We rank all of Christopher Nolan’s movies. From Memento to Oppenheimer, we rank them all from worst to best.
With Oppenheimer hitting theatres this weekend, it’s time to look at the work of one of the greatest directors of our generation: Christopher Nolan. A caveat – our Christopher Nolan movies ranked list is just one person’s opinion, and his work is divisive. Everyone has their favourites (and least favourites), so I’m hoping this ranking will open up some discussion in the comments below. We do not include Following in this list, as it’s not feature-length (only seventy minutes) and can’t be put on the same level as his other work – although it’s an interesting curio. Also, note that this list ranks all of his movies from worst to best, so if you don’t see your favourite film of his right off the top, don’t panic!
In my mind, Christopher Nolan has never made a bad movie. So, when I say one of his movies is his “worst,” that doesn’t mean it’s actually bad. Insomnia is based on a tremendous Norwegian film that stars Stellan Skarsgård in the lead, and I think his performance is slightly better than Al Pacino’s here. That said, Robin Williams gives a genuinely unnerving performance as the movie’s antagonist, and it also has gorgeous cinematography by Wally Pfister. It’s just that – at least compared to other films on this list – it’s the one that feels the most like an assignment.
One of Nolan’s most ambitious efforts, Interstellar is brilliant at times and annoyingly conventional at others. For me, the movie works wonderfully when Nolan is attempting to make his variation on 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I’ve never liked the side plot where Matt Damon is found marooned and becomes an antagonist. A movie like this doesn’t need a “bad guy.” However, Matthew McConaughey is terrific in the lead, and the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is a revelation.
I found this movie utterly incomprehensible when I saw it in theatres, due mainly to the atrocious sound mix. Throughout his career, Nolan has taken a lot of heat for not having clear dialogue, and he went overboard with the mixing here, as it obscured an already tough-to-decipher plot. It made me quite angry when I saw it the first time, but I enjoyed the movie more when watching it at home – with subtitles. Like all of his films, it’s visually arresting, and the score by Ludwig Göransson is a winner. Nolan has always been inspired by the James Bond franchise, and his two heroes in this one, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, are likely the closest we’ll ever get to seeing how Nolan would tackle that series (although then again – who knows?). Also worth noting, Nolan must have taken the audio criticism to heart because all of the dialogue in Oppenheimer is clear as a bell.
The Dark Knight Rises
I enjoyed Nolan’s divisive end to his Dark Knight trilogy, even if it couldn’t help but pale compared to its predecessors. Tom Hardy’s Bane is a bit of a letdown as a villain, at least compared to Heath Ledger’s Joker, but I still think it serves as a satisfying end to the franchise. It’s also the first movie where Nolan’s sound mixes became problematic, and I’ll never forget how hard it was to figure out what Bane was saying the first time I saw the opening action sequence when it was attached as a teaser to IMAX showings of Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
I know this will be a controversial place for the movie that put Nolan on the map. Structurally, it’s brilliant; I just personally don’t think it holds up to repeated viewings as much as other movies on this list. Even still, it’s pretty audacious filmmaking, and one can see that this immediately made him a superstar director.
This one has always been the most underrated movie in Nolan’s filmography, as Disney’s Touchstone didn’t position it as the event it would have been had it come out just a few years later. Hugh Jackman gives the performance of his life as one of two duelling illusionists who have a rivalry over a teleportation trick that leads to devastating moral consequences for both men. This is one of Nolan’s movies that gets better every time you watch it, with Christian Bale’s performance a bit of a puzzle that only really comes together on its second viewing. This also has one of my favourite bits of Nolan casting ever – David Bowie as Tesla.
Nolan started to reinvent the superhero saga with this, and I remember, when I first saw it, thinking it had more in common with epic adventure movies like The Last Samurai or Gladiator than anything else I’d seen. To me, it paid off, and Christian Bale makes for an iconic Caped Crusader, while Michael Caine will always be my favourite Alfred.
This one seems divisive, as some think Nolan’s WW2 movie is too thinly plotted. To me, they’re missing the point, as this is supposed to be a raw experience that puts you in the shoes of the various soldiers participating in the evacuation of Dunkirk. It’s his shortest movie since Following, and it can’t be beaten on a technical level. Tom Hardy has one of his best roles as a heroic RAF fighter pilot, acting almost completely with his eyes until the final shot.
When it was announced that this would be a three-hour biopic of Robert Oppenheimer, people cracked wise on Twitter that it would just be three hours of men talking in rooms. And you know what – it is. But Nolan knows precisely how to make a movie like this, and it’s one of the tightest, most explosive three-hour dramas you’re ever likely to see. This is genuinely epic filmmaking and a masterpiece on every level, featuring perhaps Nolan’s best-ever cast. Cillian Murphy is brilliant as a man who shaped the modern world, for better or worse, while Robert Downey Jr gives his best performance since Iron Man in a critical supporting role.
What else can be said about one of our generation’s best science fiction movies? It’s the movie that proved a dazzling action movie can be just as challenging as an indie and still make hundreds of millions of dollars. It also boasts one of my favourite musical scores of all time, with Hans Zimmer’s work career-defining.
The Dark Knight
But, as good as Inception is, to me, Nolan’s masterpiece will always be The Dark Knight. It’s still the best superhero movie ever made, and I firmly believe it belongs in any serious conversation about the best movies ever made. It’s thematically rich and features one of the most outstanding modern performances, Heath Ledger’s Joker. Fifteen years later, it’s still the tentpole movie every would-be blockbuster wants to be.