By Josh Williams
As discussed on the most recent episode of the Next Best Picture Podcast, out of all the directors working today, there is no doubt that Christopher Nolan is one of the most adept. With ten feature films under his belt that spans over a 19-year career, Nolan has quite the stellar filmography. Where as some directors are style over substance, he is clearly a man of substance. His films carry so much depth and weight that at times it is unbearable as a viewer.
His substance is so unique to him that anytime you watch one his films you are encapsulated by the humanity, the story and of course the repeating theme of “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Long story short; Christopher Nolan is one hell of a director and with “Dunkirk” releasing this week we here at Next Best Picture have decided to rank all of his films. So without further ado here are Christopher Nolan’s films ranked from our least favorite to our absolute favorite!
9. “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012)
The culmination of Nolan’s masterfully crafted “Dark Knight Trilogy,” “The Dark Knight Rises” lands in the bottom slot for us here at NBP. Nolan proved a lot of different things with his Batman trilogy. One was that we can have a human version of Batman. Another was that the villains can play a detrimental role to the overall film, and that a movie about a superhero can stand as a masterpiece. Sadly, the superhero masterpiece was not this installment. “The Dark Knight Rises” is a nice bookend to the legendary trilogy but it does begin to lose its way towards the second and third acts. The story becomes strained and drags on for just a bit too long leaving a sour taste in our mouths. Not that the film is bad by any means but at a certain point in the film, it feels like we’re watching material we have seen time and time again.
By this, I don’t mean repetitive Nolan material, but comic book material. As many people would agree, “The Dark Knight” revolutionized the comic book genre, creating a new standard for superhero movies. But with “The Dark Knight Rises” the hype train slowly begins to leave the station. There are still several palpable details that make the film a joy to watch: Tom Hardy gives an excellent performance as Bane. Long time Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister’s cinematography is breathtaking, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a great supporting role and the film provides a satisfying ending for the trilogy as a whole. However, in terms of the Nolan filmography, this one lands at the bottom. Those plot holes and gaps within logic were simply too much for us to stomach.
8. “FOLLOWING” (1998)
“Following” is Christopher Nolan’s debut feature film and as a result it’s hindered by budgetary constraints and a writer/director who was still struggling to find himself. “Following” is not a grand gesture like the rest of his films. It is a small, simple, elegant approach which is an intelligent route to go for your first feature. “Following” is poetic, as it goes down easy and is an absolute breeze to watch. The issue is that if you watch this film after seeing literally ANY other Christopher Nolan movie you will be let down. “Following” has a lot of strong moments in its tight knit 69-minute runtime but overall it falls just a bit flat. The acting isn’t as strong or focused as in his other films. He still is polishing up his writing so the interactions feel a little off at times.
“Following” does have its moments, however. There are a few scenes where the screenplay is incredibly enjoyable and the interactions are blissful in a way but something about the film makes it a tad difficult on revisits. It is an essential viewing to understand where Nolan got his start and how he began his career. If you’re a fan of simple, mostly dialogue filled films then “Following” is possibly the one for you. But if you’re a fan of Nolan’s grand pieces that reflect how amazing he is at utilizing scale, this may not be your cup of tea.
7. “INTERSTELLAR” (2014)
“Interstellar” is Nolan’s most recent release (Next to “Dunkirk” obviously) that is probably his most ambitious project (Again, next to “Dunkirk“). It’s a science fiction epic that deals with life dwindling away on Earth so scientists must travel to other universes to find a new home. With an ending that puzzled more people that “Inception,” “Interstellar” was Nolan tackling a dying human race through the lens of interstellar travel. However, since this project is so earnest it was difficult to follow along at certain points. The dialogue contains more and more exposition as the film progresses, becoming more about explaining the science of the situation versus actual dialogue. It becomes one character asking loaded questions while others deliver convoluted answers making the film quite difficult to follow and by association, enjoy. An odd ending that also did not fulfill what Nolan intended and some very off putting moments such as Anne Hathaway’s “love” monologue and a Matt Damon cameo all contributed towards “Interstellar” being a mess.
It still has its high points of course. The performances fit the subject flawlessly, the score by Hans Zimmer is a thing of wonder and of course, the special effects were absolutely seamless. But as the film goes on and on and we venture further into that 169-minute runtime, it does begin to bore and drag. The science fiction element is only so interesting for a specific period of time that after a while it does get old and begins to lose steam. Plus the third act of the film is overwhelming in so many ways. It’s hard to keep track of everything happening and maintain a level head about it all. “Interstellar” was ambitious and innovative but it fell a bit flat due to its tiring runtime, lackluster screenplay and overwhelming exposition. Despite all of this, the film went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for its Visual Effects.
