At a time when the star system has started to fade and movie studios are blandly reasserting themselves as the true auteurs of Hollywood cinema, a soft-spoken British director with a flair for puzzles and a fiendish penchant for scarves has somehow become one of the most famous pop artists on the planet.
In less than two decades, Christopher Nolan has gone from an anonymous micro-budget filmmaker to a genuine household name, a figure whose cultural cachet now rivals that of Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg. This, despite the fact that most people probably couldn’t pick Nolan out of a line-up. He’s a bonafide brand despite not being much of a personality; his films do all the talking for him, “Inception” going so far as to become modern vernacular’s go-to word for describing literally anything with layers (“that nacho was stuck to that other nacho, it was like a nacho ‘Inception,’ bro!”).
How did this happen? Thank the Caped Crusader. For the first part of his career, Nolan was a well-respected but not particularly famous director, breaking out with his 2000 psychological thriller “Memento.” Then, in 2005, he signed onto “Batman Begins,” and his interpretation of the DC Comics character quickly found acclaim from critics and popularity among fans — especially when his lauded 2008 followup “The Dark Knight” arrived in theaters. The movies made Nolan a household name, and gave him carte blanche at Warner Bros. to do whatever the hell he wanted next: and he cashed that check with ambitious projects like “Inception,” “Intersteller,” “Dunkirk,” and “Tenet.”
But, after a highly publicized spat with Warner Bros. about how they handled theatrical releases during COVID, Nolan has left the company, after making all of his films for them for essentially his entire career. He instead set up shop at Universal, which gave him a big grand rollout for his newest film, “Oppenheimer.” Starring Cillian Murphy, the new film is Nolan’s biopic of the creator of the atomic bob J. Robert Oppenheimer, and it’s a true epic, with a three-hour run time and a 75 mm IMAX format that announces itself as a major film.
In celebration of the release of “Oppenheimer,” take a look at IndieWire’s list of Nolan’s 12 feature films, ranked from best to worst and updated for the occasion.
[Editor’s note: This article was published in July 2017 and has been updated multiple times since.]
12. “The Dark Knight Rises”
“I was wondering what would break first… your spirit, or your body?” Lol.
Dubious proof that ending a trilogy well is always the hardest part, “The Dark Knight Rises” was never going to live up to Nolan’s previous Batman movie, but the finished product doesn’t even live up to Joel Schumacher’s previous Batman movie. A clumsy, busy, politically confused attempt at manufacturing closure from an inevitable cash-grab, the final chapter of The Dark Knight Trilogy is the work of a director who had summited a mountain without a clue as to how he might climb down. The result is the messiest thing that Nolan has ever made, an overstuffed movie that shares its hero’s desperate need to put this story behind him.
The rare 165-minute film that clearly wants to be over from the moment it starts, Nolan’s last Batman doesn’t build towards a resolution for its saga so much as it just circles the drain, running out the clock on a character whose self-actualization at the end of “The Dark Knight” had left him with nowhere to go. It’s interesting to chart Gotham’s evolution from Pittsburgh to Chicago to New York, but by the time Bane and Batman are lifelessly punching each other on the steps of City Hall it feels as though the saga has completely lost its sense of place, and its purpose along with it. —DE
11. “Following” (1998)
A curiously shaggy debut for a filmmaker who would become famous for his severe formalism, Nolan’s first feature might seem like an inauspicious first step for someone whose path ultimately led to incredible fame and fortune. For one thing, this super lo-fi psychological thriller was made for a cool $5,000 (a sum that probably doesn’t even cover the tea budget on the director’s later films) and promptly rejected from Sundance. Everybody’s gotta start somewhere, but even Colin Trevorrow hit the ground running faster than that.
But if “Following” didn’t exactly set the world on fire, this scrappy, sordid, 69-minute black-and-white exercise in raw suspense hides a lot of clues about its maker’s brilliant future. It’s a nifty bit of foreshadowing, at the very least. The 16mm story of a broke young writer who seeks inspiration by stalking the people he sees on the street, the film’s innocent premise soon spirals into a monochrome mind-fuck about the hazy border between finding a purpose and developing an obsession.
