Let's talk Nolan movies! With Dunkirk hitting cinemas last Thursday, we thought it best to give you our opinions on the astounding career of Christopher Nolan thus far. Sean Chandler, Tyler Tompkins, and Griffin Schiller will be ranking the visionary director's filmography from worst to best. As you can imagine, these lists were terribly difficult to compile, however, the team somehow managed. Time to see where your favorites land!
Sean Chandler Nolan Movie Top Ten:
#10 | The Prestige
In theory, I like the idea of this movie. The script has some very clever moments and neat reveals, and I appreciate that the script is structured like that of a magic trick.
But, I don't particularly enjoy this movie.
For all of it's positive attributes, neither of the lead characters are particularly likable. You're not really rooting for either of them. This is largely due to their rivalry escalating so fast that we never really get to see their positive side. Finally, it never sat well with me that there's actual magic in the film (via science).
#9 | Following
Following is easily the most difficult film on this list to review fairly for the simple fact that the movie was made for $6,000. As a point of comparison: the movie is a bit like listening to a demo recording of your favorite artist from before they made it famous, that they recorded on their phone, of a song they didn't put on their debut album. You can tell the artist is incredibly talented, but the limitations of the recording and writing process are also abundantly clear.
In the case of Following, it's an interesting film that gets better as it goes along. However, the nonlinear narrative doesn't mix well with the 16 mm black and white film. It's difficult to piece together where we are in the timeline. For the budget, the acting and action are good, but there's a reason these actors weren't propelled to the A-list with Nolan. Likewise, the movie is only 70 minutes. Clearly, Nolan wrote a film for the budget, and made just about the best $6,000 movie you can make. But, that's not exactly a high bar.
#8 | Insomnia
In many ways, this is the forgotten Nolan film. It's a very enjoyable thriller with great performances from Williams and Pacino. The problem is that, in the scheme of Nolan's career, it's the least memorable. It has neither the scope and spectacle of his recent films, nor the story-telling gimmicks of Memento. So, it just kind of exists as a neat little thriller.
#7 | Interstellar
Of all of his films, it is here I think Nolan's ambition transcended his execution. For every amazing idea or sequence, there's another that just doesn't come together right. The docking sequences, and McCoughney watching his children's videos are astounding sequences, but the third act's big reveal never sat right with me. I didn't hate it, but it didn’t fully work either.
It makes for a movie I enjoyed, but found incredibly frustrating.
#6 | The Dark Knight Rises
Nolan set out to make an epic conclusion to his Dark Knight trilogy. The end result is almost as good as the movie wants to be. The interpretations of Bane and Catwoman fit nicely into the universe, and the last few minutes of the film are some of the most emotionally resonate of the entire series.
The problem is that the script has to cut too many corners in order make the EPICNESS work. You can check out the Honest Trailer of the film for a hilarious list of plot conveniences. To offer just a single example, look at Bruce Wayne's health and fighting skills. If you want to tell a big story, it helps to present your hero as damaged to make the victory that much more impressive. However, this film takes this to ridiculous lengths. Wayne goes from crippled old man to superhero by putting on a knee brace. Then, when his back breaks, he comes back even stronger after being healed by a man punching him in the back.
I love the movie, but there are some problems here!
#5 | Memento
This movie will always have a special place in my heart, as it came out right as I was starting to get into movies. It's one of the first independent films I saw in theaters (maybe the first) and, to state the obvious, it's the movie that put Nolan on the map.
The nature of the film lends itself to very cool first and second viewings, but it's not necessarily highly re-watchable. The film is much more a great cinematic experience than a story you're captivated by. The plot given really only works because of the storytelling gimmick (that's not really meant as a criticism). What makes Nolan interesting is that he uses cinematic storytelling in a unique way.
#4 | Batman Begins
With Nolan’s success over the last decade, it's easy to forget how big of a gamble this film was. Christian Bale was known among movie fans, but he wasn't the A-list talent he's become. Likewise, up to this point, Nolan had only directed three low to micro budget crime thrillers. And, coming off of Batman & Robin, the franchise was at a low point.