6. “INSOMNIA” (2002)
“Insomnia” was the film where Nolan really begins to find his footing. Obviously, he laid out the ground work in “Memento” in 2000 but this film was where he really began to flex his muscles. “Insomnia” was Nolan’s first adaptation and also his only real stab at a big budget adult thriller. Unlike “Memento,” “Insomnia” comparatively focuses strictly on the humanity aspect of its screenplay. It placed humans in an unknown scenario and forced them to interact with other people that they would not normally interact with. Nolan continued to flex this ability of creating tension between characters simply through discomfort. “Insomnia” is a cold, dark, intense thriller that is not only haunting but also melancholic as well.
“Insomnia” does get a little long winded toward the end of the second act and into the third act but that aspect is easy to ignore when the film has so many strong points. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, showing Al Pacino’s battle with insomnia through the lighting design. Robin Williams is absolutely petrifying as the villain, giving one of the best dramatic performance of his career. “Insomnia” is also responsible for having one of the most terrifying scenes ever filmed. When Al Pacino and Robin Williams have a talk on the boat and Pacino is not allowed to record their conversation, the audience is literally sweating bullets. If you haven’t seen “Insomnia” but are a fan of “Memento,” you will probably have quite a pleasant viewing experience.
5. “THE PRESTIGE” (2006)
“Are you watching closely?” The line that carries an immense amount of weight and emotion. “The Prestige” was Nolan’s first film after beginning his “Dark Knight Trilogy.” “The Prestige” is an exclusive film that handles a lot of meaningful questions. Not only does the film deal with revenge, the growth, and decay of relationships, it also deals with how to pull off the grandest illusion that the world has ever seen. Yeah, bet you thought you’d never see both of those in one movie. In a film about two stage magicians constantly trying to one up each other, “The Prestige” is melodic and substantial. “The Prestige” gave proof that Nolan can handle just about any subject material he wants and execute on it effectively. With a screenplay adaptation that is broken into three acts just like a magician’s magic trick, Nolan plays around with timelines in a way that effectively pulls off the storytelling he is aiming for here.
“The Prestige” continues Nolan’s obsession with humanity but specifically how we deal with revenge. It also tackles the idea of how far we are willing to go to achieve said revenge. It also delves into how relationships form between humans and how quickly they can fall apart. What makes this film all the more intelligent is that these themes are told through the lens of stage magicians. Nolan is a master of crafting meaningful and topical films but constraining them within a fictional lens. He is not necessarily restricting himself but more so finding new, innovative ways to give his opinion on certain subjects. “The Prestige” is beautifully crafted and masterfully told and fits in nicely between his “Dark Knight Trilogy.” It was also nominated for two Academy Awards for its Production Design and Cinematography.
4. “BATMAN BEGINS” (2005)
“Batman Begins” is the first installment in Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” and he kicks it off with a bang. Showing us the origins of the Batman character and how he must interact with the other people in his life, Nolan was the perfect fit to tackle the Batman character. Versus giving us a rich playboy with no depth to him, Nolan channels his biggest strength into the most well-known superhero. Throughout the film, we are constantly being reminded that he is not only Batman but he is also Bruce Wayne. He is a person, with emotions, regrets, morals, not just some guy in a mask. Nolan brings a lot of energy and gloom to the Batman universe which succeeded immensely, keeping the film grounded within reality and thus providing an entirely fresh and new take on the character. Instead of going for more cartoonish or childish, Nolan took a serious approach that absolutely stunned audiences.
With a nuanced, slick performance from Christian Bale, a highlight on the villains and focusing on Batman’s code of ethics, Nolan has created a new standard for the superhero genre. Utilizing everything he has learned up to this point as a director and channeling into his first large scale epic, “Batman Begins” is the perfect first installment to the trilogy and also a completely different approach to the superhero movie. Mixing emotion with fantasy Nolan creates something completely special with this film that he would later go on to one up himself within his own trilogy.
3. “MEMENTO” (2000)
If “Insomnia” was where Nolan found his footing, “Memento” is the film that laid the ground work. Proving to be one of the most prolific stories ever told on the film format, “Memento” is a mind-blowingly unique approach to a story. Told in the nonlinear format, like the usual Nolan trope, the film hops from present to the past and to the future, making for not only one of the greatest screenplays ever written but also one of the most brilliant character studies in film. This film gives birth to one of Nolan’s running themes in his screenplays: “You die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.”
