Christopher Nolan has emerged over the last two decades to become one of the most distinct voices in modern filmmaking, but what is the best movie in our ranking of all his films? Nolan’s career has been something of a slow burn, moving steadily from low-budget indies to studio assignments and eventually becoming a name general audiences have come to trust. A new Christopher Nolan movie is now an event in itself, with the director maintaining control from initial concept down to the final edit.
While some viewers can find Nolan’s style too controlled or cold, a lot of his best work is rooted in emotion, with recurring themes that include characters haunted (sometimes literally) by the death of a loved one or fighting to be reunited with them. Memory, non-linear plot structure and time are repeating elements too, as are ensemble casts, including the ever-present Michael Caine. In much the same way James Cameron can be considered an engineer in addition to being a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan seems fascinated by the architecture of storytelling, and always seems to give him a fresh challenge with each movie.
There are few filmmakers who operate on the same level as Christopher Nolan, so let’s examine his work to date and rank his filmography from worst to best.
10. Following (1998)
Following was Nolan’s debut feature, a micro-budget, black and white thriller about an unemployed writer who follows strangers around London. Following was filmed on weekends, with Nolan self-financing the production. For a movie shot for practically nothing, it's is an impressive, brooding noir tale, but it’s also rough around the edges. There are seeds of the filmmaker Nolan would eventually become, especially in the non-linear plot structure, but it remains the least essential of his films.
9. Insomnia (2002)
Insomnia was Nolan’s move into studio filmmaking and he delivers an elegant, visually engaging thriller that occasionally feels too chilly for its own good. Insomnia is actually a remake of a Norwegian thriller, with Al Pacino starring as a detective investigating a murder in a small Alaskan town. Pacino’s character is plagued by insomnia, brought on by the guilt of accidentally shooting a fellow cop and covering up the crime.
Insomnia is a taut psychological character study, and while Pacino is typically great, its Robin Williams icy turn as the villain that makes the movie. In every sense, the film is a fine thriller, but compared to Nolan’s later filmography it can’t help but feel like a minor work.
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises ends the Nolan era on a strong note, but not without some missteps. From the outside, there was always a sense The Dark Knight Rises was a film that was an obligation, instead of a project Nolan was truly invested in. There’s still a lot the film gets right; the renewed focus on Bruce Wayne over Batman, the grounded reinvention of the Lazarus Pit, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman and so on.
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Yet, there are issues that drag The Dark Knight Rises down. The Talia al Ghul subplot could have been eliminated with a rewrite and the movie wouldn’t have missed it, the pacing can be oddly sluggish and Bruce Wayne’s final scene feels like a studio note that belongs to another movie. It’s the weakest of the Nolan/Bale era but it still delivers a satisfying ending.
7. Dunkirk (2017)
After a string of comic book movies and sci-fi blockbusters, Dunkirk was a pleasant change of pace for Nolan, which allowed his history buff to come out too. The film details the true story of the evacuation of allied soldiers from Dunkirk in 1940, with the film unfolding from three different perspectives – land, sea, and air. The first thing to note about Dunkirk is how lean it is, with a tight runtime and sparse dialogue. The film doesn’t even feature any German soldiers, with the film playing them off as shadowy threats.
Old hands like Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance bring a touch of warmth to Dunkirk, but while the film’s lack of character development is realistic, given the condensed timeframe, it does make it hard to really invest in the fates of the main characters since they feel like ciphers
6. Interstellar (2014)
Nolan got to make his own sci-fi epic with Interstellar, which finds Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper leading a team of astronauts into a wormhole in the hope of finding mankind a new home. While Interstellar deals with a high concept hook, the movie is at its best focusing on the relationship between Cooper and the daughter he had to leave behind on Earth, who grows up to be Jessica Chastain due to the effects of time dilatation. This relationship provides the emotional core of Interstellar, which occasionally gets bogged down with dry, academic science talk.
Which isn’t to say Interstellar lacks action, with Cooper’s docking with a runaway spacecraft possibly the finest setpiece of Nolan’s career. Hans Zimmer score provides propulsive energy in the right places, but while Nolan is aiming for his very own 2001: A Space Odyssey, he doesn’t reach those heights.