Christopher Nolan is a director whose likability ranges from completely overrated to god among men. He has a very passionate fan base, that’s for sure. My opinion of him lies somewhere in the middle ground. I respect him and think he’s a talented filmmaker whose work I admire and enjoy to watch. Sometimes he doesn’t quite hit the nail right on the head, but he comes pretty close most of the time. With the release of Interstellar this weekend, I figured I’d take a look back on all nine of his films to see which ones stand out as his greatest, and which ones didn’t quite hit the mark. Here is my personal ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films from best to worst.
1. Memento (2000)
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior
IMDb rating: 8.5
Rotten Tomatoes score: 92%
Memento is a great psychological thriller about a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce) who is on a quest to find a man involved in the attack and murder of his wife. The twist is that Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia and is unable to store recent memories, so he hangs on to his clues by taking Polaroids, writing notes and tattooing words on his body. The great thing about Memento is the way the events are presented to us using two sequences, one in black and white and one in color. The scenes alternate, although there is an order to each sequence. Basically, it’s not very easy to piece everything together until the end, but of course, you always have those people who “saw it coming.” To me, though, I didn’t find Memento to be predictable at all, and that’s something I really like about movies like this. Everything is like a piece to a big puzzle, and we piece them together at the same time Leonard does. The plot, when everything is said and done, might not be the most original, but the way it is presented is. So why do I think this one is the best? Well, this movie really showcased what Nolan can bring to the table when it comes to film. He’s not afraid to take chances. Memento is not your run-of-the-mill kind of thriller, and that’s what’s so fun about it. It’s smart and engaging without being pretentious. It kickstarted a career that was soon going to be admired by many, and although I really enjoyed a lot of his films afterwards, this one still stands at the top for me.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman
IMDb rating: 9.0
Rotten Tomatoes score: 94%
Here is the most highly praised superhero film of all superhero films. People may have mentally noted Nolan’s name after the likes of Memento, but let’s face it, The Dark Knight Trilogy is what really put him on the map. I saw this in the theater without even having watched Batman Begins first and I still enjoyed it. Yes, it’s true, I’m a Marvel fan, but I don’t let a comic book brand name keep me from enjoying a good movie. So why is this movie so popular? One could argue that it’s really Heath Ledger’s unmatched portrayal of the Joker and his subsequent death that pushed this so far into the spotlight. But I think it has more to do with Nolan’s vision of Batman overall. You could put Christian Bale in this without the Batman suit and it would still be a great action/drama. He became a relatable superhero because he’s barely a superhero at all, well, not in the traditional sense. He’s a billionaire with martial arts skills, cool gadgets, a tormented soul, and a conscience that keeps him from killing. The Joker is the perfect foil, a man who creates chaos for the sake of chaos. There’s no typical motivation involved, he doesn’t want money or to rule the world, he just wants people, Batman especially, to admit that when it comes down to it, they will do whatever it takes to keep themselves alive, including murder. The battle between good and evil is interesting and psychological. The story within the comic book world may not be so original, but the way Nolan handled it and took it down to a very human level is what made it great. This formula certainly doesn’t work for all superheroes, but it works for Batman.
3. Inception (2010)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe
IMDb rating: 8.8
Rotten Tomatoes score: 86%
Inception is often considered to be either a very smart blockbuster, or one of the most overrated movies of all time. Is it slightly overrated? Probably, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t personally enjoy it. What can I say? I am a sucker for stylish sci-fis. There isn’t much heart in Inception, or character development, and it suffers from way too much babbling exposition, something I complained about in Interstellar as well, but unlike the latter, I wasn’t totally let down with a downward spiral of a second half. I have to give credit to Nolan for the idea, though. Instead of giving us a remake or some other incredibly boring rehashed sci-fi theme he came up with this ridiculous but fun story involving sleep-sharing technology and multiple layers of dreams. It might be a little too Matrix-y for its own good, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. I go to the movies in the hopes I’ll find something different, and if it’s not different, then hopefully it’s better than its predecessors. Inception wasn’t a let down for me. It’s not a perfect movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good.
