Donner, Steven Spielberg, and Walter Hill on its wings. 15 years later, the missteps of Batman Begins feel like a sound expression of both Bruce Wayne trying to become Batman and Nolan becoming a big-time director. What both lack in precision they make up for in intent.
— Aaron Linskey
7. THE PRESTIGE (2006)
Made in-between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which catapulted Nolan to mainstream recognition, the modestly budgeted The Prestige snuck its way into the English auteur’s filmography in 2006.
For a film about a game of on-stage one-upmanship between two magicians in 19th century London, The Prestige is tame in several aspects. The wintery cinematography fails to match the liveliness of a magic spectacle and the tone of the film is drowned in Nolan’s usual self-seriousness, which is not ideal for a film with a premise this potentially campy.
But while it’s far from Nolan’s flashiest or most ambitious movie, fans of his can still find a lot to enjoy in The Prestige, especially if you can’t get enough of his penchant for carefully planned twists and turns. Building up intensity as the characters’ rivalry progresses, Nolan and editor Lee Smith keep up a frenetic pace throughout its runtime, keeping the audience guessing until the promised big reveal at the end — the titular “prestige,” which the film references from the beginning as the crucial final moment in a magic trick. The brooding performances from Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman sell the characters’ hubris, making the banter in their rivalry consistently fun. The film also features one of David Bowie’s last big-screen appearances, making The Prestige worth a watch for that fact alone.
— Pedro Serafim
6. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
As the final chapter of the Nolan Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises had a lot to live up to. This closing chapter finds an older Bruce Wayne, one that mainstream audiences are less familiar with, struggling with his heroism. Inspired by iconic Batman storylines such as No Man’s Land and Knightfall, Nolan weaved a story of redemption and legacy in his final instalment. With striking visuals to be expected from any of his features, the film plays out as a slow burn until ramping up into a grand finale, pushing the envelope of what is expected of a superhero film, even more so than in his previous two entries. The Dark Knight Rises is an ambitious conclusion to the most well-known superhero of our time, paying respect to the character while also delivering a trilogy of commentary on politics, class, and terrorism. Very few superhero films have been able to thoroughly explore such heavy themes while still being a true comic book adaptation, but Nolan perfects the genre in his final Batman entry.
— Emily Jacobson
5. DUNKIRK (2017)
The bracing water of the English Channel. The relentless screech of German Stukas. Sunken warships and buoyant corpses on the horizon. 400,000 men on a cold beach, waiting — some patiently, some feverishly — for a seemingly impossible rescue. Those are the starting circumstances of Nolan’s Dunkirk. His most daring initial concept, this film is Nolan at his most minimalist, as he crafts relentless desperation, and panic around mostly nameless characters. As one of the film’s fans, Quentin Tarantino, has pointed out, the film is shot and edited like a trailer, with the imagery and Hans Zimmer’s score constantly building tension. Zimmer utilized a crafty aural illusion that tricks the brain into assuming the soundscape’s volume is continually rising, which contributes to the terror as much as the action does.
Most impressive is the mouth-watering use of era-appropriate aircraft and warships, including menacing German bombers, who prowl the horizon like fire-breathing dragons and are only kept at bay by the few RAF pilots on hand to defend their infantrymen. (The lead pilot, Farrier, is played by Tom Hardy, who turns in one of his best performances while most of his face is obscured — and also gives us the opportunity to say ‘Bane in a plane.’) No other war film this century has conflict so visceral and captivating; the man strapped cameras to a Spitfire, dammit!
There are debates to be had regarding what Dunkirk “says” in the modern era. The tale is a persistent presence in British memories of World War II, and yet it’s spoken about today with a much quieter reverence than other battles. Many Americans tend to view Dunkirk as a defeat — a reductive conclusion which overlooks the achievement of the rescue. And yet Nolan, to his credit, resists flag-waving and instead enriches the narrative with complicated, uncomfortable human stories that re-envision contemporary notions of perseverance, fear, heroism, and war itself.
— Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller
4. MEMENTO (2000)
In Memento, Leonard’s (Guy Pearce) only means of remembering his day to day life is a Polaroid camera. He photographs moments, relying on them later to piece together the hours of the day in chronological order. Many Nolan movies utilise time itself as a concept, but Memento does it with mystery and intrigue to spare as Leonard attempts to hunt the man who murdered his wife. Unfortunately, it’s one of the multiple examples of dead female love interests in Nolan’s filmography, but at least there are good reasons, right? Elizabeth Debicki, my fingers are crossed for you.
— Trudie Graham
3. INCEPTION (2010)
Every once in a while, an auteur is afforded the opportunity to go for broke, to make their magnum opus — a collision of style, sensibility, and creative fixations that only they could have conceived. J. R. R. Tolkien had The Silmarillion, Arthur Miller had The Crucible, and Christopher Nolan has Inception. While far from Nolan’s cleanest work (it does spend an hour explaining the rules of dreaming only to break them), Inception best embodies what makes him such a compelling filmmaker. Loaded with iconic imagery like the zero-gravity hallway fight, and a multi-temporal narrative that some of the cast members still haven’t wrapped their head around, Inception is the product of a creative powerhouse fully committed to his vision. If you asked me to choose between a great but safe film or one that suffers from some flaws but is wholly singular in its design, I will always choose the latter. Rarely is a film so ambitious, and even rarer is that ambition so thrilling to behold.
— Josh Sorensen
2. INTERSTELLAR (2014)
Ambitious and willing to go to where answers are in short supply, Interstellar is one of the best space movies ever made. In it, our universe is a place of curiosity, a place we were destined to explore and find meaning in. In its operatic set-pieces and sweaty space panic, Nolan evokes the juxtaposed feelings of wonder and terror we experience when we gaze up at the night sky. Then, the film’s story is brought back down to the ground beneath our feet using the running thread of love: a force that’s not bound by space or time. Oh, and it also has an absolutely sick Hans Zimmer score and cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema that might actually make you sick if you’re prone to motion sensitivity.
— Trudie Graham
1. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
The Dark Knight redefined the superhero movie and set expectations sky-high going forward. Any film said to be the greatest superhero film of all time will inevitably have to square up to Nolan’s high-octane masterpiece. The opening heist in of itself is enough to prove the efficiency, thrill, and smarts of the script, and the late Heath Ledger’s turn as the menacing Joker is cemented in cinema history. There have been Batman films to follow, and more to come in our near future, but it’s hard to imagine any of them living up to The Dark Knight. It isn’t just one of the most loved action movies of all time, but one of the most loved period.
— Trudie Graham