Despite directing lower-budget movies early in his career, since then, Christopher Nolan's filmography has been full of larger-scale films of epic proportions. Big, bold, and bombastic are three keywords that generally summarize Nolan’s career so far. But which of Christopher Nolan’s films really define his career and why? Today we are going to take a deep dive look into Nolan’s entire film career and determine what the best Christopher Nolan movies are and why. This is not a ranked list, but just some commentary on each film and how they have impacted his career as a whole.
A Guide to the 11 Best Christopher Nolan Movies
The film that defines Christopher Nolan, Inception is, in my opinion, his best and most resonating work to date. Nolan has had some wild ideas for films in the past, but they have never worked as well as this. Piggybacking off of the highly successful The Dark Knight, it seemed impossible for Nolan to create a more successful follow-up, but two years later, he managed to do so. An action crime masterpiece, Inception follows international fugitive Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) a thief who specializes in stealing secrets from large-scale corporations by using dream-sharing technology to execute his missions. But when an opportunity rises to right his wrongs, Cobb must put together a team in an attempt to complete an impossible task. The film isn’t just about the action, as it features heavy concepts and themes involved with reality and time that surprisingly, in the end, shouldn’t fail to make you cry. Filled with A-list actors, quick editing, and emotional musical score from Hans Zimmer, and masterful direction from Christopher Nolan, Inception is flawless in its execution and will most likely go down as Nolan's best work in the entirety of his career.
The Dark Knight Trilogy
The next movie (or movies in this case) I want to look at is The Dark Knight Trilogy, which is considered by myself and many others as one of the greatest trilogies of all time. But it’s not to say this came without some risks. Superhero movies at the time were in a shaky place, especially the character of Batman. Before Nolan’s Batman Begins, the previous Batman film to be released was 1997s Batman and Robin which is regarded by some as the worst movie of all time and downright unwatchable. To dig out of that Batman grave was an extremely difficult task, but Nolan somehow managed to accomplish it. With consistently gripping performances, spectacular practical and visual effects, and musical scores by composer Hans Zimmer, this trilogy earns its name as one of the best of all time.
2. 'Batman Begins'
Batman Begins revolutionized the superhero genre and proved that these types of movies could be not only serious filmmaking but actually great films with impactful storylines. While still being early on in Nolan’s career, this was a very bold choice for him to make, because if this somehow turned out to be a flop, not only would he never would’ve been able to not only finish the trilogy, but he also wouldn’t have been able to make the outrageously inventive and convoluted films he’s able to today. Nolan absolutely sticks the landing by creating the most realistic Gotham City cinema had seen at the time (I think 2022s The Batman perfects Gotham City) as well as bringing us the greatest Batman performance to date with Christian Bale acting at his highest level.
3. 'The Dark Knight'
Christopher Nolan ups the ante in the second film of the trilogy and delivers what many consider one of the greatest movies ever made. The Dark Knight is everything a Batman film should be and features a daring, Oscar-winning performance from the great Heath Ledger as he plays the menacing Joker. It’s difficult to give new praise for this film since it has received so much over the years, but to put it simply, Nolan became a household name because of this movie. This put him on the map as one of the greatest writers and directors working today and proved that he would not be going anywhere anytime soon after its release. This film perfectly encapsulates a Batman movie and delivers on all cylinders to continue the trilogy in an extremely positive direction.
4. 'The Dark Knight Rises'
Lastly, Nolan finishes the trilogy in epic fashion by bringing us The Dark Knight Rises. While it does have some flaws, the execution and final product can be admired by many for a few reasons. For starters, the runtime is nearly three hours long and doesn’t skip out on showing us every little important detail. Secondly, the stakes have never felt higher in a Batman film before and it’s all thanks to the haunting performance by Tom Hardy. Hardy plays Bane who terrorizes the city and threatens to blow Gotham City to smithereens. The film also finishes Bruce Wayne’s full character arc which feels earned and extremely satisfying. Finally, the action sequences have never been better in this film with scenes like the plane crash, bank robbery chase, Bane’s takeover of Gotham City, and the legendary all-out war between the Police of Gotham City and Bane’s mercenaries. Everything just feels like Nolan throwing everything he’s got at the wall and while not all of it sticks, the epic proportions of the film definitely do. This film personally holds a special place in my heart as it was one of the first PG-13 movies I ever saw in theaters and it was an experience I’ll never forget.
One of Nolan’s more wild concepts absolutely delivers once you’re able to figure it out and is as heartfelt and emotionally raw as he’s ever been, Interstellar is that film. It follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) an ex-science engineer and pilot who accepts a daring mission to travel through a wormhole in search of a new habitable planet to save the human race. The film is an epic, clocking in at nearly three hours long this is an absolute journey that Nolan masterfully brings us on. When Cooper and his team are exploring different planets, Nolan manages to make it extremely encapsulating thanks to the high stakes. The characters are in extreme danger risking their lives to find a new life but additionally because if they can’t find a planet their world back home will perish. These worlds are brought to life by jaw-dropping visual effects. Seeing the film in IMAX back in 2014 was a blessing that I often take for granted because this is one of the greatest-looking films to date. It also features a whole lot of heart as Cooper must make the difficult decision of leaving his kids and potentially never see them again. Nolan creates his most emotionally impactful film to date with a powerful ending that will leave you speechless.
