The Dark Knight
Photograph: Warner Bros.

All Christopher Nolan movies, ranked from best to worst

Where does ‘Oppenheimer’ fit in the Nolan-ography?

Helen O’HaraPhil de Semlyen
Contributor: Phil de Semlyen
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British-born director Christopher Nolan has reinvented the comic-book movie, somehow made a thriller that takes place entirely inside the mind, spawned significant scientific contributions to astrophysical theory and just turned a story of nuclear physics into a smash-hit summer blockbuster. And he did it all without even rumpling his suit. But which is his best work? We took a look back…

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Christopher Nolan films ranked

  • Film
  • Fantasy

A thriller ​‘set within the architecture of the mind’ was all that Nolan told anyone about Inception before release, and it’s testament to his filmmaking that we felt like we understood that phrase by the time the credits rolled. Leonardo DiCaprio leads the team pulling a heist, but it’s a job achieved through brain infiltration and subconscious manipulation. The result includes some of the most surreal and beautiful images of any modern blockbuster and a killer score from regular Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer. The director puts his wildly overqualified cast in sharp suits, gives them sharper attitudes and then stages some extraordinary visual spectacle and action. Yet in the end, it’s the love and loss, rather than the dazzle, that he emphasises.

  • Film
  • Action and adventure
The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight

A serious contender for the title of greatest superhero film ever made, Nolan’s Bat-sequel develops his Bruce Wayne, and the network of key relationships around him, from father-figure Alfred (played with enormous warmth by Michael Caine) to would-be lover Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over from Katie Holmes). But really this film rests on the shoulders of Heath Ledger’s Joker, the anarchic reflection of Bruce Wayne’s crime fighter. Ledger electrifies the film, with a terrifying ability to go from oddball charm to lethal violence in under six seconds. He’s compelling, clever and deeply off-kilter. Add in those extraordinary action scenes – that truck flip! – and Wally Pfister’s stunning cinematography (in one of his seven Nolan collaborations) and you’re on to a billion-dollar winner.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Galaxy-brained, visually jaw-dropping and moving with the thunder of a juggernaut, A-bomb origin story Oppenheimer is in many ways the very definition of a Christopher Nolan film. The performances are perfectly judged without being showy – Cillian Murphy finally gets a long-awaited Hollywood headline role as nuclear physicist J Robert Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr shakes the Tony Stark thing for good with a nimble, deft and charismatic supporting turn – with everything in service to a historic story that deserves all of Nolan’s trademark gravitas. When you’re watching the filmmaker working on this scale and with this precision, there’s no other big-screen experience to match it.  

  • Film
  • Drama

Hollywood’s favourite mental illness, amnesia, gets the thriller treatment in this cleverly told whodunnit. Guy Pearce plays Leonard, who suffers from a condition where he cannot maintain new memories for more than a few minutes at a time, but who’s nevertheless seeking to find his wife’s killer. Nolan’s innovation was to play the story backwards, creating a world where the murderer we think we’re seeking is not the one we find. The resulting neo-noir mixes black-and-white and colour, something of a Nolan theme, and uses tattoos to great story effect to show us a man who can’t move on from the history written on his skin. That twist at the end, or perhaps beginning, remains chilling.

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  • Film
  • Drama
The Prestige
The Prestige

The lines between science, magic and madness are blurred in this classy period thriller. It’s a tale of rival magicians going to extreme lengths to create the perfect trick, with a small but key role for David Bowie. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are the mismatched leads – both intense but in wildly contrasting ways – with great support from Michael Caine and Rebecca Hall in particular. For some, the story’s resort to genuinely inexplicable turns was a cheat, but that’s the whole point: the ‘prestige’ of the film is that it doesn’t obey the rules of the story you thought you were going to see. 

