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The 10 Best Christopher Nolan Films, Ranked

Christopher Nolan and wife, Emma Thomas at EE British Academy Film Awards - VIP Arrivals 2018

A visionary director and writer whose every release can be described as “the return of the blockbuster,” Christopher Nolan has come to be known as a mind-bending movie genius. Since the age of 7 — when he created his own short films on his father’s Super 8 camera — Nolan has been fascinated with cinema. His life is dedicated to creating worlds within worlds, keeping the audience on its toes and wondering what possibly could happen next. With every one of his films (somewhat miraculously released within two to three years of each other), Nolan pours his heart and soul into the characters — and more notably the plot, which he infuses with scientific theories, twisting them in ways that viewers can grasp (if they’re really paying attention).

I’ll note that this list includes films that Nolan has directed or at least had a major part in writing. I’ve unfortunately left the underrated thriller Insomnia off the list, despite its thrillingly dark premise and notable performances. Another note: As we delve into the creative process and beauty of Nolan’s films, spoilers will definitely be involved, so you’ve been warned.

10. Following (1999)
10. Following
60 %
r 68m
Genre Drama, Thriller
Stars Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell
Directed by Christopher Nolan
The first movie on our list also was Nolan’s first film. It gained him international recognition as a writer and director, as he utilized 16mm film and had a budget of only about $6,000. When a young and aspiring writer is looking for character inspiration, he begins to select strangers to follow and to study their behavior, attracting the attention of another “observational” individual. Using extreme close-ups and a high-pitched, anxiety-inducing soundtrack from David Julyan, thrill and suspense are injected into the audience like an IV. Boomingly successful, though short and sweet, this film grossed an incredible $48,482, which with support from his new filmmaking fans was more than enough to begin his next highly successful project, Memento.

Read more: Best Thriller Movies

9. Tenet (2020)
9. Tenet
69 %
pg-13 150m
Genre Action, Thriller, Science Fiction
Stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Directed by Christopher Nolan
This reality-bender (in true Nolan style) is his most recent film, surprisingly released during a pandemic when many theaters were closed — and it still exceeded its $205 million budget with a $350 million box-office gross worldwide. Our protagonist (John David Washington) fights terrorists and against inevitable war. In an attempt to avert the end of the world as we know it, he has been given a secret word — Tenet — that could solve the mystery and save the world. This mind-blowing film is everything you would expect from Nolan, except without the clarity in the final act. Though thoroughly entertaining and clever, Tenet is confusing. Scenes are intentionally hard to hear over the blaring score by Ludwig Göransson, and there are moments when even the characters struggle to understand. This film is not for casual viewers and may need to be seen more than a couple times if you want to fully grasp the plot.

8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
8. The Dark Knight Rises
78 %
pg-13 165m
Genre Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Stars Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman
Directed by Christopher Nolan
The third film of Nolan’s groundbreaking Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is a triumphant finale and concludes one of the greatest character arcs ever created for the caped crusader. Bruce Wayne hasn’t been Batman for more than eight years — ravaged by injuries, the loss of Rachel Dawes in the previous film, The Dark Knight, and blamed for the death of Harvey Dent. Batman is forced to return to battle Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist who, like Wayne, was trained by the League of Shadows and now holds Gotham City hostage. We meet slinky, sultry, self-serving Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), aka Catwoman, and Talia (Marion Cotillard), the deceitful daughter of Batman’s deceased nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul. Though The Dark Knight Rises has plot holes and unexplained twists, the cast shines, “The Bat” is completely badass, Hans Zimmer’s score soars, and Nolan’s directing rises. Hardy’s performance as Bane is the highlight of the movie, however. He tells Batman, “Peace has cost you your strength, victory has defeated you,” as he pummels our protagonist. But this film ends in an amazing way for our hero.

