Christopher Nolan Movie Tier List
Christopher Nolan is one of the most recognizable names in modern cinema. His ambitious stories and distinct style of filmmaking have consistently fascinated audiences for many years. A cornerstone of Nolan’s films is the manipulation of time and reality. His obsession with looking beyond what is known and making what is unknown his playground has captured the attention of audiences for a couple of decades. Nolan also distinguishes himself from his contemporaries by his directorial choices. He is known to heavily rely on the use of practical effects, while only using CGI when it is an absolute necessity. He’s also one of the handful of directors left who elects to shoot using film as opposed to digital. And if you're familiar with his work, you have probably noticed a few recurring faces, as he has a proclivity for certain actors. Christopher Nolan’s unique choices and intentional nuances have helped him pave a lane for himself in cinema and build quite a following over the course of his career. From directing blockbusters to genre-defining classics, Nolan has solidified himself as one of the greatest directors of our generation.
Since many people have some free time on their hands due to our current predicament, it seemed like a good time to analyze Nolan’s filmography. As many people probably haven’t had the opportunity to watch his latest film TENET yet and since everyone should have the opportunity to watch these movies for themselves,THIS POST WILL BE SPOILER FREE FOR EACH OF THE FILMS. This post will be ranked on a tier system (4 tiers with Tier 1 being the highest). While all of his films are truly special on their own, I elected to use a tier system in order to compare the different levels of achievement that his films have reached throughout his career. THE MOVIES IN A GIVEN TIER ARE RANKED, but a case could certainly be made for any one of the films being higher or lower in that tier. So whether you’ve had a chance to see his previous films or you are just being introduced to Nolan for the first time, let’s take a look at his incredible work...
Some of Nolan’s earlier work that helped establish his style, but didn’t achieve nearly as much as the films ahead of them.
Following was Christopher Nolan’s debut film. With a budget of $6,000, this “no-budget” film was released theatrically in 1998. The movie is a neo-noir and follows an extremely nosey male protagonist who gets caught in a quagmire upon befriending a thief. On the surface, this is a very slow movie which wosn’t captivate the typical viewer. In the most basic terms, it’s an inexpensive black and white student film. There aren't any action sequences or thrilling moments that most people would associate with his other work. The movie is pretty simple (for a Nolan film) and requires the audience to follow the plot for 70 minutes. But all this isn’t to say the film isn’t enjoyable.
This feature showcases how an amateur director can execute his style with a low budget. The film was shot on weekends over the course of a year with many of his friends acting in it. Since most of the movie’s budget was spent on buying film, Nolan didn’t have money for things like lighting and adequate sound. So, he primarily shot the movie during the day or when natural light was available and decided to use voice-over through parts of the film. In addition, he didn’t feel like he would be happy about how the film would look in color, so he elected to film it in black and white, in order to adapt a chic style. Despite this, you can see the onset of some of his recognizable techniques, such as cross-cutting, where Nolan cuts back and forth between two different parallel scenes. This becomes very prominent in his later films.
Ultimately, Nolan came through with a debut film that delivered on his unique vision and technique, despite having to make sacrifices. This movie isn’t a blockbuster. It’s more of a well-done film school project. Although this is one of Nolan’s weaker films, I know it certainly means a lot to young aspiring filmmakers. For what this movie accomplished with the budget it had and the significance it holds, it is definitely worth a watch for other fans of his work.
Insomnia, in an American remake of the 1997 Norwegian film which went by the same name. Nolan’s third feature, follows Will Dormer (Al Pacino), a renowned detective from L.A., who travels to Nightmute, Alaska with his partner in order to help chase down a local girl’s murderer (Robin Williams). After some unfortunate events begin to complicate things, Will is unable to sleep and becomes delirious. Despite this, he is determined to catch the killer on the loose. This is the only film that Nolan has directed but not written and it is definitely noticeable. In his other movies, it feels like his direction goes hand in hand with his bold scripts. This film has a very captivating story, but not one that necessarily suits Nolan’s filmmaking style. Nolan’s style bleeds through in a few shots, but it rarely feels like a Nolan film. The film feels as if Nolan’s potential was limited and that a number of other directors probably could’ve done an adequate job in his place. Nonetheless, there are definitely positives in this film. The themes of morality and justice were very thought provoking upon watching the movie and it challenges the viewer to put themselves in the character’s shoes. Robin Williams also gave one of his best and most underrated performances since Good Will Hunting. The cold setting of Alaska and a few of the sets, which were also shot in parts of Canada, were isolated and really fit well with the tone and themes of the movie.
