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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

Visionary director and writer of movies that can be described as “the return of the blockbuster” with each and every addition, Christopher Nolan has come to be known as a mind-bending film genius. Since the young age of 7 years old, Nolan has been infatuated with the creation of cinema, starting out by creating his own short films on his father’s Super 8 camera. From then on, Nolan’s life has been dedicated to creating worlds within worlds, keeping the audience on their toes, and wondering what could possibly happen next. With each of his films (somewhat miraculously released within about 2-3 years of each other every time), he pours his heart and soul into the characters, and more notably the plot, thoroughly researching multitudes of scientific theories and twisting them in ways the viewer can understand (if you’re really paying attention).

Before we begin, I’d like to make a note that this list today includes films that Christopher Nolan has directed and also at least had a major part in writing, unfortunately leaving the underrated thriller Insomnia out of the list today, despite its thrillingly dark premise and notable performances. Another note: As we delve into the creative process and beauty of his films, spoilers will be in this post as well.

10. Following (1998)

The first film on our list today was also Nolan’s first film that gained him international recognition as a writer and director, employing the guerilla-style 16mm film and a budget of just about $6,000. When a young and aspiring writer is looking for character inspiration, he begins to select strangers to follow and study their behavior, attracting the attention of another ‘observational’ individual. Using extreme close-ups and a high-pitched, anxiety-inducing soundtrack from David Julyan, the thrill and suspense are forced through the audience like an IV. Boomingly successful, though short and sweet, the film grossed an incredible $48,482 in the box offices which, with the support from his new filmmaking fans, was more than enough to begin funding his next highly successful project, Memento. This film serves as a precursor of what talent is to come before the budget costs shot up to the millions, also how resourceful Nolan could be with his budget, and how hard he worked to get where he is today.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell
Runtime: 69 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.5

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9. Tenet (2020)

This reality-bender (in true Nolan style) is his most recent release, surprisingly released in theaters despite a global pandemic lockdown, still exceeding its massive $205 million budget with a $350 million gross in the box offices worldwide. Our protagonist (John David Washington) is fighting against terrorism and inevitable war, in an attempt to prevent the end of the world as we know it, he has been provided with a secret word that could solve the puzzle: Tenet. This epic, mind-blowing piece of film is everything you would expect from a Nolan film, except without the clarity in the final act. Though thoroughly entertaining and clever, the film is very confusing throughout; between scenes that are intentionally hard to hear over the blaring score by Ludwig Göransson and the moments where the characters themselves get headaches when trying to understand the logic, this film is not for the casual viewer and may need to be viewed more than a couple times to fully understand the logical goal.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Runtime: 150 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.5

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8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

In the third installment of Nolan’s groundbreaking Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is a triumphant finale in which Batman ends at one of the greatest character arcs ever created for the caped crusader. Bruce Wayne hasn’t been Batman for over 8 years now, ravaged by the unforgettable loss of Rachel Dawes in the previous film, but is forced to return to fight off the terrifying terrorist threat known only as Bane (Tom Hardy). Riddled with incredible performances from the supporting cast of characters, we see the introduction of Batman’s comic book nemesis, Bane, the slinky, sultry, and self-serving Selina Kyle aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), and the deceitful daughter of Ra’s, Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard). Though containing a few plot holes and unnecessary twists, this film still has the same incredible scoring by Hans Zimmer, casting, and directing that we love the series for. Overall, Tom Hardy’s performance was the highlight of this film, striking fear into the heart of the now highly-flawed Batman with lines like, “Peace has cost you your strength. Victory has defeated you,” as he easily pummels our beloved protagonist into the ground.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway
Runtime: 164 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.4

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7. Inception (2010)

In a conceptual rollercoaster of consistently increasing depth, Inception is Nolan’s most popular mind-bending action movie that will make you question consciousness itself. A thief named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who specializes in stealing secrets from people’s subconscious is tasked with an impossible feat: To plant an idea into someone’s mind. Though at times a bit over the top, this Nolan film is one of the greats, featuring a solid cast and use of creative film tools to wow the audience. This cinema classic is still widely referenced in today’s culture, further exploring the ‘dream within a dream’ concept that the film introduced, though whether intentionally or forgetfully, never really got around to fully explaining. Though Cobb is seemingly trapped in his own dreams toward the end of the film, the lines begin to blur between dream and reality; some find this conclusion to be ridiculously contrived and lazy, while others were astounded by the open-ended question it posed to the viewer about reality. This is one of the best movies streaming on Netflix.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliot Page
Runtime: 148 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.8

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6. Interstellar (2014)

