Every Christopher Nolan Film, Ranked for You to Disagree With

Every Christopher Nolan Film, Ranked for You to Disagree With

It’s been a long wait, but Tenet is finally out. We’ve spent the interim arguing over which of director Christopher Nolan’s previous 10 releases was the best. Read on if you like mind-bending plots, high-concept special effects, and the top third of Tom Hardy’s face.

11. Insomnia (2002)

WIRED UK

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.

This is an odd one. It features none of the bombast or high-concept craziness of Nolan’s later films (though it does feature a woman dying violently, a Nolan trademark). It’s a remake of a Nordic noir thriller of the same name and bears many of that genre’s traits—a hard-boiled detective, wracked with some kind of depression, trying to catch a killer. The film’s attraction is its central performances. Al Pacino is gruff and watchable, but Robin Williams is the star here—as he was in One Hour Photo, released in the same year, he proved that he could do creepy just as well as clownish. —Will Beddingfield

10. Following (1998)

Featuring a Cobb before the Cobb, and plenty more signature Nolan tropes, Following is a tightly wound 71 minutes of paranoia and obsession that’s worth seeking out for completists. Set in London, there’s lots of following strangers around (no kidding), charged conversations, and breaking and entering in this moody arthouse flick shot on 16-mm black and white film: Even in the late ’90s he did things just as he liked. This is what a fledgling auteur makes when they’re young and bored and on the verge of becoming a major film director on the intelligent end of the mainstream. —Sophie Charara

9. Batman Begins (2005)

“Why do we fall, sir?” The first entry in Nolan’s dark and brooding batrilogy often gets forgotten in conversations about Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker or the ending of The Dark Knight Rises. But not only did Batman Begins build us a new Gotham, home to an emotionally interesting Bruce Wayne and genuinely nightmare-inducing Scarecrow, it gave Christian’ Bale’s Batman a compelling enough origin story and mission plus a (just) compelling enough childhood sweetheart to kick off the three-film run. This one did huge box-office numbers for good reason; there’s nothing form-shattering here, sure, but it’s a smart blockbuster that had a hell of a lot of influence, even forgetting its more ambitious sequel. —SC

8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The final part of Nolan’s Batman trilogy was always going to struggle to live up to its predecessor but is gripping from the off— in a frenetic plane-hijacking sequence that was released in its entirety before the film actually came out as highly effective marketing material. The plot picks up eight years after The Dark Knight—Batman has taken the blame for Harvey Dent’s killing spree and has been in hiding ever since. But when Bane (played by a quite-difficult-to-understand Tom Hardy) arrives in the city, the caped crusader is forced out of retirement to save Gotham. It’s as visually stunning as its predecessor, with some jaw-dropping IMAX-bait set pieces, but the plot is a little confusing and, try as he might, Hardy’s Bane is no match for the madness of the Joker. —Amit Katwala

7. The Prestige (2006)

This, again, seems like it might not be a Nolan film, but it actually bears his hallmarks: thickly plotted yet easy to follow, deep until you think too much about it. The Prestige follows two London stage magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, vying to perform the greatest illusion at the end of the 19th century. It’s basically a story of one-upmanship—two men trying to pull off a kind of transporting-man magic trick—a leap-in-the-cupboard, reappear-under-the-bed type thing. It’s an entertaining if silly affair, which descends into wild corniness when a Nikola Tesla machine appears, turning the mystery into sci-fi. —WB

6. Tenet (2020)

It’s not the savior of cinema, but it is blisteringly good fun—a kind of James Bond movie mixed with time travel. You follow “the protagonist,” played by John David Washington, Denzel’s son, as he tries to stop a Russian supervillain from (quite literally) destroying the universe. The logic of the pseudoscience driving the film’s time travel is completely impenetrable—“don’t try to understand it, feel it,” a scientist tells the completely confused protagonist at one point, standing in for the audience. Instead, the film stands out for its revitalization of tired action-movie set pieces, like heists and car chases. It runs them simultaneously backward and forward through time. Don’t try to understand it, feel it. —WB

5. Dunkirk (2017)

Nolan came up with the idea for Dunkirk in the mid-1990s but waited decades before attempting to make it because of the scale of the production involved. As in Memento, Nolan adopts an unusual structure: The film is split into three sections set on land, sea, and air, playing out over a week, a day, and an hour, respectively, as hundreds of thousands of British troops await evacuation during a fraught moment of the Second World War. Like this year’s 1917, (which feels like it came about a hundred years ago), it uses relatively unknown actors to play the rank-and-file soldiers—although there is a role for singer Harry Styles. Hardy is involved again—although he has few lines in a film that’s very light on dialog. A gripping visual treat. —AK

4. Interstellar (2014)

Nolan’s most visually stunning film is also one of his most divisive. This is a ludicrously ambitious story of love, loss, space, and time, replete with a quite-brilliant cameo from a malevolent Matt Damon. The physics is mind-bending, the visual effects are beautiful, and Nolan gets achingly close to achieving something beautiful—only to trip up on his own attempts at cleverness. In fairness, colliding abstract concepts such as love, loss, and purpose with theoretical physics isn’t easy. But in overreaching, Interstellar gets just as lost as its protagonist. That said, you’ll struggle to come across a better big-screen blockbuster experience. —James Temperton

3. Inception (2010)

Sure the Hans Zimmer score and exposition in smart suits have been memed to death over the decade since its release, but Nolan’s first take on a slick James Bond–like adventure is not just successful in its narrative heists, it’s still damn entertaining too. The central idea—that you can infiltrate other people’s dreams—takes us to some of Nolan’s most swaggeringly confident set pieces and enduring sequences, with high-stakes crime and eerie romance to unravel. And the dream ensemble cast—including Nolan faves Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy alongside Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead and Marion Cotillard—sells the (relatively) subtle sci-fi like you wouldn’t believe. This was the film that cemented the theory that Nolan could and should be given huge budgets to make whatever original summer blockbuster he likes. —SC

2. Memento (2000)

Adapted from a Jonathan Nolan (his brother) short story, and with a budget of “just” $9 million, Memento holds up 20 years on. So much so that most people assume it was Nolan’s first feature film. A noir thriller like Insomnia but with added twists and tricks—well one major one—it sees Guy Pearce playing an insurance “investigator”‘ with ante-retrograde amnesia and a dead wife: In place of memories he has cryptic tattoos and notes that he leaves for himself to decipher in order to track down her killer. An intense two hours that will genuinely keep your mind scrambling around for clues and, whether it was Nolan’s clarity of vision, the budget, or both, an unusually restrained piece of cinema. —SC

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight has a lot to answer for. Between this and Iron Man, also released in 2008, it basically defined the next 10 years of blockbuster cinema—setting in motion a sequence of gritty comic-book reboots that shows no sign of abating. But it’s also a stand-alone classic—full of iconic moments, from the car chase that culminates in a truck being flipped on its head to the infamous pencil scene. Heath Ledger won critical posthumous acclaim for his portrayal of the Joker, but what the film really succeeds at is creating an atmosphere. Everything, from the cinematography to the score, slowly ramps up the tension—turning the screw ever tighter as the stakes get higher for all involved. It is a masterpiece, even if you don’t like superhero films. —AK

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.


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