Christopher Nolan’s filmography is one of the most consistent and evocative canons in contemporary American cinema. He only releases a movie every two to three years, so in many ways, each feels like an event. His work has a massive cult following that will defend his films to the last thread. Can you imagine any other filmmaker whose critics receive death threats in response to negative reviews? So, with the release of Nolan’s 10tth film, Dunkirk, what better time to look back and rank the works of one of cinema’s most wildly renowned auteurs. 10. The Following Nolan’s debut is a wonder of limited budget filmmaking. The director famously shot the film over the course of a year with a budget of only $6,000. All of Nolan’s preoccupations are on display in this time-jumping noir. There is no denying that the film is modest in reach though, the minimalism is both its strength and its weakness. There is a tension that shows Nolan wrestling with containing the story. Although later he would go on to be incapable of controlling his urges, here his budget forces him to. Nolan crafted a tightly calibrated thriller to mark the auspicious announcement of one of the most important filmmakers of the last two decades. 9. Batman Begins The commercial praise for this film is where the feverish love of the trilogy began and later sparked the death threats that were met with negative critical response to The Dark Knight. Nolan’s first chapter in his Batman saga felt like a bold and vibrant springboard to reimagine the character of Bruce Wayne for the big screen. It is a serviceable, and at times, great superhero film. Nolan wisely strips all the glitz from Batman. It isn’t until an hour into the film that we even see the caped crusader in his full attire, because at the end of the day, Nolan has other concerns. He structured his Batman Trilogy to be an examination of crime and the Gotham city police department, while also focusing on the moral universe of Bruce Wayne, not Batman. He was tasked with something nearly impossible and honored both the legacy of Batman while paving the way for a new type of superhero film. Nolan’s take on Batman changed the way an entire industry viewed action filmmaking. 8. The Dark Knight Rises Instead of focusing the conclusion of his epic comic book trilogy on an onslaught of action, Christopher Nolan centered his story on the Bruce Wayne’s ultimate sacrifice. As Wayne has aged out of his prime as the Dark Knight, he has been emotionally and physically ravaged by the events of the first two movies. This epic saga of good versus evil is focused on the slow march towards mortality that we all experience. An alternate title could have easily been The Dark Knight Ages. Roughly halfway through the film, Batman confronts Bane for the first time, and the scene is one of the most impressive things that Nolan has ever put together. Batman isn’t a match for Bane physically, yet Nolan pushes his characters to levels of bodily violence that are stunningly blunt and brutal and unlike many of the Marvel films, his hero is in danger that we truly believe could kill him. There is a sadness echoing in scene after scene of this film. Michael Caine as Alfred is truly heartbreaking, and the final moments of the film are a culmination of eight hours of intense anguish. Bruce Wayne loves Gotham and he will do whatever it takes to save it, even if it means abandoning him. Through Alfred we are able to say goodbye to Bruce Wayne and only Nolan would have the clout to be able to pull of such a personal ending. Here, Nolan fashioned a truly satisfying conclusion to one of the great modern film franchises. 7. Insomnia People often consider this minor Nolan because it is considered a “job for hire.” Off the heels of Memento, Christopher Nolan could have done almost anything he wanted, particularly as a new director in the early 2000’s, so it is rather interesting that he decided to remake a Norwegian thriller from a few years before. It is easy to classify it as an outlier since it is the only film he hasn’t at least been a co-screenwriter on. While it doesn’t have the grand pronouncements of a Nolan film, I think this is one of his most interesting works in many ways. The film presents itself as a cat and mouse thriller where the mouse has the upper hand at all times. Nolan takes this a step further and focuses on the moral universe that Al Pacino’s character creates, before his soul quickly deteriorates. With this film, Nolan began to define himself as someone concerned with men who try to treat their realities with subjective truth. If nothing else, it is one hell of a procedural. 6. Interstellar This is a movie that is simultaneously Christopher Nolan’s finest film and his worst, and upon rewatching, it is certainly his most frustrating. There is no mistaking the craft and spectacle at hand, but it is this precision that makes it all the more infuriating when Nolan makes certain character decisions that undermine the actual themes of the film. To his credit, Nolan was also going for his grandest work to date. He is operating on a level of emotion that his films rarely reach. Roughly halfway through the film, in what may be some of the finest few minutes in Nolan’s career, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Cooper, views tapes that have been sent from his children. The film is positing a world where time operates in a non-linear manner and this moment captures the malleability of time in a way that we have never seen before. Nolan has often gotten superb work from his actors, yet McConaughey may give the finest performance in his filmography. Yet, the sporadic greatness of this film only makes the end result more of a letdown. Somewhere inside this gargantuan film is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, Nolan wasn’t able to find it. 5. Inception Considering the task of writing Inception leaves my head spinning. It is a work of pure imagination that has so many pieces floating in the air that it is a wonder the film works at all. Nolan is juggling one story, but operating on several layers of interconnected threads, and just when the audience gets their bearings with the heavy exposition, Nolan adds even more to this twisting tale. Nolan is such a literalist that the film is too tidy, however. If Inception had existed in the confusion a little bit more, it might have been a masterpiece. For a film about dream infiltration and digging deeper and deeper into someone’s subconscious, the movie is incredibly clear and everything fits together like a beautifully complex puzzle. This is Nolan’s most auteur-driven work. His protagonists are always trying to create their own moral universes, but in Inception, his lead character is the architect of the entire narrative. DiCaprio in this film is crafting every second of the world, and because of this, the tidiness of the narrative is a flaw. DiCaprio’s Cobb is about as unreliable a protagonist as one can be, but Nolan uses him to orient the viewer at every step. While this works great in some films, there is no ambiguity at the end of this film which seems disingenuous. Even the famous last shot of the spinning top