Ranking the Christopher Nolan Films

“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

Christopher Nolan is a fascinating director. He is perhaps best understood by comparing his first film (Following) and his most recent film, at the time of original publication (Tenet). Both films best capture what he seems to value most in movies: mood & atmosphere. He is not a plot-detailed oriented director. At least, there is little to no evidence to suggest he values that. He cares about the feeling watching a movie gives you. The story of his films is the pull between that desire to pursue focusing on a film’s vibes and Hollywood conventions that focus more on plot and traditional means of characterization. The results have been mixed to say the least but rarely boring.

LAST: Following

If you ever make the mistake of checking out Following, you get to see pretty much the foundational crux of the issues with Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker. He does not understand people and has no interest in getting to know them and is incapable of providing any insight to the human condition. That in it of itself is not the end of the world, but it means there is a very tiny margin of error with his films. With no spectacle or genuine concept to lean on here, you have an exceptionally empty and dull exercise in filmmaking. You do get a sense of what the man does care about though: atmosphere. This movie is a failed “vibes” movie for the wont of a better term. Its failure is not in vain though as it provides crucial insight and understanding into Nolan.


10. Insomnia 

I imagine there would be automatically a temptation to elevate this smaller piece of Nolan in comparison to some of his more grandiose and high-concept stuff that often becomes the (rightfully) butt of jokes. And there’s a lot of good stuff in here! The pure bullshit coming out of Pacino’s mouth (in one of his few not phoned-in performances of the century) as he spouts off cop cliches about “the little things” and all sorts of other bullshit is so artfully done! He just keeps bumbling around, fucking up everything, but he’s treated and presented like a traditional authoritative lead. It’s pretty well done! And not to mention Robin Williams brings the goods as well. But it is still Nolan which means the action often just looks terrible. The biggest wasted opportunity is the log roll chase which was a terrifying and unique idea that Nolan just blows through. And Pacino getting the Breading Bad finale redemption episode at the end kinda blows too!


9. Interstellar

The image of Topher Grace taking out a tire iron to take out Casey Affleck in the climatic sequence of INTERSTELLAR is something that has stayed with me since the theaters and will be the last thing my brain flashes to before I leave this earth.

Nolan was just so goddamn close here. After a decade of experimenting with how to slowly focus more and more on mood/atmosphere/vibes, Nolan finally reached a tipping point here. The problem for Nolan had been that he could never fully let go of status-quo conventions of Hollywood movies. And that tension between what Nolan wanted to explore and what concepts he could not let go created for really frustrating overall misfires like this film.

Much like Tenet and Inception, the sci-fi gimmicks of the film of course make no logical sense whatsoever. Nolan does not care about that obviously, but what matters is how much his film manages to create a satisfying atmosphere to recognize Nolan is doing something closer to fantasy with with sci-fi concepts. Nolan aims to capture what it feels like to watch a space exploration film about saving the planet.

With that being said though, Nolan inserts some very Spielberg family/Daddy issues stuff that have always felt half-baked. There are some sincerely interesting ideas and filmmaking decisions. It does however never wholly come together.

An interesting point of comparison for this film is with Tenet. Here, Nolan seems to have a very Hollywood lib take on the climate-induced societal collapse. Essentially, according to Interstellar, our future versions of ourselves…save ourselves. Whereas in Tenet, the future versions of humanity are trying to destroy us even if it means they die along with us. That’s how bad things get. The more cynical worldview seems to work better with Nolan’s more true filmmaking sensibilities.


8. Inception

Inception is probably one of the most frustrating films from the last decade+. By the time Nolan got to Tenet, he had enough power and confidence to ignore the plot hole-concern trolling and just fully embrace what he cares about (and is good at): the feeling an audience gets when they watch a spy/adventure/end-of-the-world film. But he was not there yet with Inception. Here he insists on explaining every little thing in every scene and treats the audience like babies. Just as a scene starts to build momentum, everything comes to a grinding halt so one character can tell us what the hell is going on. Despite that, I still rather enjoy the film. The premise is tantalizing, and the cast is well put together. But this comes nowhere close to the heights it could have achieved. Topher Grace should make a cut of this where all the exposition is cut out.


