Some may look at midterm election results and their ramifications as the highlight of this week’s news, but something far more important is taking place: the release of Interstellar. Consequently, we were in need of a countdown of Christopher Nolan’s films. Before you go reacting violently to these potentially biased rankings, keep in mind that all of these movies are highly entertaining and worth watching, regardless of these fairly arbitrary rankings. For time and space purposes, this breakdown contains only the films Nolan directed.
Nolan’s debut. Produced on a miniscule budget, Following will not wow visually like some of his later work, but the noirish thriller still hints at the director’s immense storytelling ability. The scale is not quite as grand here, but the film foreshadows Nolan’s immense success, brought about by his ability to captivate and unsettle an audience simultaneously. Any fan of Nolan’s well-known works should take the time to see his first film.
7. Insomnia (2002)
Again, not one of Nolan’s smash hits, though it did achieve moderate box office success. Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank, Insomnia boasts the bigger names characteristic of peak Nolan. Pacino’s overacting influences this lower ranking, but overall the cast supports the eerie story—taken from the original Norwegian film—well. Nolan uses Alaska and its eccentricities to wear away at his characters, making for a restless and chaotic finish to the film. In addition, the movie provides a different look at Williams, who gives one of his more unusual and most underrated performances.
6. Batman Begins (2005)
I wanted to rank it higher; I really did. This movie falling into the bottom three speaks to the consistently high level Nolan has achieved with his work. BB set the stage for the rest of the revolutionary trilogy and, in some ways, for the superhero obsession currently enveloping our movie world. Nolan dug into Bruce Wayne’s origins, emerging with a great critical and commercial success, establishing himself as a blockbuster director capable of wowing millions with more than explosions and effects. He taught us quickly that Christian Bale was meant to be Batman and that Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman were integral parts of the Dark Knight’s universe. He also taught us that Katie Holmes is still pretty terrible (not that Maggie Gyllenhaal was much better). BB does not have the same scope as the subsequent Batman films, but Nolan needed this movie to lay the foundation for his gritty, psychological picture of Gotham and its inhabitants.
5. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
This one barely edges Begins, and only because of its grandeur. TDKR was almost certainly cursed by the perfection that is The Dark Knight, doomed to fall short of our ethereal expectations. Moreover, The Avengers and its subsidiaries maintained a high level of superhero-infused cinematic wonder leading up to DC’s crown jewel. Plus, we (“We” because I assume everyone has the same attachment to Batman that I do…) didn’t want this story to end, so we were bound to be disappointed in some ways. The scope of this heavy finish did not allow Nolan to recreate the tight ferocity of his second Batman film, though Bale and newcomers Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt propel the movie towards excellence. The task of revisiting Bruce Wayne’s origins while also confronting Batman’s greatest test is an arduous one, and the result was a film that at times felt imbalanced and plodding. That being said, Nolan finishes the film strong as Batman returns to save the city to which he committed himself at the outset of the trilogy. I do not side with those who condemn Bane’s muffled terror or Hathaway’s sleek Catwoman, though I concede that the film could have been crisper. A victim of heightened expectations brought about by its creator’s brilliance.
4. Memento (2000)
Inspired by a story written by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, WHILE STUDYING AT GEORGETOWN, Memento earned the brothers an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. Guy Pearce’s Leonard, dead set on revenge but troubled by short-term memory loss, remains one of Nolan’s best characters, along with Joe Pantoliano’s Teddy. Deception and revenge seep into many of these films, but here they take center stage. Nolan’s nonlinear, unresolved narrative continues to astound critics and regular viewers. As far as pure moviemaking inventiveness, Memento may be the top pick among these films. In a way, this was Nolan’s last “small project,” made economically without established starpower. As a result, it has a far different feel than the summer smashes taking up much of this list. Nolan still examines one man stretching limits and seeking justice, but he does so without big-budget expenditures.
3. Inception (2010)
At this point, one must wonder how Nolan has never found himself nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. Hindsight is 20/20, but come on, Academy. Inception is mind-boggling with its visuals, score, and philosophy, and it once again shows off Nolan’s innovative tendencies, if only in its employment of Sir Leo His Highness. Even if you denounce the logic of the film as fallible or unsophisticated, you have to give credit where credit is due: Nolan’s willingness to make a summer film completely different than any before it. Some may point towards The Social Network, but really Inception was the “it” movie of 2010, largely because of Nolan’s stunning, largely effects-free techniques. Something tells me it may not age as well as some other films on this list, given the constant evolution of film and filmmaking, but in its moment Inception was as talked about as any film in recent memory.
2. The Prestige (2006)
This may be my favorite cast of any Nolan film, as well as the most controversial ranking. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play rival magicians trying to one-up each other. I don’t know what else one could ask for, but Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla (!!!) sweeten the deal. Besides Memento, this is probably Nolan’s wildest plot, filled with twists and turns and duplicities. The Prestige marks a sort of midpoint in Nolan’s directorial arc, mixing his early penchant for narrative distortion with his later penchant for getting blockbuster stars to do some of their best work. Bale and Jackman both give stellar performances, and Nolan’s jump into 19th century gives the film a unique feel, balanced between the simplicity of the past and the lust for fame and renown of the modern world. Plus, putting aside for a moment the excellence of the first 99% of the film, how good is the last scene, and how GREAT is the last shot?!
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
The film that changed a franchise, a genre, and this writer’s movie-watching life. From the moment I caught a glimpse of the movie’s opening sequence, I knew it would leave a mark on the American cinematic landscape. The Dark Knight may make people think instantly of Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance, but Nolan reinvigorated the comic book film in an extreme way. He gives Ledger’s Joker the power, leaving Batman weak and disoriented psychologically and at times physically. He starts the film with his villain closing in on a job and finishes it with his hero on the run, empowering him by first emphasizing the moral desolation of the city he protects. Nolan did this in the first and final films of the trilogy as well, but the script and narrative here maintain their excellence at every possible turn, catapulting the film from entertaining summer fare into the realm of the iconic. Bale, Caine, Freeman, and Oldman all stand out along with Ledger’s unbelievable work, helping to obscure Maggie Gyllenhaal’s underwritten performance as Rachel. Nolan takes on considerations of anarchy, human reason, and the nature of good with this film, and he knocks it out of the proverbial park on all accounts.
All signs point towards Interstellar being the type of film that should land somewhere near the top of this list. We’ll have to wait and see, but keep in mind that these rankings do not mean too much in the end. Nolan could film Jack the Bulldog’s afternoon nap, and it would still probably be worth watching.