Unfortunately, that’s all there really is to say about this one. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good movie. But reflecting on the entirety of his filmography, it feels like this is his safest film as it lacks the risks and bravado you typically expect from Nolan. In the end, the greatest significance of this film is that it introduced larger film audiences to Christopher Nolan.
Films that are enjoyable, but are at their best when they’re not taken too seriously.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
In the finale of the Dark Knight trilogy, Bruce Wayne is forced out of retirement in order to stop Bane (Tom Hardy), a villain who has completely locked down Gotham in Batman’s absence. The film introduces Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who look to help in the battle. The plot often feels a bit bloated and poorly developed, which seems to make it weaker than the other films in the trilogy. Additionally, it doesn’t achieve or serve the overarching plot of the trilogy nearly as much as the second film in the trilogy. This could be attributed to the fact that the film includes several characters and plot points that seemed to be written more to satisfy fans of the character and the comics rather than to advance the actual plot.
With all that being said, I remember seeing it in the movie theater as a 15-year-old and being enveloped in the action sequences. And there is an abundance of action in this movie. While you’re watching, you’re thoroughly entertained and you don’t want the movie to end. The Dark Knight Rises does a solid job as a third act and in completing Bruce Wayne’s character arc. Characters and storylines from the entirety of the trilogy are all relevant and come together in a beautiful conclusion. It is truly outstanding how well the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman was written and developed over the course of the three films. All in all, this movie is a good time, but it’s not meant to be analyzed too deeply. Fans and movie-goers alike can be satisfied with the bittersweet end, but reflect on the incredible achievements of this historic franchise.
Batman Begins (2005)
Nolan’s first blockbuster revived one of the most beloved characters in history. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) struggles to find a direction in his life after years of coping with the murder of his parents. After self-exile, Bruce finds a purpose with the League of Shadows in Bhutan. Upon returning to Gotham, he aims to bring justice and order to his city through the use of a symbol.
Now let’s start with the production of the movie. For a big studio to trust a young director, who had only directed 3 lower budget films up until that point, to revive an incredibly historic franchise was risky to say the least. The heads of Warner Brothers Studios claimed it was during his 15 minute pitch to the studio that he earned the role as director. He spoke about the direction he wanted to take Batman as a character, focusing on the origin story, and the darker tone he wanted to set for the film, visually and stylistically. With Batman Begins, Nolan changed the superhero genre. It showed that movies about comic book heroes weren’t one dimensional and could be told in a cinematic way. The film tastefully touches upon the realities of poverty, corruption, organized crime, etc. With Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, and Liam Nesson as Ra’s al Ghul, each actor gave a masterful performance in their given roles. Nolan also added a new dimension to the Gotham vigilante with the themes of morality and intrapersonal conflict which were prominent in his previous work. Throughout the film, you understand Bruce Wayne’s pain and hatred and get to see him evolve and channel his emotions to become a symbol greater than himself.
This origin story of Batman is incredibly well done and as the first act of the trilogy, this film is fantastic. Despite this, and similarly to The Dark Knight Rises, the film doesn’t accomplish nearly as much as the following film in the series. Aside from the development of Bruce’s character, this film leaves a bit to be desired in terms of the plot. Nonetheless, we get an incredible origin story that adds depth to Bruce Wayne and Batman, but it only scratches the surface.
TENET is Nolan’s latest sci-fi thriller. With a budget of a little over $200 million and abundant anticipation, this film was sure to be a blockbuster upon its initial release in July of 2020. Although moviegoing became a victim of the pandemic, I’m definitely excited for more people to get a chance to see this film now that it is out to rent and buy. Nevertheless, as I left the movie theater after watching the film, my friend turned to me and said “I think I understood more on our Physiology exam than that movie….” and I couldn’t have agreed with him more.
This movie was definitely Nolan overdoing himself. For being 2 hours and 30 minutes, this movie moves so fast in terms of pace and dialogue. It seldom gives you time to catch a breath and digest the exposition that was just presented. It feels mentally fatiguing to keep up at points in the film. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t even know where to start with the plot. The acting was decent, but nothing to rave about. And the sound mixing is noticeably messy (you’ll understand when you watch it).
