Which are the best Christopher Nolan movies? How do you rank them against each other? Do Christopher Nolan films get better over the years, and how will Christopher Nolan’s next movie measure up?
We’ve created our list of Christopher Nolan movies ranked not by box office haul, but rather by the quality of the story, theme, filmmaking craft, and cinematic experience.
The Best Christopher Nolan Movies
Best Christopher Nolan Movies Ranked
The Best Christopher Nolan Movies
Christopher Nolan movies are great for filmmakers to study because he is one of the few directors who understand both how to craft a compelling story, and then support that story through very precise cinematic techniques.
Which Christopher Nolan movies do this the best?
Christopher Nolan's Following
10. Following (1998)
Christopher Nolan’s first feature film is a 69 minute film noir suspense thriller. The film was predominantly hand-held, shot on an Arri BL and a Bolex (both 16MM) The entire movie is in black and white.
The film was made in 15 minute stints over the course of a year due to Nolan’s financial and production constraints. You see early signs of Christopher Nolan’s directing style and cinematic values in this film.
The story is great, and the chief reason the film lands at number 10 is purely the technical quality. Nolan was just getting started and his directing style was maturing.
Some of these cinematic techniques used by Nolan include extreme close-ups of insert shots, cross cutting scenes, and a non-linear story structure.
I highly recommend it.
Christopher Nolan The Dark Knight Rises
9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
We said we'd judge each film as an individual, and I believe it is still safe to say the The Dark Knight Rises would not been met with the same positive reception if it had not been for the critical acclaim of The Dark Knight.
You get the distinct feeling that this third film was highly compromised by the studio, and overly complicated even for Christopher Nolan.
Did we really want a Joseph Gordon Levitt Nightwing sequel, probably not, but I'd like to know why we needed all of these new characters.
Why were they all basically just dead ends?
There are some amazing scenes which include a mid-air hijacking by a rather buff Sean Connery impersonator, but the various contrivances, plot holes, and the film’s ending were not what viewers expected from Nolan. It fell flat.
It had TOO MANY characters.
Christopher Nolan Interstellar
8. Interstellar (2014)
This list becomes increasingly more difficult from here on out. Interstellar has some of the greatest scenes set in outer space since Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Many of the visual effects in the film were created beforehand so that the filmmakers could later capture them “in camera”. This allowed actors to react to their surroundings without the use of a green screen. Watching Matthew McConaughey mow through an okra field with a pick-up or slip into a black hole are just some of the great moments in the film.
Interstellar falls short when compared to a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey due to the same mistake many science fiction films seem to make…
Nolan explains too much.
As H.P. Lovecraft once said, “With all things mysterious… explain nothing.”
When you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, you really watch the film, and it makes perfect sense on a visual level that we get to avoid spoon-fed exposition.
There is a chance Interstellar would be higher on this list…
If it simply had 30-50% fewer lines of expositional dialogue.
Christopher Nolan Inception
7. Inception (2010)
Inception has some of Christopher Nolan’s best movie moments, but it also features some of the most... paradoxical. One important filmmaking rule:
Once you’ve established a set of “magic rules” you must stay consistent.
This film seems to struggle with its own rules quite a bit, and then tries to write itself out of some of the contrivances and plot holes, or ignores them completely like the relationship between gravity and time in each dream layer.
The concept of dream versus reality is explored in a very interesting way, specifically with regard to Cobb’s relationship with his wife, but many of the antagonists and complications in Inception are also a bit... faceless.
It’s true that our own mind and ideas can be our worst enemy, but much of Inception seems to suffer from the same pitfall as many Marvel films.
Hordes of faceless enemies become boring after a while.
Without a doubt, there are some amazing, now iconic, moments in Inception. The film grammar is very strong, the core idea is inventive, the kicks are visually stunning, and the complex ending scene is absolutely superb. All of these achievements solidify Christopher Nolan as a truly unique filmmaker.
Christopher Nolan Batman Begins
6. Batman Begins (2005)
Batman Begins is truly a standalone film. It’s the origin story that Marvel and the other DC films have been chasing for a while now.
The reason they struggle to capture what Christopher Nolan was able to achieve is because they’re unwilling to admit that a human story is what superhero films require to become truly immersive experiences.
Bruce Wayne is a flawed person. He is haunted by his guilt, consumed by anger and a desire for vengeance. He is impetuous, and corrupted by his own fear. He is someone who needs to be redeemed.
And he’s sort of a brat.
This makes his transformation that much more effective, and Nolan takes advantage of Joseph Campbell’s mono-myth, but with his own twist.
The monastery in the eastern mountains, the psychotropic blue flowers, the sword training scene on the ice, the notorious pick-the-ninja game. How about Bruce snagging Ducard as he slides off the snowy precipice?
These remarkable moments kept us on the edge of our seats.
Christopher Nolan Insomnia
5. Insomnia (2002)
Insomnia is one of the most haunting detective films of all time. Why?
Because Detective Dormer is another flawed Nolan-esque protagonist. He is compromised from the start, and the entire film gains a layer of constant logical suspense and drama. There are no super gadgets, fantasy elements, or space travel...
Just a really sleepy detective.