7. Inception (2010)
7. Inception
74 %
pg-13 148m
Genre Action, Science Fiction, Adventure
Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe
Directed by Christopher Nolan
In a conceptual roller coaster of consistently increasing depth, Inception is Nolan’s most popular mind-bender — and it might make you question consciousness itself. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) specializes in stealing secrets from people when they’re dreaming, but he’s tasked with a seemingly impossible feat: Plant an idea into someone’s mind. Though at times a bit over the top, this Nolan film features a solid cast and uses creative cinematic tools to wow audiences. This classic still is widely referenced in today’s culture as it explores “dreams within dreams” — a concept the movie introduces but, intentionally or not, never really gets around to fully explaining. Though Cobb seems trapped in his own dreams toward the end, the lines begin to blur between dreams and reality. Some find this ridiculously contrived and lazy, while others were astounded by the open-ended question that Inception poses to audiences.

Read more: Best movies on HBO Max

6. Interstellar (2014)
6. Interstellar
74 %
pg-13 169m
Genre Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction
Stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Directed by Christopher Nolan
In one of the most interesting and creative sci-fi films of our time, Interstellar is a beautiful and heart-wrenching adventure through time, space, and the human condition. When the world faces its end and Earth’s inhabitants are forced into farming to prevent starvation, a NASA physicist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), inspires his daughter (Anne Hathaway) and a new team of astronauts to make one last journey into space to find a new home for humanity. Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and the researchers must travel through a wormhole in space to destinations never thought reachable before. Experimenting with relativity, Stephen Hawking’s theories, and travel between dimensions, Nolan gives us this operatic and emotional epic. Despite Interstellar‘s focus on scientific concepts (some of which critics said were portrayed inaccurately), this film is about the unimaginable power of love.
5. Batman Begins (2005)
5. Batman Begins
70 %
pg-13 140m
Genre Action, Crime, Drama
Stars Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson
Directed by Christopher Nolan
In the first and highly successful movie in Nolan’s caped crusader trilogy, Batman Begins is undoubtedly original and arguably the best hero origin story of the dark vigilante of comics. A young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his parents and blames himself, but his attempt at revenge years later is thwarted. Shamed by his closest friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) for choosing violence, Wayne banishes himself to the Far East, where he learns how to fight and protect himself without having to kill, and attracts the attention of the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), aka Ra’s al Ghul, who hones Wayne’s fighting and stealth. Batman Begins differs from all other iterations of the character, as Nolan’s adaptation focuses on Wayne’s fallibility. Of course we see Batman and how he begins (if you have a few billion bucks lying around), but we also witness conflicts within the caped crusader that he’ll battle throughout Nolan’s trilogy. Notably, as he defeats Ra’s in this film’s climax, Batman tells him: “I won’t kill you … but I don’t have to save you.” This goes against Batman’s No. 1 rule — do not kill — but it intriguingly adds to Dark Knight canon by pointing out all of his complexities like perhaps never before.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
4. The Dark Knight
84 %
pg-13 152m
Genre Drama, Action, Crime, Thriller
Stars Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine
Directed by Christopher Nolan
This is where the best-of Nolan list becomes increasingly difficult, as his films continue to astound in so many different ways. In the second and most successful of the director’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, the plot turns dark and makes you question which side you’re on — or if there even are sides. Batman, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are succeeding in driving crime to an all-time low in Gotham, giving Bruce Wayne the idea that he can retire to a happy life with lifelong love Rachel Dawes. That is until a new enemy bent on total chaos, the Joker (Heath Ledger), flips everything on its head. Ledger posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role in 2009, and his incredible performance delved into what it means to be a hero, what it means to be a villain, and how the differences can blur in the face of chaos. As Ledger’s Joker says: “I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.” This film, with its astounding performances and groundbreaking script (at least for a superhero movie), serves as a darkly accurate commentary on society, questioning where the lines can and should be drawn — if there are any at all.
3. Dunkirk (2017)
3. Dunkirk
94 %
pg-13 107m
Genre War, Action, Drama
Stars Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Directed by Christopher Nolan
In Dunkirk, Nolan’s first historical movie and one of the best war movies ever, he beautifully captures a tense and challenging moment during World War II, one that has been mostly overlooked as the plot for a movie, until Nolan’s team of moviemakers dug in. In the spring of 1940, Allied soldiers are trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, as Nazi forces advance into France using superior tactics and armament. During this time, the Allied soldiers await rescue ships to save all 400,000 of them, most of whom are able to survive thanks in large part to the British Royal Air Force, which was able to fend off German bombers targeting the poor infantry. With help from a score by the always-spectacular Hans Zimmer and sound designer Richard King, Dunkirk builds upon tension and fear communicated through eerie sound — or lack thereof — haunting anyone willing to step into the boots of these battle-fatigued soldiers.