In one of the most interesting and creative Sci-Fi masterpieces of our time, Interstellar is a beautiful and heart-wrenching adventure through time, space, and the human condition. When the world is facing its end and the survivors of the earth are forced into farming to prevent starvation, NASA physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) attempts one last journey into space to find a new planet for humanity. Enlisting the former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and a team of researchers, they must travel through a newly discovered wormhole to destinations never thought reachable. Experimenting with the theory of relativity, Stephen Hawking’s wormhole theory, inter-dimensional travel, and the tangible strength of love itself, we get this operatic and emotional space epic. I would like to add that, despite its focus on getting the science down to a T (and how widely critics have eye-rolled at it), this film is ultimately about the unimaginable power of love, and that however common of a word it is, we still have no idea what it means, nor the power it has the potential to hold. I could go on about this but for the sake of movie-watching, let’s move on.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Runtime: 169 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.6

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5. Batman Begins (2005)

In the first and highly successful installment of Nolan’s trilogy, Batman Begins is undoubtedly original and arguably the best hero origin story for the dark vigilante of comics. When a young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his parents and ultimately blames himself, his revenge attempt is thwarted by another interested party. Shamed by his closest friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) for choosing violence, he banishes himself to the far east where he learns how to fight and protect himself, attracting the attention of the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson) who hones his fighting and stealth skills to become the Batman. Differing from all other iterations of the character, Nolan’s adaptation creates a film focused on the character and the humanistic flaws of Bruce Wayne, not just Batman, beginning an incredible character arc that tells the world anyone could be Batman (if you have a few billion dollars lying around). Another notable difference about this Batman is displayed in an iconic scene where Ducard — aka Ra’s al Ghul — is defeated in a soon-to-be-derailed light rail and is told “I won’t kill you… but I don’t have to save you,” going against Batman’s number one rule and thrilling audiences both new to and versed in the Batman canon.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe
Runtime: 140 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.2

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4. The Dark Knight (2008)

This is where the list becomes increasingly difficult, as the films continue to astound and impress in many different ways. In the second and most successful of the series, The Dark Knight is renowned as a dark tale that makes you question what side you are on, or if there even are sides. Batman, Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) have kept crime to an all-time low with their un-tainted service of justice, giving Bruce Wayne the idea that retirement and a happy life with Rachel might be attainable until a new enemy bent on absolute chaos, The Joker (Heath Ledger), flips everything on its head. Oscar winner for best supporting actor, Heath Ledger’s incredible performance dove into what it means to be a hero, what it means to be a villain, and how the differences can so easily blur when faced with chaos, because as he 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 hero movie), serves as a darkly accurate commentary on society, questioning where the lines can and should be drawn if there are any at all.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
Runtime: 152 minutes
IMDb Rating: 9.0

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3. Dunkirk (2017)

In Dunkirk, Nolan’s first history movie and one of the best war movies ever, he beautifully captures a tense and challenging moment during WWII, one that has been mostly overlooked as the plot for a movie, until his magical team of movie-makers gets ahold of it. In the spring of 1940, allied soldiers are trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, as Nazi forces advance into France using their superior tactics and engineering. During this time, the soldiers are awaiting rescue ships to save all 400,000 of them, most of which are able to survive thanks in major part to the British Royal Air Force that was able to fend off German bombers targeting the poor infantry. Scored by the ever-spectacular Hans Zimmer and sound designer Richard King, this film is built upon the tension and fear communicated through the eerie sound and lack of sound, haunting anyone willing to step into the boots of these battle fatigued soldiers.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance
Runtime: 106 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.8

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2. Memento (2000)

Nolan’s second film and first full-length feature film (made possible by the success of his first film, Following), Memento immediately caught the attention of anyone willing to give it a look. Suffering from a rare form of short-term memory loss, Leonard (Guy Pearce) somehow remembers that his wife was brutally raped and murdered. Despite not remembering what happened 15 minutes ago, he is driven to solve the crime of his late wifes’ passing, guided by clues and notes that he leaves himself. The first of Nolan’s mind-benders, this film is darkly comedic and tragic, based on an incredible, original short story by Christopher’s brother, Jonathan Nolan (also co-wrote The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), with whom he has worked closely throughout his career. Driven by its cinematography, scripting, mental health awareness, music scoring (again, David Julyan from 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.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Runtime: 113 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.4

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1. The Prestige (2006)

“Are you watching closely?” Based on the novel from Christopher Priest, The Prestige is a gritty and periodic piece that brings a new edge to magicians in the Edwardian Era fighting to impress and surprise audiences everywhere. Despite being based on an award-winning novel, the real challenge that the Nolan brothers accomplished here was bringing the story to life on-screen, making it the number one pick for our list today. 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 characters vie for your sympathy and successfully so as they obsessively construct their illusions, sacrificing humanity and decency as magic is all they have. Once again working with composer David Julyan and sound designer Richard King, the emotional distress is amplified to the viewer in ways that can only be experienced first hand. 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. This is also one of the best movies streaming on Amazon Prime right now.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson
Runtime: 130 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.5

Watch on Amazon

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.

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 and legendary. From essays about the instrumental sound designs and scoring to narrated scene breakdowns (cinematography, lighting, direction, etc.), the films are absolutely 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 them all that more exciting to experience.

It’s also good to remember that, due to his success, he 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, appearing in 8 of his films and regarded by Nolan as his “good luck charm.”

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