The final product isn't just a good Batman movie, it's just a great movie. The film provides the spectacle and heroism you want from a comic book movie, while also exploring themes of humanity. The film’s telling of Batman's origin story is so definitive that it has fooled people into thinking Batman’s training has been told repeatedly in film and television.
#3 | Inception
I really want to have this film higher on my list. I absolutely love the script, ideas, and execution. I would consider this his most ambitious film. His exploitation of the concept of dreaming and our psychology is truly incredible. The problem is that I admire this film more than I enjoy this film (and I REALLY like this film). As much as this film wows me with its stunning visuals and stimulating ideas, I can’t say I find myself wanting to watch it all that often. In this regard, it’s much like Memento. It’s a film I desperately want to get other people to watch, but I don’t spend lots of time watching it on my own.
…but, if you haven’t seen it, we should do a movie night at my house!
#2 | Dunkirk
I struggled with where to put this film on my list. To state the obvious, this is the film I've had the least amount of time to process and digest. With that said, no other film this year has emotionally impacted me the way this movie did. The film gives a distinctly Nolan take on a war film that de-romanticizes war while providing a visceral survival experience. The non-linear story telling provides a way to give insight in character actions and motivations, while providing exciting reveals.
#1 | The Dark Knight
I debated heavily which film to have up top. I actually had Inception in this spot for a long time. But, when I considered: ambition, technical qualities, and enjoyment, I felt I was being dishonest if I didn’t put The Dark Knight at the forefront. In many ways, it’s Nolan’s most straightforward film. The narrative is linear. He’s not exploring an idea that involves trickery or an unreliable narrator; because of this, Nolan’s talents were able to go exclusively into crafting a compelling, tense, crime drama…starring Batman.
Tyler Tompkins Top Ten Nolan Films:
10 | Following
It’s hard for me to put Following on this list because in my mind, this doesn’t really count as one of Nolan’s actual movie. It feels more like a student film that turned out above average. That being said it is still a fairly interesting movie and doesn’t overstay its welcome because of how short it is.
9 | Memento
I feel like I need to preface this by saying that Nolan is an incredibly intelligent individual who knows how to make great films. I’m realizing just how ridiculous it is to create a ranking of his films as I’m ranking one of his most beloved movies at number 9. Memento is truly a unique film that was ahead of its time upon release. Typically when the gimmick of watching a movie’s events unfold in reverse is used, I’m not a fan. It’s not fun watching the ending of a movie happen at the very beginning! That is simply why I am putting this film at number 9. Out of all the movies I’ve seen that have used this gimmick, Nolan’s effort has been among some of the best. But even upon watching this movie again, it started to lose steam as the ending approached and progressively became less and less interesting. I loved Guy Pearce’s performance in the movie though. He was by far the highlight of the movie!
8 | Insomnia
Insomnia is a movie I’ve only seen a few times. However, every time I revisit this film, I like it even more than the previous time. The reason Insomnia is so high up on this list is because it’s the only Nolan movie that doesn’t feel like a Nolan movie. There’s honestly no hint of him anywhere in this movie. But it is a solid thriller with outstanding performances from Al Pacino and Robin Williams.
7 | Dunkirk
Yep. You read that correctly. Nolan’s latest directorial effort comes in at number 7 for quite a few reasons. What’s a Nolan movie without non-linear storytelling? I was not a fan of the way that Nolan approached this film. In many ways it displays his strengths and weaknesses. The film boasts wonderful performances by everyone involved and has some of the most visceral war scenes ever put to film. However, the script is weak since it plays out almost like a silent film. There is very little dialogue and the movie is told through three different perspectives: the air, troops on the beach, and British citizens coming to rescue to troops. In a way, this film is style over substance because I could not connect to any of the central characters in the movie. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles were my favorite characters leaving and every scene involving dialogue with them was great, but it left me wanting even more.