Read more: Best War Movies

2. Memento (2000)
2. Memento
80 %
r 113m
Genre Mystery, Thriller
Stars Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Nolan’s second film and first full-length feature (made possible by the success of his first movie, Following), Memento immediately caught the attention of anyone willing to see it. Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from a rare form of short-term memory loss, but he somehow remembers that his wife was brutally raped and murdered. Despite not remembering what happened 15 minutes ago, Leonard is driven to find his wife’s killer, guided by clues and notes that he leaves for himself. The first of Nolan’s mind-benders, this film is darkly comedic and tragic, and is based on an incredible original short story by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan (who also co-wrote The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), with whom he has worked closely throughout his film career. Driven by its cinematography, scripting, mental health awareness, music scoring (David Julyan, Nolan’s collaborator in Following), and constant mystery all the way to the end, this early Nolan film is a perfect cinematic package and very nearly his best work.
1. The Prestige (2006)
1. The Prestige
66 %
pg-13 130m
Genre Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction
Stars Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine
Directed by Christopher Nolan
“Are you watching closely?” Based on the award-winning novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige is a gritty and periodic piece that brings a new edge to magicians in the Edwardian Era trying to impress and surprise audiences everywhere. The real challenge that the Nolan brothers accomplished here was bringing the story to life onscreen, making it the top pick on our list. Two rival magicians, set at odds by a previous partnership gone awry, compete to achieve the greatest illusion of all: teleportation. Brilliantly acted by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, both men vie for your sympathy, so as they obsessively construct their illusions, sacrificing humanity and decency, as magic is all they have. Working with composer David Julyan and sound designer Richard King, the emotional distress is amplified in ways that can only be experienced firsthand. Besides being excellently pieced together as another mind-bending masterpiece for Nolan, this film involves themes of humanity, scientific theory, and reality, calling on brilliant minds like Nikola Tesla to be portrayed in the film and blur the lines between science and magic.

Read more: Best Movies on Amazon Prime

About Christopher Nolan Movies

Director Christopher Nolan with Dark Knight cast members attending his Hand and Foot print ceremony in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood 2012.
Director Christopher Nolan with Dark Knight cast members attending his Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 2012.

As a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s work, I have spent a lot of time analyzing the different aspects of his films that make them so unforgettable. From essays about the instrumental sound designs and scoring to narrated scene breakdowns (cinematography, lighting, direction, etc.), his films are incredible to behold. Focusing on his favorite style of film, the mind-bender, Nolan uses his screenwriting tactics to perform a great many “gotcha” moments that throw audiences for a loop, which make his movies all the more exciting to experience.

It’s also good to remember that, due to his success, Nolan likes to keep a fairly consistent team of creators around, which makes his films so consistently triumphant. Credits for contributions to his masterful films go to co-writer Jonathan Nolan, sound designer Richard King, composers David Julyan and Hans Zimmer, cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley, producer Emma Thomas, and actor Michael Caine, who appears as various characters — including the beloved Alfred Pennyworth in the Dark Knight trilogy — in eight of Nolan’s films and is regarded by the director as his “good luck charm.”

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