  • Film
  • Drama

If you thought you were going to be free of timey-wimey stuff in a war movie, think again. Nolan’s multi-strand account takes place over the course of a week, a day and an hour in the lives of its protagonists, a time dilation that slowly comes together as you watch the desperate British evacuation from Dunkirk’s beach and the Nazis. That keeps the tension at fever pitch throughout the threads set on land, in the air and at sea, and leaves every fate uncertain until the final moments. This effort also shows that Nolan doesn’t simply rely on established stars for his vivid characters, with great roles for then-newcomers like Fionn Whitehead and one Harry Styles.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Nolan’s reboot of the moribund Bat-franchise showed that it was possible after all to marry dramatic heft and super​-​heroics, so he must take considerable responsibility for the current superhero boom. Still, few origin stories are as witty and knowing as this, nor do they have as steady a centre as this Christian Bale/Michael Caine double-act. The theme of overcoming fear runs throughout, reoccurring steady as a metronome, and it captures the seedy side of Gotham that Bruce must tame better than either of its sequels. It’s seasoned with a little Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy, but this is the most Batman-centric Bat-film ever made, where for once the villains don’t steal the show.

  • Film
  • Drama
Interstellar
Interstellar

The most obviously science fiction-y of Nolan’s many sci-fi films, this sees a team head out among the stars in search of a new home for humanity as Earth dies behind them. But extinction is mere context to a family drama about intergenerational trauma, caused by the unfortunate time dilation of a (stunningly realised and scientifically significant) black hole. Matthew McConaughey is the father trying to get back to his kids but separated by the impossible reach of time itself; Jessica Chastain the abandoned daughter who can save the world because of his love. This once again reckons with Nolan’s obsession with time, but in a way that takes in astrophysics, speculative science and a love letter from a father to his kids.

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  • Film
  • Science fiction

Tenet is a tricky beast about weaponised time travel and another quest to save the world. Perhaps the best example of Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema​'​s chilly blues and greys being ​amped up for effect, this sees the best​-​dressed men you’ve ever seen fighting backwards types. Not underdeveloped people, that is: literally baddies moving backwards. Best to relax and just go with the flow, because you will get a headache trying to understand it all, but there’s a swaggering sense of fun and looseness to this after the weightier Dunkirk. That’s partly thanks to Robert Pattinson’s gleeful Neil, balancing John David Washington’s cooler Protagonist, but it’s built into the wacky premise and jaw-dropping action.

  • Film
  • Action and adventure
The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises

The capper to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is the weakest of the three, with its mumbling villain and troublingly reactionary politics, but it’s still packed with thrilling moments (the football pitch bombing! The mid-air heist! The French revolutionary trial!) and some dense and ambitious plotting. This time the theme is about getting yourself back up and going back into the fray, and sure enough that’s what Bale’s Bruce does, again and again, no matter what Tom Hardy’s Bane throws at him. The star of the show this time, however, is Anne Hathaway’s slinky, mischievous Catwoman, stealing hearts and diamonds with equal ease.

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  • Film
  • Thrillers

A slim 70-minutes, shot in grainy black-and-white in natural light, Following is a stripped back, deliberately lo-fi debut feature. An out-of-work writer gets more than he bargained for when he follows a stranger and discovers the man is a philosopher thief, who draws him into a series of minor robberties and major conspiracies involving a fabulously Old Hollywood femme fatale known only as ‘The Blonde’. It’s a clever noir, but most notable for showing Nolan’s style taking shape. There are plenty of precursors to his later work: Alex Haw, as Cobb, feels and looks like a predecessor of Robert Patinson’s Neil in Tenet, and the name ‘Cobb’, of course, would recur in Inception. Even at this early stage in his career, Nolan hops around through his narrative, layering four time periods together to keep you guessing. Things would get a lot more polished from here.

  • Film

Nolan’s Memento follow up is the sort of prestige, star-led thriller that we don’t see much anymore, but it’s the odd one out in his filmography – not least for the only movie he didn’t write himself (it’s a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film). Al Pacino stars as an LA detective, under investigation for planting evidence, who’s sent to Alaska to investigate a murder. But instead he’s drawn into a cat-and-mouse game with the killer, played by Robin Williams in an unexpected villain role. While he plays with perception – Pacino’s Will Dormer is losing his mind from stress, guilt and unrelieved insomnia – Nolan is at his most overly conventional here.

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