English-American director, producer and screenwriter Christopher Nolan is one of the highest-grossing directors of all time and is best known for his gritty Dark Knight trilogy and groundbreaking, mind bending films like Memento and Inception.
The release of historical war film Dunkirk this year marks his tenth feature film. And with ten being such a lovely round number redmangoreviews will be doing a ranking of all the Nolan movies. So with a mild SPOILER ALERT and some blaring horn sounds let’s get to the list:
#10 The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Nolan ended his trilogy of everyone’s favourite caped crusader not with a POW! but with a meh. In this entry Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) comes out of retirement as Batman to battle the super strong, super smart terrorist with a mild speech impediment Bane (Tom Hardy). Hardy gives a memorable performance, Anne Hathaway is interesting as Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer she is not) and Bale is solid as always.
But the plot is filled with stadium-sized holes and contrivances and there are too many characters doing dumb things. We also barely get any Batman in this “Batman” movie, the Talia twist reveal could be seen a mile away and the big super bomb ending is a big anti-climactic bust. Bats may be a superhero but this outing was definitely not super.
#9 Following (1998)
Following is Nolan’s first feature length film and from it you can see his interest in film noir, unreliable narrators and non-linear story lines. The black and white neo-noir crime drama is about an unemployed young writer who likes to follow random people. When he begins following a thief he gets drawn into a dark plot involving a beautiful blonde (of course) and a ruthless gangster.
The acting is decent though not extraordinary and the cinematography is pretty basic. The highlight is Nolan’s taut script which makes you think it is going one way and then pulls you in another direction. It is an entertaining watch with an interesting reveal. It is also a must see for anyone interested in the early seeds of the filmmaker’s brilliance.
#8 Dunkirk (2017)
Some critics have called this Nolan’s best film to date and one of the greatest war films ever. Whatever it is they are smoking it is clearly some high grade stuff. Dunkirk tells the story of Allied soldiers fleeing from the eponymous seaside town in France during World War II. It is told via three interconnected stories set on the land, sea and air, is a beautifully shot film. There are many gorgeous visuals, superb sound design and some tense scenes. But it is hard to get invested in what is happening when the characters, mostly unnamed, are so bare bones and undeveloped. Nolan may have been going for the anonymity of war but he probably went a little too far. Things happen and are exciting but it is difficult to care whether these soldiers live or die. Compare that to Saving Private Ryan (1998) or The Dirty Dozen (1967) when the death of each soldier has an emotional impact.
Nolan has a habit of bringing back actors he previously worked with and this film features Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) as a pilot and Cillian Murphy (Dark Knight trilogy, Inception) as a shell shocked soldier. They are both effective though their roles do not require them to do very much. Kenneth Brannagh is there as a naval commander but he just stands up and looks stern. Being a huge Nolan fan – he is one of my favourite all time directors/writers – I wanted to love this film but I left feeling unsatisfied and even a little bored. This may have been a passion project for the director but I could arouse no passion for it.
#7 Batman Begins (2005)
After the absolute travesty that was Batman and Robin (1997) Nolan threw away the camp and set the caped crusader in a grounded, gritty reality. In this origin story we see Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) become the Dark Knight and battle fear master Scarecrow (Murphy) and leader of the League of Assassins Ra’s al Ghul ( a most fun Liam Neeson).
The film also introduced us to two of the best incarnations of Alfred Pennyworth the butler and detective Jim Gordon via veteran actors Michael Caine and Gary Oldman respectively. Batman Begins is a solid film with fantastic action and a wonderfully dark tone. There is nothing here that really breaks the superherp movie mould but everything it does, it does well.
#6 Insomnia (2002)
Of the films on the list this is the only one that Nolan did not produce or write; according to one article he was an uncredited co-writer. There are no superheroes, no sci fi, no time jumps and no dream invading. A remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, this psychological crime thriller tells the story of two Los Angeles detectives investigating the murder of a teenage girl in a small Alaskan town. Cinematographer Wally Pfister (actual name) deftly uses light and shadow to demonstrate truth and guilt and the overall experience is fascinating.
Al Pacino plays lead detective Will Dormer, a man who battles guilt and a lack of sleep in a town where the sun never goes down. Pacino is brilliant as the haunted detective and it is refreshing to see him in a role worthy of his talents compared to crap like Gigli and Jack and Jill. The late Robin Williams, who was as fantastic a dramatic actor as he was a comedic one, is scintillating as a creepy author and the scenes between him and Pacino are superb. Hilary Swank, between her Best Actress Awards for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, is also solid as a rookie Alaskan detective.