6 | The Dark Knight
Yep. This is probably the strangest ranking list you’ve ever seen in your entire life. I remember being in middle school when The Dark Knight came out and everyone lost their mind. First off, let’s get something straight. Heath Ledger owns this entire movie. No questions asked. I had only seen The Dark Knight once or twice before I watched it again the other night, but he truly gives a remarkable performance as the infamous Joker. All of the other performances were great too, but what makes The Dark Knight number 6 for me are some of the storytelling elements that I haven’t always been a fan of. Even as a young kid, I never enjoyed Two-Face in this movie and that resentment hasn’t changed. Aaron Eckhart is good as the character, but I always leave The Dark Knight wanting more Joker and MUCH less Two-Face. I also think the third act of this movie is inferior to the first two acts. This is more of a nitpick, but Maggie Gyllenhaal is nowhere near as good as Katie Holmes was in Batman Begins, but Nolan didn’t have much control over that.
5 | The Dark Knight Rises
I’ve always loved The Dark Knight Rises and have never understood people’s harsh criticisms against it. I believe it is a worthy follow-up to The Dark Knight and a perfect conclusion to the trilogy. The ending of this movie contains one of my favorite endings in a comic-book movie of all time. The reason I put it above Batman Begins is because the movie runs just a little too long. There were many scenes in the movie that felt like I was viewing them for the first time and could have been cut out to trim the run length of the movie.
4 | The Prestige
One of the best decisions I’ve made so far in 2017 was watching The Prestige again for the first time since its release. Much like Insomnia, I left this movie feeling slightly underwhelmed back in 2006 at the ripe age of 11. This is a thoroughly entertaining movie and is by far Nolan’s most underrated movie. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are wonderful as rivaling magicians constantly trying to one-up each other and the film contains a wonderful revelation that I’ll try my hardest not to spoil… Plus, David Bowie is insanely good in this movie even though he’s in it for a majority of 20 minutes.
3 | Batman Begins
Batman Begins honestly blew me away the other night. I’m ashamed to admit that my first (and last) time watching Batman Begins was back when it was released in 2005… until the other night. Christian Bale is wonderful as the masked vigilante, but as mentioned earlier, Katie Holmes is exquisite in this film. It’s a shame she didn’t return for The Dark Knight because she had wonderful chemistry with Bale and added a lot to the film. My biggest criticism with Batman Begins is the underuse of Scarecrow. He would probably be my favorite villain in any Batman movie if he had been in it just a bit more.
2 | Interstellar
Interstellar is not a perfect film. Remember how I said Dunkirk was style over substance? This film proves that Nolan has an issue at times with making his films on a much larger spectacle with an average story that just isn’t on part with the large scope of the film. But there is just something about Interstellar that constantly draws me to it. It’s a combination of Nolan’s ideas, Hans Zimmer’s masterful score, and the performances given by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway.
1 | Inception
When I hear someone talk about movies that were ahead of their time, the movie I automatically think of is Inception. I’ll never forget the first time I went and saw this movie in 2010 at one of the smallest theaters I’ve ever been to in my life. Even watching this grand spectacle of a film on such a small screen still had a massive impact on me as I left the theater. This is the only time that Nolan has successfully created a perfect balance between storytelling and spectacle.
Griffin Schiller's Nolan's Greatest Hits:
8 | Following
Kicking off our list at the bottom is the ambitious little independent film that sparked the career of one of the most brilliant filmmakers of our time. It’s actually incredible when you look back at this one and realize that Nolan was able to produce it for only $6,000! With a mere 70 min run-time, the film tells the intriguing story of a writer who begins tailing strangers and, what this picture does especially well, gives us a taste of the promise that is to come from the great Christopher Nolan. It’s a fun novelty watch but naturally, does not compare to the other works on this list.
