The films of Christopher Nolan (including Tenet), ranked by Robbie Collin

Robbie Collin
·10-min read
(l-r) John David Washington in Tenet, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk
(l-r) John David Washington in Tenet, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk

Tenet’s arrival in British cinemas next week is easily the most anticipated film event of the last six months – thanks in part to the global pandemic, yes, but also to its remarkable director Christopher Nolan. The fact that Warner Brothers acceded to his wish not to release the film onto streaming services after it was three times delayed is testament to the influence he has achieved over twenty years of film--making.

It’s worth taking stock of Nolan’s career up to this point – where he’s been, what he’s changed, and what could possibly come next. So here’s the state of play so far: his 11 wide-ranging but cohesive films to date, ranked in ascending order of excellence.

11. Following (1998)

It says something for Nolan’s determination and consistency that even his slight-at-70-minutes debut – a self-funded, cerebral noir, shot on weekends with a largely amateur cast – remains as watchable as it does, even in light of the heftier pleasures to come. 

Following was made when Nolan was only 28 years old
Following was made when Nolan was only 28 years old

Lurking within this lean tale of a sneaky thief and his credulous apprentice are many of the obsessions that would come to define the then-28-year-old director’s work, from its chopped-and-remixed timeline, nested realities and riddling reveals, to Nolan’s insistence on shooting on film over digital video. (To extract maximum value from his 16mm stock – an expensive choice for a first-timer – Nolan rehearsed every scene into the ground with his actors to make sure they could capture it in a couple of takes.) 

Note that the film’s wily thief-in-chief is called Cobb: a name Nolan would dust off 12 years later, perhaps relishing its spidery resonance. Bigger and better things were obviously in store, but as first webs go, it’s more than competently spun.

10. Insomnia (2002)

Nolan’s first studio assignment, a frostily proficient thriller about a murder investigation which unfolds in perpetual Arctic daylight, is something of an odd-film-out in the director’s catalogue. A remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller with Stellan Skarsgärd, Insomnia doesn’t hinge on the kind of conceptual trickery found in Nolan’s self-generated projects. 

But it did prove the director could carry off an accessible, mid-budget genre film with serious panache, not least while drawing out fine work from some commanding talent. Al Pacino is Will Dormer, an LA detective mentally shipwrecked by sleeplessness in small-town Alaska, Hillary Swank a local junior officer, and Robin Williams plays against convivial type as… well, have a guess.

Captivating throughout, the film really sings in its set-pieces, including a hair-raising chase across a logjam on a thundering river and a guns-drawn stumble through rolling banks of fog.

9. Batman Begins (2005)

And not just Batman, either: Bruce Wayne’s Himalayan gap year is ground zero for the superhero mania still gripping studios to date. Working in admittedly lower-stakes times (eight years on from Joel Schumacher’s garish and nipply Batman & Robin, anything would have been an improvement), Nolan’s masterstroke was paring away everything in the comic-book mythos that didn’t serve the film at hand. 

Christian Bale in Batman Begins
Christian Bale in Batman Begins

The brace of B-tier villains – Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow and the elusive Ra’s al Ghul – are never allowed to pull focus from Christian Bale’s grippingly conflicted title character, whose hikes along the spines of glaciers and solemn delvings into Gotham City’s criminal underworld suggested super-heroism might be even more thrilling with at least one boot in the recognisable present. It was a stratagem Nolan would return to, and turbo-charge, in the years to come, with results that eclipse everything here.

8. Inception (2010)

A sister picture to Memento (see below) in almost every respect, from its structural audacity to the ghostly wife that spurs and goads its hero onwards, Inception also marked the end of the first act of Nolan’s filmmaking career: here we see the auteur triumphant, splurging a nine-figure budget on a premise that would have had anyone else laughed out of the pitching meeting, followed by critical acclaim, commercial success and a newly rabidified fanbase.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Nolan on the set of Inception -  Melissa Moseley SMPSP
Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Nolan on the set of Inception - Melissa Moseley SMPSP

This espionage thriller may be set inside the dreams of its protagonists – including Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, spinning intricate traps for all he’s worth – but Inception isn’t actually very dream-like at all. It’s as rigorously constructed as a sky-scraping piece of architecture, and takes genuine delight in the humming interplay of its multiple tiers.

Talk of Nolan side-stepping into the James Bond franchise, which persisted until Cary Joji Fukunaga got the gig, was frustrating partly because he’d already been there, six times simultaneously, here. Even so, Inception never feels like anything other than the work of its creator in reelingly loquacious flow.

7. Memento (2000)

Nolan partisans often insist this fiendishly constructed psychological thriller remains his best film to date – perhaps because it’s the one that stitches you up most comprehensively on a first encounter, then makes you feel smartest on return visits. Certainly, the initial thrill of being had is every bit as indelible as the aide-mémoires scratched on the skin of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), the amnesiac vigilante on the trail of the man who killed his wife.

Carrie Anne Moss and Guy Pearce in Memento
Carrie Anne Moss and Guy Pearce in Memento

Presented for the most part in reverse-chronological order, with black-and-white flashbacks to keep you on your toes twice over, the film coolly insists on you coming to it – but the mental plate-spinning required to play along is as much fun in the moment as it is deeply satisfying in retrospect.