6. 'The Prestige'
Probably Christopher Nolan’s most underrated film to date, The Prestige is a near flawless portrayal of obsession. The film follows two magicians who go back and forth attempting to outdo each other in an attempt to create the ultimate illusion. The film was released a year after Batman Begins and came early on in Nolan’s career. While the film may seem simplistic, I think it’s an important addition to Nolan’s catalog of films and proves that no matter what genre he takes on, he will always deliver. Nolan also manages to get the best out of his A-list cast which features Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, and David Bowie. Not only do the actors provide spectacular performances, but the script is one of Nolan’s best that has another all-time Nolan ending which is sure to leave you speechless. If you consider yourself a Nolan fan, The Prestige is a must-watch.
A more recent entry in Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking resumé, Dunkirk is his most mature film to date that takes viewers firsthand into World War II. Not only was this Nolan’s first directed film based on a true story, but it was also his first war movie. When the news was announced that Dunkirk would be his next feature film, fans of Nolan were a little shocked but definitely intrigued to see what he would deliver. Not only did Nolan deliver, but he exceeded expectations and brought us one of the greatest war films of all time.
The film takes place from three different, unique perspectives: on the beach with the soldiers, in the air with the dogfighters, and by boat with the civilian steamer crew. By doing this, Nolan has the easy ability to intercut between the three storylines so that they, in the end, all culminate at the most climactic point in the film (this happens to be a continuous trait of Christopher Nolan that he uses on most of his films). Despite being a war movie with a PG-13 rating, the film is a gorgeous spectacle with insane visuals, and realistic action, and might be Nolan’s best-looking film to date. Without Dunkirk being in Nolan’s filmography, I believe he would still be missing a more mature and defining feature film which is why this is the most important film in his collection.
Nolan’s most recent film to date is by far his most bombastic. Tenet throws every single convoluted idea in Nolan's brain at the wall and while much of it doesn’t stick, it's still entertaining as hell even if you're struggling to understand what is going on throughout the lengthy runtime. Add up Inception and Interstellar's convoluted plot lines and multiply it by 100, Tenet takes us on an international espionage journey.
The film follows an unnamed CIA operative called the protagonist (John David Washington) who uses "time inversion" in an attempt to prevent Russian oligarch Andrei Sator from starting World War III. Sound convoluted? Well, that's because it is. Despite how confusing you may find the film, the action is extremely entertaining. Nolan also had the balls to use and completely destroy a real 747 plane instead of using VFX. The move may cost him more money but it certainly looks fantastic on the big screen. While this may be the most Christopher Nolan movie he has ever made, it still is an enjoyable time despite all his unique and sometimes irritating troupes.
Nolan's second feature film is yet another underrated gem in his filmmaking catalog. Memento follows a man with short-term memory loss who is in search of his wife's murderer. The film sounds simple on the surface, but Nolan uses a unique storytelling style that elevates the material to the highest level. He splits the film into two different time periods that layer on top of each other throughout the film (in classic Nolan style). One part of the film tells the story forward in time and one tells the story backward in time which in the end encapsulates into a super gripping crime drama that is a very worthy entry in Nolan's film career.
The only Nolan film that feels uncharacteristic from his other work, Insomnia is by far his most dull film to date. But, there's understandably a good reason why this doesn't hit as hard as his other films. Nolan had nothing to do with the writing of this movie and it's the only film he's directed where that happens to be the case.
Nevertheless, the film is still fine and is by no means a bad movie. Insomnia follows two Los Angeles homicide detectives who get relocated to Alaska in search of the murderer of a local teen. My biggest complaint is the film feels too similar to the title of the movie. When watching the film, it feels at times very lethargic, almost like you are so tired but somehow can't get any sleep (aka insomnia). Definitely Nolan's weakest film, but certainly one that should still be sought out as it does hold a few tricks up its sleeve.
Nolan wasn’t always mapping out maze-like stories and creating big spectacles setpieces. His first feature film was a short, black and white crime thriller titled Following. There’s nothing too inspiring to write home about, as the story doesn’t do anything ambitious or outlandish like his later work. The one thing that stands out is his somewhat convoluted and mysterious storyline which does follow him throughout his career.
What's Nolan's Next Move?
So what’s next for Christopher Nolan? Thankfully, we already know the answer. He’s making his second film based on a true story which follows the development of the atomic bomb titled Oppenheimer. The film is set to release in Summer, 2023 but the big talking point regarding this film so far happens to be the unbelievable cast list for the film. It stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, but also features (get ready for this ridiculously massive list of talent): Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Dane DeHaan, Matthew Modine, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Clarke, Josh Peck, Devon Bostick, Alex Wolff, Tony Goldwyn, Gary Oldman, and Casey Affleck. With this cast, who knows what Nolan has up his sleeve, but what we can expect is nothing short of a great film.