Like fellow directors Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker whose name nearly everyone instantly recognizes, including those who haven't even seen one of his movies.
One of the most popular directors currently working today, Christopher Nolan, is a hands-on auteur often seen as the modern-day equivalent to Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick. In a career spanning a short but impressive 23 years, Nolan has proven himself as a director able to handle various subject matters and genres, ranging from time-bending war films to an award-winning trilogy of superhero movies.
No matter what kind of movie he works on, he's guaranteed to inject as much of himself and personal interests into each film as possible, making them as distinctly and uniquely Nolan-esque as possible.
Nolan's upcoming film, Oppenheimer, a biopic about the eponymous nuclear physicist known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” is scheduled for release in July 2023.
So we thought we'd take at a look at Nolan's ten best films to date, ranking them from worst to best—although given Nolan's impressive track record, it's perhaps better to say from good to excellent.
10. The Dark Knight Rises
The last film in Nolan’s groundbreaking Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is the Return of the Jedi of Nolan’s Batman movies. It's far from the worst, but certainly is not the same caliber as Batman Begins or The Dark Knight.
Set nearly a decade after the events of The Dark Knight, Gotham City has finally managed to overcome its rampant crime rates, ushering in a new era of peace and safety for its citizens. When a mysterious, hulking mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives to destroy Gotham, an older Batman (Christian Bale) must take up the cape and mantle once again to protect his city.
The Dark Knight Rises
Newcomers to the Dark Knight trilogy Anne Hathaway (playing Catwoman) and Hardy may be a joy to watch. Still, there’s no denying The Dark Knight Rises lacked the same jaw-dropping effect Nolan’s earlier Batman films had on audiences.
Plagued by various plot holes, melodramatic writing, and lackluster action scenes, it’s one of Nolan’s weakest movies to date but still an incredibly entertaining superhero movie in its own right.
Streaming on HBO Max
Nolan’s most recent movie Tenet is likely the closest we’ll ever get to seeing the director making a full-fledged James Bond film (a passion project that Nolan himself has previously expressed interest in).
A spy thriller told in reverse order of sorts, Tenet follows a special agent (John David Washington) tasked with combating a worldwide threat from the future that may mean the destruction of his world. Given Tenet’s heavy emphasis on the subject of time—a common element that at this point is almost comically tied to Nolan’s name—Tenet was bound to be a little confusing at some points.
It’s this confusion that might account for its relatively positive reception due to the somewhat hard-to-follow nature of the film.
A movie that makes Memento, Inception, and Dunkirk seem as straightforward and easy to interpret as a children's movie, Tenet is very far from a bad movie. It’s just a movie you’re likely to have to see again and again to understand fully.
But still, those backward action scenes really are something, huh?
Streaming on HBO Max
Nolan’s debut feature film, Following is a wondrous precursor to the films Nolan would make later on in his career. It’s one of those rare kinds of movies that shows the talent and interests of the director that come almost fully formed, rather than being the work of a filmmaker struggling to learn his craft or find his voice.
It was a movie made on a shoestring budget and shot mostly on weekends when the cast and crew were free from their day jobs. The film focuses on a young, unemployed writer (Jeremy Theobald) who follows people around London, hoping to find inspiration for his novel.
Soon, the writer’s constant attempts to follow people lead him into a criminal conspiracy when he becomes enamored with a serial burglar (Alex Haw) who invites the young man to accompany him on his robberies. What’s more, the tight budget on this film showed Nolan’s talent to create an engaging story with various limits imposed on it, relying more on a plot twist-heavy narrative to draw viewers in.
Following might not be as popular or noteworthy as Nolan's contemporaries' other debut efforts. Still, it does hint at the talents of a young director able to do a lot with a little.
Streaming on Tubi
7. The Prestige
Out of all the movies under Nolan’s belt, The Prestige, along with his early 2002 film, Insomnia, might be the most underrated and frequently glossed over. Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) are two magicians trying to make a name for themselves in Victorian London.
When a risky trick by Alfred results in the death of Robert’s wife (Piper Perabo), the two become bitter rivals, each of them trying to upstage and sabotage the other in their quest to become the next great magician of their time.
Looking at it, it’s hard to figure out why exactly people tend to overlook this magical little gem (pun intended) so often. It’s a cut-rate thriller film that manages to showcase the brilliant performances of the actors involved (especially Jackman) and has plot twist after plot twist that will leave you floored throughout.
It also hinges tightly on some wonderful dramatic pacing and mystery, masterfully developing Alfred and Robert’s start together to their bitter falling out, along with Robert’s descent into near Ahab-levels of madness in his attempts to best Alfred.
Plus, it’s got David freakin’ Bowie as Nikola Tesla! What else could you ask for in a movie?
Streaming on VOD.
Along with Tenet and Inception, Interstellar remains one of the more chronologically confusing of Nolan’s movies, hinging heavily on the manipulation of time based on space travel and its relativity to time on Earth. (A few minutes in space or on a distant planet equals a few decades here.)
In this very time-focused 2014 sci-fi epic, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot turned struggling farmer living in a near-future where crop shortages and dust storms ravage the world. Cooper is recruited back to NASA to join a lunar space expedition through a mysterious wormhole to find a new planet for humanity to inhabit.
Nolan’s version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar is every bit as narratively complex as the aforementioned movie, featuring a more grounded portrayal of space travel than fellow sci-fi films like Star Wars or Star Trek.
This is a must-watch for fans of 2001, Solaris, Ad Astra, or The Right Stuff. Like many of Nolan’s films, though, you may need paper and pencil to figure out exactly what’s happening and the movie's overall timeline.
