Ranking Christopher Nolan’s Films From Worst To Best
If you’re looking for the definitive consensus ranking of Christopher Nolan films, you’ve come to the wrong place. Nolan currently has seven films in the IMDb top 250: Batman Begins (114), The Dark Knight Rises (63), Memento (48), The Prestige (47), Interstellar (32), Inception (14), and The Dark Knight (4). (Dunkirk’s current score is high enough to beat all of those, but it doesn’t have enough votes to qualify for the list.)
If you’re looking for something close to an official ranking, IMDb’s list offers a pretty good guess at the top seven. This list also makes a helpful point that you should keep in mind while reading the list below: Nolan has made nothing but good to great films. Even the film in tenth spot would receive an enthusiastic thumbs up from this writer.
With that in mind, here’s one Nolan fan’s slightly contrarian—if completely sincere—ranking of the director’s first 10 films.
Shot on weekends by a cast and crew with day jobs, this micro-budget debut put Nolan on the map—and with good reason. In spite of the director’s minimal resources, he managed to establish many of his core preoccupations in this intriguing neo-noir about a writer who strikes up a relationship with a burglar he has been secretly following. Nolan lacked the tools and experience necessary to reach the heights of his later films, but this is an undeniable triumph of bare bones filmmaking.
Working with the benefits of studio financing for the first time, Nolan’s first large-scale production was arguably the best major release in the summer of 2002. If it falls just short of Nolan’s later films, this may be because it’s the only one he didn’t have a hand in writing. It should also be noted that many of Insomnia’s best traits were already on display five years earlier in the Norwegian film of the same name.
8. Batman Begins
After 1997’s disastrously awful Batman & Robin, the caped crusader took an eight-year break from movies, only to return in Nolan’s follow-up to Insomnia. An undeniable step in the right direction for the franchise, Batman Begins established a world that Nolan would take to far more interesting places in the years to come. Unfortunately, at this early stage in his career, the director was still on unsteady ground in Hollywood, working with a writer (Blade’s David Goyer), whose edgy horror bent made an awkward match for Nolan’s sensibilities.
Still regarded by some as Nolan’s finest hour, this inventive original about “dream sharing” is an impressive feat of imagination. However, Inception also has a few weaknesses that prevent it from reaching the heights of Nolan’s other triumphs. For one, the filmmaker uses far too much restraint in creating the film’s dream imagery, and he is overly reliant on dialogue to convey the intricacies of the narrative. For most directors, that wouldn’t stop this from being a career best, but this is Nolan we’re talking about.
6. The Prestige
Arriving just two months after The Illusionist (another story of rival magicians set in 19th century Europe), The Prestige seemed overly familiar and unnecessary—until people saw it. Somehow finding time to cram this twisty thriller between 2005’s Batman Begins and 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan elevated this film with a crucial, career-changing decision: he hired his brother to work on the script. Previously only credited with writing the story that inspired Memento, Jonathan Nolan has proven to be his brother’s secret weapon, co-writing four of his best films.
The skills Jonathan Nolan demonstrated in his first few movies weren’t lost on Steven Spielberg, who hired him to write a screenplay inspired by the ideas of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. When Spielberg bowed out, Christopher Nolan stepped in, re-worked the script, and delivered the film that will probably be remembered as his 2001: A Space Odyssey. In spite of the egregious miscasting of Matthew McConaughey, Nolan managed to deliver one of his most thought-provoking, mindbending, and emotional films.
4. The Dark Knight
Many would argue that The Dark Knight is Nolan’s career best—and that is not an unreasonable position. Even in the film’s opening shots, it’s apparent that the director has undergone further evolution, and Heath Ledger’s Joker adds a thrilling sense of vitality whenever he’s onscreen. The Dark Knight’s position this far down the list says more about Nolan’s incredible consistency than any real shortcomings in the film itself, which is arguably Nolan’s most satisfying in a traditional narrative sense.
3. The Dark Knight Rises
Those who tend to police story logic have always had an axe to grind with The Dark Knight Rises and some of their arguments have validity, but Nolan’s greatness as a filmmaker has more to do with form, drama, and the strategic delivery of information than basic story logic. With The Dark Knight Rises, he took everything that made the film’s predecessor great and drastically expanded its scope. Whereas The Dark Knight was most interested in the personal concerns of Bruce Wayne, this trilogy ender builds its drama around Gotham as a whole, resulting in a more expansive, consequential Batman movie.
On the opposite end of the scale spectrum, this indie crime classic established Nolan as a filmmaker of major importance just a few years after his microscopic debut. As much as the director has wowed the world with his visual assurance and masterful handling of large budgets, the core of his appeal has always been rooted in the way he structures his films for maximum impact. With Memento, he discovered the perfect marriage of structure (we see events unfold in reverse) and subject matter (just like the audience, the protagonist has no knowledge of the past). The story itself is relatively familiar, but Nolan’s inspired approach gives the film depth that borders on profundity—and expands our sense of the medium’s potential.
This early in the life of Dunkirk, it might be premature to anoint it as Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement, but the film’s best moments rank up there with the director’s other career highlights. Plus, Dunkirk’s grounding in reality gives Nolan’s cinematic flourishes more impact than ever before. It’s hard to say how the film’s unconventional structure will play on repeat viewings, but at this stage, it feels like yet another significant leap forward for this always impressive filmmaker. Read our full review here.