“Memento” is such a dramatic, nuanced film that at times it’s almost hard to keep up with. But as the film progresses Nolan keeps giving us more and more bread crumbs to follow. He purposefully only feeds us one small piece of the pie at a time, building up to practically serving us a three-course dinner. When the plot is completely unwrapped at the end of the film we are absolutely star struck. As the final moments unfold we literally cannot keep our jaws off the floor and this effect continues through each and every re-watch. Guy Pierce has simply never been better and the supporting performances by Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano were also very pivotal in helping to shape their careers. Nolan’s own career has become defined by his screenplay’s nonlinear approach (He also earned his first Oscar Nomination for Best Original Screenplay with this film) and this is the film that cemented his status as someone to watch and we have been re-watching “Memento” ever since.
2. “INCEPTION” (2010)
Before tackling space travel and World War II, Nolan took a stab at something a little more unique: dreams. Many people may consider “Inception” to be Nolan’s greatest achievement as a director and also his most over the top attempt at a film. With practical special effects, brilliant performances, a screenplay high on ambition and concepts and of course the usual Nolan tropes, “Inception” encapsulates everything he represents. The thing “Inception” excels on where “Interstellar” fails is that the explanation of the science fiction portion comes through dialogue.
Instead of one person asking a question and then just convoluted talking, there is a back and forth discussion about the current state of the world. There is tension within the conversations and the dialogue also helps the audience completely understand what is going on. The film is the perfect run time and explains everything in such a nonchalant fashion. Instead of treating the audience as if they were clueless, Nolan dives into this film as if we already understand everything that is happening and merely helps to fill in the gaps for us, leading to one of the most well executed final shots in cinematic history at the end.
”Inception” not only lit up the box office but critics responded kindly as well. The film garnered 8 Academy Award Nominations winning four for its Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Cinematography. Nolan himself earned Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominations. “Inception” quite literally takes on a mind of its own. With emotional moments that contain a lot of heart and soul to the insanely well-coordinated action sequences, “Inception” is easily one of Nolan’s greatest achievements.
1. “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)
Remember earlier when I referred to Nolan creating a superhero movie that is simultaneously a masterpiece? That movie is “The Dark Knight.” The second installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a dark and gloomy onslaught of emotions. From the terrifying threat of Heath Ledger’s Joker to the glimpse into humanity with Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon, “The Dark Knight” succeeds on all aspects. The reason that “The Dark Knight” stands as a masterpiece is due to Nolan’s ability to treat the film as a crime drama instead of a standard superhero movie. Instead of taking the typical superhero approach and treating the characters and film like it’s a superhero movie, Nolan crafted his own cinematic language for this movie that people have been trying to replicate ever since.
Instead of treating the film like a typical drama or action film, Nolan treated this more as an epic. The film is absolutely enormous in scale and Nolan was completely aware of this. Every moment in “The Dark Knight” feels huge because, it is. Each emotional moment feels like it is carrying the weight of the world. There is so much heart and soul in each line of dialogue, in each action sequence. You can literally feel Nolan’s passion for this material quite literally oozing from the screen.
Of course, you cannot talk about “The Dark Knight” without mentioning one of the greatest performances of the 21st century and easily one of the greatest performances in the history of film, Heath Ledger’s The Joker. Heath Ledger brought a whole new level to “The Dark Knight,” giving it more gravitas than it already had. Creating a villain with a relatable motive, that constantly looms over the film adds a whole other layer to the film’s enjoyment. He’s terrifying, unpredictable and always fascinating. The film was Nolan’s first billion dollar move and earned eight Academy Award Nominations in all below the line categories except for Heath Ledger. The film won two Oscars for Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger, nearly a year after his tragic death. Nolan did not receive a Best Director nomination nor did the film receive a Best Picture nomination after being mentioned by many critics as the best film of 2008. This move more than likely it is suggested, prompted the Academy to move away from nominating only five Best Picture nominees to the 5-10 ruling that we now have today.
Christopher Nolan had officially mastered the modern blockbuster and that was proven with “The Dark Knight.” With fantastic performances, treating the film like an epic instead of a superhero movie, Nolan succeeded in not only creating one of the greatest comic book films of all time but one of the greatest films of the 21st century.
Do you agree with our rankings? Where do you think “Dunkirk” will fall on the list for us? We’ll be sure to address this on the next episode of the Next Best Picture Podcast. be sure to also vote on our poll here as to which is your favorite Christopher Nolan film (Poll closes Saturday). “Dunkirk” releases this weekend on July 21st. It stars Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, and Harry Styles.
You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @josh_williams09