As a movie, “Following” isn’t particularly satisfying. As a footnote, it’s pretty remarkable. In hindsight, you can hear Nolan teething behind the camera. His characters are already defining themselves by their jobs, their plots already feel less organic than engineered rather. There’a guy named Cobb who says things like “You’re developing a taste for it,” and “Everyone has a box.” Sometimes, the connections are so uncanny that it feels like Nolan already knew where he was going, and the rest of us were just trying to keep up. —DE
10. “Tenet” (2020)
There are some pleasures to be found in “Tenet.” Robert Pattinson’s charming work, and the jaw dropping visual effects come to mind. But all of that pales in comparison to the cold hard truth about the film: it’s a total bore. The sci-fi film stars John David Washington, giving one of the most wooden blockbuster performances in recent memory, as an unnamed CIA officer recruited to a secret agency of operatives with the ability to manipulate the flow of time, to prevent an attack that will destroy the entire world. Thinly drawn characters, needless storytelling complications that only serve to make the story incomprehensible and meaningless, action scenes that look great but have no real joy to them, and infamously difficult to hear dialogue all combine to create a film that feels like total miserable gruel — containing no spark or life to it. Everything people accuse Nolan’s other films of suffering from — complete with a poorly written female lead in Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat — are in this slog, which will likely be remembered more as Nolan’s last for Warner Bros. than on any merit of its own. —WC
9. “Insomnia” (2002)
This is where things start to get interesting.
On the surface, Nolan’s first Hollywood feature seems like something of a calculated anomaly, a low-risk / high-reward studio gig designed to finesse the nascent auteur’s transition from low-budget indies to massive summer blockbusters. A remake of a bleak 1997 Norwegian thriller that probably didn’t need to be remade, “Insomnia” remains the only one of Nolan’s films on which the director doesn’t also have a writing credit (though he did author the final draft of the script). The protagonist doesn’t even have a dead wife! In other words, it feels — at first glance — like the least personal of his projects.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (that’s always been such a bullshit metric). Either way, “Insomnia” is still a crucial piece of the puzzle. Set in the Twin Peaks-esque town of Nightmute, Alaska (a real place which quickly begins to assume the feeling of a purgatorial limbo), Nolan’s third feature is an absorbing morality play in the guise of a boilerplate murder-mystery. Al Pacino, just on the right side of self-parody, plays a detective with a guilty conscience — Nightmute’s constant daylight isn’t the only thing keeping this guy up at night. Like so many of Nolan’s protagonists, Will Dormer is an ambitious and exceedingly capable (but profoundly lonely) middle-aged man who’s tortured by his past and struggling to find the best way forward. He’s a man whose cold exterior hides a raw underbelly, a man whose job — whose function — has become both the cause of and solution to all of his problems.
It’s just that his problems aren’t particularly interesting. The most straightforward film that Nolan has ever made remains his least re-watchable, bogged down by dull procedural elements and an undercooked antagonist who can’t support the full weight of the fascinating changes that this adaptation makes to his character. How are we supposed to play cops and robbers when we have no idea about where to sort ourselves? How can we assign guilt to strangers when it torments us from the inside out? “Insomnia” eventually finds intriguing ways to pose these questions, but — even with a couple of limp shootouts and that silly chase scene where Robin Williams sprints across trunks of floating timber like he’s auditioning for “American Ninja Warrior” — it can be hard to stay awake until the end. —DE
8. “Batman Begins” (2005)
Perhaps the true genesis of modern superhero movies (if only for how its gray-toned grit inspired Marvel to balance things out with a shinier, happier, more plastic cinematic universe of their own), “Batman Begins” didn’t leave many clues that it was the start of something huge, but it very clearly established how a realist like Nolan might survive in a world full of spandex. Far removed from the garish cartoon grime that Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher brought to their Batman films, Nolan’s approach was characteristically hyper-literal to the extreme, taking the Caped Crusader at face value and conceiving an origin story that defines the man by the mask he chooses to wear.
