Our modern era of moviemaking is unsettling in that it is no longer defined by acting talent (as it was during the Golden Age of Hollywood) or directorial and auteurial interests. Instead it is increasingly driven by mega-corporations who seek to build consumer brand-loyalty by creating and curating intellectual properties that can go on in perpetuity. We live in a movie age where it is not a person’s name either at the top (actor) or bottom (director) of a movie poster that drives ticket sales but the familiarity, popularity, and marketability of the intellectual property. Increasingly in this environment it seems the only way for any director to break into the industry is to hitch their wagon to these uber-franchises with the slim hope that by making enough of them the studio might maybe someday finance their actual passion project, barring any unforeseen mishaps in shepherding the studio’s precious franchise of course.
Christopher Nolan is the exception that somehow proves this new rule. He is arguably the last real auteur in Hollywood who can get whatever movie he wants to make made for any budget he desires and released exactly the way he wants it (see: everything surrounding the release of Tenet). He managed that by serendipitously breaking through in the early 2000s, the last period where studios were willing to take big bets on promising directors, and then getting attached to a superhero franchise (The Dark Knight trilogy) and successfully curating in the last possible moment when the genre wasn’t taken seriously. The goodwill he garnered in those early movies meant that he was able to become a brand onto himself, becoming as much a Warner Bros. intellectual property as any of the others in their stable (DC Comics, Harry Potter, James Bond, The Conjuring universe etc.). We can of course question if the “branding” of Christopher Nolan movies is a good thing (especially with regards to superfans who treat every one of his movies with the same level of uncritical scrutiny and tribe-like loyalty they give a superhero franchise), but it has provided us the last gasps of truly original works made at enormous scale and released at anything considered a theatrical scale; for this I am grateful.
11. FOLLOWING (1998)
I think the bottom of this list is as good a time to establish that so far, Christopher Nolan is batting a thousand so when we discuss movies in these rankings we are merely separating good from great. Even his debut movie Following, about a man who develops a hobby for following strangers until one stranger develops an interest in him, is a minor miracle made with almost no budget at all. On the surface level this micro-budget means that the movie stands apart from the rest of Nolan’s aesthetic. Yet Following serves as a “proof-of-concept” film as even here Nolan finds himself experimenting with nonlinear story structures, creating the first of his signature puzzle-box movies.
10. INSOMNIA (2002)
This remake of a Norwegian crime movie is another proof-of-concept movie. But where Following served in some ways to prove to Nolan himself that he had the directing chops, Insomnia was the chance to prove to Warner Bros. that he could thrive the big-budget studio system. Obviously given the rest of his career, Nolan passed the test with flying colors yet Insomnia is by far the least personal of his movies. It is a pure genre exercise that is elevated only by the presence of three Academy Award winners in Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank who give the movie far more gravitas than the material needed or deserved. The perfect definition of a cable movie.
9. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
Nolan was reluctant to add to his Batman duology – he was practically strong-armed by Warner Bros into completing the trilogy – and that reluctance shows. Where Batman Begins was (at the time) revolutionary in its origin-story narrative and The Dark Knight was an exercise in genre elevation, The Dark Knight Begins spends most of its time throwing together a plethora of characters and ideas at an increasingly larger scale in the desperate hope that something will stick. It is only in the third act, when our Caped Crusader’s vigilante career is coming to a close that Nolan is able to say anything with conviction, even if it is to say that he is clearly glad to be done with this super hero nonsense.
8. TENET (2020)
Tenet is clever to a fault. In many ways it is the culmination of Nolan’s obsession with the fluidity of time; it has the highest of high concepts at the center of its propulsive action. As a formal exercise in non-linear time and as an act of visual experimentation Tenet is endlessly fascinating while Nolan’s typical aural and visual assault keep things viscerally moving along. Yet due to the highly complicated nature of its plot Tenet ends up being an ultimately empty viewing experience; the main reward for figuring out the movie’s intricate plot is that you figured out the movie’s intricate plot. It is also the only movie in Nolan’s filmography that that seems unnecessarily large for its scope; one could imagine the basic beats of this story being accomplished at a much smaller budget, with a much smaller cast, and a much clearer focus ala Memento. But Tenet highlights an increasing concern that Nolan is incapable or at least unwilling to embrace the power of smaller stories.
7. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
It is hard to remember now how dead-in-the-water the Batman franchise, along with superhero movies in general, was when Nolan took the reins of the Caped Crusader. It is also hard to remember how revolutionary, fresh, and exciting Nolan’s original vision was in which he chose to tell an origin story through the lens of realism. While the bloom is somewhat off the rose of Nolan’s Batman trilogy thanks to lesser imitators that followed in its wake (and the bloated nature of the trilogy’s end), it is startling to revisit Batman Begins and see how humble it is in its scope, how intimate it is as a character study in Bruce Wayne, and how it perfectly balances its narrative between being a self-contained story that makes sense to the Batman neophyte but also provides enough knowing winks to the superfan of future installments to dream about. Perhaps the biggest compliment we can give Batman Begins is that it perfectly set the world up to be hyped by its eventual sequel.
