The much-anticipated release of Oppenheimer marks a significant moment in Christopher Nolan’s career. As with all of his projects, Nolan’s ambition and dedication to perfection have made each film feel like a monumental event in itself. Where his newest film will fall in his catalog is anyone’s guess, but before we see it, it’s time to determine which Nolan film is the best of the best.
Before we dive into this discussion, let’s acknowledge that Christopher Nolan is an extraordinary filmmaker who has delivered many outstanding movies. Trying to rank his works is a tricky task, as even the “bottom” of the list boasts near-masterpieces — a predicament most directors would envy. Nevertheless, here’s our ranking of Nolan’s works:
12. The Following (1998)
Nolan’s directorial debut was a stunning example of the visionary to come. While the British psychological thriller wasn’t as polished as his later work, it’s clear to see that this was a talented filmmaker with a unique ability to craft a story. His ability to turn a low-budget, independent production into a visually striking film proved he deserved his seat at the table. Nolan’s non-linear storytelling keeps the audience engaged, unraveling the plot’s mysteries piece by piece as Jeremy Theobald and Alex Haw deliver sharp and clever performances. Yet while it lacks the grand scale and emotional depth present in some of his later works, it’s still an impressive debut, showcasing his ability to craft a compelling and thought-provoking thriller with limited resources.
11. Insomnia (2002)
This adaptation of the 1997 Norwegian crime thriller showed that Nolan could take on a studio film project. What makes Insomnia particularly interesting is Nolan’s ability to create a claustrophobic atmosphere that intensifies the tension and psychological turmoil of the protagonist. The film’s cinematography and skillful direction add to its allure, making it a visually immersive experience. However, while Insomnia is undoubtedly a strong film, it falls slightly short when compared to his later masterpieces. The plot, though engaging, lacks the mind-bending complexity that Nolan is known for, and the pacing is slower than fans have come to expect.
10. Batman Begins (2005)
For all the superhero stories that have been told over the years, Nolan’s direction of the Batman trilogy remains as one of the brightest lights in the genre — ironic considering the gritty nature of the film. Nolan’s masterful direction breathed some much-needed new life into the Batman franchise, delving deep into Bruce Wayne’s psychological journey as he transforms into the Dark Knight. The film’s darker tone, coupled with exceptional performances, notably Christian Bale as Batman and Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul, make it an engaging and memorable cinematic experience.
That being said, Batman Begins is clearly the weakest of the three. While it sets a solid foundation for the exceptional trilogy, the film suffers from pacing issues and a convoluted narrative that could have been streamlined for a smoother flow. Nolan has since nearly perfected his craft of complex storylines, but in 2005, it wasn’t quite where it needed to be.
9. Tenet (2020)
Tenet is arguably Nolan’s most ambitious film in his catalog. The mind-bending thriller, which follows a secret agent who is tasked with preventing World War III by using a technology that can reverse the flow of time, is an excellent display of Nolan’s mastery in crafting complex narratives. The film’s unique premise, centered around time inversion and espionage, keeps viewers engrossed throughout with its intricate twists and turns and jaw-dropping action sequences.
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Nolan’s final installment in The Dark Knight Trilogy was the fitting conclusion everyone hoped for. The film maintains Nolan’s signature style of weaving complex narratives and delving into the psychological depths of its characters. Christian Bale delivers an excellent final portrayal of Batman, showcasing the character’s struggle between heroism and sacrifice, which juxtaposed nicely with Tom Hardy’s menacing performance as Bane. The film’s cinematography and practical effects also heightened the overall cinematic experience. And while this film is slightly less impactful than its predecessor, it’s clear that Nolan knew how to execute his vision.
7. Dunkirk (2017)
From a narrative perspective, Nolan peaks with Dunkirk. Nolan adeptly tells a story of survival through three different perspectives: the soldiers on the beach, the pilots in the air and the civilians at sea. The film is a harrowing and suspenseful war story that is both visually stunning and emotionally powerful. Nolan’s masterful direction showcases his signature visual flair and deftly highlights the emotional struggles faced by the soldiers and civilians during the evacuation. The sparse dialogue and evocative score further enhance the tense atmosphere, providing a visceral and unforgettable experience.