Hardcore fans had good reason to be worried — WB hired a British guy who only thinks in circles to make a movie about an American icon who has always thrived in squares — but Nolan ended up being the perfect choice. It turns out that the director of “Memento” (and the future director of “Inception”) was a natural fit for a genre in which the characters regularly communicate by just shouting psychological diagnoses at each other. Out of context, it’s hard to tell if Liam Neeson is playing Batman’s nemesis or his therapist. Example dialogue: “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things.” Meanwhile, Rachel Dawes is less of a love interest for Bruce Wayne than she is the sentient self-help book next door. “Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”
Nolan lives for this stuff; he stumbled upon a genre where the characters are actually supposed to be stiff and didactic, a genre where “subtlety” is a bat suit without nipples. “Batman Begins” is the work of a director who’s coming into his own right when his talents are needed most. The action is weak, Nolan would need a mulligan on the Katie Holmes casting, and the film’s blunt examination of fear is surface-level at best, but the sheer force of its moral fervor established that he had tapped into something real. —DE
7. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Every IMDb user’s favorite movie of all time, “The Dark Knight” is an absolute freight train of pop gravitas. It doesn’t really matter that the script is a lumpy mishmash of isolated character beats, or that Nolan’s symphonic style — his preference for narrative movements rather than acts — results in a superhero epic that has a couple of memorable set pieces but very few actual scenes. It doesn’t really matter that the film’s IMAX-sized action is often incoherently pieced together, or that Nolan’s preference for generic empty spaces zaps the life straight out of Gotham City (no disrespect to Chicago, but this movie has no idea how to shoot it). It doesn’t matter that the Bat surveillance stuff in the last 20 minutes is a total chore, or that Harvey Dent is so inert, his character’s purpose far too transparent for him to ever feel like it actually matters.
But that’s okay — you don’t need to believe in Harvey Dent because “The Dark Knight” so believes in itself. Nolan’s sequel is so much more than the sum of its parts because it’s powered by a nearly peerless degree of conviction. From its gripping first scene to the semi-cliffhanger of its final line, the film blows through Batman’s story as though the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script is convinced that its epic story of symbols has the power to crack the 21st century right open. And, when the film balances the the power of chaos against the perils of compassion, it almost does.
But while “The Dark Knight” is the movie that made Christopher Nolan a household name, a huge chunk of the credit belongs to Heath Ledger. His monumental performance as the Joker doesn’t transcend the superhero genre, but leverages it. Much like how Nolan used superhero tropes to find a home for his natural tendencies, Ledger took full advantage of the wild pathos, unchecked volume, and outsized grandiosity that have always been baked into the genre and leaned into them with Shakespearian relish. Does any modern Hollywood image define today’s world better than the sight of Ledger sticking his head out of a car, his painted cheeks flapping in the wind? Before we all started living in a grim comic book reality with cartoon villains, “The Dark Knight” showed us what it would feel like. —DE
6. “Oppenheimer” (2023)
Christopher Nolan has long been fixated upon stories of haunted and potentially self-destructive men who sift through the source code of space-time in a desperate bid to understand the meaning of their own actions. And so so J. Robert Oppenheimer — “father of the atomic bomb” and a theoretical physicist whose obsession with a twilight world hidden inside our own led to the birth of the modern age’s most biblical horrors — would seem to be the perfect candidate for Nolan’s first biopic, and an ideal new vessel for Nolan’s career-long exploration into the black holes of the human condition.
Paced like it was designed for interstellar travel, scripted with a degree of density that scientists once thought purely theoretical in nature, and shot with such large-format bombast that repetitive scenes (or at least Nolan-esque slices) of old politicians yelling at each other about expired security clearances hit with the same visceral impact as the 747 explosion in “Tenet,” “Oppenheimer” is nothing if not a character study as only Nolan could make one. At once both thunderously intimate and frustratingly oblique, the film invites you to stare at Cillian Murphy’s face in shallow-focus IMAX-sized close-ups for much of its three-hour running time, but seldom offers serious insight as to what’s happening behind his marble-blue eyes, let alone the opportunity to see through them.And yet if this is a film that often feels afraid of its own uncertainty, it’s also a film that works overtime to make that fear into a virtue. “Oppenheimer” offers an indelible portrait of the age when people began wielding power they couldn’t necessarily control, and few movies have so disturbingly crystallized the horror of opening Pandora’s box. Even fewer have better detailed anxiety of living in a world where it can never be closed again. —DE
5. “Interstellar” (2014)
“Interstellar” is what happens when one of cinema’s most hardwired rationalists makes a movie about something as undefinable as love. An awed, exploratory sci-fi epic in the vein of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Nolan’s follow-up to his Batman trilogy is an emotionally unchecked deep-dive into the mysteries of the universe. By design, it’s the most openly sentimental thing that Nolan has ever made. Born from the tension between logic and emotion, fact and feeling, “Interstellar” nakedly attempts to reposition love as a Darwinian force, as a survival mechanism, as our species’ best hope for the future. Love is not all you need, the film seems to be saying (the premise underscores the perils of global warming and reminds that any species is only as viable as the planet that sustains them), but we’re pretty fucked without it.
