Christopher Nolan‘s tenth feature film hits theaters this week, and while Dunkirk‘s a somewhat rare departure from the fantastic for him — it’s based on a real event and seems destined to be devoid of twists or grand reveals — it’s still high on our must-see lists.
He’s earned that anticipation over the years with a steady string of films that fill the screen with visual wonder and epic ideas, and even when the whole doesn’t come together [cough] Interstellar [cough] the experience remains a memorable one.
While we wait for Dunkirk though we decided to revisit Nolan’s filmography as part of the build-up to his latest, and this being the internet we also felt obligated to rank all nine. Look, we don’t make the rules. Sixteen of us submitted our rankings, and the collective results are below.
Agree? Disagree? You’ll probably do both, but feel free to let us know in the comments what we got right and what you got wrong.
9. The Dark Knight Rises
With The Dark Knight, Nolan raised the bar so high that his 2012 follow-up arrived as one of the most highly-anticipated movies of all-time. The film also had to cope with the weight of the world on its shoulders, given the quality of its predecessors. I mean, if The Godfather could falter in its third outing then it could happen to any franchise after us. Thankfully for us, however, The Dark Knight Rises answered the Bat-Signal and rose to the occasion to cap off what is arguably the greatest superhero trilogy to ever grace our screens.
Closure – that’s what we needed from this trilogy before it drove off into the sunset. As an action feat, The Dark Knight Rises more than delivers the goods. But as a swansong to a hero’s tormented journey, it’s a wholly satisfying conclusion that manages to hit all the right emotional notes. – Kieran Fisher
A carefully chosen remake can be a chance for a director to show the audience how they are different. A way to contrast their work against a peer’s. Each major stylistic and technical decision a way to delineate their style. Nolan’s remake of Insomnia is one such instance. The film revolves around a sleep deprived LA detective trapped in a small Alaska town where its perpetual daylight accentuates his guilt. It’s a noir game of cat and mouse with Al Pacino playing the cat and Robin Williams playing the mouse. While many would say that Insomnia is a rehash of Memento or the original Norwegian film, Nolan does something fresh. It’s clear he didn’t sign up for paint by numbers job. He signed up to color outside the lines. The intricate plotting, the stunning visuals, and amazing performances by Pacino and Williams demonstrate this fact. – Francesca Fau
Following anticipates every trick in Nolan’s well-examined filmography yet is something to watch if you’re stoned on a Saturday afternoon or are a struggling filmmaker looking for inspiration on a very late night. Its plot and style are pure 90s wheelhouse: a loser getting ensnared in gangster activity.
Nolan’s debut unravels slow enough to give you that pat-on-the-back a-ha moment that he’s become more than well known for but, with a 70-minute running time, nothing ever moves at the snail’s pace of typical Nolan fare. Devoid of the heavy-handed pointing and needless world-building that would define his most arduous work, Following is both a masterpiece of its own era of tense slackerdom and Nolan’s most re-watchable feature length.
Known for taking his ideas from warmly highfalutin sources–check out the five meaty paragraphs on his Wikipedia page under “Themes”– Following manages to be approvingly smart without demanding an exegesis from the viewer or critic. Humbly, Nolan prepares himself for the rapture of American audiences by taking after Poe: it’s “The Man of the Crowd” re-imagined as a Hitchhock noir and filmed in a blistering 16mm black and white to boot. Like the soundtrack of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, it was the most obscenely costly expense for a movie filmed on a very tight dime (Nolan made the film on the weekend while keeping his day job). Do him justice and catch it on Netflix. – Andrew Karpan
6. Batman Begins
In an era overflowing with spandex theatrics and the threat of origin overdose, it’s easy to forget what a revelation it was when Nolan and David Goyer exhaustively detailed the birth of The Dark Knight in Batman Begins. By 2005 most of us had the gist on how Bruce Wayne went crazy with vengeance and dawned a cowl embracing the style of those winged rodents living in his basement, but the A to B to C of that transformation had never been properly chronicled. Not even the comic books could point you to the quintessential origin. Take a little of Bill Finger and Bob Kane, a dash of Len Wein and Jim Aparo, and a dunk in the nightmare of Frank Miller. That’s it. Nolan and Goyer strung it all together and brought in a level of opera worthy of The Godfather.
Ultimately, Batman Begins works as the exemplary launching pad for Batman because of how it thematically grounds Bruce Wayne as a creature of fear. The fear of the bats in Die Fledermaus causes young Bruce to guide his parents into that deadly dark ally, that same terror of the bats in the caves below Wayne Manor inspires the dread of his costume, and eventually, he must battle the chemical-induced fear of Gotham City’s Narrows. The final clash with Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul solidifies Bruce’s own sense of justice, pushing him away from mad avenger and into the role of a real-deal superhero. Sure, there are still a few bats in his belfry, and Nolan would further explore the consequences of taking on that mantle in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, but neither of those films packs the bliss of the Caped Crusader’s true introduction in Batman Begins. Now, we can be done with origin stories forever. – Brad Gullickson