Incept your way into Christopher Nolan’s head and you’ll probably find yourself in a labyrinth full of influences – from Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg to James Bond and theoretical physics – but the way in and out of the maze will always be through a whopping great big cinema screen. Making arthouse masterpieces disguised as blockbusters, Nolan wields giant IMAX cameras and studio-breaking budgets to make event movies that matter. Before Tenet finally arrives next month, it’s time to rank all 10 Christopher Nolan movies from great to greatest…
10‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)
The third chapter of Nolan’s seminal Batman trilogy is dense, difficult and riddled with plot holes, but it’s still better than most other superhero movies. In fact, it feels like it barely even wants to be a superhero movie at all. Nolan’s final epic about the Caped Crusader is more interested in shooting the shadows cast by its monolithic characters and wrapping up theories of civil responsibility than it is in staging summer set pieces (not that it didn’t throw some of them into the super-sized mix too).
Key shot: Tom Hardy’s Bane striding into the sunken stadium he’s just blown up.
Nolan’s first feature is mostly known for its early flashes of genius, but it also stands as a taught, perfectly paced thriller on its own. The story of a writer who follows strangers around before becoming tangled up in a neo-noir murder mystery – it’s smart, sharp and hard as nails. Shot on 16mm stock for $6,000, all with an amateur crew who gave up their weekends to help out, Following proved that Nolan is just as capable painting on a small canvas as he is using one the size of an airplane hanger.
Key shot: Making the window of a Dunkin’ Donuts look like something from a Hitchcock classic.
If there’s one theme that runs through all of Nolan’s films, it’s time. Before he started exploring the subjectivity of the universe and playing with wormholes, Nolan made a whole film backwards – with Memento’s psychological thriller script playing out in reverse as an amnesiac (Guy Pearce) tries to remember who killed his wife. It might be a bit of a one-trick pony but it’s a damn clever one, and Nolan’s first big puzzle box is still thrilling to solve even when you already know the answer.
Key shot: That first black-and-white close-up of Pearce’s face – staring at a polaroid of his wife that he can’t even remember taking.
Most arguments about lazy American remakes fall flat when it comes to Insomnia, which moved Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 Norwegian noir to Alaska and made it 10 times better in the process. A fraught, anxiety-ridden detective story set in a snowy town where the sun never sets, Nolan lays on just as much style as substance – his cold, beautiful aesthetic even eclipsing killer performances from Al Pacino and Robin Williams.
Key shot: A shootout through a misty forest that’s still exciting even though the fog makes it hard to see anything.
6‘Batman Begins’ (2005)
After 15 years of non-stop superhero movies it’s hard to remember just how ground-breaking Batman Begins was back in 2005. Three years before Iron Man kicked off the MCU, and eight years after Batman & Robin sank DC, Nolan matured Bruce Wayne into a grown up antihero – just as dark, gripping and psychologically complex as a film about a violent millionaire with parent issues should be.
Key shot: Wayne surrounded by a swarm of bats – facing his fear and his future at the same time.
The shadow of Stanley Kubrick looms large over Nolan’s career, and it was 2001: A Space Odyssey that proved the biggest touchstone for his own metaphysical sci-fi opus – a surprisingly heartfelt family story about love, faith and absentee dads seen through NASA-sized lenses, soaring black hole visuals and experimental theories of relativity. Few films have ever attempted to cover so much ground and still come out feeling so personal.
Key shot: Anchoring the camera to a spaceship as it floats gently into a wormhole.
4‘The Prestige’ (2006)
Nolan would have made a terrible magician (the trick would come first and he’d spend the rest of the act explaining how he did it, making his method more of a riddle than the reveal) but he clearly knows more than enough about the personal obsession, scientific precision and structural complexity of stage magic to turn The Prestige into one of the most perfectly crafted thrillers ever made. Also, he cast David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, which easily earns it another couple of stars.
Key shot: A field of lightbulbs seen through a chilly night fog – one of Nolan’s most beautiful images.
3‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
The greatest superhero movie? Probably. Sandwiched between the groundwork of Batman Begins and the loose-ends of The Dark Knight Rises, the middle chapter of Nolan’s trilogy is a perfectly brooding crescendo of form, tone and atmosphere. Instantly iconic after Heath Ledger’s wired performance captured the mad menace brewing under the lid of the late noughties, The Dark Knight defined a whole era of blockbuster cinema.
Key shot: Ledger’s Joker hanging out of the window of a cop car, breathing in the night.
So much of Nolan’s best work relies on the power of sound – none more so than Hans Zimmer’s swelling score for Dunkirk, which sets the whole film to the sound of the director’s own pocket watch. Intricately constructed in three overlapping narratives, Nolan resets the hours, minutes and seconds of history to make one of the best war movies ever made. Sparse, bleak and achingly beautiful, the traditional heroics of Hollywood epics are pushed out of the giant IMAX frame to make room for a tiny huddle of human stories – cold, damp, frightened and real.
Key shot: One face in a crowd turning to watch the skies as a dive bomber roars into view.
What’s Inception about? Maybe it’s about exploring rolling layers of unreality inside multiple labyrinths of human consciousness. Either that, or it’s just about a guy who really wants to make a Bond movie. Find the middle of the maze that Inception is built around and you’ll find a good old-fashioned heist movie – Nolan’s love of old-school spy flicks giving his beautifully surreal dreamscapes real blockbuster edge. The smartest film of any summer since and the most popcorn-chomping, heart-stopping, IMAX-busting thrill ride to ever be confused with an arthouse indie – this is what big budgets are meant for.
Key shot: The corridor fight – a technical tour de force that pays off like a punch-up in an Escher painting.