In spite of all of this, the movie has such a gripping and original concept, which I can only compare to films like Matrix or Minority Report. Even if you don’t understand it, it’s so intriguing and you are glued to the screen the entire time. And although I was definitely disappointed by Hans Zimmer's absence initially, Ludwig Goransson absolutely kills it with this soundtrack, which is a highlight of this movie. After watching the movie, I highly recommend getting onto YouTube because you will have missed so much, including significant details. There are hundreds of videos breaking down the plot, easter eggs, fan theories and some behind the scenes videos and interviews from the studio, which added more depth to the experience. That’s really a testament to how thought provoking this film is. Even so, I still have several unresolved issues with the plot and some of the characters which can only be addressed by watching the movie another 5 times (at the very least). By that time, I could see my opinions on the film changing as I hope to find some more clarity.
Overall, this film seemed weaker than the movies ahead (Tiers 1 and 2) in terms of pacing and character development... but I walked out of the movie theater feeling extremely overwhelmed in a positive way. The best thing I can compare it to is a roller coaster. It has its ups and downs and you never really know what to expect, but by the end of it, you are oddly thrilled. It’s definitely a rare feeling that I haven’t had in a very long time and one that will stay with me. For that reason, this film distinguishes itself from the other 2 films in this tier for me. Regardless, it is out now to rent/buy so form your own opinion by going and checking out TENET.
Some of Nolan’s best screenplays and directorial features that have made for exceptionally memorable and outstanding films.
This film is number 2 on Quentin Tarantino’s top 10 movies of the 2010s list and that should say a lot. I still remember watching Dunkirk opening night in IMAX and being frozen the entire time. At one point I reached for my drink and forgot to pick it up. It is an hour and a half of pure adrenaline and one of those movies that is just meant to be seen in a movie theater. Your heart is really beating the entire film and you basically feel on edge for most of it. The film highlights the Battle of Dunkirk in which 400,000 men were stranded and being picked off by German forces. The evacuation saved countless lives and involved many British civilians sailing their boats across the English Channel to rescue Allied soldiers.
As the film begins, you’re thrown right into the beginning of the battle and you’re there for basically the entire movie. As always, Zimmer’s soundtrack compliments the movie perfectly and was absolutely crucial as it sets the tone and pace for the film. Although the film follows Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Farrier (Tom Hardy) and a few other characters, this is one of those movies where the actors and their characters are secondary to the story. I do wish I could connect with the characters more at times, but the film intentionally chooses to focus on the bigger picture... the reality of war and what was truly at stake in this battle. This is definitely Nolan’s best film from a directing standpoint. Aside from the several incredible shots in the film, he captures aerial dogfights, sinking ships, and soldiers in battle in a practical and realistic way, which is unlike any other war film that I have seen. Call me biased, but Nolan was snubbed for his first Academy Award that year.
Although it was definitely exciting, I had a neutral reaction to the film at first. Part of me was hoping to see a sci-fi or thriller twist reminiscent of his previous films. But this film is meant to be a realistic showing of one of the most intense battles of World War II. Coming to that realization, you begin to appreciate the film more. It is quite a numbing experience, but something that really sticks with you. I highly recommend watching this in a home theater setting if you can.
Memento is Christopher Nolan’s second feature and easily one of his best scripts. With a $9 million budget and a better cast than his first film, Nolan makes the most out of this unique plot with great twists. The film was based on a short story written by his brother, Jonathan Nolan (creator of Westworld), and then expanded on in the form of a screenplay. The pair were nominated for Best Original Screenplay that year at the Oscars.
The film follows Leonard (Guy Pearce) who suffers from anterograde amnesia, which prevents him from remembering anything after about 5 minutes, after he suffered trauma during a break-in. His last memory was of his wife being tragically raped and murdered during the break-in. Leonard seeks to avenge his wife while dealing with his condition. If the plot wasn’t interesting enough, the movie plays backwards in segments so that the first scene in the movie is the end of the story, and the last scene in the movie is closer to the beginning of the story. The purpose that Nolan shoots the film like this is so that the audience can relate to Leonard’s confusion. He forgets where he is after several minutes, so he is clueless and has to piece together fragments, in the form of his polaroids or tattoos, in order to understand what is happening. In that way, the audience is in a similar position.