Nolan’s best films each reduce the human brain to a Rubik’s Cube, to a puzzle that can always be solved so long as someone is able to fit everything into its right place, and it was only a matter of time before he tried the same trick with the human heart.
Alternately graceful and clumsy, Nolan’s most ambitious film to date is also his most uneven. “Interstellar” is more than a gamble, more than a moonshot, and so it’s only natural that it represents both the best and the worst of its auteur’s signature approach. He’s never been more arrogant, and he’s never been more vulnerable.
Nolan’s fetish for playing with relative time is on full display, here weaponized for character-driven feeling rather than sheer cinematic force (he may never shoot another scene as openhearted as the one where Coop talks to his adult daughter for the first time). His compulsive need to fit everything together is also more apparent than ever, and more out of place. Love isn’t as clean as this film’s notoriously daft finale makes it seem, it isn’t as much of a closed circuit as Nolan’s cosmic bookcase might have you believe. Paternal failings aren’t as easily forgiven as romantic ones, a fact that’s as true in the movies as it is in real life. But if Nolan’s reach exceeds his grasp and “Interstellar” fumbles its finer points, the sheer scope of its vision and the crystalline majesty of Hans Zimmer’s finest score are enough to forgive that ending. They might even be enough to forgive Matthew McConaughey and Matt Damon’s ridiculously dumb gravity boot fight to the death. Maybe. Probably not. —DE
4. “Inception” (2010)
Sometimes, it seems like Christopher Nolan understands the beauty of magic tricks better than any filmmaker since Orson Welles. He’s a master of misdirection, a genius at gracefully folding any plot into an origami crane of intricate pieces, an expert craftsman of presentation and payoff. His good movies invite you to lean forward and question every inch of their premise, and his great ones eventually go sublime by replacing that curiosity with awe. They make you obsess over how they work until the precise moment that you realize it doesn’t really matter.
On the other hand, sometimes, it seems like Christopher Nolan has absolutely no idea how magic tricks are supposed to work. A magician never reveals his secrets, but in “Inception,” Nolan can’t stop himself from constantly telling you what he’s doing. The ultimate example of the filmmaker’s penchant for take exposition and weaponizing it into drama, this is a movie that spends the vast majority of its running time simply explaining itself to the audience. Even deep in the third act Nolan is still unpacking the finer points of his premise, Ellen Page’s Ariadne riding shotgun the entire time just so she can stand next to Leonardo DiCaprio and make sense of the movie’s collective subconscious. She’s like a human version of Clippy, constantly popping up to tell us things that a better movie should have made self-evident. Remember the post-screening conversations that you had with your friends after this movie? They sounded more like NFL referees trying to make sense of a fumbled play than people comparing their notes about a piece of art.
So what? At his best, Nolan is both a showman and a storyteller, but he’s had some trouble balancing those two things out. More often than not, he’s a filmmaker first and foremost, and all of his narrative gamesmanship — all of his dead wives and steady push-in shots and bombastic Hans Zimmer motifs — are in service of an irreducibly cinematic pleasure. Yes, “Inception” is a forceful drama about guilt and redemption and the power of ideas, but more than anything it’s an elaborate excuse for a hog-wild celebration of what the movies can do, of the special properties that make the medium unique (not incidentally, the film has been interpreted as an elaborate metaphor for the filmmaking process).
Frustrating in pieces but absolutely thrilling on the whole, “Inception” isn’t about anything so much as the pure joy of playing with relative time, of cross-cutting between four different planes of existence, of packing several different genres (heist movies, Bond epics, etc.) into a veritable playground of raw imagination. It’s about the visceral momentum of doing things that can’t be done on the page, on stage, or even on television with its stops and starts — it’s about using the fundamental elements of film grammar to create a coherent whole that sustains itself like a spinning top. More than just the most idiosyncratic blockbuster of the 21st Century, “Inception” is a testament to the incredible power of dreaming with our eyes open. —DE
3. “Memento” (2000)
A non-linear story about a middle-aged white man who desperately needs to crack a code in order to forgive himself for failing a dead woman, “Memento” isn’t a Christopher Nolan movie so much as it’s the Christopher Nolan movie. A wholly brilliant marriage between form and function, the director’s 2000 breakthrough has become the template for the rest of his career. I mean, you could read 1,000 interviews with Nolan and not find a single instance in which he describes his process and obsessions more eloquently than Leonard Shelby self-diagnosed his own delusions:
“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?… Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.”
