Christopher Nolan is one of our last true visionaries. It’s a term that’s been diluted in recent years, with movie trailers heralding the alleged “visions” of any two-bit Russo Brother. Nolan, however, is of a different sort.
With even Martin Scorsese struggling to get his expensive epics financed and something like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood considered a risky venture for a skittish studio system, Nolan is a veritable last man standing. Thanks to his Batman trilogy, and the continued success of Inception – which turned 10 last month – and Dunkirk, he’s able to get big, original and vaguely subversive extravaganzas green-lit on his name alone, his budgets remaining sky high.
It’s also why Tenet, his new time-bending head-spinner, has become such an important movie for the coronavirus era. It now exists almost as a litmus test – a film that is potentially the salvation not just of cinemas but cinema as a lucrative medium. If people are too frightened to show up for it, what hope is there for anything else? It has finally been released in some countries, having already been delayed twice, but many others will have to wait a while (find our verdict on the film below).
To celebrate its UK release, we’ve surveyed his back catalogue, ranking all 11 of his films from best to worst… with the caveat that even the worst of the Nolan oeuvre is uniquely compelling in one way or another.
11. Following (1998)
It’s doubtful that Following was many people’s introduction to Nolan, but it’s the film where it all began. On display in his black-and-white independent debut, about a young writer who finds himself dragged into a criminal underworld, is the tenacity and dedication that has gone on to shape his career – it even hides a Batman logo in plain sight. Yet it feels like a film he would baulk at making today: the shoestring budget (£6,000) and minimal use of professional equipment is worlds away from The Dark Knight’s Batpod sequence or the rotating corridor of Inception. JS
10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Nolan reportedly had to be strong-armed into finishing his Dark Knight trilogy, unsure that he could successfully follow up its immediate predecessor. That uncertainty is visible on screen. This is a decent closer, with a number of strong elements (it’s arguably the best-looking Batman movie, while franchise newbies Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are brilliant), but it’s also a bloated jumble of ideas and extraneous plot detours. The Occupy Wall Street-inspired narrative never hangs together, while Nolan deserves some kind of medal for being the only director to coax a bad performance out of Marion Cotillard. AW
9. Insomnia (2002)
Insomnia is the Christopher Nolan movie that doesn’t look, feel or sound like a Christopher Nolan movie. Mirroring David Lynch’s regretful adaptation of Dune, Insomnia found Nolan embodying the role of a fresh indie-film wunderkind wooed by a major studio and an enormous budget – even if the film he was tasked with directing wasn’t particularly in his wheelhouse. Unlike Dune, Insomnia isn’t a disaster, just a little forgettable. Al Pacino and Robin Williams, as an LAPD detective and his murder suspect, are marvellous, and the film itself has atmosphere for days, but it’s otherwise a bit of an ill-fitting suit. AW
8. Dunkirk (2017)
Dunkirk is unlike any other war film. Instead of simply showing the evacuation of Second World War troops from the French commune, Nolan concurrently tells the story from three perspectives – land, air and sea – that all play out across different lengths of time. You can feel the director right there with his actors as they run for cover, dogfight and escape sinking warships in scenes with little-to-no dialogue. Look beyond the impressive bravado, too, and there are small horrors to unearth. A scene in which the young British privates silently watch as a fellow soldier walks out to sea is easily Nolan’s most chilling moment. JS
7. Tenet (2020)
Before Tenet was released, Christopher Nolan, in typical Nolan style, said the film was not about time travel but “time inversion”. Quite what that means might remain a mystery to those hoping to dip their toe in a frothy summer blockbuster. For Nolan fans, though, it’s their introduction to what is evidently the director’s most complex film to date. Nolan is interested in grand ideas, and with Tenet, he somehow weaves them into a head-spinning thriller that’s surprisingly taut for its 150 minutes. Its concept is so high that you might suffer from altitude sickness, but should you go along with it, you’ll be bowled over by the cleverness on display. JS