The movie might require a couple of viewings, but it isn’t as ambiguous as some of his other films. Nolan has a video, which I highly recommend watching after finishing the movie, where he breaks down the timeline and delves into his thought process for the film. Once everything clicks, you just appreciate it so much more. There aren't many characters or any insane action sequences, but it makes for a classic mystery/thriller that is told in a completely unusual and interesting way. This is one of those movies that just exceeds any expectations you might have for it, and for many including myself, it makes you appreciate great filmmaking and screenwriting. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it now!
The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige is probably Nolan’s most underappreciated film. It is adapted from the 1995 novel of the same name written by Christopher Priest. The film follows the rivalry of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), two dueling magicians in 19th century London, who attempt to best each other with newer illusions and tricks. Over time, the rivalry becomes more and more personal and the two men begin to destroy each other's lives due to their unwavering commitment to be better than the other. The limits to how far they are willing to go are tested. The supporting cast includes Scarlett Johnansson and Rebecca Hall, amongst others.
I think the concept of using magicians to tell a serious story like this is very fascinating. Since this story is very character and plot driven, the film had to be super consistent in its pacing. Initially, Priest was ready to close the deal with Sam Mendes until he saw The Following and chose Nolan to direct the film instead. Thankfully, Nolan did a brilliant job adapting the novel into a screenplay and directing the film. The plot of this film is spectacular and it contains numerous twists and turns. However, it isn’t as flashy and exhilarating as some of Nolan’s other movies, so I could understand why it would be a bit less memorable for some. Nonetheless, it is undeniably an exceptional drama/thriller that does so many things consistently well.
The cast is loaded, with a few surprises, and the actors do a phenomenal job in their roles. Furthermore, the film also touches on the themes of jealousy, obsession, love, and sacrifice, which all play a crucial role in the story and its final act. Wally Pfisters’ cinematography is undoubtedly on point throughout the movie. The costume and set design are also pretty great (gotta show everybody love). As I said, this is a movie that often doesn’t get much attention, but it is really special due to its riveting premise, immaculate structure, and terrific pacing... among other things. I highly recommend it to anyone, especially people that typically don’t like his other work, since I believe this film has a wider appeal than most of his other features.
Interstellar takes place in the future when the Earth is becoming unsuitable for the continued survival of humanity. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) ventures out into space with Brand (Anne Hathaway) to find other habitable planets, while leaving behind his children. As his daughter, Murphy (Jessica Chastain), grows older and awaits his return, she searches to find a solution for humanity back on Earth.
There is just so much to love about this movie. For one, the theme of love is extremely powerful and the relationship between Cooper and his daughter is at the heart of the film. Secondly, this film is so deeply and accurately rooted in astrophysics that Kip Thorne, a renowned astrophysicist, served as an executive producer and led Nolan’s direction in terms of the film adhering to the laws of astrophysics. Making the film itself led to the publishing of multiple scientific papers, including one on the accurate 3D model of a black hole, which can be seen in the movie. This all sounds like overkill for nerds, but it goes to show how detail-oriented Nolan was for this movie. One could argue that this is the most emotional space adventure to date (2001: A Space Odyssey, yes I know). There are several incredibly moving and shocking moments in this film, so knowing that the science is portrayed accurately only adds to the incredible experience. Moreover, Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautiful cinematography is absolutely surreal (might be the best of any of Nolan’s films) and it makes the film even more of a spectacle. Words can’t do it justice, but this video can. The acting is very good, as you’d expect from a studded cast. An absolute highlight of the film is the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, which is honestly one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time. The use of church organs gives the film the perfect, ominous tone. It feels so intense and overwhelming at times that you are able to feel the gravity of the situations that the characters are facing (pun intended). There’s another amazing video where Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan discuss what went into the creation of the soundtrack that I highly recommend you watch.
My only gripe with the film is that it doesn’t quite stick the landing. The end strays away from science and goes more into an abstract metaphysical possibility. It leaves the audience a little puzzled and confused, so I wish it could have been executed more eloquently. With that being said, this is easily one of my favorite sci-fi movies ever. It is truly impossible not to be entertained by this film.
Nolan’s cinematic masterpieces that will be heralded by filmmakers and audiences for decades to come.