Haunted by his deeds, but still has a killer to catch. There is a great personal relationship between the hero and villain (the late-great Robin Williams), and the lines blurred more than usual.
Nolan’s film grammar is at the height of its effectiveness, and this is because he hit the perfect balance between a professional budget, and reasonable limitations. He had enough rope to climb, but not hang himself.
How do I mean?
When Christopher Nolan has a huge budget, he will often try to lace together visual spectacle with many of the Christopher Nolan techniques, which can betray his own carefully crafted narratives from time to time.
It’s not as if we hate the spinning hallways, but sometimes Nolan is at his best when his stories are more contained, more human, more relatable.
This film has some of the best performances of any Nolan film.
Christopher Nolan The Dark Knight
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Now I know what you’re thinking…
How could The Dark Knight not make it into the top three?
But before you hurl your collectable Batman sippy-cup into that mint condition Gotham lunch box (complete with Victor Fries ice pack) remember this:
We’re not ranking the best Batman films, or even the best superhero movies...
We're ranking the best Christopher Nolan movies.
There is some truly clunky dialogue, as well as some pretty cringe inducing moments in The Dark Knight, and while I can’t be sure this was Nolan or Warner Brothers, we can’t ignore these really odd choices.
Heath Ledger as The Joker may go down as one of the greatest performances of all time, and while Bob Kane crafted this timeless character, Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger did an incredible job of bringing him to life.
Christian Bale isn't too shabby either.
The Dark Knight has some truly unforgettable moments, and some of the best performances in a super-hero film. The film is all about chaos and the battle, not between good and evil, but Nolan’s take on natural conflict.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, and how every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Christopher Nolan Dunkirk
3. Dunkirk (2017)
Christopher Nolan mentioned that he intentionally built Dunkirk to play like the third act of any other war film, just stretched out across 106 minutes. This is despite the fact that the script for Dunkirk was only 76 pages.
It’s very similar to Mad Max: Fury Road.
A fantastic visual achievement that shows... rather than tells.
Dunkirk is one of the most authentic and suspenseful films ever crafted, and it puts the viewer inside the boots of the soldiers on Dunkirk beach.
Nolan also uses his favorite cinematic device — cross cutting.
The entire film’s structure was influenced by The Shepard Tone, which allows the film to continually rise in suspense throughout. The use of vintage aircraft, lighting, special effects, and lack of dialogue win the day.
Tom Hardy gliding in his spitfire above, the notorious whine of the dive-bombing Stukas, the slow but inevitable blast of the beach bombing.
All absolutely fantastic.
If you watched this film in the theatre you remember how absolutely deafening the sound design was. Just like a real war.
It’s a roller coaster. You’re strapped in. You’re on it. No getting off.
The best part of this film is how Christopher Nolan took all of his past successes and combined them with a new effort. He could have done what many directors do, which is to avoid a new challenge and go back to familiar ground.
If Interstellar, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises suffered from too much dialogue and contrivances, Dunkirk is Nolan’s redemption film.
He found value in the criticism of his work, and made an adjustment.
Good on ya ol’ boy.
Christopher Nolan Memento
2. Memento (2000)
Memento changed cinema forever, and shaped Nolan’s storytelling style. The film took full advantage of the medium in a way we had never seen before, and in many respects still have yet to be capitalized upon.
The combination of themes and various cinematic devices create an eerie and unforgettable film that forces you to question your own memories.And the best part is that, generally, it could happen to you.
Leonard Shelby’s world is accessible, even if his condition is abstract. The way Nolan shot and cut the film together shows us the pinnacle of intentional filmmaking and non-linear story structure.
You can see the matured forms of his signature storytelling techniques like time jumps, inserts, dutch angles, and a convergent narrative.
There is something to be said about Nolan’s smaller films. They are often more grounded, because they have to be, and that really helps to make Nolan’s complex ideas a bit more palatable. Not to mention the structure of the film places us in a very similar situation to that of Leonard Shelby.
Less is more… as they say.
Christopher Nolan The Prestige
1. The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige is one of the great modern films, and has the best script of any Nolan film. Nolan found what worked so well with Memento and took that electricity a step further. His pacing improved as well.
The theme is carefully intertwined with the subject matter, the world of magicians, the act of filmmaking, and Nolan’s personal style.
Nolan’s found a story structure and subject matter that acts as a thematic metaphor for everything surrounding the film. As others have noted, this is a film about magicians, but is also itself, a magic trick.
He built his story upon the structure of a magic trick, and then gave nods to that process as well as his own personal obsessions.
The acting, cinematography, production design, costumes, story, editing, - everything is top-notch. It also brings up important questions about life, death, careers, time, duplicity, magic, memory, and commitment.
Commitment to others, you family, your friends, but also to one’s craft.
So the next step is for you to rent the film, pop some corn, flush your phone, turn down the lights, and enjoy the best Christopher Nolan movie…
Christopher Nolan’s Directing Style
Directing a film like Christopher Nolan isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible. When an opportunity strikes, you want to be as prepared as can be, and that means research. For filmmakers, studying the works of filmmakers can hone your own unique voice.
As a next step, learn Christopher Nolan’s directing style, and consider how some of his trademark techniques can inspire your own projects.