#5 Interstellar (2014)
One of Nolan’s most ambitious films is the epic science fiction flick Interstellar. It is the story of an Earth devastated by a series of crop flights. A group of astronauts are sent to investigate a wormhole and find a propulsion theory for the mass exodus of the planet. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain are all terrific leads and the Academy Award-winning visual effects are nothing short of stunning.
The script, written by Nolan and his brother/frequent collaborator Jonathan, features time displacement, a chatty, uniquely designed robot, interesting planets and strong themes of home and family. The film does get a bit weighed down at times by its own ideas – bookshelf tesseract anyone? – but it is still a thrilling watch.
#4 Memento (2000)
film out break big his and feature second Nolan’s was This. If that sentence seemed strange it is because it is backwards in honour of the majority of Memento being told in reverse. It is the story of an insurance investigator named Leonard (Guy Pearce) who investigates the rape and murder of his wife. But in that same attack he developed anterograde amnesia – he lost ability to store recent memories – and has to keep files, write notes and even tattoo clues on his body to keep everything straight.
It is an odd, almost disconcerting experience watching a film backwards and Nolan did this for the audience to share in Leonard’s fragmented perspective. After a while you do get used to it and it quite rewarding seeing things revealed layer by layer. Pearce is entertaining and charming as Leonard and we also have solid performances from co-stars and Matrix allumni Carrie Ann-Moss and Joe Pantaliano. The film is clever and a one of a kind experience but it does not really hold up well for repeat viewings. And the ending stretches the period that Leonard can hold on to his memories for narrative purposes and for that we have to knock off some points.
#3 The Prestige (2006)
I struggled with this entry and the number two on this list and ended up switching their places. But the top three films on this list are all exceptional pieces of cinema. And picking up the bronze is The Prestige, a mystery thriller set in the 19th century involving an escalating struggle between two magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).
The film, based on the eponymous 1995 novel by Christopher Priest, is a tale of revenge, romance, fame and deception that is wildly fun and riveting. Both Jackman and Bale deliver A class performances and the always great Michael Caine – who Nolan seems to love because he has appeared in six of his films – delivers yet again with his portrayal of stage engineer John Cutter. Late musician David Bowie also delivers a super cool performance as real life inventor Nikola Tesla. The ending twists – yes, plural – are mind blowing and put M Night Shyamalan to shame. There is great prestige for The Prestige.
#2 The Dark Knight (2008)
What can be said about The Dark Knight that has not already been said? This second part of the trilogy is not only the best of the three but one of the best superhero films of all time. In this superhero crime drama Batman battles the maniacal Joker (an Oscar winning performance by the late Heath Ledger) who has the city of Gotham in the grip of terror.
The acting is all around exceptional especially from Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Commissioner James Gordon), Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent/Two Face), Maggie Gyllenhaal (the new assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes replacing the dull Katie Holmes from the previous film) but Ledger’s performance is stands out above the rest. Evert line, every movement, every nuance of his Joker is iconic and darkly sublime. The plot is well placed, the dialogue biting and memorable and the action sequences, most done with stunt work, are thrilling. Written by Nolan and David S. Goyer the film is infinitely rewatchable. It does not make the top of the list because it lacks some of the characteristics of other Nolan features, but that in no way diminishes the near perfection that is The Dark Knight.
#1 Inception (2010)
When you take a Nolan script and directing, add one of the best actors of our generation and top it off with a score by the legendary Hans Zimmer you have a recipe for a masterpiece. And Inception, which won four Academy Awards (cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects) out of eight nominations, is a glorious film. It is the story of a professional thief named Dominick “Dom” Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who steals information by infiltrating the subconscious via dream constructs. The concept of dream hopping feels like a natural progression from Memento and the execution is complex enough to be interesting but not overly complex where it gets confusing.
DiCaprio is wonderful as the haunted Cobb and leads an all star, masterful cast that includes Nolan allums like Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. The themes of grief and loss are touching, the ingenious special effects breathtaking, the action superb and the overall experience mind blowing. It is everything you want from a Nolan film in the optimal amounts and for that reason it is best film from the multi-talented filmmaker.
So that’s our list. What is your favourite Nolan film? Feel free to share in the comments.
For more from my Director Series you can check my review of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs here.