“Memento” works so well because its cleverness never interferes with its genius, its structure never gets in the way of its soul. On the contrary, how this movie unfolds is utterly inextricable from what it’s about. For so many contemporary directors, film is just an information delivery service, but for Nolan the medium is indivisible from the message (that might explain why he’s such a celluloid purist, why he’ll probably never switch to TV). The story of Leonard Shelby runs in two directions at once, each scene simultaneously stretching forwards and backwards in time so that what’s already happened is just as exciting as what might happen next.
A simple noir that requires a cipher to unlock, the movie becomes a thrilling meditation on time, memory, and the power of self-deception because it recognizes how every good movie requires us to reckon with all three of those things. It’s a story about the stories we tell ourselves, and Nolan delivers it in a way that requires our participation. —DE
2. “The Prestige” (2006)
“Are you watching closely?”
How badly do you think Christopher Nolan wishes he could begin all of his films by asking audiences that question? He wants you to lean forward, he wants you to engage, he wants you to investigate this shit as thoroughly as he has — there’s no fun in fooling someone who isn’t paying attention. On the other hand, of course, the trick only works if you want to be fooled. And therein lies the magic of “The Prestige,” a movie that requires your participation as much as it does your willingness to take your eye off the bouncing red ball. It’s a masterpiece of misdirection.
A knotted period drama about the blood feud that forms between two dueling magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, both of whom deliver career-best performances by threading the needle between raw pathos and remarkable showmanship), this beautifully mounted film is like a coded look into Nolan’s mind. Characteristically unraveling its story by starting at its deepest layer and then winding its way back to the surface from there, “The Prestige” is a confessional epic about the perils of ambition and the pleasures of fooling ourselves into forgetting what we know to be true.
In other words, it’s essentially the same trick that Nolan pulled in “Memento,” and that he would go on to pull again in “Inception.” “The Prestige” isn’t just the best Christopher Nolan movie, it’s also the most Christopher Nolan movie. What elevates “The Prestige” above the rest, what makes this version of “The Transported Man” superior to the other ones that Nolan has mounted, is that it investigates the illusion more thoroughly than any of his other films, and does so in a way that transmutes its sleight-of-hand shenanigans into the stuff of a genuinely compelling story.
Angier and Borden are rich character hatched from a simple conflict, and their obsessive rivalry — and the milieu in which its set — allows Nolan to broach his favorite subjects more directly than ever. He doesn’t have to spin a zillion plates in the air, he doesn’t have to invert the entire noir genre or spent 150 minutes explaining how dreams work; the world of magic gives him the perfect shortcut to explore the power of illusion. It also gives him the opportunity to cast David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and somehow that’s only like the 10th best thing about this film.
It’s so satisfying because of how it comes together to serve its characters, because of how deeply it internalizes Michael Caine’s greatest pearl of showbiz wisdom: “The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.” A lot of Nolan’s movies feel like the work of a magician; “The Prestige” is the only one that feels like the work of a wizard. —DE
1. “Dunkirk” (2017)
War is banal. War is madness. War offers no reason behind who lives and who dies. Of course Christopher Nolan needed to try and figure out how it works (in hindsight, it’s kind of shocking that he waited this long). With “Dunkirk,” the über-popular director has crafted yet another blunt force exercise that uses ALL-CAPS film language to confuse the borders between time and space, deconstructing the physical world in order to explore the immaterial forces that make it tick. A historical blockbuster may seem like a bold change of pace for him, but it’s still the work of someone who’s part watchmaker and part showman, someone who disassembles each of his stories for the thrill of putting them back together. A virtually bloodless but profoundly unnerving assault on the senses that cleaves closer to Sartre than Spielberg, “Dunkirk” is a stunning work of raw spectacle that searches for order in the midst of chaos. It’s the most contradictory film that Christopher Nolan has ever made, and — not incidentally — also the best. —DE
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