Christopher Nolan is one of the most important filmmakers working right now. Few other directors are able to command $200 million budgets to make movies based on original, non-superhero screenplays, and fewer still are able to do so with such style. Indeed, Nolan ranks up there with Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese as one of the greats who continue to make big-budget blockbusters movies that don't conform to anyone's expectations.
The question that cinephiles love to argue over, though, concerns which movie is Nolan's best. There are 10 to choose from – not including Tenet, which we are going to give some more time to stew in our minds before adding here. We brought together the team at Total Film (opens in new tab) to debate the topic – you can listen to the results on our podcast (opens in new tab). However, if you're more into reading, then below we have our list of the best Christopher Nolan movies, ranked!
Nolan's very first movie. Following was made across multiple weekends when the budding filmmaker and his friends had time off from work and studies. It's as low-budget as they come, made for roughly $6,000, the majority of which was spent on film stock. And yet, the results hold up remarkably well.
Following tells the story of a man who becomes obsessed with following other people. Soon enough, he follows the wrong man and gets caught up in a world of underground crime. It's an interesting curio, and a great achievement for being shot on such a low-budget, but this is still a director finding his feet. It's a minor miracle that Following's as good as it is – and it's no shame being at the bottom of such a strong list.
A remake of the Norwegian film starring Stellan Skarsgård, Insomnia stars Al Pacino as William Dormer, a detective who heads to an Alaskan village where the sun never sets to investigate the murder of a young woman. Hillary Swank plays a fellow detective, while Robin Williams gives an incredibly sinister performance as a murderer who has a one-up on Pacino's Dormer.
Insomnia marks Nolan's first time dealing with some real A-list stars and showcases his skills by getting latter career highs from Pacino and Williams. The story is perhaps a slightly more conventional crime-thriller than Nolan's other work, with no strange time-travelling antics or any big twists, but Insomnia proved that the director could deal with big-budgets and led to him landing Batman Begins.
8. The Dark Knight Rises
At this stage in the Dark Knight trilogy, Bruce Wayne's effectively retired, having left Gotham after the events of The Dark Knight. This marks his rehabilitation and re-introduction after Tom Hardy's Bane – an actual physical threat to Bruce Wayne – comes onto the scene. Selina Kyle and Talia al Ghul are also here to hurt Gotham, resulting in a huge showdown that features many Batman rogues.
While not the strongest entry in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is perhaps the most emotional, offering a proper send-off for Bruce Wayne and closing off the trilogy in bombastic style. However, there's about 30 minutes that could have been cut out – not least of all Batman struggling to get out of a hole in the ground for half the picture – and there's an empty space left behind by Heath Ledger's astonishing performance as Joker in The Dark Knight.
Matthew McConaughey plays a former NASA pilot turned farmer living in the dystopian time of the 2060s. After his daughter discovers a coded message that reveals itself in the dust of her bedroom, McConaughey's character brings his research to NASA, who say they are attempting to travel through a wormhole to reach some potentially habitable planets for the people of Earth to move to. McConaughey heads on through...
The space travel and the movie's fascination with the workings of time are incredibly interesting, plus the robot TARs makes for a great side-kick. There's also the spectacular cinematography and remarkably moving story of a father and his children being torn apart. So, why lower down here? Distracting cameo from a certain mega-movie star aside, the last 45-minutes are quite controversial, with the happy ending almost feeling unearned, even saccharine. While not quite as spectacular as Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Interstellar's still a thought-provoking epic.
6. The Prestige
A period piece that stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as two magicians working together for Michael Caine. Soon enough, tragedy occurs and the two become arch-rivals. Bale's character creates the ultimate illusion – The Transporting Man – while Jackman's showman becomes obsessed with finding the secret to the trick, but not is all as it seems...
The filmmaking techniques used by Nolan are akin to magic. Events do not transpire in chronological order and twists and turns unravel every few minutes. Like many of Nolan's movies, The Prestige benefits from a rewatch, as on second viewing you realise just how intricately Nolan conjures up his breathtaking third act. Extra point for David Bowie's appearance as Telsa – Nolan really does get wonderful casts.
5. Batman Begins
The title sets this one up perfectly: Batman Begins shows how Bruce Wayne became the protector of Gotham. We follow his story from childhood tragedy to becoming the Caped Crusader and facing off against Scarecrow. It's grounded in reality and features a terrific leading turn from Christian Bale.
It's hard to understate the importance of Batman Begins. Before this movie reached cinemas, Batman was bordering on being a joke thanks to Batman and Robin (Batnipples!) and the character had never been portrayed with a hard edge. The closest anyone had gotten to "gritty" Batman was Tim Burton's movies, and those were still gloriously camp tales set in an obscure Gotham. Batman Begins re-energised the character – and superhero movies as a whole – by offering a darker, different take on heroic origins, and one that remains a genre highlight.
Set in World War II, Dunkirk centres on the British soldiers stranded on France's beaches trying to get home. There are three intertwining timelines: Harry Styles' soldier at Dunkirk; Mark Rylance sailor, travelling by boat to get Britain's boys back home; and Tom Hardy's pilot, flying across the channel to offer aerial support.
This is Nolan's most intense film. The action's none-stop, intercutting between each character so that there's never a dull moment. Hans Zimmer's score keeps things incredibly stressful, as the strings continuously rise. Only at the end do we get some form of sweet relief – but, before that, it's all heart-pounding action that does not give you a moment to breathe. One that needs to be seen on the biggest screen.
Nolan's first movie after The Dark Knight came with some huge expectations. How would the director top arguably the best superhero movie (opens in new tab) of all time? Well, with a story about a dream heist, that's how! Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a man who enters people's dreams to steal information from them. However, his latest task is to place a fake memory into someone's mind. Hence the title.
Inception's incredibly complex, with Cobb travelling through the various dream-layers of Cillian Murphy's tech CEO, which allows Nolan to do some dazzling effects – such as that rotating corridor. It's a cerebral thriller unlike any other movie and gives the audience a lot of credit in the hope they will understand what's going on. It's one of those rare movies that just not being made anymore – and topped our list of the best movies of the past decade. (opens in new tab)
The movie that showed just how audacious Nolan could be when it came to narratives. Memento makes for a gripping noir with a huge twist. The first scene sees Guy Pearce's Leonard Shelby killing a man, and the rest unfurls in reverse order.
Despite being only Nolan's second movie, the plot's thrilling, complex, and oddly intuitive to follow. From scene to scene, there are these constant micro-twists, Nolan always being one step ahead, managing to wrong-foot you at every corner. Pearce gives a great performance as the tattooed man with memory loss. It's the ultimate, "I need to watch that again, right now!" movie, and rightly picked up an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.
1. The Dark Knight
There's little to say about The Dark Knight that hasn't already been said. One of those perfect sequels that goes running straight into the thick of the story: the Joker has taken over Gotham's underworld and wants to cause a little chaos. As well as Joker, though, Batman must face Harvey Dent-gone-rogue as Two-Face.
Christian Bale proves a great Bruce Wayne, yet Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as the Joker steals the movie, his twisted version of the character reinventing our expectations of what a comic-book villain could be. Joker has the memorable one-liners, the brilliant make-up, and the sinister non-origins that leave enough intrigue to have you questioning where he came from for hours. With its breathtaking set-pieces, incredible final confrontation, and gritty depiction of Gotham, The Dark Knight makes for the best Christopher Nolan movie.
Excited for Tenet? Then make sure you read our huge on-set exclusive article, featuring interviews with Nolan and the cast.