Streaming on Paramount+
One of the more unique films dealing directly with the subconscious mind, Inception is the most original heist movie you’ll ever see, one where the desired loot isn’t some diamond locked away in a vault; it’s information you have stored in your mind.
And how does one go about stealing said information? Well, in Inception, it’s really quite easy. All you have to do is enter people’s dreams. Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team are professional thieves specializing in stealing information by infiltrating their targets’ dreams.
When they are hired to enter the mind of a wealthy, powerful businessman (Cillian Murphy), they find themselves up against overwhelming subconscious defenses that threaten their whole operation.
An incredibly innovative concept effortlessly thought out and plotted by Nolan, Inception may be tough to follow at times. Still, its originality and somewhat straightforward presentation (compared to Interstellar or Tenet, for example) save it.
Streaming on HBO Max
4. Batman Begins
The first entry in Nolan’s critically-acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, Batman Begins is among the earlier superhero movies responsible for kicking off the later hero craze of the late 2000s (you know, the one that eventually resulted in 30 MCU movies and several TV series).
After the disastrous Batman & Robin, Batman Begins imagines Bruce Wayne (Bale) at the start of his crime-fighting career, a fresh reboot of the Batman character. An orphaned child whose parents were killed in front of him, Wayne opts to abandon his life of luxury and become “Batman,” a figure meant to strike fear in the hearts of criminals in a more realistic, far grimmer version of Gotham City.
Inspired by universally praised comics like Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Batman Begins shows the first appearance of Batman in Gotham, along with his earliest interactions with Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his training to become the Caped Crusader.
A notably darker portrayal of the Batman characters, it was the revival fans had long been hoping to see, breathing fresh life not only into Batman himself but into comic book movies in general.
Along with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and the first few X-Men films, it’s doubtful we’d have the dozens of other fan-favorite superhero movies today without Batman Begins.
Streaming on HBO Max
Nolan’s second movie and his first larger-budgeted project (although still technically an indie film), Memento is the movie responsible for putting Nolan on the map.
It’s smart, cleverly crafted, suspenseful, and has an unorthodox presentation of time…you know, all things you’d expect to see in a Nolan movie (not counting Michael Caine). Leonard (Guy Pearce) is a man afflicted by extreme amnesia, causing him to forget everything that’s happened to him twenty minutes after it’s happened.
Using a mixture of personal notes, tattoos, and Polaroid photos, Leonard attempts to find the people responsible for his wife’s murder years prior. A mystery told in a nonlinear fashion, Memento begins (technically) at the end, using a mixture of scenes shown chronologically interspersed with flashbacks shown in reverse, with the two timelines eventually meeting at the climax of the movie.
If Following was an impressive debut for the young Nolan that helped get his name out to producers, Memento was the movie that showed that Nolan could do amazing things with any budget you gave him.
Narratively complex yet not as difficult to understand as Tenet or Interstellar, it’s a tight, unique neo-noir mystery that signaled Nolan’s continued rise from indie director to Hollywood-caliber filmmaker.
Streaming on HBO Max
In 2017, Nolan turned his directorial sights towards a new epic war film genre. Rather than an action-packed movie traditionally associated with the war film, however, in Dunkirk, Nolan opted to inject as much of his signature filmmaking style and interests as possible into the movie, mainly through the framework of a nonlinear storyline.
Set in the earlier days of World War II, the movie follows three different storylines built around the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk, a moment in history when the Allies very nearly lost the war and desperately tried abandoning France before the German army arrived. The three storylines each follow a different linear pattern, with one story told over the course of a week on land, a day at sea, and an hour in the air. Rather than a strict anthology film or a story told in the manner of Pulp Fiction, all three stories overlap at various times.
Hailed as one of Nolan’s best movies and the highest-earning WW2 film to date, Dunkirk offers a wholly unique presentation of the war film as we know it.
Here, the soldiers aren’t some dashing, well-known Hollywood actors able to kill 30 nameless extras without any problem. Instead, they’re terrified young men desperately trying to escape and fight another day rather than making their last stand. It’s a simple, effective premise that Nolan presents in a completely inventive manner.
Streaming on HBO Max & Google TV
1. The Dark Knight
The absolute best, most critically acclaimed superhero movie of all time, The Dark Knight is Nolan’s unexpected masterpiece. It’s a movie that is literally flawless through and through, boasting strong performances, direction, writing, and music from every talent involved in the film’s making.
The second entry in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, this 2008 superhero movie sees Batman (Bale) physically and mentally struggling to continue being the Caped Crusader. As his war against organized crime in Gotham wages on, the mob hires an unhinged psychopath known as the Joker (Heath Ledger in a performance you have to see to believe) to kill Batman and plunge Gotham City into chaos.
The Dark Knight
In many ways, The Dark Knight is The Godfather Part II of superhero films. It's a notably darker, more mature rendition of the Batman character. Perfect in practically every sense of the word, it’s a movie that will have you hooked from the very beginning and stays with you even as the final credits roll.
Many superhero movies have come before and after, but it’s The Dark Knight that remains the crowning achievement in the genre. It's a movie that should be on everyone’s bucket list to see.
Streaming on HBO Max
Since his debut effort, Following, was released in 1998, Christopher Nolan has proved himself a director able to do things no other filmmaker can. No matter the kind of movie the filmmaker produces, audiences know that they are bound to experience something completely different from a man who pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in film.
With Nolan’s next movie, Oppenheimer, scheduled for almost a year from now, we hope this list best represents an in-depth look at Nolan’s filmography thus far, as well as where each movie is currently streaming. We also loved Nolan’s 2002 thriller, Insomnia, which we highly recommend seeing, and which was ultimately not included here due to it being a remake.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.