6. The Prestige (2006)

The second of Nolan’s two adaptations to date finds the director at his most deftly self-reflexive – and, as argued by Adam Nayman in a superb piece for The Ringer, it may also be his most autobiographical. 

Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige - Warner Bros
Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige - Warner Bros

Freely spun from a mystery novel by Christopher Priest, the film centres on a long-running between two Victorian stage magicians, Hugh Jackman’s genteel Angier and Christian Bale’s roughcast Borden – the latter of whom concocts a trick so straightforwardly sense-defying it drives his rival to unhinged extremes of professional one-upmanship.

From the film’s beautifully realised sealed world to its casually dazzling deployment of the very same confidence tricks it pretends to lay bare, the film slips from your grip every time you tighten it. It also features David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, as if you needed another reason to (re)visit.

5. The Dark Knight (2008)

From its opening shot onwards – a 15-second glide towards the towers of a financial district – the centrepiece of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy speaks with a steely candour to its harrowed, post-9/11 times. 

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight - Warner Bros
The late Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight - Warner Bros

It’s not that the Batman-Joker struggle at its core makes sense of the age in which we live: rather, it deconstructs the sheer, ecstatic senselessness of it, with Heath Ledger as the pasty-faced embodiment of the new terror’s inscrutability and doggedness – and, perhaps worst of all, finely honed sense of showmanship.

From Gotham to Hong Kong, every moral dilemma is a zugzwang, every attempt to restore order a bomb beneath the very foundations it seeks to shore up. It struck a $1 billion chord worldwide, defined a blockbuster era, and earned Nolan seemingly limitless creative carte blanche.

4. Tenet (2020)

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Tenet - Melinda Sue Gordon
Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Tenet - Melinda Sue Gordon

Time and tide are one and the same in Nolan’s 11th feature: an icily glamorous thriller about a black-market technology that allows people and objects to move backwards through the temporal current. From abstract premise to heavenly tailoring, it feels in many ways like a sister film to Inception, though it asks significantly more of its audience – at times it’s like being on a bicycle that’s barrelling downhill but with your brain on the pedals, spinning as fast as it can just to keep pace with the wheels. 

Action set-pieces, including a Dark Knight-rivalling hijack in Tallinn, unfold in both directions at once – while the plot is quite literally the opposite of straightforward. Meanwhile, there’s a pervasive sense of human history having reached its own entropic endpoint: the film unfolds (and refolds) in a world in which fine art is entombed in warehouses, national interests have curdled into oligarchic egomania, and entire cities can be conveniently wiped from the map.

3. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

It’s long been a kind of heresy to rank the concluding chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy above its near-universally loved predecessor. But as time wears on, it becomes clearer that The Dark Knight Rises is in almost every respect the weightier, more impressive film – not least because its very premise, with its elite-toppling, take-back-control mantras and slippery segue from terror to populism to ruin, seems so hair-raisingly astute in retrospect.

Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises - rex
Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises - rex

For much of its running time, it’s also a superhero film without a superhero: Bale’s Batman becomes a symbol of the fightback, a logo chalked hastily on walls, a figure on whose behalf the few remaining good men and women of Gotham continue to resist. Its towering images and Dickensian sweep (think Eisenstein’s October crossed with A Tale of Two Cities, in black lycra) don’t just add up to the greatest superhero film ever made: they’re a thunderously convincing last word on super-heroism itself.

2. Dunkirk (2017)

By some distance Nolan’s most mature feature to date, Dunkirk is a work of uncompromising seriousness that unfolds at runaway-train pace, raising tough questions and goose-pimples in riveting sync, and commingling the two in ways no other filmmaker would conceive of. 

From disordered timelines to destabilised horizons, tried and true techniques from elsewhere in the Nolanverse are redeployed here with more finesse than ever before, along with a newly sharpened sense of purpose. If you thought Inception’s spinning top was a climactic brain-teaser to chew on, wait until you get a load of the victory-in-defeat conundrum that haunts the young soldiers who make it home from the bullet-raked French shoreline, and which is summed up in the astonishing final pair of images. 

The film’s sweep and commitment often knock you flat, but its unflagging intimacy amid such grandiose horrors is what leaves you prickling – as well as the sense that after a film like this, there’s no knowing where Nolan could go next.

1. Interstellar (2014)

The greatest gaps in time and space are the ones that separate us from who we love – but love in turn is capable of collapsing light years and lifetimes into little more than blinks. 

Nolan’s greatest, saddest, simplest film to date proceeds as a kind of grand thought experiment into the above. It fires the human condition – in the person of Matthew McConaughey’s questing astronaut and absent father Coop – to the far side of the cosmos, just to see how those three forces relate. 

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, which Robbie Collin names as Nolan's greatest film
Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, which Robbie Collin names as Nolan's greatest film

But as the test runs on, level-headed detachment becomes impossible: Coop and his fellow travellers’ fates exert a black hole-like pull on our own souls, and we’re sucked along with them into the kind of metaphysical territory few filmmakers have the nerve, let alone the capacity and vision, to persuasively chart.

Sniffed at by some on release, the film feels braver and more of a marvel with every close encounter. At home it’s awe-inspiring enough: in the cinema, when you can feel an infinity of nothingness pressing in on all sides, it’s an honest-to-goodness celestial experience.

Now it’s your turn. Let us know which Christopher Nolan film is your favourite in the comments section below