Ranking all of Christopher Nolan's movies from worst to best
His new movie is in cinemas this week, so now is a good time to update our Christopher Nolan list!
One of the most-loved and most-talked-about directors working today, Christopher Nolan has delivered some incredible movies throughout his career so far.
In fact, much like many of the best directors, the debate over his very best movie is a heated one. But rest assured, THIS is the correct ranking of his CV to date.
aka The one only serious Nolan fans have seen.
More often than not, a director's first film will be one of their worst and almost universally the one people will have seen the least - Steven Spielberg's Duel, James Cameron's Piranha 2: The Spawning, David Fincher's Alien 3, etc. - especially if they happen to have a particularly prolific career (Don't @ me with "But Tarantino made Reservoir Dogs first!"). Christopher Nolan kicked off with a film about a man who robs others in order to make them feel better about their lives... and there's not much more to it than that. But all the hallmarks of what would go on to become trademark Nolan-isms are present and correct. You just can't escape the teeny budget and obvious inexperience of everyone involved.
aka The surprisingly bad one.
All of the pieces were in place, thanks to a killer cast and a huge budget and what SEEMED like a fantastic plot hook (backwards time travel... sort of...), so this really felt like it was going to be Nolan's next Inception. Instead, we got some barely comprehensible plot, along with some barely comprehensible dialogue, mashed up with some admittedly great action sequences. Lots of folk defend Tenet, saying that if you don't like it then you simply didn't get it, and it might unfurl itself more to you upon repeat viewings. But, unlike the best of Nolan's work, the thoughts of rewatching this just doesn't appeal in the slightest.
10. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
aka The less-than-perfect ending.
After the massive dizzy high of The Dark Knight, there was a long way to fall. Thankfully, Rises doesn't fall all the way down, but it doesn't hold up when compared to what came before it. Hardy is physically impressive as Bane, but his villain doesn't hold a candle to Ledger's work, and the plot is all over the place, with holes big enough to fly The Bat Wing through. That being said, there is still A LOT to like here, from Bane's creakier hero to Hathaway's slinky anti-hero (although we stand by the fact that she and Marion Cottilard should have switched roles), and Zimmer's oppressive score is as impressive as ever.
aka The one that was a little outside of Nolan's wheelhouse.
Back in 2002, Hollywood was very much caught up in serial-killer fever. Every other high-profile release seemed to involve a major A-list actor playing a detective, chasing another A-list actor playing a killer. While that's all well and good, and gave us the likes of Se7en and Frailty and the likes, Christopher Nolan is not David Fincher. His talents lie elsewhere, and while he successfully managed to dial down Al Pacino (mostly) and get Robin Williams to deliver a truly creepy performance, for the most part, this just felt like a slightly-above-average serial killer thriller that could have been delivered by, well, anyone.
8. BATMAN BEGINS
aka The birth of the gritty superhero.
Compared to TDK and TDKR, Begins feels like the odd one out. Both of their versions of Gotham are sleek and shiny, while Begins is truly stuck in the gutter, and often feels like it isn't just telling the Batman origin story, but bearing the weight of the entire "Take this seriously!" endeavour that the superhero franchise was dealing with at the time. In hindsight, it all worked out, and with Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow, we got one of the genre's best villains. Too bad he was just stuck with a "Let's blow up the city!" plot, but as far as origin stories go, this is still the template most of Hollywood is using in terms of doing it right.
aka The one that was almost too big even for Nolan.
Nolan doing his space movie (after Spielberg dropped out from the director's chair) is full of the kind of visuals very few other directors would even attempt, and the whole Love Is Stronger Than Time And Gravity And All Of Science is a nice idea, even if it is so twee it'll rot the teeth out of your head. However, McConaughey sells it all really well for about 85% of the run-time, until that god-damned space library and everything goes out the window. But that big wave planet remains one of the most stress-inducing scenes in cinema history.
aka The one that isn't Barbie.
