With the release date of this summer’s most anticipated film Dunkirk drawing ever nearer later this month from Christopher Nolan – one of the most acclaimed and successful filmmakers of the 21st Century – this calls for a perfect and fun excuse to rank all of his movies thus far. As you can see from the title of this feature, I will be ranking his movies from what I personally feel is his most strongest to his weakest directorial effort. Usually what happens in film rankings is that people tend to rank them from best to worse but in the case of Nolan, he hasn’t really made a bad step in his career as a film director per se so I shall be ranking each one based mainly on the enjoyment factor and whether or not they have that rewatchability effect on me. Every film from Nolan has always been heralded as a film event of the year, so it’s hard not to get excited when he reveals his next latest project; and with Dunkirk being only his 10th main feature, how many other filmmakers can you name that have had such a high-grossing success that Nolan is currently riding on? The answer is: not that many…
1. INCEPTION (2010)
Most Nolan fans if not all of them would cite The Dark Knight as their number one film for obvious reasons which I will go into more detail when I eventually get to that one but no others for me on this list has managed to explode my brain and blow me away quite as much as Inception does. Having watched Inception five times at the cinema (there was no way I could watch it just the once), this is a movie that demands your complete attention and participation and one where Nolan commands his audience members to really acquire them to use their brains to fully work out what is being unfolded in front of them and to properly take note of all the twists and turns and understanding the story and journey of his main protagonist, played here by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his most accomplished and astonishing leading performances. To be honest, Nolan expects quite a high level of intelligence from his target audience with all of his movies – they’re all complex puzzle films and he wants the spectator to really work for it by propelling the mental psyche into full operation. He’s been doing this ever since Memento but it’s in Inception where he was able to push this as far as any smart film-maker has ever been able to achieve. With its jaw dropping sequences and concepts of dream collapsing, dream sharing and dream within a dream scenarios, Nolan had remarkably tapped into the imagination by introducing us to a new and undiscovered world filled with so many endless possibilities; a world where just about anything can happen if you so much as think it while still in dream mode. Its for this reason alone why this film will always remain at the number one spot for me on this list. Absolutely superb summer blockbuster that’s accompanied with arguably the greatest score from the world’s renowned film music composer, Hans Zimmer.
2. MEMENTO (2000)
Nolan’s second main feature film that really put him on the road map as as a force to be truly reckoned with. Memento is probably the most complex visual puzzle of all in Nolan’s growing filmography as we follow Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), an ex-insurance investigator as he gathers and pieces together clues and hints to assist himself in tracking down the killer that raped and murdered his wife. There’s only one hindrance that unfortunately stands in his way – suffering from short term memory loss that prevents him from making any new memories since the death of his wife. This is first and foremost a really well-executed and old fashioned film noir detective story with its main complexity being driven by its rather unique plot device where the film plays in reverse order; beginning with the end and ending with the beginning. Such a bold and creative choice by Nolan but one that really pays off massively as it lends itself to being one of the most talked about points in the film, giving viewers their own interpretation of the way its non-linear narrative storytelling is used. I really like how we as the spectators are placed in the same position as Shelby as we investigate and wrack our brains to whom the killer might be. Shooting the film in both black & white and colour to help differentiate what is present and past tense was something that works incredibly effective within its story structure. Pearce is also excellently supported by actors such as Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss who may be Shelby’s allies or enemies. You never clearly find out what either of their hidden motives are, whether they want to help Shelby in his on-going investigation or that they are both in cahoots with each other, playing Shelby for a fool all this time and eventually plan on betraying him. It’s one element that really made me fall in love with Memento and the reason why I keep revisiting this film.
3. INSOMNIA (2002)
Nolan’s follow-up to Memento is one such film that plays a lot more with mood, tension and overall atmosphere where the main setting/location is just as much as an integral part to the film’s narrative as its main characters and excellent, tightly woven script are. With Nolan being able to drive out career best performances from both Al Pacino and the late great Robin Williams, this second feature is essentially a deadly cat and mouse game thriller between a cop and criminal. This is the only film directed by Nolan that he did not pen the screenplay for, even though to my understanding, he did in fact contribute to the final draft of the script. Because every other film he’s made are original works that he both wrote and directed himself, Insomnia is sadly overlooked which I think is unfair as people are missing out on an absolutely underrated gem here. This film is actually a remake of a Norwegian film of the same name that was made five years before in 1997 and screenwriters Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg whom penned the script for the original were bought back on board to write the screenplay for Nolan’s version also. Homicide detective Will Dormer (Pacino) and his partner (Martin Donovan) are sent to a small northern town in Alaska to investigate the mysterious murder of a teenage girl. When trying to apprehend a suspect and get answers, Dormer accidentally opens fire on his partner and kills him while out in the middle of a fog covered forest chase. He never admits his guilt and this complicates matters while still trying to solve the murder case and at the same time getting blackmailed by the wanted man they were chasing who saw what he did. Also, the sun never sets in this small town aptly named Nightmute, causing Dormer to become delusional when days of insomnia seep in. Williams plays Walter Finch, the main suspect in the case who turns out to be quite a deranged and manipulative man, using Dormer’s insomnia to his own advantage by contacting him, informing him all about the murder and the fact that he knows everything that is going on with Dormer. This is a really rare bad guy villain role for Williams where he was able to really show off his serious acting chops in a deeply dark and sinister role. This wasn’t the only time he was able to get the opportunity to expand his acting abilities though as he landed another creepy role within the same year in One Hour Photo. It’s just a shame that he didn’t play more twisted and sinister characters more as I think these were the roles he was born to play. As it was mentioned earlier, both Pacino and Williams deliver career best performances and it’s in the police station interrogation scene where they face off each other that they both prove just how good they could be. This film may not be as complex as Memento but this is still another solid and well-crafted film-noir mystery.
4. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Now we reach Nolan’s hailed masterpiece, his magnum opus if you will. Cementing itself within popular culture as the greatest superhero sequel ever made, the British film-maker had sure raised the bar incredibly high for all other comic book movies out there to even match or surpass its thundering success. Upping its ante by placing it on a far more grander scale than Batman Begins, we may see a lot more of Christian Bale displaying justice to the criminals of Gotham in his batsuit but The Dark Knight of course belongs to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Its his show and the film would only be half as good without his towering performance. I couldn’t quite get over Heath Ledger’s untimely shocking death at the young age of just 28, just six months prior to the release of the film. I was telling anyone and everyone that The Joker will be the performance that Ledger will always be remembered for and boy was I right! Filled with some of the most amazing stunts, visual effects and mind blowing action sequences (the chase scene with Batman on his batpod mainly springing to mind), this wasn’t just the best film to come out in the superhero genre at that time but also the best film of that whole year. Seriously, no one would stop talking about it for months on end and it’s not hard to see why. If there was one negative I had to make then it would have to be how Harvey Two-Face was handled. Aaron Eckhart may have played both Harvey Dent and his evil alter-ego extremely well but I think it was a bad move to kill him off so soon after being transformed into the villain we’re familiar with and having lost anything meaningful from his life including Rachel Dawes, played this time by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I kinda wish he became Two-Face right at the end of The Dark Knight and then go on to take the spotlight as the main villain in the third film of Nolan’s bat trilogy. Still, regardless of that, this is very much masterful film-making in the superhero genre with a version of The Joker being a more destructive force of nature rather than an all out prankster and trickster.
5. INTERSTELLAR (2014)
A father and daughter love story. A film that transcends love and space. The possibility of time travel discovered via wormholes. Planet Earth slowly on the brink of dying after suffering from a massive shortage of food. A team of Astronauts recruited by NASA to embark on a desperate mission to venture into the unknown reaches of space in the hope of finding another planet to colonise life on. Yep, this is definitely the most ambitious journey that Nolan has ever taken on within the science fiction/fantasy genre. With its glaringly obvious and biggest influence being taken straight from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, this film still manages to have a lot of heart and emotion whilst earning its only Oscar for its dazzling special effects. Not to mention having my second favourite score by Zimmer after Inception. The film slightly lets itself down for me with a confusing ending but there is so much to marvel at here and seeing it at the BFI IMAX on opening day was literally one of the greatest cinematic experiences I’ve had that simply cannot be forgotten. With Nolan shooting scenes in his films with IMAX cameras more and more these days, having viewed Interstellar on the biggest IMAX screen in Britain; I actually felt like I was totally immersed and transported into that world. It’s also hard not to be blown away the moment the NASA rocket ignites and lifts off into outer space. It’s safe to say as well that the resurgence of Matthew McConaughey’s acting career is now complete in this film after his terrific and impressive performances in both Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf of Wall Street. Interstellar is certainly an unmissable film but perhaps not one I can keep watching over and over, mainly due to its grating running time of 169 minutes.
6. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
Even though it’s now been cast over by a massive shadow from its superior sequel and more and more origin stories have followed, no other recent film-maker has told a more decent superhero origins story than Nolan has with the caped crusader. Here, we finally have a batman again that is a lot more brutal, tortured, darker and broodier. And a film that we can thank for to finally wipe the over the top campiness in Batman Forever and the totally disastrous Batman & Robin from our minds. I really like how we see more of Bruce Wayne’s childhood after the murder of his parents and how he copes with that while staying with Alfred and how his fear of bats first came to be. Also, really interesting to see how he is able to channel all of that hatred and fear and anger into becoming a crime vigilante and a symbol of hope for his city of Gotham. Christian Bale was the best choice to play Batman. He was able to bring all the cockiness and arrogance that was needed to play Bruce Wayne, as well as being terrifying when he needs to be after putting on the cowl and cape. Most comic book movies can’t handle having more than one main villain without it getting messy but in Nolan’s hands, this never happens. With Bats facing up against the likes of Ra’s Al Ghul, the Scarecrow and Carmine Falcone, it’s all very well paced and makes sense with the plot. If you forgotten just how good this is, I’d say give it another watch. A tonally different beast to The Dark Knight and doesn’t have as big action sequences but still has plenty of entertainment value to offer along with a great star studded cast.