7 | Insomnia
Al Pacino and Robin Williams in a Christopher Nolan film? Sounds too good to be true! In his follow up to the groundbreaking Memento, Christopher Nolan takes a similar route in the story, but crafts an overwhelmingly chilling and haunting tale of a detective tracking down a murder in Alaska while coping with Insomnia. This movie is a quality crime thriller with an outstanding lead performance from Al Pacino and poses interesting questions regarding morality often asking “what would you do in this situation?” Insomnia also is the first time where we see Wally Pfister's cinematography give Nolan his signature look. While the film has fantastic performances, great direction, and breathtaking cinematography, it’s simply not as memorable or impactful as others on this list. After taking great risks and being bold with Memento, Insomnia feels somewhat safe, and that’s probably the best way to describe it – not bad, but safe.
6. The Prestige
It almost pains me to place this film so low on the list because of how much I adore it. For whatever reason, out of all of Nolan’s films, aside from The Dark Knight Trilogy, this is the one I have re-watched the most. It might be the captivating story of two dueling magicians losing their humanity to uncover the other’s secrets that continue to draw me in even on repeat viewings. It might be the incredible performances from Christian Bale and especially Hugh Jackman. Or, it might be the fact that Nolan structures the film like a magician stages a trick, crafting scenes by using the pledge, turn and finally the prestige. Who knows, but what I can say is this is one tale that has you guessing up until the very end and just when you start to side with one of the two leads, they do something that sinks them further into obsession causing the audience member to question if they are backing the right character. It’s a fascinating tale of competition and obsession, and I wish I could place it higher. However, I simply enjoy the other films more.
5 | Interstellar
I remember the first time I saw Interstellar it was in 70mm IMAX and up until that point I had never felt so immersed in a film. Several occasions had me tearing up and still to this day it is unquestionably one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. Now, all that aside, the movie is rather brilliant and dare I say great. Many people praise the film for having ambition, but also criticize it for not following through with said ambition, and while I can agree that the plot becomes slightly convoluted and confusing to follow at times, the risks that Nolan took with this picture paid off more than enough for me. Interstellar is a mind-blowing film with a powerful message of “love conquers all." Matthew McConaughey delivers a deeply emotional performance, and the connection he has with his daughter, Murph, is especially palpable and moving (just look at the scene where he is playing through 20 years’ worth of video messages). On top of all the emotion, Nolan masterfully constructs several intense, “white knuckled” set pieces. The two that come to mind are obviously the docking sequence and then the race against the clock to beat the giant tsunami. I should also mention Hans Zimmer’s beautiful and mesmerizing score that sweeps you through each scene. All in all, is Interstellar flawed? Yes, but it’s incredibly bold and for myself pays off in the end, and that’s enough reason for me to place it here.
The first “real” film of Christopher Nolan’s career and probably his most revered by many film fans. How many pictures can captivate you and keep you guessing until the end while also present the catch of being told in reverse? It’s a genius idea that becomes even more efficient when the central character, Guy Pierce, suffers from short-term memory loss. It’s almost as if we are as disillusioned as him, trying to piece together each part of the puzzle until the climax and subsequently, “The Big Reveal”. The beauty of Momento is that there’s deception at every turn causing your opinion on everyone to change regularly and as a result, the viewer winds up at a cross with who they should trust and who is taking advantage of Lenny. The movie is also one of those rare instances where if you were to tell the story in Chronological Order, it’s actually quite dull and uneventful. Christopher Nolan crafts his first “mind-blowing” experience here and still to this day I find myself picking up new bits that I didn’t notice before ultimately enriching the viewing even more.