6. INCEPTION (2010)
Much like Tenet earlier in this list, Inception is a movie that hides its lack of depth in its puzzle-like structure. However unlike Tenet, at least here it looks like Nolan is actually having something approximating fun (one can never be sure if Nolan knows what fun is). The stacked cast from Leonardo DiCaprio all the way down to eighth-billed Tom Berenger seem to be having a blast expositing a bunch of intelligent nonsense while getting into some wacky and highly inventive set-pieces that it is hard not to get along. More importantly Inception succeeds because for all the high-wire hijinks and convoluted mind-puzzles the movie puts us through, it is grounded by the relatable high stakes of one man desperately trying everything to get his children back. In many ways Inception is the platonic ideal of what a summer blockbuster should be: pure entertainment made with care and with just enough smarts to show that it respects its audience’s intelligence.
5. INTERSTELLAR (2014)
Like many of his post-Dark Knight movies, Interstellar is a movie whose ambitions are limitless. Trying to obviously emulate Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is an audacious and braggadocios task that Nolan does not quite accomplish his goal, but still leaves us with something approaching a masterpiece. The central narrative between a wormhole-jumping Coop (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murph (Jessica Chastains) strains for believability while its climax is either deeply opaque or banally simple but that does not matter because this movie is all about stunning scope. Interstellar is Nolan’s most beautiful and awe-inducing with multiple scenes that are the very definition of iconic. While Interstellar cannot decide if it wants to be emotional or cerebral, it ends up being a powerfully visceral experience that overwhelms the senses, just like that certain Kubrick movie it wants to evoke.
4. MEMENTO (2000)
In hindsight it is easy to see why Memento put Nolan on the map: it has a highly inventive narrative structure that demands intelligence and careful attention from the audience but still manages to be pure popcorn entertainment, all done on a minuscule budget but somehow impossibly with more filmmaking craft than most of its blockbuster peers. Guy Pearce is perfectly cast as Leonard, a man with no long-term memory who tries to piece together how his wife was killed. He walks that fine balance between being someone we wholeheartedly sympathize with but are also warily afraid of. Meanwhile fellow co-stars Carrie-Anne Moss (serious question: where did she go?) and the always delightful Joe Pantoliano add to the intrigue and menace of this neo-noir. But despite the movie’s great cast this is truly Nolan’s picture, a coming-out party of supreme intelligence, great flair, and meticulous precision. In so many ways Memento is the lodestar for all that follows.
3. DUNKIRK (2017)
While most of Nolan’s later work can be characterized as narratives struggling and barely succeeding to contain his penchant for spectacle, Dunkirk succeeds by simply dispensing with most narrative concerns in search of pure spectacle. Nolan wisely intuits that the historic rescue of Dunkirk is inspiration enough; in fact its impact is given all the more weight because our protagonists that populate the barren shores of Dunkirk are anonymous faces struggling to break out of the crowd, either blending in to the mass of soldiers on an empty beach or framed by the infinite void of sea and sky. Without characters to rely on, all we have to propel us forward is Nolan’s ingenious framing device, punctuated by the most anxiety-inducing score ever created. which proves to be more than enough. At under two hours, it also serves as a reminder that a movie does not need to be bloated in order to qualify as an epic, a lesson one hopes Nolan takes to heart.
2. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
One of the ways you know a movie is a culture-altering event is the many copycats that follow in its wake (usually by learning the wrong lessons). With The Dark Knight, the wrong lessons are there for all to see: the over-reliance of superhero movies as the cornerstone of the blockbuster industry, the push to make any kind of intellectual property dark and gritty, and the fetishization of villains as compelling anti-heroes can all be traced to the success of this Batman sequel. But Hollywood learning the wrong lessons in The Dark Knight’s wake should not diminish that the movie is every bit as revolutionary as its reputation suggests. Every pale imitation to follow in its wake it testament that The Dark Knight is close to perfect and close to claiming the crown of Christopher Nolan’s critical apex (even while it is undeniably Nolan’s cultural apex).
1. THE PRESTIGE (2006)
The Prestige is at the top of this list because it is the only one to combine all of the disparate elements of Nolan’s obsessions – his love of non-linear narratives, the subjectivity of human memory, the nature of time and causality – and pair it with a story and characters that has actual moral weight and emotional gravitas. It also helps that he stumbles upon two career high performances from Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rival magicians who destroy everything, including themselves, in their quest to better the other. It is the only period film in Nolan’s oeuvre which is a shame, because he obviously works so well in this mode. Perhaps the biggest legacy of this movie however is that it inadvertently finds Batman (Bale) matching up with Wolverine (Jackman) as they both fall in love with Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) before all three actors ultimately got sucked up by the super hero industrial complex, reminding us of the untold cost of having our best actors devote their best years to doing expensive cosplay. Fittingly, it serves as a reminder that no matter his filmmaking flaws we should be grateful to have Nolan, our last modern auteur who continues to make whatever movie he wants on whatever budget he needs.