Christopher Nolan movies ranked: Every film from best to worst
Where does the director's latest film Oppenheimer fit into his oeuvre?
Few – if any – filmmakers in the world right now command quite as much interest as Christopher Nolan, and the auteur has another hit on his hands with the recently released epic Oppenheimer.
A three-hour immersive character study of the 'father of the atomic bomb', the new film boasts a career-best turn from Cillian Murphy – and has hugely outperformed box office expectations on the back of a wealth of rave reviews.
But the question is, how does Oppenheimer compare to the rest of Nolan's filmography? Since debuting with the ultra-low budget Following in 1998, the director has made twelve features – each of which has further cemented his reputation as a modern master.
From his expertly executed non-linear thriller Memento to his gritty reinvention of Batman with The Dark Knight trilogy, and from his operatic sci-fi epic Interstellar to his stirring Second World War flick Dunkirk, Nolan has tackled all manner of subject matters and themes while developing a number of instantly recognisable trademarks and motifs.
And so, with the new release putting Nolan back in the spotlight, we at RadioTimes.com got together to rank all his films in order of preference – read on to find out which took the top spot.
Nolan’s first feature marked him out as a sharp talent keen to experiment with structure and twisty narratives – a skill that he’s been developing and refining ever since. Shot in streets familiar to Nolan from his time as president of the film society at University College London, and starring uni friends Jeremy Theobald and Lucy Russell, Following is a lesson in how to create a piece of art on next to no budget.
Given the limitations, it’s tough to compare favourably to what came later, when Nolan began to work with the financial backing and behind-the-camera personnel that allowed him to dream a little bigger. Looking back on the black-and-white, 69-minute debut, the themes of memory, identity and deception have been explored to greater effect in the director’s later films, but that doesn’t take anything away from this impressive calling card. – Christian Tobin, Production Editor
One of Nolan’s earliest films, Insomnia feels as such – even though it is still an impressive achievement, particularly as one of the director’s first films, he hasn’t quite lasered in on his best qualities as a director. Insomnia is also distinct in that it is the only one of Nolan’s films for which he does not have a writer’s credit, and you can tell.
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For some who are put off by the writer-director’s love of complex storytelling and interest in subverting narrative structure, this may be a blessing, but for those of us who love Nolan’s bold vision and distinct voice, it’s something of a disappointment.
That’s not to say this is a bad film – far from it. As a thriller, it really works, with some shocking reveals, a compelling concept at its core and some stunning central performances, particularly from the late, great Robin Williams. It just remains a lesser light in Nolan’s canon, thus finding its place near the bottom of this list. – James Hibbs, Drama Writer
10. The Dark Knight Rises
Nolan’s third and final Batman entry arrived with impossibly high expectations after the brilliance of The Dark Knight, so it was perhaps inevitable that the follow-up felt like something of a comedown. The set-pieces are still strong – the aeroplane extraction, the stadium explosion and Batman’s back-breaking showdown with Bane are among the most impressive scenes in the trilogy – yet the whole package is disjointed and unusually plodding.
Anne Hathaway is a standout as Selina Kyle, and although Tom Hardy gives it his all as Bane, the character is simply less interesting as a threat than what’s come before. Elsewhere, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is largely wasted and poor Marion Cotillard has a thankless role even before that much-criticised death scene.
And while even Nolan’s best scripts aren’t 100 per cent watertight, The Dark Knight Rises requires more suspension of disbelief than usual (every available police officer in the tunnels… really?). – CT
Many have longed for a James Bond film directed by Christopher Nolan - perhaps even Nolan himself - and the influence of these films is evident in his work. However, the closest we have come yet to Nolan’s own espionage adventure has to be the ambitious science-fiction puzzle that is Tenet.
With arguably his sexiest cast to date, Nolan zips across glamorous locations and narrative tricks with style and pizazz (but with some slightly questionable sound mixing). John David Washington is suitably enigmatic as The Protagonist, while Robert Pattinson’s charisma jumps off the screen as the dapper Neil.