3 | Inception
Who could forget the infamous bombastic trailers for Inception? The earth-shaking swells, a city bending on top of itself, Joseph Gordon Levitt fighting in a spinning hallway and of course the gravitas of Leonardo DiCaprio. It is still to this day one of the best trailers I’ve ever witnessed. It’s one thing to be a great trailer, and a complete other to actually deliver and surpass the greatness of said trailer. Christopher Nolan asked audiences around the world to open their mind to the endless possibilities of a dream world in this grand spectacle and, depending on the day, could end up being my favorite of his films. Much like with almost every other movie on this list, Nolan reinvents the heist film genre in such a fascinating way. Instead of stealing riches, the team specializes in stealing information through dreams and in the case of the primary job, planting an idea that will either define or destroy someone. At its core though, Inception is about a man wrongly accused longing to return home to his children. It’s an emotional journey for Dom Cobb as the stakes are higher than ever. If he fails to complete the mission, he arrives in Los Angeles only to go to prison for the rest of his life. If he dies in the dream world under the heavy sedation, his mind becomes lost to limbo. And it’s not just Cobb’s journey that is so compelling, Nolan plays with themes of time, a common thread throughout all of his narratives. He tackles the questioning of one’s reality and asks whether it’s better to live a life of misery in the real world, or if it’s better for the dream to become that person’s reality. All of these are incredibly heavy and impactful motifs that keep the audience captivated until the very last shot of Cobb’s spinning top ultimately leaving the conclusion of the film up to the viewers. Nolan also crafts such original and imaginative set pieces that still to this day cannot be matched. For myself, this was the first time I was introduced to the likes of Joseph Gordon Levitt and Tom Hardy, both of whom have become some of my favorite actors working in the business today. Leonardo DiCaprio also gives what I feel to be one of the best performances of his career in Dom Cobb. Finally, who could forget the robust and immersive score from, once again, the brilliant Hans Zimmer. Yes, it is still undoubtedly his best work to date. If there was ever one film throughout Nolan’s career that embodies who he is as a filmmaker, it’s most definitely Inception.
2 | The Dark Knight Trilogy
Now this one’s a bit of a cheat, but I simply could not break up this trilogy, mainly because I honestly consider these films to be one arc for the Batman. For some, these films may not be as good as say Inception or Momento, but for me, these are my favorite movies of all time. Nolan’s complete reinvention of The Batman after the disgrace that is Batman & Robin completely changed the superhero genre forever. He brought a sense of realism and grit that the character greatly needed for the character and that even still studios attempt to replicate. Batman Begins is just about as perfect of an origin story as you can have, getting inside the mind of Bruce Wayne and his transformation into The Batman. I think that’s something that Begins does so well. It fully explores the psyche of Bruce Wayne, played brilliantly I might add by Christian Bale who still to this day is my favorite Bruce Wayne, and how he came to a place where becoming a symbol of hope for the people of Gotham and a symbol of fear for the criminals felt like his civic duty. Nolan gives us a layered and fully realized protagonist the likes of which Batman has never seen. Fear is also Bruce’s greatest adversary in this first outing, with villains such as Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow and Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul fully embodying it. Bruce must learn to overcome it and embrace it if he is to become the hero Gotham needs. Not only is the story incredibly compelling, but set pieces as well don’t disappoint. The training sequences with Liam Neeson on the ice, the Batmobile chase throughout Gotham and of course the climax on the train, all of these set pieces were not only phenomenal spectacles to watch, but also carried great emotion with them as well. All of which is enhanced even more by, you guessed it, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s perfect score. Needless to say, Christopher Nolan hit a home run with Begins and what’s even more impressive is that he managed to outdo himself with the follow-up! The Dark Knight is hailed by many as the greatest comic book film of all time, and it’s pretty clear to see why. On top of being an unbelievable genre film, it’s also fantastic film in general. In this outing, Bruce faces anarchy and chaos personified perfectly by Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance as The Joker. To this day, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker is not only the best Joker performance we’ve ever seen, but it’s probably the best on-screen villain of