6. The Prestige (2006)
“You don’t really want to know the secret; you want to be fooled.” So goes the gambit of The Prestige, Nolan’s riveting drama about rival magicians in the late 19th century that pits Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale on a fatal battle of one-upmanship. Its elusively told story, tied together by unforeseen twists and turns, make this a satisfyingly sturdy slice of cinema – and the last of Nolan’s films to cost less than $100m (it cost just $40m). It scores points for David Bowie’s cameo as the fastidious Nikola Tesla, too. JS
5. Interstellar (2014)
With Interstellar, Nolan somehow made a sci-fi spectacle featuring tidal waves the size of skyscrapers feel like an understated family drama. The film, following a space crew’s search for a new habitable planet, is anchored by a rapturous performance from Matthew McConaughey; if it’s not his best role, it’s one of them. Interstellar is blockbuster filmmaking at its most ambitious, and wears its influences on the sleeve of its spacesuit (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff). JS
4. Batman Begins (2005)
This was perhaps the first film to prove Nolan’s staying power. Hiring him to relaunch Batman in a fresh franchise was an inspired choice by Warner Bros, and one that reworked the blueprint for a new era of superhero films. The studio’s willingness to sit back and let this burgeoning talent place his imprint on Gotham City paved the way for a thrilling and sophisticated origin story. Batman Begins can be cruelly overlooked as mere set-up for what came next. In actuality, it’s just as good. Well, almost. JS
3. Memento (2000)
Nolan’s directorial trajectory hasn’t been one of enormous leaps, but of gently honing the same handful of ideas. Memento, his first proper movie after his low-budget debut Following, features many of the same tropes he would return to later on. This is a puzzle box of a film, one that plays with narrative and structure as an amnesiac Guy Pearce attempts to piece together his wife’s murder. Smartly, it demands your attention but is never smug with its mystery, its structure inventive but never gimmicky. AW
2. Inception (2010)
Inception is a masterpiece, but also the Nolan film that most overtly exposes his problem areas. Like many of his movies, women waft through Inception to deliver exposition or be pined over; there’s also a noticeable chilliness that helps make his work more admirable than cosy. It also reflects his own disposition – the upper-class Brit who doesn’t like people sitting down on his sets and is resolutely, almost supernaturally humourless. Still (and the heavy lifting that “still” is doing depends on your own Nolan views), Inception is stunning.
It’s arguably the film Nolan was always building up to, one that steals elements from so much of his past work and properly runs riot with them. There’s his fascination with time, dreams and grief, the cinematic power of pure spectacle, and his child-like excitement over grown men flinging themselves through zero gravity. Everything coalesces here, from every one of composer Hans Zimmer’s dramatic “Braaams” to the teasing, gasping ambiguity of that final shot. AW
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
So much of what made The Dark Knight a phenomenon wasn’t related to The Dark Knight itself. There was the death of Heath Ledger; the cultural baggage surrounding The Joker as a character; the galvanising divisions between rich and poor in 2008’s presidential election; and how the film seemed to reflect them back at us. In the years that followed, Ledger’s dialogue became a meme; The Joker himself became a tool for exhausting actors to go “method” for Oscar attention; there were mass shootings and online harassment done in its name. It’s easy to forget there was an actual movie there, too.
But sit and actually watch the thing again, and you’re likely to be floored anew. Building on Batman Begins, The Dark Knight grips with a powerful intensity, Nolan landing somewhere between Michael Mann and Frank Miller. So many of the film’s many imitators additionally seem to confuse its darkness for plodding angst. In truth, The Dark Knight is about chaos – how fear can grip a populace, what happens when all hope seems to be lost, and how close we all are to the edge. It captured a cultural mood and offered an unsightly glimpse into the future. It may not be Nolan’s greatest bit of storytelling, some of its plot detours baggy, but it’s undeniably his most important film, along with one of the most ground-shaking films in recent memory. You can’t really imagine modern cinema without it. AW