Elsewhere, Elizabeth Debicki offers a textured turn to what could be a one-note role as “the wife of evil villain”, while Sir Kenneth Branagh is at his scenery-chewing best as Nolan’s take on a Bond baddie.
While the logic of the film may be off-putting - and some areas are needlessly complicated - it is hard to not get swept up in the tension and gravitas of Nolan’s Tenet. – Lewis Knight, Trends Editor
After first making waves with the ultra-low budget Following, this was the film that really launched Nolan's career and announced him as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Based on a short story by his brother Jonathan – who has also co-written several of his other films – it tells the story of an amnesiac insurance investigator desperately attempting to piece together clues from tattoos and notes he has left to himself.
The film's fascinating non-chronological structure, which like the newly released Oppenheimer makes excellent use of scenes shot in black-and-white, has become the stuff of legend – although perhaps ensures that no rewatch will ever quite live up to the thrilling experience of solving the puzzle the first time around. But complete with neo-noir trappings, a mood of distinct unease, and an impressive turn from Guy Pearce in the lead role, this was a major step up for Nolan – and it speaks to the strength of the rest of his filmography that it finds itself outside the top half of the list. – Patrick Cremona, Senior Film Writer
This 2017 Oscar nominee is a Second World War film as only Nolan could have made one, following the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk from three different perspectives: land, air and sea. With help from some superb practical effects work, tremendous sound design, and another terrific Hans Zimmer score, Nolan crafts an immersive spectacle brimming with tension.
Nolan's attention to detail has always been a key part of his appeal, and it's arguably never been better than here – with the director employing historic boats and period airplanes to create a sense of realism that puts the audience firmly in the thrust of the action.
Meanwhile, in addition to boasting impressive performances from a handful of relative newcomers – famously including Harry Styles – the film's cast also features many of Britain's finest thespians, with Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy chief among them. But crucially, none of these stars take centre stage – this is very much an ensemble piece speaking to the collective heroism of the evacuation, building to a stirring conclusion that proves Nolan can do emotion just as well as technical brilliance. – PC
6. Batman Begins
The first film of Christopher Nolan’s foray into mainstream popularity and the first in his Dark Knight trilogy, Batman Begins is the director at his world-building best. Never has Gotham City felt so alive, visceral and gritty.
The outing introduces us to Christian Bale’s stellar playboy Bruce Wayne in an origin story that feels fresh, emotionally fraught and strong in character. Nolan regular Cillian Murphy puts in a memorable turn as the Scarecrow, while Liam Neeson defies expectations in his performance as Wayne’s mentor and later nemesis.
With a strong ensemble including Sir Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman - and, yes, even Katie Holmes - Nolan gives a Batman outing that feels show-stopping yet character-driven at the same time, and began a new era in superhero filmmaking.
Coupled with Hans Zimmer’s now iconic theme for Nolan’s Dark Knight, Batman Begins stands as a real testament to Nolan adapting and redefining the modern blockbuster – LK
Few sci-fi films have felt as epic in scope in cinema history as Nolan’s Interstellar: A glorious visual feast of a film that features an emotional odyssey across time and space, but is grounded in a heartwarming relationship between a father and his daughter.
Matthew McConaughey offers some of his best work as roguish astronaut Cooper as he ventures out into deep space for humanity’s salvation, promising to return to his daughter Murphy, played by a tearjerking Jessica Chastain as an adult.
While its sentimentality and scientific exposition may not be everyone’s cup of tea, rarely has the usually cold filmmaking of Nolan ever had such heart, and for a film covering such complex ideas, Interstellar feels oh so personal.