all time (that’s right, I’ll go out there and say it). He’s psychotic, terrifying and eerily real. What truly makes Ledger’s Joker is the fact that he tells the truth. His view of society and humanity is scarily accurate, and that’s what makes him so real. However, The Joker only focuses on society failings and faults which are why his conflict against the Bat is even more compelling. Batman in this film is the moral rock at the center of the movie showing that even through all of the hate and evil the engulfs Gotham, there are still people willing to stand up and believe in good. Aside from the good vs. evil aspect of the film, The Dark Knight also functions quite well as a suspenseful crime drama with an epic game of cat and mouse at its center. I should also mention Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent/Two-Face was a great addition and the perfect example of the classic Shakespearean tragedy. Lastly, the final shot of the film, Batman riding off on his bike into the light of a tunnel, has got to be one of my favorite endings of a movie ever. In fact, the only thing that might rival it is the ending of its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises. Speaking of The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s masterful trilogy is the perfect way he could have ended it. In the final film, Bruce Wayne faces not a mental adversary, but a harsh physical pain personified by Tom Hardy’s Bane. I don’t think Tom Hardy receives enough credit for what he did with the character of Bane. He brought such an intimidating, powerful physical presence to Batman’s final adversary and, depending on the day, rivals Ledger’s Joker. While you can’t fully see his face due to the infamous mask, Hardy expertly conveys Bane’s emotions, arrogance, and force with simply his eyes. I would actually argue that throughout this trilogy, Bane was The Batman’s greatest adversary. He was the only one to physically and emotionally break him causing Bruce to come back stronger and even more motivated than ever. Speaking of breaking the Bat, the first fight between Batman and Bane in the sewers is by far the greatest battle in a comic book film period. I’ve never felt such brutality and pain simply by watching something. It was an incredibly impactful and expertly realized scene. Nolan’s decision to not use music and only showcase the sounds of the battle only further enhanced its effect. In a way, Bane was very much a modern day terrorist placed inside the Batman’s world which is another reason the events that occur throughout this film, the terrorist takeover of a city, work for me. The Dark Knight Rises is by far Nolan’s most ambitious and epic Batman film, and for some, it doesn’t deliver, but for myself, there are days where it is undoubtedly my favorite. The Dark Knight Rises is the film where Batman becomes more than just a man; he becomes a beacon, a symbol of hope that anyone can become, which is why when Joseph Gordon Levitt is raised up into the Batcave, and the credits begin to roll, I tear up every time. The ending to this film is by far my favorite ending to not only a movie but a trilogy as well. I’ve never felt more emotional and fulfilled.
1 | Dunkirk
After my enormous praise for The Dark Knight Trilogy, you might be wondering, “Why the hell is it in the number two slot?” Well, after much contemplating and digesting, I honestly feel that even though The Dark Knight Trilogy is my personal favorite, Dunkirk is the crowning achievement on Christopher Nolan’s more than an impressive career. The way he can take a war film and flip the genre on its head, telling a compelling and real tale of survival is unprecedented. I mentioned that Interstellar was one of the greatest and most visceral movie going experiences I’ve ever had, well Dunkirk takes the cake. Nolan drops you in the thick of war with these soldiers, and you immediately feel as though you are physically there. When bombs shatter the beaches, bullets are flying, and the Spitfires engage in easily the best dogfights I’ve ever seen put to film, you can’t help but feel completely immersed. It’s not just the spectacle either that makes this movie; it’s the way the story plays out and how Nolan decides to tell a narrative through storytelling and the actual event, as opposed to characters and backstory. It’s a risk that some might not prefer, but there is no denying it pays off. Even though we may not know a whole lot about these characters, we immediately sympathize with them and their longing to return home - something I’m sure we’ve all experienced in our own lives. Nolan also takes a risk in telling the story from three different narratives taking place at three separate times on the “Dunkirk Timeline” all of which converge at the climax of the film making for some of the most exciting and white-knuckled cinema I’ve ever seen. Dunkirk redefines what it means to be a war film and showcases civilian heroism at its finest. It’s by far Christopher Nolan’s best directorial effort and as a result, has taken the top spot on his near perfect resume of works.