isn’t really that ambiguous. In the end, regardless if that top falls or not, Cobb has reconciled his own subjective truth and found happiness in whatever reality he has chosen to live in. 4. The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan began to reinvent the superhero genre in 2005 with Batman Begins, but when The Dark Knight hit theaters in 2008, it hit cinemagoers with a dose of the unexpected. Nolan’s sequel is a balancing act that can’t quite make it all the way across the tightrope. While the first ninety minutes is a bona fide masterpiece, the introduction of the fully transformed Two Face burdens the film with an additional storyline that is too rushed. The idea of this narrative shift is great, but it leaves the audience feeling that this storyline should have been the third film. This film belongs to Heath Ledger for good reason. Ledger’s Joker is one of the great screen villains of all time. The unpredictability of the Joker is a chaotic match for the more practical Batman. Even as one of the true cinematic geniuses working today Nolan truly believes in the ability of audiences to keep up. Unlike Inception, Nolan has no pretensions of holding the audience’s hand through The Dark Knight. At every chance, Nolan is hoping to challenge his audience, which is why it made such a splash in 2008. Audiences responded to the film because they felt like they had to meet it on its own ground. The set pieces are magnificent, particularly the 18-wheeler flipping over on Whacker Drive. Till the world ends, this will look just as good because it was captured practically. Nolan is a true proponent of film and preserving the cinematic experience. The Dark Knight plays well at home, but seeing it in theaters is a true jolt of pure cinema that has rarely been met since. 3. Memento Nolan’s first foray into studio filmmaking is one of the most cocksure announcements of a major talent. Tarantino and P.T. Anderson are a few of his contemporaries that came rushing onto the scene with a cinematic craft that seemed to crawl out of nowhere fully formed. Memento is a brilliant puzzle that fits together with elegant precision. It is a testament to Nolan that the film is cohesive. The narrative bends time and truth and establishes a world that is inhabited by a self-inflicted unreliable narrator. Guy Pierce brings a detached iciness to the character of Leonard that is meant to hold the audience at a distance, which makes the final reveal that Leonard is the maker of his own cyclical destiny even more powerful. Thematically, this is most similar to Inception. Leonard, just like Cobb, is a man that exists in a world of subjective truth that he personally created. They each craft the world around them, but the difference is that Nolan pulls the rug out from under us and shows us that Leonard is in fact the villain of his own life in a way that Cobb is the martyr of his. Memento is an ingenious thriller, unburdened by conventions, that takes a well-worn genre and breathes unequivocal life into it. 2. Dunkirk Lean and muscular, Dunkirk is a triumph of sustained tension. It is Nolan’s most narratively ambitious film since Memento. There are three storylines, one taking place over a week (the mole or land story), one taking place over a day (sea) and one taking place over an hour (air). The three storylines are occurring simultaneously, all taking up different spans of time, but ultimately, they have the same end point. This structure is meant to directly reflect the chaos of warfare, while also putting the viewer in the perspective of the different styles of military combat. Nolan engrosses the viewer in the quick and dispassionate dog fights, the slow and methodical tug of the boat across the vast ocean and finally the intimate and overwhelming viscera of the ground troops. The entire film is about the thirst for survival and the emotional havoc of wartime. We scarcely learn any of the characters names, because Nolan never pauses the film to include any exposition about the soldiers. If the audience gets any backstory on characters, then it is something they have to ascertain themselves. This technique leaves the film with no genuine heroes, except for arguably the Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance characters. With no heroes, we see these young soldiers doing everything they possibly can to survive. The film is a war film, but it is just as much about the act and merciless attempt to survive at all costs during the massive cogs of war. Buoyed by Nolan’s insistence to fill his films with practical effects when possible, this is his most visually arresting film. There are moments of pure pictorial stillness that are punctuated by the randomness of war. Early in the film, two soldiers are running with a man on stretcher. The camera parallels them as they pass hordes of men. The shot brings the audience into the physical landscape of this beach awash with sea foam that covers the dead soldiers to the thousands of men waiting on the beach in erect lines for their boat home. Dunkirk is a breathless tightening of tension. The film operates like a vice, dropping the viewer in a moment of survival that prolongs for the entire runtime. Nolan never loosens the noose that he ties around the audience’s neck, mirroring the constant and unnerving reality of war never that lets up. 1. The Prestige It took a while for this to crystallize as superior Nolan. It is so unassuming in structure and form that is nearly invisible in its mastery. Nolan’s preoccupation with obsession and truth is on full display. The Prestige is cleverly structured just like a magic trick. Each act builds towards an ending of such moral clarity that it upends the entire film before it. The audience has a clear definition of who the supposed villain of the film is, but in the final moments, Nolan twists our expectations with his most dynamic twist to date. Yet the film isn’t about twists; Nolan engages with his material too much to settle for a twist being the emotional fulcrum for his work to pivot on. Nolan often works with ensembles, but this may be his most effective cast. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are central to the emotional climax, but it is the supporting cast that adds the depth that is sometimes missing in his ensembles. Of this cast, Rebecca Hall stands out as the unfortunate wife of Bale. Hall is an actress that continually surprises, but in this film, she doubles down on her slightly inward persona to envision a character that is destroyed by the men around her. At its heart, this is a film about rivalry, but it is ultimately about the ability of people to tell the narrative untruths that they need to live their life. The rival magicians are captive to their own jaded view of the world. They are unable to comprehend the world around them. Instead, they build their own moral universes that are as complex and twisted as the magic they try to perfect. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related One Response Shawn EH July 27, 2017 Great list. I would put Inception #1, and leave the Dark Knight off, but I’m crazy. Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.