We cannot forget the mesmeric score from Hans Zimmer, either, which serves as one of his best collaborations with the director. All of the operatic storytelling and jaw-dropping filmmaking techniques build to a finale that will leave you breathless and feeling ever so tiny in the universe thereafter. – LK
Nolan’s latest film is also one of his best – a stirring rumination on one of the most crucial, deadly moments of the last century, and an epic in every sense of the word. Nolan brings all of his technical know-how, developed over almost three decade of filmmaking, to bear here – there’s the time manipulation of Tenet and Memento, the mind-boggling practical effects of Dunkirk, and the heart-stopping tension of The Dark Knight, all of which have been perfected.
He also benefits from his years of experience and acclaim allowing him to cast every available acclaimed movie star in even the most minute of roles. Robert Downey Jr, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Tom Conti and more are all exceptional in the film, but Cillian Murphy is truly extraordinary, giving a performance for the ages in a role which is written with nuance and complexity to spare.
Some minor pacing issues aside, when you leave the film you’ll likely be gripped by two sensations – a drive to find out more about Oppenheimer’s unbelievable story and a deep sense of existential dread. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. – JH
3. The Prestige
The Prestige might not have initially opened to quite as rapturous a reception as some of the other films in the upper part of this list, but its reputation has grown over the years to the point that it's now rightly regarded as one of the finest offerings in Nolan's impressive oeuvre. A period piece set in 1890s London, it follows two rival magicians played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as they attempt to outdo each other with increasingly outlandish – and dangerous – tricks.
Consistently engrossing and drenched in atmosphere, the film intelligently explores themes of rivalry and obsession while delivering a typically intricate plot that packs all sorts of twists and turns into its runtime – including a corker of a final reveal that reframes everything in a completely different light. Bale and Jackman make for perfect foils and there are also impressive performances from Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, but it's arguably a supporting turn from David Bowie as Nikola Tesla which is the most memorable performance in the film. This truly is a feat of movie magic. – PC
2. The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight has gone down in cinema history for good reason. Undeniably the best of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, many have tried and failed to replicate its unique gritty tone, bringing us comic book characters that were heroic, monstrous, flawed, and all too human.
As one of Heath Ledger’s final performances, it is also one of his greatest - with his Joker becoming instantly iconic. No one else could have offered up a performance so crazed, unhinged, chilling, nuanced and unpredictable. Over the course of two and a half hours, Ledger creats the blueprint for a comic book villain. Not only that, he takes a character that had already been through numerous iterations - and would go through many more after him - and makes his portrayal so unique that no one else could come close to rivalling it.
From its beautifully crafted arcs to its shock factor, its originality to its addictive rewatchability, its intensity to Nolan’s clear vision, The Dark Knight is undoubtedly a stone-cold classic. – Louise Griffin, Sci-fi and Fantasy Editor
Inception is Christopher Nolan’s greatest cinematic achievement; in a line-up of enormously heavy hitters from a blockbuster career, this 2010 thriller is the pinnacle.
With an all-star line-up, as is par for the course with the director, a Hans Zimmer score which has become iconic (if you can’t hear that horn sound in your mind at the mere mention of Nolan then you’re probably not a fan) and spectacular cinematography, this is where it all comes together – so much so it took home four Oscars at the 2011 ceremony and was nominated for a further four.
Here, Nolan strikes the perfect balance between his penchant for grandiose explorations of such trivial topics as time and reality and the kind of tight direction and editing that makes for a pop-culture hit. Leonardo DiCaprio shines as protagonist Cobb, a specialist thief tasked with delving into others' subconscious for corporate espionage, who is himself attempting to bury a perilous personal tragedy deep in the recesses of his own mind.
A layered thriller (in every sense of the word), Inception also sparkles with the ice-blue eyes of Nolan muse Cillian Murphy – and his acting skills – as well as comedic levity courtesy of Tom Hardy and the earnestness of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Mr Exposition. Add Marion Cotillard and Michael Caine and you've got a quintessentially Nolan cinematic celebration. – Minnie Wright, News Editor