Ranking the Films of Christopher Nolan
In honor of the release of “Dunkirk”, the CineNation writers ranked what they think are the best (and worst) films of Nolan’s filmography.
Ever since Christopher Nolan came onto the scene with the release of his second feature film, Memento, he has become one of the most popular and entertaining filmmakers of our time. He has become one of the few filmmakers who can still direct original big-budget epics within the studio system, and on actual film. His films have captured international audiences for almost two decades and there are no signs of stopping.
Nolan arguably doesn’t make bad films, they are just not on par with the films that people consider excellent or they are misunderstood in their initial release. With the highly anticipated release of Dunkirk, the writers of CineNation thought it would be a good idea to rank all of Christopher Nolan’s films (even Nolan’s first official film Following). There are a few controversial picks here, but we hope you all like what we came up with.
The Dark Knights
Alex Bauer (Best: The Dark Knight, Worst: Memento)
Without a doubt, The Dark Knight is Christopher Nolan’s greatest film. I am not surprising anyone with that pick. On a filmmaking level, the film is tight, visually engaging and has one of the best performances of the decade. On a personal level, The Dark Knight ushered in an acceptance of “comic book movies” — a sub-genre I generally do not like.
The sequel to Batman Begins, which was fine the first time but horrible on multiple re-watches, the Nolan Batman trilogy was closed out by The Dark Knight Rises: an adequate sequel but nothing special. I enjoyed The Prestige for its interesting story and wonderful sets; the performances were average. Memento is an ambitious film, but falls flat delivering an emotional connection — or any sort of connection. I kept checking the time while watching Memento, hoping it would be over ASAP.
David Raygoza (Best: The Dark Knight, Worst: Memento)
Although Nolan makes tight, broadly commercial cinema, whenever he gets too cerebral I find he falls off his tightrope. To me, The Dark Knight still feels like one of the millennium turns best action films. Herein Nolan’s sense of high-concept is reigned in by comic book visuals and yet elevated by legendary performances. On the flip side of his work, the yarn gets lost in ambition, with too many threads, and a spastic sense of continuity. Nolan’s least appealing films aren’t bad, they’re like straight-A students with too much gift for gab. If they’d just slow down or stop trying to impress so much, we could get on the same page.
Dan LeVine (Best: Inception, Worst: Interstellar)
Inception is well-acted, well-directed, well-told. The special effects are incredible and the narrative is engaging. It has the Nolan-esque touch — a healthy dose of Hans Zimmer, two cups of sequences cut in incorrect chronological order, a teaspoon of twist ending and a pinch of Michael Caine. One could argue that Interstellar has all those things too. But here’s the big difference — both are high concept films, but only in Inception does Nolan teach the audience the rules of the world effectively and efficiently. Interstellar’s concepts are so beyond the grasp of the audience, that it requires study and continuous rewatches to even begin to understand it. There’s a difference between leaving the theater with the feeling “I can’t believe that happened!” and “I have no idea what happened!”
My most “controversial” placement is probably Batman Begins over The Dark Knight. Yes, Heath Ledger’s Joker was Oscar-worthy and it was a groundbreaking superhero movie, but I feel like Batman Begins is undeservedly overshadowed. Rebooting a franchise is always a tricky task, but Nolan brought a grittier and more realistic feel to Gotham City, making it more like a well-known U.S. city than a Tim Burton fantasyland. He wisely incorporated lesser-known villains Ra’s Al Ghul and Scarecrow, who fit better into his world than, say, the Penguin or Poison Ivy. And, of course, all the abovementioned ingredients of the Nolan recipe are included. The result — a film that launched a franchise and truly changed the superhero genre.
Sean Randall (Best: Inception, Worst: Batman Begins)
Like last time, I’m going to buck the trend and not talk in depth about Inception. It’s pretty clearly a great movie. I’m also not going to linger on how I felt Batman Begins was tainted by David S. Goyer’s godawful writing (though still a good film). Instead, I want to offer a defense of Interstellar.
To be honest, #2–4 for me are all basically tied. You could put them in any order and I wouldn’t be mad. It doesn’t help that Christopher Nolan has yet to direct a bad film. But for some people, Interstellar is about as close as he gets to “bad.” And that’s something I can’t understand.
