The Films Of Christopher Nolan: A Semi-Definitive Ranking

The powers that be at Uproxx (Abner J. Uproxx III and his dilettante sons Chad and Jason) had asked me if I’d wanted to do a ranking of the films of Christopher Nolan, and I said yes without thinking about it. I’ve seen them all, so it should be easy enough, right? But weird thing about Christopher Nolan: it’s hard to rank his films, because they’ve all had virtually the same effect on me. I get so excited that I see them in the theater opening day. I end up enjoying what I see, with varying degrees of caveats, and then never watch them again. Barring a few chunks of his movies I’ve flipped through on HBO, that is true of all of them.

I don’t say that as a knock on him. There are films I love that I want to re-watch, and others, like Eternal Sunshine, where the first watch was such a singular experience that I worried a re-watch might cheapen it somehow. People who hate Christopher Nolan the most tend to say things like his movies don’t hold up once you have time to think about them, or that they’re all hype. While I do think it’s a legitimate criticism to say that his plotting is always a bit overwrought and doesn’t leave you much time to savor things, getting people excited about your movies is a skill in its own right. And I don’t know that not wanting to rewatch his movies makes them bad, I just think his plotting is so fast-paced and tense that the idea of rewatching them can sound exhausting. Anyway, enough dithering, let’s proceed quantifying unquantifiables.


8. The Dark Knight Rises

Nolan’s movies are bunched so closely in my mind that it was easier to start at the bottom. I really don’t think he wanted to make a third Batman movie. There’s a dumb scene here or there in all of Nolan’s movies, but this one had some unforgivable ones – just the image of the police charging towards the bad guys holding up their pistols like Braveheart. Just… no. That is not how anything works. Then there was the way Batman was gettin’ too old for this sh*t, then got his back broken, did rehab in a prison, and suddenly was beating everyone up again. And I know everyone likes to suck off Hans Zimmer, but the score was so loud and overbearing in this that half of it felt like a flashback or a music video. Still, it wasn’t all bad. Bane was deliciously silly, and where would we be without Michael Caine’s pronunciation of “muvver an’ favah” or “Fernet Branca?”


7. The Prestige

GET IT? THEY WERE TWINS! Of all Christopher Nolan’s plot twists, this one is the dumbest, in my mind. Still, it did give us David Bowie as Tesla. There were two movies about magicians in 2006, and The Illusionist was better.


6. Insomnia

I don’t think Insomnia is great, but it’s a lot better than it gets credit for (could I be more wishy-washy about this? MAYBE.). In my mind, it’s one of Robin Williams’ top five performances, he was always great when playing a creep. The scenery was beautiful, and it’s possibly the only Nolan movie that isn’t hopelessly overplotted (probably because it was a remake). That said, a lot of people forget that Nolan used to be one of shakey cam’s worst offenders. That chase scene over the logs could’ve been incredible, but it’s cheapened by a thousand cuts and close-ups of blurry nothing. Other action scenes in this are almost unwatchable. Or at least, you might as well not watch them, because you have to wait until they’re over to know what even happened. On the other hand, Addled Al Pacino has become a cinema staple.


5. Interstellar

Should Interstellar be down this far? I honestly don’t know. I mostly liked it. It’s a weird one to rank because it has both some of the the best and some of the worst scenes in Nolan’s career. And I LOVE how he bit off more than anyone in their right mind would try to chew in one film. But then there are so many characters in it that don’t even need to be there at all. Why Casey Affleck’s character? Why Anne Hathaway’s off-screen love interest? The kid who coughs and then says “the dust!” as if we were too dumb to figure that out. Also, there was almost no character development on the robots, which is a thing I love typing. Anyway, it’s a definite “I don’t know.”


4. Inception

I thought long and hard about whether to rank this above or below the two good Nolan Batman films and I still don’t know. How do you rank a movie that has spawned a million memes? It’s so hard to remember it on its own merits. I think the sticking point on Inception for people who hate it is that it’s a premise so plainly silly, that still takes itself so deadly seriously. But I kind of like that about it. Nolan’s intensity is the joke. The robot characters in Interstellar seemed to be Nolan’s in-joke making fun of himself for being so serious all the time, but half their jokes just came off confusing, which in turn made the joke even funnier.


3. The Dark Knight

Yes, I put the Dark Knight below Batman Begins, I’m terrible. Flame away, flamers. You could make a case for ranking them either way. The good things about The Dark Knight are Heath Ledger’s performance, Harvey Dent, and most of the action set pieces look amazing. The knocks on it are that the Joker’s schemes are mostly nonsensical and the plot is kind of exhausting.


2. Batman Begins

As for Batman Begins, my biggest knock on it is that this was before Christopher Nolan stopped it with the goddamned shaky cam, and so most of the action pieces looked like a blurry pile of shit. That said, I liked that it was a superhero movie that seemed relatively small in scale. Every superhero movie now has to be about someone trying to destroy the entire Earth, the entire universe, or even the fabric of reality (Thor 2, which, to its credit, at least was making a joke out of it). Batman Begins was just a little movie about a lawyer dude who liked to give people drugs and then scare the crap out of them while they were high. I love that. Also, you can only see Christian Bale as Batman for the first time once.


1. Memento

Speaking of only being able to see Christian Bale as Batman for the first time once, you can only see a Christopher Nolan movie for the first time once. Also, the protagonist-with-a-dead-wife thing didn’t seem quite so f*cked out in the pre-9/11 era. That’s why I have to pick Memento – it was all so new back then! The screwy timeline, the haunted protagonist, the plot constantly folding in on itself. Also, JOEY PANTS. Why hasn’t Pantoliano been in any other Nolan movies? And for a director who’s often accused of not having a sense of humor, if my memory serves, there were a decent amount of funny moments in this one. Anyway, maybe Memento is great, or maybe I just miss my youth.