Ranking all of Christopher Nolan's movies, including Dunkirk, from worst to best
Today is the director's 47th birthday, and with his latest movie continuing to dominate the box office, now is as good a time as any to do this.
While ranking Nolan's movies is one for personal taste - and done so often that one website actually ranked the Christopher Nolan rankings, to fantastically meta effect - it can sometimes service the fact that Nolan has yet to direct one truly bad movie, no matter what the nay-sayers might be nay-saying.
To paraphrase a certain Nolan character, some people just want to watch the world fail. He's now up there with James Cameron and Steven Spielberg as directors who can make just about anything they want, and will continue to make serious bank, and some folk are waiting for that one disastrous misstep so they can claim "See? I told you they were bad, I've been saying it for years!"
With Dunkirk, Nolan has continued his insane winning streak, but not all of them are up to that level. So let's take a look at the ten movies he's directed to date, and how they stack up...
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 - Spielberg's Duel, Cameron's Piranha 2: The Spawning, 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!"). Nolan kicked off with a film about a man who robs others in order to make them feel better about their lives... 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.
9. 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 to what came before it. Hardy is physically impressive as Bane, but his villain doesn't compare to Ledger's work, and the plot is all over the place, with plot-holes big enough to fly The Bat 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 second high-profile release seemed to involved 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, 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.
7. 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.
This and Inception can almost switch at will on this list, as some of the problems here are what Inception gets right, and vice versa. 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.
Aka The Nolan movie that people still talk about the most.
While Interstellar proved a little too big a task by the end, the problem with Inception is that we often feel like Nolan didn't dream big enough. We're not sure about you, but our dreams very rarely feel this real and grounded, with shoot-outs and car-chases and mountain-top heists. Where are the monsters made of jam chasing us down our school hallways?? That being said, Nolan doing a sci-fi Bond movie is almost too much fun to worry about thinking about (even though it really, REALLY wants you to think about it), and that cast-list is even more impressive in hindsight. Plus, that Zimmer "BRAAAAHHHHMMM!" soundtrack is as instantly iconic as ever.
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 Nolan movie. The dead wife. The tricksy female protagonist/antagonist. The tricksy time-patterns. The haunted lead from actions past. Coupled with Guy Pearce's pulsing performance and the overall originality of the story, and Hollywood couldn't do anything else but sit up, take notice, and then ask him to make Batman good again.
Aka The one everyone was expecting to fail.
Nolan has had some negatives thrown his way: he can't write women too well, he can't do close-combat action scenes too well, 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, and 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 back stories. We're in France, 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.
2. 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 lynch-pin 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 do sterling work trying not to let Ledger steal every scene, whether he happens to even be in that scene or not.
1. THE PRESTIGE
Aka The most Nolan-y movie of them all.
Sometimes, Nolan's films don't hold up as well on repeat viewings. Rises and Interstellar in particular cause a lot of "But why did X do Y when they could have just done Z?" questioning, but The Prestige may be the movie that actually gets better each time you rewatch it. The puzzle-box presentation of the plot revolving around two duelling magicians who will go to any length to out-do 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.