Interstellar is the purest science-fiction film he’s ever made, and indeed one that has a purity leaning on science, like that of The Martian or Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, more than fiction the way Star Wars and other popular sci-fi films do. Nolan has taken science fact and simply pushed it a little farther. While some of his other films have hints and elements of sci-fi, Nolan is far more frequently comfortable in noir, and Interstellar is the first movie he made where it felt he departed that mood entirely. It is his most visually striking film, even moreso than the city collapsing elements of Inception. The imagery, the perfect casting and wonderful performances, the emotional honesty and brutality of loneliness put on display more clearly than any of his other films, all of which contain elements and themes of loss and/or solitude… Interstellar is not afraid to be intellectual as well as emotional, to be scientific and soulful. Granted, I have always enjoyed science a bit more than the average Joe, so I may have some nerd bias in watching this film, but if someone told me they thought Interstellar was Nolan’s best film yet, I would understand whole-heartedly. I will never be able to truly comprehend anyone saying it’s his worst.
The Batman Begins Loner
Brett Seegmiller (Best: Batman Begins, Worst: Following)
Christopher Nolan is one of most consistent filmmakers around. Even someone like Steven Spielberg leaves a lot to be desired in their filmography from a consistency standpoint. Batman Begins is easily Nolan’s best and most quintessential work. He’s done movies like The Prestige and Inception that were confusing at first, but got better with each subsequent viewing. While Batman Begins has layers to the storytelling that can be studied, it also has the benefit of being absolutely entertaining from the get go.
It was hard to pick what would come last because I still consider Nolan’s first work, Following, solid entertainment. But since it was his first full length feature, it did suffer from a lack of budget and professional actors. However, I still have fond memories of studying this movie in my film classes in college, but I don’t have any desire to rewatch it anytime soon.
The Prestige Obsessives
Will Clayton (Best: The Prestige, Worst: Following)
Nolan does not make bad movies, so making an ordered list of his films starting with the best and going down does not end, at least logically, at his worst movie. The Prestige and Following fall where they do purely as matters of personal taste. The Prestige is terrific storytelling with great performances, production, and thematic questions. Following, while an effective and claustrophobic film, did not resonate with me as well as the films higher on this list. The Prestige is fun and almost infinitely watchable. Following you watch once and then probably never pick it up again.
Brandon Sparks (Best: The Prestige, Worst: Interstellar)
All of Nolan’s films have similar traits, mainly all of his films have a nonlinear approach to them. The Prestige a strong film when you watch it the first time, but you see Nolan shine as a filmmaker in the rewatching of the film. You are able to see just how intricate the structure actually is. Like classic Nolan films, the beginning shows you the ending. It actually gives you the twist in the first few shots, but you don’t realize it. The film is bolstered by wonderful performances, a phenomenal look, and probably the best script the Nolan brothers have produced together. Nolan doesn’t let the visuals and the world of the story, take away from the emotional parts of the film. They add to them.
Interstellar, in most cases, does the opposite of what The Prestige does. Like The Prestige, it gives the reveal of the film within the first few shots, but Nolan doesn’t hide it incredibly well. I remember sitting in theaters and thinking to myself, “Oh, he just told us the reveal”. The film is Nolan’s longest and it feels like it. The is film is ambitious and visually stunning, but in numerous sequences Nolan let’s the science and the world take the front seat and the characters and emotion take the backseat. That’s the film’s biggest weakness. I don’t really care for anyone besides Cooper (McConaughey) and Murph (Chastain), even though I love all of the actors. And in the end, even if you are giving the film your complete attention, you can still end up confused.
Also, I wanted to talk about why Memento is ranked so low on my list, and mostly everyone else’s list. Memento has an ingenious structure to it, but besides that there is not much there. It is more style over substance. In the end, it feels like Nolan’s coldest film. Your first viewing is meant to confuse you and it does it well. It forces your interest, which is completely fine. But, in rewatches, especially with the influx of nonlinear storytelling in film and television over the past decade, Memento feels almost stale. It feels like its purpose is to confuse the viewer because once you know what happens a rewatch doesn’t add a lot to me. You also begin to notice the numerous plot holes and exposition dumps that occur throughout the film. It is a film that was good for the time, but hasn’t aged well.