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Ranking Christopher Nolan Films




His first movie came out in 1998. Since then, Christopher Nolan has done and accomplished a lot.

He has three Oscar nominations under his belt (none for directing, but two for Original Screenplay [Inception and Memento] and one for Best Picture [Inception]). DGA and Golden Globe nominations, BAFTA awards, Independent Spirit Awards, and much more—not to mention the fact that he now owns the IMDb Top 250 list.

I’m as big an admirer of Nolan as I am any other director, and his films are consistently among my most anticipated of their respective years. The man has a penchant for dense, compelling narratives, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to be surprised by his stories’ twists and strong themes.

Going into a Chris Nolan film, you’re also guaranteed something that’s technically exquisite and (at least for now) not in 3-D. Nolan is one of the biggest supporters of actually filming on film (rather than digital cameras), and though the tide isn’t moving in his favor, he’ll almost certainly hang on until the last possible moment.

A few actors seem to have joined the Nolan club, which is nice. Christian Bale has popped up in four (including three Batman films). Ditto Cillian Murphy. Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, and others have done multiple appearances. The king of Nolan’s filmography, however, is Michael Caine, who’s appeared in every single one of the director’s movies since Batman Begins. Not a bad star to hitch your wagon to (for both men, I guess).

Thematically, you’ll be dealing with a lot of anti-heroes—good men with dark secrets and complex pasts. Bruce Wayne, of course, is the biggee, but almost every film has one: Al Pacino in Insomnia, both Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, Guy Pearce in Memento, and even Jeremy Theobald in Nolan’s super-small-scale debut, Following. Also worth noting is Nolan’s wont to present a real, recognizable world where extraordinary things are possible. What that says exactly, I’m not sure, but it’s noteworthy because it’s pretty consistent across all the man’s films.

Enough with all that, though, here’s my filmography ranking. Of course, it should go without saying that this list is forever fluid, so keep that in mind before savaging me in the comments…

8.) Following

An interesting and promising debut, this low-budget noir would probably not be in the bottom position on most directors’ filmographies, but Nolan is an exception in that he hasn’t failed us yet.

7.) Insomnia

Underrated, but again, Nolan’s films are too damn good to move it up any higher. It’s an oddly structured film in that the dramatic peak occurs about 25 minutes in, but Pacino turns out his best performance in a long time, and the mood and atmosphere here is quite impressive. Loses a few points for Hilary Swank’s weak role; Nolan still hasn’t quite figured out how to craft great female characters.

6.) Batman Begins

Not quite a four-star film for me, but really close. It changed the superhero game in a big way and is one of Hollywood’s better origin stories (I’m still a bigger fan of Casino Royale, but that’s a different discussion). Good plot, good villains, good performances, good tech work, good action. Suffers a bit in hindsight because it’s been overshadowed by the epic adventures it sets up.

5.) The Dark Knight Rises

My gut reaction was crazy enthusiastic. I thought, on the whole, this film was more exciting and more thematically resonant than its predecessor—something I don’t say easily, as The Dark Knight was one of my favorite films of the last decade. Why exactly? The dynamic between Bane and Batman is one. Our hero finally has an enemy who’s a physical challenge, and in many ways, Bane is the new Batman to Gotham City. Bruce Wayne is older and more feeble, and he struggles to keep up with the incredibly imposing masked man. Bane’s ethos helps establish an environment in Gotham that’s as frightening as any we’ve seen so far. And the dichotomy in philosophies between Bane and Selina Kyle introduces interesting shades of gray and gives us quality character moments. Yeah, I just really loved this movie. It’s big and bombastic and sometimes a little all over the place, but I feel a strong connection to it. If it held up a little better, it’d be much higher on this list. The Dark Knight Rises‘ problems proved pervasive, however, and it finds its home just above Batman Begins, but below a few other truly magnificent Nolan flicks.

4.) The Prestige

This devilishly twisty period piece is as good a film as one about dueling magicians ever could (or should) be. And considering how so much of the fun is trying to piece the plot together, it holds up quite well. If I’m ever just looking for a quality Nolan movie to pop in on a whim, it’s this one.

3.) Inception

Forget the “spinning-top” (an adjective that will forever, in my mind, describe great but somewhat pointless ambiguity) ending, Inception is as high as it is on this list because of the incredible world Nolan builds in just under two and a half hours. Inception needs to take place somewhere that resembles the real world but also has a dreamlike quality because some (or maybe all?) of it occurs in the minds of its characters. Not an easy task, especially when you consider he must also establish hard and fast rules to follow. On top of that, one could easily make the argument that Inception features some of the finest craftsmanship in Nolan’s filmography. I’d say the art direction, costumes, etc. were more impressive in The Prestige, but in terms of cinematography and editing, it doesn’t top this film.

2.) The Dark Knight

I wrote in the days leading up to The Dark Knight Rises that I don’t think there’s been a performance in the last 25 years that was so vital to the success of the film its in than Heath Ledger’s work as The Joker. When the film takes a leap in logic, it’s easy to forgive because Ledger’s character is so slimy and crafty that we can accept his overly elaborate schemes and seemingly endless number of escapes.

1.) Memento

It’s always been Memento, and it probably will always be Memento. I remember the first time I watched it (on VHS!). Told my parents how great it was; They only got about 20 minutes in…

As a John G. myself, I feel a certain obligation to point out that I did not, in fact, kill Leonard Shelby’s wife. That said, the questions Nolan raises with this narrative and the way he constructs it are bleak, but delightful and totally engrossing. There really just isn’t anything quite like it.

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