With the release of Dunkirk, the action maestro Christopher Nolan has now released ten movies, and although this isn’t usually the kind of thing I would do on this site, I decided I would try to rank them. Now you notice that in the title for this post I point out that it’s MY ranking of the Nolan filmography; it’s not going to be the same as yours, and that’s fine. Furthermore, I need to acknowledge that I have an incredible bias towards Nolan. When I saw The Dark Knight in 2008 I was 14, and the way I saw films after that changed. So this ranking won’t be too critical on Nolan, because I love each of these films.
If you haven’t seen Following, I don’t blame you. Nolan’s first film is certainly his least known. That being said, Following is an underappreciated gem. The film tells the story of a young writer looking for inspiration who takes to peoplewatching and then – as you might guess – following – people; one of the people he follows is a thief who encourages him to break into houses and observe (as a manner of peoplewatching). What ensues is a thrilling neonoir story.
It has a non-linear plotline that keeps a viewer on their toes, not unlike the nonlinear structure seen in his next film, Memento – but more like the plot structure of The Prestige. That being said, the production value is pretty low and the performances are nothing to speak of, but that’s what you get when your first film has a budget of $6000.
My point is this: Following is the unpolished but still exceptional debut of a great director, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth your time.
9. The Dark Knight Rises
For my love of this movie’s predecessors, I tend to overlook its flaws. That being said, there are a lot. To go through a few, there’s the unnecessary plot twist which undercuts the movie’s first villain, a rather lengthy second act, Bane’s voice, and the question of “how did Batman get from that pit in the middle east, and into a besieged Gotham,” which a lot of people had a problem with (I personally didn’t). That being said, this movie has a lot of fun elements. Batman coming out of retirement and chasing Bane from the stock market is neat, and their fight and the accompanying Bane monologue is absolutely superb. Does The Dark Knight deserve a better sequel? Absolutely. But is this movie a fun two hours? Of course.
(I think it’s important to acknowledge that after writing The Dark Knight, Nolan and his writers would have begun working on a draft of The Dark Knight Rises that would have included Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger’s presence in this film would have likely made it even better.)
Al Pacino plays a detective with – you guessed it – insomnia, who hunts down a serial killer played by Robin Williams. This alone sounds like an interesting pitch for a film, but I’ve always felt like what makes Insomnia is its setting – in the perpetual daylight of northern Alaska – which gives it an extra ethereal air that really grounds the two lead performances. And unlike most Nolan films, the performances are what make this movie. Pacino’s exhaustion and Williams’ utter creepiness are easily the most memorable things from this movie.
Hoo boy, what to say about Dunkirk? It’s overwhelming, it’s claustrophobic, it’s stressful, it’s triumphant, it’s superb. It’s hard to say which Nolan movie has the best action sequences, but let me tell you, it might be Dunkirk. Dunkirk tells the tale of British soldiers trying to escape from German-occupied France. The story takes place in three different fronts; soldiers attacking from the air, soldiers on the coast trying to escape from the Germans, and civilian boat owner driving into the warzone to rescue British soldiers. This movie is quite the opposite of Insomnia – even though it’s stacked with great actors like Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Cillian Murphy, and solid breakout film performances from Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles of all people. It lacks in performance because it lacks in character; it’s hard to forge a bond to any of the characters, perhaps because they’re spread too thin. All these actors are well, fine, I guess, but none of them are given quite enough to work with to the point where their performance can be considered anything special. (You’d think after The Dark Knight Rises Nolan would have learned not to have an actor like Tom Hardy speak with a mask over his face.)
I think that the highest praise I can give Dunkirk is the way it made me anxious – I fear drowning ten times more than I did before I watched it. The action is thrilling, the frightening moments are terrifying, and the high moments are absolutely ecstatic.
Interstellar is ambitious, and that might be what I admire most about it. The film tells the story of a group of astronauts who set out to explore other planets in an attempt to find a new, habitable planet. As I mentioned in my last post, Interstellar definitely puts the science in science fiction. In that post, I make the case that scientific accuracy shouldn’t be absolutely necessary for a film to have, but it instead makes a nice aesthetic for the film. That’s not more true for any other film than it is for Interstellar. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne served as scientific advisor for this film, helping to clarify the science of black holes and relativity. It’s a wonderfully speculative film that asks what will happen when this planet has been used up. Furthermore, the production design is also incredible and helps to imagine some truly amazing planets. Critics would often say that this film is a “spectacle.” And all that is neat, but all the other things that make this movie are the wonderful performances, the score, and the homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Overall, Interstellar is a solid movie with bolstered by its scientific accuracy and carried to impressive heights by some of its imagination.
5. Batman Begins
Honestly, I don’t have that much to say about Batman Begins other than it’s an excellent movie. So excellent, in fact, it undid the two films which utterly derailed one of the most beloved Superhero characters and leading to a movie drought of eight years.
Geez, what to say about Inception? It’s a scifi heist movie which takes place in a characters dream. It’s such a unique idea and is rightfully hailed as one of this decade’s best movies. It boasts a great ensemble cast and thrilling visual effects. But this film’s best moment is indisputably the final shot; it’s a simple but ambiguous visual that wonderfully caused much debate and many second viewings.
Inception has so much pop culture influence. Whenever something is described as being in layers, it is described as -ception (Example: “Hamlet has a scene with a play; it’s a play within a play, it’s play-ception”). But is that a bigger influence than… “The Inception Bong” from Hans Zimmer’s score? After the movie was a success the signature long-and-loud notes used in the soundtrack were in seemingly every movie, to a clear saturation point.
Long story short: Inception is great.
This was the first movie to really show what kind of talent Christopher Nolan was. It’s the story of an amnesiac trying to find his wife’s killer through a series of clues in pictures he takes or tattoos he puts on his body; but the story is told backward, each scene jumping back in time until we find ourselves at the start. This film really challenged what people knew about chronology in film. It’s thrilling, and as per Nolan’s chief talent, every moment feels like a huge reveal (then again, this film has so many great reveals). There’s a reason why this movie is near the top of every “Best movies of the 2000s list.” I can’t find the words to convey it; it’s phenomenal. The final scene always rocks me to my core.
2. The Prestige
This is where my personal bias comes in. I’ve always had a soft spot for The Prestige. Most people would argue that it’s not as good as Inception or Memento, I just like it more. When one turn-of-the-century stage magician blames another for the death of his wife, it begins a violent professional and personal rivalry to determine who is the better performer. The cast is stacked, with the dueling leads played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman; and that’s not to say anything about the supporting cast, which features David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. What’s more, this movie has more reveals, twists, and cleverly-laid foreshadowing than seemingly any Nolan film.
1. The Dark Knight
What can I say about The Dark Knight that I haven’t already? Not much after I wrote a 3000+ word essay about it for my Personal Favorites series. Now, this movie lacks Nolan’s typical shocking reveals, but it has some of his best action sequences. But what really makes this movie is Heath Ledger’s performance. Everything about this movie is so great that (as I mentioned in the aforementioned post) it changed everything about superhero movies thereafter. God, I love this movie. I don’t know what else to say.
Anyhow, I’m interested to hear: what’s your favorite Christopher Nolan movie? Feel free to tell me in the comments what I got wrong! 🙂