The major drawback comes from its limited character development and emotional depth. The focus on the action and spectacle slightly sacrifices the opportunity to dive deeper into the personal journeys of the characters. Nonetheless, the film’s technical brilliance and ability to recreate historical events on a grand scale make Dunkirk a remarkable achievement in its own right.
6. Interstellar (2014)
Nolan’s space epic contains some of his most visually stunning work in his career. As a team of astronauts travel through a wormhole in search of a new home for humanity, Nolan dives deep into the emotional experiences of what it means to be a human — the tension between parent/child relationships, longing for the unknown, somehow surviving everything life throws at you. Nolan’s ability to weave heart-tugging moments into a science-fiction film proves he’s a master of his craft. What makes Interstellar truly captivating is its ability to challenge the audience’s perception of reality, leaving them pondering the mysteries of the universe long after the credits roll.
5. Memento (2000)
Nolan’s neo-noir psychological thriller is perhaps the best instance of the director crafting a non-linear narrative structure. As Guy Pearce’s Leonard Shelby struggles to piece together the truth behind he wife’s death, viewers themselves feel a tension between rooting for the protagonist while trying to discover the truth for themselves. Nolan’s bold storytelling approach not only keeps the audience engaged but also allows them to empathize with the protagonist’s fragmented state of mind. The non-linear storytelling is brilliantly complemented by Nolan’s skillful direction, exceptional performances and thought-provoking themes exploring memory, identity and the human psyche.
4. The Prestige (2006)
Nolan’s signature style of mind-bending plots and thought-provoking themes is on full display in The Prestige, delving into the nature of obsession, sacrifice and the price of greatness. The stand-out performances — anchored by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale — combined with stunning visuals and an ingenious screenplay make it one of Nolan’s finest works. As his only literary adaptation, it’s also the most in-depth Nolan goes with his characters. By diving in to their psyche and getting to the root of their sabotage, Nolan creates a stunningly complex and suspenseful mystery that he’s yet to surpass nearly 20 years later.
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
It doesn’t matter how you feel about superhero films. Whether you’re a fanatic or a hater, there’s no debate that The Dark Knight is simply in a league of its own. Nolan’s dark and gritty take on the Batman mythos features one of the greatest villain performances in cinema history, with the late Heath Ledger’s Joker elevating superhero franchises into what it is today (although, nothing has yet to live up to this level of greatness). The action sequences, the exploration of chaos and morality, the emotional stakes for a gritty Gotham City — in anyone else’s hands it could easily fall apart. But Nolan finds a way to seamlessly weave together themes of justice, sacrifice, and the blurred line between hero and villain that has stayed in viewers minds for over a decade.
2. Oppenheimer (2023)
While there may still be some lingering regency bias, Nolan’s Oppenheimer deserves a place near the top for his ability to pull off a masterful cinematic achievement that explores the moral and psychological dilemmas of the man behind the atomic bomb. The film is one-part historical drama, one-part philosophical inquiry into the nature of science, power and responsibility. The traditional nonlinear storytelling, intricate editing and stunning come together to create a memory that sticks with you from the beginning. Cillian Murphy delivers a career-best performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer, portraying the complex and conflicted genius with nuance and depth. With over two decades of experience under his belt, Oppenheimer brings Nolan’s artistic vision, technical skill and ability to craft a compelling and relevant story to create one of the most exciting films in the director’s career.
1. Inception (2010)
Looking through Nolan’s catalog, there’s quite a few films that come close to the top spot. But Nolan’s 2010 science fiction film Inception takes the cake. Perhaps it’s because it’s Nolan at his most Nolan-esque. A professional thief (Leonardo DiCaprio) who steals corporate secrets through use of dream-sharing technology is something that only a visionary director who has proven skills as a master storyteller could pull off. The film’s concept of diving into dreams within dreams creates a mesmerizing and complex narrative, and Nolan expertly weaves together intricate layers of reality and illusion, blurring the lines between what is real and what is imagined. Additionally, the film’s stunning practical effects and innovative visuals elevate the cinematic experience to a whole new level and stay with you long after the final spin.