In honor of the release of Interstellar, and because I love making lists, let me use this moment to talk about my relationship to Christopher Nolan, who might be a very divisive figure amongst cinephiles, but is nonetheless one of the biggest, most popular, and most influential directors working today (just think of how many recent films feature cheap knock-offs of Inception‘s score). So, here they are, the movies of Christopher Nolan ranked from best to worst.
DISCLOSURE: I haven’t seen Nolan’s first film, Following, so that’s the reason why it isn’t part of this ranking.
1. The Prestige (2006)
This is not the first Nolan movie I saw. I already was aware of who he was, but this was the movie that made think that he was doing something special. This tale of two magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) competing to one-up each others’ illusions in 19th Century England features the kind of twists and turns that would drop any fourteen-year-old’s jaw to the floor, but these many years later, I am more convinced than ever that this is Nolan’s masterpiece.
Nolan can sometimes mistake the forest for the trees, getting so involved in the intricacies of his work that he forgets to take a step back and realize how dumb his movies can seem. Maybe it’s the fact that Nolan and his brother Jonathan adapted the story from Christopher Preist’s novel of the same name, but the unintentional silliness is completely absent from this movie. This is one of the cases where the director’s themes about obsession and perfection are most perfectly supported by the structure of the movie.
Unlike Nolan’s lesser work, there is a sense of life, and a playful urgency reflected in the character’s delight in the art of tricking each other that makes this such a fun film to watch. Perhaps it’s because he has such an old-fashioned personality, but the Victorian setting goes incredibly well with his style and sensibilities. Also, David Bowie plays Nikola Tesla, and you can’t get much better than that where casting is concerned.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
The sad truth is that I don’t enjoy this movie nearly as much as I did when it first came out. My problems with Nolan’s subsequent movies have made his most annoying tendencies, many of which are present in The Dark Knight, a little too noticeable for me to lose myself in the movie the way I used to. That being said, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it, because I really, really do. It’s fitting that this came out after Nolan made a movie that uses structure as a way to create tension such as The Prestige, since watching the The Dark Knight for me is like watching a virtuoso musician play one of those incredibly fast pieces of music. The film just moves.
The other invaluable weapon of the movie is, of course, Heath Ledger’s performance. I don’t think there is anything that hasn’t been said about the late actor’s Oscar-winning role, so just let me say, for the record, that I think it is fantastic, full of playful qualities that are absent of most of Nolan’s work. In a twisted way, it’s this psychopath that ends up being the easiest entry point into the director’s cold world.
3. Memento (2000)
For a lot of people, the first Nolan movie they saw, and the one that made them fall in love with him. It didn’t really have that effect on me, although I think it’s a pretty great movie. Like The Prestige, a lot of its greatness comes from its structure, which could rightfully be described as a gimmick, but informs the film so well that I don’t really care. Sometimes, a good execution of a cool premise is all you need to make an effective movie. The other great thing about Memento is that it’s so damn rewatchable, and not in small part thanks to some really solid performances from Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano.
4. Inception (2010)
I have a complicated relationship with this one. When I first exited the theater, I couldn’t do anything but rave about it. A couple rewatches later, and I started to see what other people were complaining about. So, yes, there is a LOT of unnecessary exposition, and for being a movie about dreams, it is incredibly earthbound and unimaginative, but you know what? It works. It fucking works. There is not a time when I watch Inception and am not entertained by it. It might not be profound. It might not be great, but you can only wish most Hollywood blockbusters were half as good as this one.
5. Batman Begins (2005)
The first half of Batman Begins is pretty amazing. The movie moves messily through time and space, but is held together by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score, which united every scene like a railroad on which the movie can come passing through as forcefully as it wants. It’s incredibly how efficiently and seemingly effortlessly the movie can build up momentum. Sadly, all this propulsion stops sometime near the halfway mark, and we’re stuck with a second half that isn’t nearly as exciting. Nolan would learn from this experience. Like I said, The Dark Knight doesn’t have any problems holding on to its forward momentum. As for Batman Begins, even if can’t find and ending that will make all threads come together elegantly, it remains a pretty solid movie.
6. Insomnia (2002)
This came up on cable and I watched it all the way to the end. I don’t remember much about it, but then again, this happened many years ago (about seven or eight, probably). In any case, I think a rewatch would be in order before I make any definitive comments about the film’s quality. So, what do I remember about the experience? Well, Hilary Swank is one of the leads, which is never a good sign, but I do remember being quite impressed with Robin Williams’s performance. I was pretty young at the time, and still associated Williams with unmeasured comedy. I remember other “subtle Williams” performances more fondly, but I think he might have been onto something here.
7. A dump
Not really a Nolan film, but I just wanted to illustrate how much better my estimation of a literal piece of crap is when compared to…
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
One of the dumbest movies I have ever seen. Taking into account how Nolan is usually described as a perfectionist control-freak, I find it all the more unacceptable that he would make a movie as profoundly inept as this one. Nothing in The Dark Knight Rises (except for Anne Hathaway’s amusing performance) works. There is not a single character that acts by using any kind of human sense. There is not a single plot-point that isn’t rendered disposable by its stupid third-act twist. There is not a single moment of exciting filmmaking. I mean, a plane is stripped of its wings in mid-air (without the use of CGI) and I didn’t feel excited about seeing it happen. Cap that with an ending that takes the thematic edge off of all that build up in the previous Batman movies, and you have the only Nolan movie that I wouldn’t only call bad, but outright atrocious.