4. The Prestige (2006)
Starring: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall
IMDb rating: 8.5
Rotten Tomatoes score: 76%
The Prestige has a great, engaging story about two magicians whose obsession with pulling off the perfect trick brings out the selfish qualities within themselves and the rivalry between each other. As with anything having to do with magic, nothing is as it seems. The characters are deceiving. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are great in their roles, but their roles are somewhat similar. They are both struggling with a lot of same things, it’s not really a movie where there’s a good guy and a bad guy, because they’re both good and they’re both bad. You can’t really root for one or the other. That’s not really a problem, though, because I think that’s the whole point. The problem is the logical world that is built up throughout the whole movie that suddenly changes to illogical towards the second half. When it comes to the tricks, you know that no matter how head-scratching the trick is, there’s some sort of logical explanation to how it’s done. The characters even explain how they’re done. That’s how it is in the real world of magic. But then, something happens that turns this movie from a believable drama with magic tricks into a straight up sci-fi. It’s a bit of an abrupt twist, because it takes you out of a logical universe into an entirely fictional one. But besides that, I put this so high on the list because of the great way Nolan captures the period the story takes place in, the great performances, and of course, who doesn’t like a story about magic?
5. Batman Begins (2005)
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy
IMDb rating: 8.3
Rotten Tomatoes score: 85%
Batman Begins came out sixteen years after the last good Batman movie was made, I’m talking about Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989. Everything else in between was an insufferable flop, if you ask me. So basically, I hadn’t even bothered to see it until after I saw The Dark Knight and decided there’s something good going on here. What’s great about Batman Begins is the amount of necessary time taken to really flesh out the character of Bruce Wayne. We aren’t dropped into a typical Batman story where there’s five minutes of origin exposition and then he’s on to fighting whatever villain has been picked for this particular story. The story really takes its time with his origin, so that whenever he comes face to face with death, we’re ready to care. Not to mention, you’ve got some top notch actors in this ensemble that really help in taking it to the next level.
6. Interstellar (2014)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck
IMDb rating: 9.2
Rotten Tomatoes score: 72%
Interstellar is a highly imaginative and visually stunning film. Once again, Matthew McConaughey shows how talented he truly is, as he outshines the rest of the cast members. The plot, as I said before, suffers from overbearing exposition in much of the dialogue, and the promising start begins to fizzle towards the end. The real redeeming qualities lie in the technical aspects of the film as opposed to the actual story. It is an impressive piece of work regardless, even if it didn’t quite live up to the hype for me personally. It is clearly not Nolan’s best work, but it’s also not his worst. Full review here.
7. Following (1998)
Starring: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell
IMDb rating: 7.6
Rotten Tomatoes score: 78%
As Nolan’s directorial debut, Following is quite impressive, estimated to have been made somewhere around a $6,000 budget. It has a solid script, and the black and white gives a neo-noir feel to it. This particular stylization can account for the sometimes bad lighting in some of the frames, as well. The story twists and turns with deception and betrayal. The twist in a story, as well as the non-linear plot has become somewhat of a trademark of Nolan, who seems to try and make his stories as unpredictable as possible. Following shows that he adopted this right from the beginning. It showed audiences that not even one of the smallest movie budgets in history can hold him back from making something worthwhile, and that is worth a little bit of praise, to say the least. Furthermore, it is this movie that gained enough attention which allowed Nolan to obtain the budget he needed to make Memento.
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman
IMDb rating: 8.6
Rotten Tomatoes score: 88%
The Dark Knight Rises is one of Nolan’s movies that has a lot of split opinions. On the one hand, it’s a decent send off to a three movie franchise, but on the other, it didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it after such a successful sequel as The Dark Knight. I thought that Bane was just ok, but of course he really couldn’t hold a candle to Heath Ledger’s Joker. He wasn’t interesting enough, and his motivations were unclear until we were given some cliche plot devices that gave us very limited insight into his backstory, and then we realize he’s not even the main villain, despite controlling Gotham and putting Batman out of commission for months. Even Batman himself was just “meh.” There were a lot of things working against this movie and keeping it from being the epic ending we were hoping for, instead of just a mediocre one. Was it terrible? No. It was entertaining, it looked good, and it had a great score. Sadly, though, it fizzles compared to its predecessor.
9. Insomnia (2002)
Starring: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank
IMDb rating: 7.2
Rotten Tomatoes score: 92%
As compelling as a thriller it is, Insomnia doesn’t shine much compared to the rest of Nolan’s work. To be honest, I almost forgot he directed it. The script is somewhat average, but the performances are great. Al Pacino plays a rather convincing detective who is trying to catch a killer and who is suffering from insomnia at the same time while in an Alaskan town where the sun doesn’t set. Robin Williams gives the most praise worthy performance in this movie as the villain. He showed that he had a lot more to bring to the table besides comedy. Overall, it is a solid, somewhat above average thriller, but unfortunately it’s a little forgettable.
How do you feel about Christopher Nolan? Overrated? Genius? Somewhere in the middle? How would you rate his movies? Let me know in the comments!