Even the least impressive efforts of Christopher Nolan are beautifully shot, expertly directed, and will always warrant discussion after viewings. There are always thought-provoking ideas presented in a context that gets even the most casual viewers talking about what it all means. That’s what makes him such a standout director. It’s also why ranking the films of Christopher Nolan is the most difficult thing I’ve had to do for this site. Ranking the filmography of any directors is difficult in itself. You’ve got to decide whether you’re ranking personal favorite’s vs. their finest work, or perhaps even the best representation of their work. Like Inception, most of us attach ourselves to the ideas Nolan films represent to determine which one is our favorite. I’ll be remaining as objective as possible for this one to determine which are the best and worst Christopher Nolan films.
At least I’m not trying to rank someone like Paul Thomas Anderson.
Again, I should reiterate: I don’t believe Christopher Nolan is capable of making a movie worth calling “bad” as of yet. It’s not in his DNA. When he has big budget films, he makes every dollar count. When he has a budget of $6 thousand, he stretches it to make it look even better. Following inspiration from classic noir films, Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut is shot entirely on film and in black-and-white. Without access to professional lighting equipment, Nolan used natural lighting to compliment the b&w exposure. He filmed it at the houses of friends and family on weekends since everyone in the cast & crew was busy being employed on the weekdays (How dare they?). The highlight of the film is Nolan’s first use of the non-linear storytelling, a technique that he would repeat with a few of his films. Sadly, it’s also the most unnecessarily convoluted of his works. The film itself is an effective mystery and merely scratches the surface of his projects to come. Definitely watch this one just for the fact that it was made on a ham sandwich budget and see how impressive it still is.
I’m a firm believer in the club of “Not all remakes suck” camp. I haven’t seen the original film (which I’ve heard is quite good) so I can’t compare and contrast. But here is where the convolution stopped and the story was allowed to play out. Will Dormer (Al Pacino in one of his final roles where he wasn’t a charicature) carries his demons into the depths of Nightmute, Alaska while helping out an old associate on a murder case. The guilt perpetuating the mind of Dormer causes him to begin suffering from insomnia. His exhaustion is ever-present thanks to a clever use of the Arctic Circle’s midnight sun. A creepily intense thriller that also has Robin Williams playing against type as the killer.
The story itself would make a more than satisfactory thriller but the conceit to Nolan’s fascination with story structure separates this from simple genre fare. Color for the past presented in chronological order *brain explodes*). The non-linear story between the past and present, with opposing color schemes to accentuate the common noir theme of deception (Black and white for the present presented backwards. It’s also Wally Pfister’s first time working with Nolan which deserves all our praise. Memento has lots going for it as one of Nolan’s best and is definitely his most successfully experimental film. (As to avoid confusion, this paragraph will be presented backwards).
5. The Dark Knight Rises
As much as I love this movie, flaws and all, it’s pretty obvious Christopher Nolan didn’t want to make this movie. The late Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight is one of cinema’s all-time villains. Out of respect, The Joker was written out of the entire third film. Tom Hardy’s Bane is cut from the same thread as Bruce Wayne, each with similar ideas to cleanse Gotham (Bane in a more menacing manner of course). Bane might not be as inventive as The Joker, but Hardy’s performance is powerful enough to strike fear into the hearts of the audience with a few words or a scary stance. The politics of these movies were never subtle, and there are plenty of confusing thematic components in the film. I can understand why it’s divisive amongst the biggest of movie fans (“How did Bruce get back to Gotham?” and the like are NOT valid complaints). That being said, Wally Pfister’s cinematography was never better. It has a handful of cheer-worthy moments. The film embraces its comic book roots with action never before seen in the franchise. I understand why you might not care for it, but it remains a more than worthy addition to Nolan’s filmography.
4. Batman Begins
How do you fix a franchise that was run into the ground by bat-nipples and corporate idiocy? You start from scratch and go with a radically different approach. That’s when you get someone like Christopher Nolan to come in and create a vision of Gotham city that translates onto the screen in more ways than just “Hey, this is a superhero movie” and craft a character study of Bruce Wayne. Up to this point, all Batman movies were so focused on the villain-of-the-week style that there was hardly time for Batman in his own stories. Who was Bruce Wayne? How did his parent’s death influence him to become dressed as a Bat to fly around rooftops at night? And most importantly, how did he learn to fight so well? All these questions and more are answered through flashbacks to Bruce Wayne as a child, to young adulthood, his time traveling the world, before his eventual return to Gotham. We get to know the man behind the mask and what drives him to become Gotham’s defender. Even in his failures, Bruce Wayne learns to become better for them. As a cherry on top, we still get one heck of a villain that ties into Bruce’s past, present, and eventually, future.
3. The Dark Knight
The best superhero movies are like their heroes, they become something more. The Dark Knight is the quintessential superhero drama that got audiences to think “Hey, there might be more to these stories than originally thought.” For that alone, it could make the number one spot. It didn’t but I considered it for a long while. TDK is a post-superhero superhero film that examines the repercussions of being a hero. What sort of repercussions can that bring to society? In Batman’s case it brings one of pop-culture’s great villains to the forefront before launching him into the stratosphere. Heath Ledger’s Joker is an embodiment of pure evil. A creature writing his own destiny to contradict every move the hero makes, testing him as he goes along. While the ending of Begins is my favorite Batman moment on film (possibly ever), Gordon’s speech about Gotham’s Dark Knight, when Hans Zimmer’s hauntingly beautiful score crescendo’s to the credits, is only one of the many iconic moments the picture has to offer.
It’s come to my attention that people have recently turned against this film. Why- Why would you do that to yourself? Nolan films are often bogged down in scenes full of exposition to catch up the viewer on the type of world the film operates in (Specifically his Batman films). Exposition can be a real drag but Nolan’s writing and directing help contextualize all necessary explanations into character interactions. The characters practically speak in exposition, a death sentence for almost any movie as it makes it difficult for the audience to digest. Inception manages to intertwine Nolan’s weak spot (love) with the main plot, has it function as the heart of the story, and turns his seemingly biggest film into his most personal. Nolan understands love is more than exposition material and emotion can’t be deduced into mere plot points. Look to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dominic Cobb for proof of this. Cobb is a genius dream extractor, nailing down every aspect of a dream heist, down to multiple dream levels. The one thing that is unpredictable is all variations of love and longing. The team can lead Fisher to certain rooms but they can’t manufacture Fisher’s emotional catharsis with his father. Cobb can be the architect behind the most complicated dream layout, but the loss of his wife haunts him beyond any form of lockout. Nolan films sometimes get criticized for being cold and not capable of human emotion. I say, fuck that. He’s got one of the most human films of the 2000s.
1. The Prestige
This is not my favorite Nolan film. I don’t watch it often. I don’t think any of the acting is truly standout, although everyone is pretty dang good. What makes this the number one Nolan film is that it is pure identity shaped across 130 minutes. Nolan is our magician, stringing us along into his seemingly ordinary films. His movies are constantly referred to as “grounded” or “realistic” which is complete bologna. Inception has a machine that lets you explore dreams. His Batman movies are Batman movies. Memento is a deeply layered mystery. Nolan’s deft touch to the material makes them extraordinary. From his understanding of order vs chaos on the streets of Gotham, to the multiple leveled dreams of a different billionaire, we believe these worlds that aren’t believable on paper because Nolan is so willing to commit to them. He believes them. He grounds them, makes us forget there isn’t anything believable about them, and brings it all home with the fantastical ideas and conceit to the themes. No film orchestrates that better than The Prestige. There’s no other film that is more definitive Nolan.