With his years of experience, Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic and Film Critics Guild member Akhil Arora assesses and ranks every film directed by Christopher Nolan.
Christopher Nolan is a singular talent in Hollywood. No other filmmaker today can draw audiences solely off his name and rake in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, over and over. That too for original properties. Nolan’s reputation and prestige have been built on the back of genre-defining films and big-budgeted blockbusters. If there’s one thing he loves the most, it’s playing around with time. Be it Tenet, Inception, and Interstellar (in sci-fi ways) or Memento, Following, and Dunkirk (concerning the timelines). Of course, he’s far from perfect. Nolan’s biggest weakness is perhaps his female characters, who tend to be dead, absent, or not fleshed out.
Still, the 53-year-old British-American writer-director has the kind of enviable filmography that most would die for—and has Hollywood studios flocking to him like a moth to a flame. It also makes ranking Nolan’s movies a challenge. No matter what you do, you’re going to feel guilty or draw the ire of a specific set of Nolan fanboys. Just because he’s made so many good films, or rather so few bad ones. I struggled, especially in figuring out the order of the top six. In fact, half of Nolan’s movies are so good that if you were to make an argument for any of them to be the number one, I’d be willing to listen and possibly even agree.
Anyhow, this is my ranking of every Christopher Nolan film, from his debut Following to his latest Oppenheimer.
The Dark Knight Rises
Emotionally truthful but full of conveniences, the cap to Nolan’s Batman trilogy does the opposite of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and places too much emphasis on the legend of one man. It briefly suggests deconstructing his victories and of those around him, only to tilt all the way back. Ultimately betraying itself and its characters.
Somewhat meta in how a film writer voyeuristically finds his stories, and in some ways, you can see Nolan trying to find himself. Keeps the audience thinking with its non-linear narrative, though it’s like Tenet in how little it makes us invest in the protagonist, credited simply as “The Young Man”.
The most Nolan-y film yet, where he’s fixated entirely on the possibilities and wonder of his creation and entirely ignorant of the people involved in the events. No wonder John David Washington is credited as simply The Protagonist. It’s gripping but it’s also empty.
The only remake Nolan has ever done and the only time he’s never written his own script—Insomnia was his first step in a studio system—this feels the least like a Nolan film, at least what we would come to expect of it based on what came after and before. It’s more of an atmospheric thriller and the undoing of one man whose past has caught up to him.
Humbling and epic in scope, designed and conceptualised brilliantly, but a tad too stand-off-ish emotionally. While the father-daughter dynamic (between Cooper and Murph) works in parts, the Cooper–Brand relationship is never given the right treatment and collapses.
Nolan looks at how obsession can drive you beyond your limit and destroy everything, even when the simple answer is right in front of you. In the process, he inadvertently delivers commentary on how his fans idolise him and intentionally crafts an allegory of filmmaking itself.
Immerses you in war because it’s so stripped down, with Nolan wanting you to feel what the British soldiers are going through. Of course, he’s still up to his old timeline tricks, playing across three frames—an hour in the air, a day in the water, and a week at the beach—to compress and play events out of order.
This is the moment Nolan began to establish his blockbuster tendencies: dynamic camera movement, rich cinematography, and heavy use of a majestic background score. Add to it more style and confidence in his filmmaking and the first use of humour in a Nolan script. What a way to announce yourself to the mainstream audience.
In the most political movie of his career (and one with a stunningly packed star cast), Nolan looks at how individuals are celebrated when they are useful and abruptly cast aside—or, in this case, violently thrown under the bus—when they no longer serve the agenda of the day.
There are thrillers, and then there are thrillers. Gripping every second and couching its pages of exposition in the smartest way possible, Inception is original filmmaking at its finest. The film convinced the world of Nolan’s ability to dream big and execute bigger— and one that established him as a singular talent in Hollywood.
Featuring the mother of all unreliable narrators, Memento places you in the mind of the protagonist in a fascinating way—by running it in reverse, you only know as much as the protagonist remembers—and that constantly makes you question what you’ve been told and what you see next.
It doesn’t matter how many superhero movies its crosstown rival makes; it’ll never match the brilliance that Nolan delivered the same year Marvel began its infinite project. Firing on all cylinders—acting, scale, storytelling, set pieces, and thematic interweaving—this is the most complete film Nolan has ever made.