At the time of release, there was more conversation around Oppenheimer being in direct competition with Barbie than about the movie itself. Given some space, we will be able to successfully look back on Nolan's epic biopic with the attention it deserves, as it is filled with Oscar-worthy performances - particularly from Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. - while Nolan once again takes a genre that has been done to death and manages to turn it into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. At three hours, he's stretching the audience's patience as far as they're likely to go, though. Check out our interview with Christopher Nolan right here:
When we chatted to Cillian Murphy about #Oppenheimer, we asked if there was any pressure for Oscar attention, and the recent spotlight Irish acting talent has had by the Academy Awards pic.twitter.com/0eeUwXECbb
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) July 20, 2023
aka The Hollywood calling card.
Nolan worked through that Difficult Second Album period by kicking in the doors of Hollywood and tossing an active grenade into the room. Where this Murder Mystery Thriller stands out from Insomnia, and why it works, is that it feels very much like a Christopher Nolan movie. The dead wife. The tricksy female protagonist/antagonist. The tricksier time patterns. The hero is haunted by actions past. Coupled with Guy Pearce's pulsing performance and the overall originality of the story, Hollywood couldn't do anything else but sit up, take notice, and then ask him to make Batman.
aka The one everyone was expecting to fail.
Nolan has had some negatives thrown his way: he can't write women, he can't do close-combat action scenes, his films have a tendency to run on way too long and too complicated for their own good. With Dunkirk, he tosses all that out the window. Not a female character to be found, all the action is wide-range shoot-outs, it is his shortest film since Following, and the plot is so stream-lined, you don't even get to know most of the characters' names and their backstories. We're in France, and the soldiers want to get to England, but the other soldiers want to kill them. That's it. This is a ticking clock horror film disguised as a large-scale war movie, and it is all the better for it.
3. THE DARK KNIGHT
aka The perfect storm of Hollywood blockbuster and arthouse weirdness.
Heath Ledger as The Joker. We don't need to say much more than that, do we? While he is the lynchpin that holds the whole thing together (and if you think about it, he's probably the reason why you love the film as much as you do), there is, thankfully, more to TDK than that. The action sequences are VERY impressive, the script goes to some lengths to solidify the bubbling fear of an entire city on the brink of a nervous breakdown having been pushed to the edge by just one man, and the entire cast does sterling work trying not to let Ledger steal every scene, whether he happens to even be in that scene or not.
aka The Nolan movie that people still talk about the most.
While Interstellar proved a little too big a task by the end, Inception felt like Nolan pushing himself to his absolute limits, doing a sci-fi Bond movie is almost too much fun to worry about thinking about (even though it REALLY wants you to think about it), and that cast-list is even more impressive in hindsight. The all-star cast are on exceptional form, while Hollywood blockbusters have rarely felt this vital and original in the decade-plus since it debuted on the big screen. Plus, that Zimmer "BRAAAAHHHHMMM!" soundtrack is as instantly iconic as ever.
1. THE PRESTIGE
aka The most Nolan-y movie of them all.
Weird, edgy, very Christopher Nolan'y. The puzzle-box presentation of the plot revolves around two duelling magicians who will go to any lengths to outdo each other, leading to one of the more unsettling and purely horrific outcomes that you could possibly imagine. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are equally brilliant as equally talented but equally demented showmen, but this is Nolan's show, showing us just enough to keep us distracted from the rug-pull to come. As the show-man of Hollywood with The Dark Knight Trilogy and Harry Styles Going To War and Leo Stealing Your Dreams, it is his less showy outing that proves to be his best, and that is exactly why: because you're not expecting it to be.
- Matt Damon praises Cillian Murphy's 'phenomenal' Oppenheimer performance
- Christopher Nolan warns that AI is having its 'Oppenheimer Moment'
- Cillian Murphy auditioned for Batman as part of a sneaky casting plot
- Christopher Nolan reveals he wrote Oppenheimer in a very specific way