Since the late 90s, Christopher Nolan has been meticulously crafting large-scale cinematic spellbinders with a distinctly personal touch. In a modern film landscape so oversaturated with sequels, reboots, and cinematic universes, Nolan has carved out an unarguable placement on the depressingly short list of Hollywood’s true blue auteurs. With the release of his latest film Oppenheimer, we wanted to dive into Nolan’s filmography to see how the thrilling biopic stacks up.
Nolan has written and directed 12 films throughout his career, but for our purposes in this piece, we’ll be covering the ten most notable works in his catalog and ranking them from worst to best. Nolan’s filmography is as diverse as it is dense, covering a vast array of genres, tones, and storytelling methods. Whether he’s making a whacked-out psychological thriller like Memento or a genre-defining superhero epic like The Dark Knight, Nolan almost always manages to deliver thought-provoking thematic subtext and blistering action sequences. Let’s hop into the rankings.
10. Tenet (2020)
Nolan’s detractors have always expressed issues with his penchant for heavy-handed exposition. It’s true that his filmography is home to more than a few convoluted narratives that bog themselves down in granularity, but nowhere is the problem more frustratingly prevalent than it is in his pandemic-era action film Tenet.
Tenet’s first act is so rife with a head-spinning setup that it cheapens the impact of its dazzling fight sequences. The plot meanders from one rewinded firefight to the next without bothering to ground viewers with a palpable emotional core. If you can manage to tune out the clumsy dialogue, you can probably have fun with this one on the strength of its unique visual effects alone.
9. Batman Begins (2005)
Every generation needs a director for its obligatory Batman reboot saga, and Nolan was the perfect man for the job in the mid-2000s. Batman Begins eschewed the campy tone of the Tim Burton movies, reimagining the character with a gritty aesthetic that favored realism over comic book accuracy.
As the first installment in the trilogy, the film follows a young Bruce Wayne as he trains with Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Shadows to become the best martial artist and crime fighter Gotham has ever seen. Batman Begins lacks the iconic villains that steal the show in later works, but it’s still one of the best Batman movies ever made.
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
After the groundbreaking success of The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s monumental performance as the Joker, Nolan had to grapple with the unenviable task of topping himself with the final entry in his Batman trilogy. While the film is undeniably inferior to its predecessor, there’s still much to love about The Dark Knight Rises.
The scope is wider, and the stakes are higher for our brooding hero in this installment, as Tom Hardy’s Bane’s revolution successfully supplants Gotham’s political power structure. While the film will always pale in comparison to The Dark Knight, it still holds a respectable place in Nolan’s filmography.
7. Memento (2000)
Memento was the film that made studios and audiences alike stand up and take notice of Nolan as a young filmmaker with a singular voice and undeniable skill. With an unforgettable premise and razor-sharp pacing, Memento forcefully pushes the audience into a tense narrative filled with intrigue and uncertainty. It might lack some of present-day Nolan’s signature visual flair, but Memento holds up as an engaging psychological thriller and a harbinger of the brilliance to come in his later works.
6. Interstellar (2014)
Perhaps Nolan’s most ambitious film, Interstellar follows a group of astronauts on a deep space mission to find a suitable new homeworld for humanity after Earth has become near-uninhabitable. Audiences are treated to outer space settings as stunning as they are terrifying.
There are few large-scale sci-fi films that make complex scientific ideas as accessible and thrilling as Interstellar. The film can be a bit graceless as it hammers home its themes, but it makes up for some of its heavy-handedness with touching character dynamics and powerful performances.
5. The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige has everything you want from a Nolan movie: an excellent cast, tense emotional character dynamics, and gorgeous cinematography. The film follows the bitter rivalry between two magicians in the late 1890s. The live magic scenes are gripping and masterfully shot, but The Prestige truly shines when delving into the nastier side of the human emotional spectrum. Jealousy, bitterness, and anger all rear their ugly heads in this film to spectacularly watchable effect. Not to mention, casting David Bowie as a sci-fi rendering of Nikola Tesla was a stroke of genius on Nolan and co.’s part.
4. Dunkirk (2017)
In Dunkirk, Nolan captures the terrifying and random brutality of war as effectively as any director working in this genre. To say the film is exquisitely paced would be an understatement; the creeping feeling of tension and uncertainty that slowly begins to swallow the atmosphere as the film progresses is nothing short of masterful filmmaking.
Dunkirk is a spectacle to behold, but it never skimps on the deft character interplay necessary for creating audience empathy. War is hell, and Dunkirk forces you, in an unrelenting fashion, to understand just how hellish the front lines can truly be in this epic war movie.
3. Inception (2010)
As visually arresting as it is influential, Inception is undoubtedly one of the most important films of the 2010s. With a career-defining performance from Leonardo DiCaprio and a mind-bending sci-fi premise, Inception pushed the envelope for the level of narrative complexity audiences were willing to accept in their tentpole popcorn movies.
Not only does Inception artfully depict the enigmatic world of dreams on the big screen, but it also examines the nature of human ideas. Many critics dinged Nolan for his top-heavy exposition dumps in this feature, but with a plot this dense, it’s almost impossible to avoid a few scenes worth of audience hand-holding. Plus, Inception is home to one of Nolan’s most thought-provoking and memorable endings.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Regarded by many to be the greatest superhero movie of all time, The Dark Knight is a masterclass in film adaptation done right. Heath Ledger’s horrifying and layered performance as the Joker serves as the consummate ideological foil to Christian Bale’s Batman. The Joker presents moral quandaries to his nemesis that force the audience to question their preconceived notions about justice, law, and the very fabric of human civilization.
Before The Dark Knight, fans would never dream of expecting this brand of challenging philosophical dialogue from their superhero content. Nowadays, almost every superhero film boasts a villain with a Joker-esque motivation for their hackneyed schemes of world domination. Still, none of them have managed to break the mold like Nolan and Ledger did with this film.
1. Oppenheimer (2023)
That’s right. Nolan’s latest is far and away his best. Oppenheimer is a three-hour rumination on the civic responsibility of genius, the inevitable martyrdom of public heroes, and the inextricable link between scientific advancement and destruction. This film gives an easy medium to understand the gravity of Oppenheimer’s famous quote, “Now I am become death…”
Notorious Nolan alum Cillian Murphy takes the lead in a wondrously stacked ensemble cast, with each actor delivering some of the best performances they’ve ever put to film. Despite its dense scientific subject matter, Oppenheimer manages to maintain accessibility by keeping a laser-sharp narrative focused on the personal instead of getting bogged down in granular details.
Not only is Oppenheimer Nolan’s best film, but it might be one of the best films of this young new decade. This is must-see cinema at its very finest, and it should cement Nolan as one of the greatest auteurs of his generation.