7. Dunkirk

The easiest way to explain this film is that it is a cool experiment in a big budget film entirely about vibes but the movie is also a WW2 film ostensibly about British people being brave so the vibes are default bad. If it was set in some sort of supernatural/Sci-Fi setting, the war part would not be an issue. Nolan would fix that fatal flaw with his masterpiece (Tenet), but if nothing else this film serves as cool piece of the puzzle that is Nolan trying to figure out exactly what he wants to do and say with big budget action films. The lack of compromise in what Nolan wants to do here elevates it.


6. The Dark Knight Rises

This is a film that I’ve grown to love despite its gaping and massive flaws that undermine a lot of what the film was trying to do. It’s this beautiful monstrosity of a picture that could understandably be outside someone’s Top Ten list of best Batman films, let alone good at all. After repeatedly re-watching it though, I’ve begun to love it for being a series of great ideas and concepts even if they are often paid off in rushed and/or unsatisfying ways. That does not make for a great (or possibly even a good) film in a vacuum obviously. I’ve come to terms with that, and the film holds a special place in my heart now. I also sense a budding reclaiming of this film as Actually Good, and I am ready to lead the charge on that.


5. Memento

Memento was Nolan’s breakout film and helped established for everyone that he was interested in the idea of messing with audience’s expectation for how they experience “time.” Given how unreliable memory is and the general relativity of time to begin with, why do we insist so readily on the expectation that time is linear? Combine that idea with the great gimmick of a movie moving backwards in time to explain why an amnesiac (Guy Pearce) just shot Joey Pants in the head, and you have yourself a sick premise for a movie. As always with Nolan, his exploration of the idea of “time” is fairly shallow. Instead, his films more often than not rely on he makes use of “distorted” sense of time and memory to create an atmosphere to experience the film. Here, Nolan manages to create vague noir-ish (in the shallowest sense of the term) vibes in order to craft a great mystery in need of solving. Not only does this film hold up, it actually becomes more interesting with time having seen what Nolan has done since.


4. The Prestige

In all likelihood, this will forever be the best balance between what Nolan values as a filmmaker and the conventions of the Hollywood status quo. Here, you see Nolan messing with our sense of time, memory, and the belief in linear storytelling. But you also kind of get some standard Hollywood stuff related to characterization and plot that Nolan will actively lose interest in with each passing year since. The Prestige is a great mystery thriller that sort of has that Ocean’s 11 vibe going where you have an all-star cast giving you a great time as The Movies. The movie’s weaknesses are probably mostly just some of the emotional scenes involving the characters as they deal with genuine horrific shit but which Nolan has always struggled to capture properly. The strengths of the film FAR outweigh the weaknesses though, and this is simply a great time and compulsively rewatchable.


3. Batman Begins

We have also discussed this film a few times already!

With time and space away from this trilogy and this film specifically, I think it’s safe to say we need to evolve how we talk about what was done in the Nolan/Bale films. While dumb, mostly meaningless words like “dark” and “gritty” have been used ad nauseam to describe these movies (and its pale imitators), those are wholly inadequate words to describe this trilogy. The films were much more about myth-making, both in a storytelling sense and in what Bruce tried to do with Batman. The story Nolan is effectively telling is how a man could emotionally and practically reach a point where he could decide he is going to create a God-like vigilante to theoretically help a city – and then eventually the futility and stupidity of such a plan. The stage for all this is rather masterfully set out in this film that is arguably the best Batman film ever and the best non-Tenet film of Nolan’s career.


2. The Dark Knight

We have also discussed this film a few times already! It is in no way cool or interesting to say this, but The Dark Knight is still incredibly great. While this film will be remembered for many things in the decades to come, thinking back on it right now reminds me about what a turning point in the career of Christopher Nolan it was as a storyteller. While I’ve very generally liked everything Nolan has done since, this picture was definitely what jump-started his now-signature style becoming more focused on the macro and less focused on attention to detail. The plot-holes in this one seem minuscule compared to his work in the ensuing years. With time and perspective though, it is now clear it was part of journey of becoming a full-on mood/atmosphere/vibes filmmaker.


1. Tenet

The ultimate Christophe Nolan film. The one he has been building to all these years. As his origins informed up in Following, Nolan has no insight into the human condition. What Nolan is interested in is spectacle and feeling it creates. He is not interested in unpacking archetypes but exploiting our knowledge of them. After years of skirting around, desperately trying to create a less coherent story and veer further and further away from the characters he so desperately not care about, he finally got to make a character-less film (JDW’s name in this is literally “The Protagonist) and just create the feeling of what it is like to watch a save-the-world spy thriller. Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.


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