THE PRESTIGE (2006)
Recruiting the acting talents of Bale once again, Nolan pits him against Hugh Jackman as two rival magicians whom enter a game of deadly obsession to uncover each other’s stage tricks to the bitter end. It’s the set design, costumes and visual effects that really impressed me the most with The Prestige. Not to mention some of the biggest plot twists you’ll never see coming. Seeing these two stage performers try and better each other in a desperate bid to find out one another’s secrets behind their most elaborate tricks is intense, exhilarating and at times terrifying. They both want to be the world’s greatest magician and will do just about anything to do it and that means doing unspeakably awful things to get there. I’m not lying when I say that the final payoff in the film was deeply confusing for me and it took several viewings to actually understand what the hell was going on. As much as I liked many aspects of this movie, it does feel like it can drag in places and in turn become boring in some parts. It’s the acting from all involved though that holds it altogether in place along with Nolan’s superb directing that make it worth watching. Both Bale and Jackman are terrifically supported by some of the best British talent that includes Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis and the late David Bowie. Just make sure you are watching very closely…
8. FOLLOWING (1998)
Going all the way back to the humble beginning of Nolan’s career, this very first feature length low-budget film running at approximately just 70 minutes is the work of an amateur director trying to find his own style and persona before becoming the grand auteur storyteller he is today. Shot completely in black & white and starring Jeremy Theobald who also starred in Nolan’s short before this entitled ‘Doodlebug’ which you can seek out on YouTube and I highly recommend you do, plays a writer here called Bill who takes a somewhat eccentric interest in following strangers around London and observing what they get up to in their daily lives. One day, Bill gets confronted by a confident man he’s been following for a few days. This fellow is a thief and a house burglar by the name of Cobb (sound familiar?) and decides to take Bill under his wing by showing him the true skillful art of how to break and enter into ordinary people’s houses. Having been almost entirely shot by a handheld single camera and with the production budget costing only six thousand dollars, making it one of the least expensive films in history, this film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but if you’re a massive Nolan fan such as myself and are curious to see where he first started then by all means this is a must. Just don’t expect anything too life changing from it and that way you’ll sure not to get disappointed by it.
9. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
And finally, here we come to my least favourite of Nolan’s. I just want to set the record straight before I get stuck into this that TDKR is in no way a badly made or terrible film. It was simply just a disappointing film as a conclusion to Nolan’s bat trilogy for me because it had such an uneven balance throughout its main core. It has to be stressed though that for Nolan to really top The Dark Knight was a near high impossible task so in that respect I guess how he brought this story to a close was kind of satisfying, but I really was expecting a lot more from it regardless overall. I’ll get the bad stuff out the way first – pitting Batman against Bane as his main nemesis was really a leftfield choice and I loved that. When I first heard that Tom Hardy had been cast in this role, I was very excited indeed to find out what he could bring to the table. How Bane was first introduced into this world was pretty spectacular after he masterminds a plane hijack in its opening action sequence. I felt Hardy’s voice work at the start was excellent but he was unable, I felt, to keep it very well sustained and it sounded like it went from German to Austrian and then back into his own British voice as the film progressed. Just didn’t sit well with me at all. As this is set ten years after the events of The Dark Knight, nothing gets explained very well what the main characters had been up to during all that time and why did there have to be such a big time leap between the second and third film? Could have easily made it five years rather than ten. I agree with critics to an extent that this is a story more about Bruce Wayne than Batman but when they say that this is the first time you feel that Bruce is in actual grave danger is not something I agree with at all really. I was fully expecting Bane to really fuck a lot more shit up for both Bruce and Batman by going to extreme lengths in destroying his world and everyone he’s ever cared about and loved. I wanted him to really tip Bruce well over the edge but it just never happened and for that reason, I was sorely disappointed. That aside, this concluding threequel is definitely not without its merits as the film comes packed with some really exciting action set pieces that are well-paced sporadically throughout its running time. The biggest highlights being the sewer fight where Bane infamously ‘breaks the bat’s back’, the football stadium explosion and the prison escape. All in all this film just felt too uneven for me to truly love and it’s why I had to place at the bottom of the pile. I may change my mind about it when given it a few more years down the line but at the moment, I just can’t seem to enjoy it anymore than I have the previous times.