The Dark Knight (2008)
This film, for many, is the magnum opus of Nolan’s career. And for a great reason. In this film Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) faces his greatest challenge yet, as the unpredictable Joker (Heath Ledger) begins to tear Gotham apart for nothing more than to fuel his passion for anarchy. Meanwhile, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) attempts to run for District Attorney in order to fight the corruption in Gotham. As the Joker continues to ensue mayhem, the will of the people of Gotham and the Batman are tested.
Right as the movie begins, the audience is introduced to the chaos that is the Joker, who commands attention with his frightening makeup and his insane mannerisms. Heath Ledger genuinely gives one of the most memorable performances in film history and dominates every single scene he is in. So it’s fair to say that much of the greatness of this film can be attributed to his Oscar winning performance. Although we could talk about Ledger’s acting all day, the plot of this film is also fantastic. And the further we get into the film, the deeper the plot gets. Harvey Dent’s rise and character arc, the mob and politics of Gotham, and Bruce’s internal struggles all add needed character to the film. The action sequences are some of the best in all of Nolan’s work. This film does a great job making vigilantes and villains seem realistic and integrated into this dystopian version of our society, which seems less believable in the other 2 films in the series. Bruce’s development is definitely notable throughout the series, but especially in this film in particular. In general, this film seems to have the greatest depth of any superhero film. There are some solid quotes, like the popular “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” that stand out and enforce some of the themes of this film. If you read into this film, you can find some excellent commentary on the nature of humanity as the Joker seems to exploit it to highlight the imperfections of society. The Dark Knight really makes the other two films in the series seem a bit shallow. Lastly, the pacing is impeccable as it gives enough time to develop angst and tension for the audience throughout many different parts of the movie.
Once again, Hans Zimmer makes an unforgettable score, which is highlighted by the iconic sound he creates by dragging a razor blade on cello strings for the Joker’s theme. And Nolan’s directing in this film is near any of his other top performances, but the cinematography in this film is also very special. Wally Pfister does a sensational job capturing some shots of the Joker that perfectly portray the manic nature of this villain and the bleakness of Gotham under his reign that will go down in history.
There is not much you can say that hasn’t already been said about this movie. This film achieves mastery not only for its genre, but also for modern cinema. This is one of the best films of our lifetime. From the opening sequence to the final shot, this film makes the absolute most out of its runtime. It delivers on so many levels and there’s not much more you can ask from this movie.
With Inception, Nolan truly distinguished himself as one of the greatest filmmakers in my book. In an industry where blockbusters are filled with recycled and familiar junk, Nolan was able to captivate audiences with a wildly original and creative story, which pushed the boundaries of storytelling and cinema, as a whole. There is next to no film that is as uniquely audacious and breathtakingly cinematic, yet so wonderfully human at its core.
The film follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has been exiled from the U.S. and works on jobs as an “extractor,” stealing secrets and information from people’s minds for his employers using a novel military “dream-sharing” technology. When an opportunity arises which may ensure his return home, Cobb assembles his team and prepares to complete the most difficult mission of his life. The film includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, among others. This film, along with The Dark Knight and Dunkirk, was nominated for 8 Oscars, but it took home 4 (for visuals and sound).
Superficially, this is an incredible thriller. Nolan’s directing, Pfister’s cinematography, and the film’s visual effects are astounding. Zimmer’s soundtrack is exceptional, as usual. After a single viewing, most people can expect to be overwhelmed but thoroughly entertained. The pacing and delivery of the exposition is just perfect and the plot is uniquely enjoyable for most viewers. The ensemble cast does a great job and the characters are extremely well-developed throughout the film. There are some amazing shots and action sequences in the film that are just unforgettable. The different sets for the different dream stages are all stunning. Altogether, it just feels immaculate.
But upon every subsequent viewing, you begin to pick up more and more of the subtle details of the story that seemed to slip away. For that reason, Inception is one of the only movies I find myself watching over and over again. One of the most beautiful parts of this film is that there are deeper meanings and underlying themes, which are very subjective. You can interpret several things from the film and there are different theories, conclusions, and motifs people have discussed that you can find on the internet. And they all seem to work. It’s what you choose to focus on that matters in the end.
Although it might sound pretentious to some, Inception is film in its most artistic form. There’s only a handful of movies that can make someone feel something that they never had before and for me, Inception is one of them. Watching films now, I’m always chasing to find something that can make me feel the way Inception did when I first watched it as a 13-year-old and even now, 11 years later.
Written by Shiv Patel
Edited by Jake Zall & Nick Mandala