Skip to main content

Ranked: The 11 best Christopher Nolan films

These are the best Christopher Nolan movies of all time

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

A visionary director and writer whose every release feels like a seismic event, 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 and keeping audiences guessing. Nolan seems to pour his heart and soul into every one of his films, which are somewhat miraculously released within two to three years of each other. What he’s best known for, though, is his dense plotting, which he infuses with scientific theories, twisting them in ways that viewers have to pay close attention to understand. His upcoming film Oppenheimer looks to be yet another chapter in that legacy.

This list includes only films that Nolan directed. What’s more, as we delve into the creative process and beauty of Nolan’s films, spoilers will definitely be involved, so you’ve been warned.

11. Following (1999)
11. Following
60 %
r 68m
Genre Drama, Thriller
Stars Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell
Directed by Christopher Nolan
The first movie on our list was also Nolan’s first film. It gained him international recognition as a writer and director, even though he used 16mm film and had a budget of only about $6,000. The film tells the story of a young, aspiring writer who is looking for character inspiration and begins to select strangers to follow and study. Eventually, he attracts the attention of another “observational” individual. Using extreme close-ups and a high-pitched, anxiety-inducing soundtrack from David Julyan, Following uses all the tricks Nolan has at his disposal to keep you feeling tense. Boomingly successful, though short and sweet, this film was more than enough to prove Nolan’s skill as a director and launched him into development on his next project, Memento.

10. Insomnia (2002)
10. Insomnia
78 %
Genre Crime, Mystery, Thriller
Stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank
Directed by Christopher Nolan

Nolan’s third movie may be his most straightforward, in part because it was adapted from a Norwegian film. Thanks to great performances from Hilary Swank, Al Pacino and Robin Williams, though, Insomnia proved that Nolan could also make straight-up, down-the-middle thrillers. The movie tells the story of an L.A. cop who is sent to a town in Alaska where the sun never sets to investigate a homicide. When he’s forced into a tête-à-tête with the murderer, he begins to question his own sanity and finds that he has more than a little trouble sleeping.

Insomnia Trailer #1 (2002) | Movieclips Classic Trailers

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 is Nolan’s most recent film, and was released during a pandemic when many theaters were closed. Even so, it still exceeded its $205 million budget with a $350 million box-office gross worldwide. Our protagonist (John David Washington) battles against forces that are working toward the end of the world by moving both forward and backward in time. 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 one another. 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. When the film starts, Bruce Wayne hasn’t been Batman for more than eight years — ravaged by injuries, the loss of Rachel Dawes in 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), a.k.a. 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, though. He tells Batman, “Peace has cost you your strength, victory has defeated you,” as he pummels our protagonist. Don’t worry though — Batman gets his happy ending.

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. The movie follows Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who specializes in stealing secrets from people when they’re dreaming. When the movie starts, though, he’s tasked with a seemingly impossible feat: planting an idea into someone’s mind. Though at times a bit over the top, this Nolan film features a solid cast and Nolan’s creativity on full display. The movie also invented an entire language for “dreams within dreams” — a concept the movie introduces but, intentionally or not, never really gets around to fully explaining. When the lines begin to blur between dreams and reality, some may be confused or bored, while others are likely to be astounded by the open-ended questions 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
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 who accompany him must travel through a wormhole in space to destinations never before thought to be reachable. Playing 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, this film is ultimately a tender examination of the ineffable parts of human life that are beyond scientific understanding.
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

The first highly successful movie in Nolan’s caped crusader trilogy, Batman Begins is undoubtedly original and arguably the best origin story Batman has gotten. 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), a.k.a. 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 the character’s fallibility. Of course, we see Batman’s start, 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 is a complication of one of Batman’s core rules, but one that ultimately serves to make the character even more compelling.

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. The second and most successful of the director’s Batman films, The Dark Knight complicates our own sense of what morality really means. When the film starts, 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), feels urgent in a way that most superhero movies never even attempt.
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 one of the most tense and challenging moments of World War II. 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. The Allied soldiers are awaiting rescue ships to save all 400,000 of them. Thanks to regular British citizens who donated their boats to the cause, most of the men were evacuated safely, and Dunkirk depicts that heroic, harrowing battle with grace. 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. Memento is Nolan’s first true mind-benders, but it’s also 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). Driven by its cinematography, scripting, and  score (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  period 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. They obsessively construct their illusions, sacrificing humanity and decency along the way. 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, The Prestige is also tender in a way some of his other films are not

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from: