Revisiting and Ranking the Films of Christopher Nolan

I really hate to say it, because I love to be really pretentious and snobby when it comes to movies, but Christopher Nolan is my favorite living director. I would love to give you all a name you wouldn’t know (you’ve never heard of Kar Wai Wong???) or give you a name to be different (I just totally get Michael Haneke….) but I can’t lie to myself. Maybe it is because he has made the best superhero film to date or maybe its because I just like his style of infusing blockbusters with thought but no matter what it is, I love Nolan. I believe in him and I trust him when I buy a ticket to one of his latest creations. So before Bane and co. try to top The Dark Knight, here is a look back at the films from Nolan’s impressive catalogue. From the potential ridden Following to the mind game that is Inception, Nolan has never ceased to amaze with eye catching visuals and conflicted heroes. All seven of these movies represent a filmmaker who isn’t scared to go in new directions while still be rooted in Nolan’s own signature style. They are simply some of the best films the cinema has had to offer over the past 20 years. Here are the films of Christopher Nolan.

7. Insomnia

In my book Nolan has the honor of being one of those filmmakers that have never made a bad film but he walked the line pretty close in his third feature, Insomnia. Staring Al Pacino and Robin Williams in a murder mystery about the death of a young girl, Insomnia never truly escapes its own confinements. Murder mysterious now a days have a hard time finding their identity and this film falls in that category. It is only until the second half of the film that Nolan starts to explore dark themes of truth and perception (perception is a theme that Nolan has revisited many times in his films). When Pacino’s Will Dormer starts to unravel is when the movie, thematically, starts to grow and becomes much more than its first hour. The other strength of the film is the atmosphere of the picture which is able to mix dark tones with a setting that never leaves the daylight. Insomnia was Nolan’s first studio picture and it shows with so many cliches and generic plot/character development but its second half and overall atmosphere ultimately saves it from itself.

Best Scene: Chase scene across the logs

6. Following

Debut films aren’t always about hitting a homerun. They are sometimes about getting something respectable on screen. Following may be rough around the edges but it doesn’t disappoint. A story of a writer following people to sort of escape his own dull reality. This leads to a chance meeting which spirals into a story of perception and deception. Following maybe Nolan learning the ropes but it is still very much the filmmaker we know today. With a twisty plot and some truly dark characters, Following falls right in line with even his later films. This first effort isn’t as polished as one might expect nor does its central idea wow like other filmmakers first films (Pi) but it is a solid film that explores how little we know about the people all around us.

Favorite Scene: First Robbery

5. Batman Begins

Begins focuses on the caped crusaders, ahem, beginnings with a slightly darker twist. Written as a new start for the Batman franchise, Begins is all about starting things anew and introducing the world to a different side of the superhero. The biggest success of Batman Begins is that it is the first film that really got Bruce Wayne/Batman. I love Burton’s batman films but Keaton always felt sort of hollow as Bruce. Here Bruce is front and center as Begins is all about his journey from the loss of his parents to a creature of the night. Bruce is fleshed out and it is only after his story is given time to grow that the Bat ears finally come out. Nolan not only nailed Bruce but he nailed almost everything about the character. From the supporting players, who are very much faithful adaptations of their comic counter parts, to Gotham itself which feels like the second biggest character in the film. Finally, a film that was made for Batman and explored not just the cape and cowl but everything that has made the character iconic over the past 75 years. Batman Begins isn’t without its shortcomings as Nolan does run into trouble with some lazy filmmaking and editing choices (numerous plot holes and some wooden acting) which makes Begins a much less disciplined film. The Dark Knight would clean a lot of that up but Begins is a true Batman film and a celebration of what a superhero film ought to be.

Favorite Scene: Ra’s Al Gauls and Batman’s final showdown on the train

4. The Prestige

The Prestige sets itself up as the Amadeus of magician movies only to turn into a deformed version of itself. Complex, strange, and full of twists, The Prestige is a difficult film to watch but also a rewarding one. Nolan explores the relationship between two artists while also exploring the relationship between an artist and their work. Obsession and recognition are both central themes and Nolan weaves them together elegantly. The Prestige is about what is seen and unseen, what we understand and what we don’t. The revelations don’t surprise as much as other films but they hit harder. What may have looked like stretched thin logic on paper is turned into something much more. Which leads to the ending which is one of best plot twists in modern cinema. Its smart and doesn’t cheat the audience while giving the movie an emotional slap to face that is an exclamation point for the themes and motives of the picture. The Prestige is a world of tricks and what you are willing to do to conceal them from your audience and yourself.

Favorite Scene: Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”


3. The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight might not be Nolan’s best work but it probably is his greatest achievement as a filmmaker. Superhero films were escapist fantasy for many of us to indulge in and even though The Dark Knight stays true to that description, it also freely moves away from it. Steeped in the mythos of Batman and molded to fit into the stories Nolan tells, TDK is a social examination of anyone who takes justice in their own hands. Nolan didn’t look at Batman to find inspiration; he looked through him to find out what made him tick and what could make him unravel. I could easily praise Ledger here or focus on how it lived up to Begins but to do that would be to look away from the true heart of TDK. Chaos, society rules, and a gray world, the heart of TDK is in all that it reflects. Nolan didn’t just make a Batman movie; he made a social allegory for all the things our world tries to control. The war on terror, the patriot act, or terrorism, I don’t care what labels you throw on the movie it just goes to show the reach of this film about a man in a Bat suit. Not only that but technically speaking TDK is a tightly woven and emotionally engaging story. Focusing on two villains and giving each story line time to mature is one TDK’s greatest feats. It is a monster of a movie that never lets the viewer breath and is always exploring ugly and dark human emotions. Along with the next two films on this list, TDK is one of Nolan’s masterpieces and one of the best films in recent memory.

Favorite Scene: Interrogation room scene

2. Memento

Remember Sammy Jenkins. Those words are a thought, a memory, and a reality that has been twisted and manipulated to satisfy the viewer. From the beginning of Memento we look into the mind of Leonard who has short-term memory loss. He doesn’t let that get in the way of his quest to avenge his wife’s death as he spends his days hunting someone he has created over and over again. Taken from a short story written by his brother, Nolan has crafted a neo noir masterpiece that was only hinted at in his debut. It may not be as flashy as his later films nor is it as fun to revisit but to deny Memento of what a pure work of genius it is would be to rob one of cinema’s most haunting stories. Put together in fragments and assembled in an arc like plot device (which can be found in almost any college film studies textbook, including MSUs) Memento works as a mirror of a man. The end dissolves into the beginning and the middle casts a shadow over all that came before it and after it. It’s hard not to forget where you came from and where you ended up but it’s hard to forget Leonard. When the pieces are all put together it creates a picture of a soul lost in it’s own mind, a mind of repetition and fragmented existence.

Favorite Scene: Leonard’s last monologue

1. Inception 

Set in a world of dreams and memories, Inception isn’t about the logistics but about the natural order of things. Men were never made to know beyond their own perception and Inception explores the confinements of the human mind. It almost seems as Cobb and his Team go deeper and deeper into the human mind that the mind reacts in a way to almost bring out the intruder. Who has the right to the thoughts of others and who has the rights to play god in someone else’s world? Inception is Nolan’s greatest film and the film that has defined him. He seeks to look beyond the limits of the human mind and into the emotions and feelings that create it. Argue away about how the dreams aren’t real enough looking but Inception isn’t really about them in a natural sense. Each dream is manipulated to fit a construct that is unnatural and unwanted. Where can the human mind take us and when can it restrict us? Nolan looks inward in a way that other films have looked outward (2001: A Space Odyssey). Inception isn’t set in a world of absolutes but more in a world of the viewer. It is true that “who” views the movie changes the way it is seen. Some find it to be a tragic tale while others find it to be a happy one; the trick is in the idea that the film plants in our heads as a viewer. Nolan is always turning his films on those that watch them but here he does the ultimate mind bend with a film that changes in the eyes of each that see it. Yea the action is great and the filmmaking is flawless but it is what we feel that defines Inception. Some of you thought the totem fell and others feel that it didn’t but for me it wasn’t whether or not it fell. It was that Cobb didn’t care to look anymore. Living in your owned flawed reality is one thing but accepting it is the greatest gift that you can give yourself.

Favorite Scene: Fisher finding his father’s will and living testament


I had re-watched all these movies for the past week and they have given me faith that not only will Rise be a worthy addition to them but that Nolan is only getting started. So now that I am done looking at the past, I now look to the future with unhealthy anticipation.


About Brian Rector

I am 22 years old and I go to school at Missouri State in Springfield, Missouri. I have always been an avid filmgoer and I have always wanted a place to share my views and opinions on modern film. This blog is to give reviews on new release, thoughts on other artforms such as music and books, and to discuss the happenings of the film industry. View all posts by Brian Rector

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