At a time when the star system has started to fade and movie studios are blandly reasserting themselves as the true auteurs of Hollywood cinema, a soft-spoken British director with a flair for puzzles and a fiendish penchant for scarves has somehow become one of the most famous pop artists on the planet.
In less than two decades, Christopher Nolan has gone from an anonymous micro-budget filmmaker to a genuine household name, a figure whose cultural cachet now rivals that of Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg. This, despite the fact that most people probably couldn’t pick Nolan out of a line-up. He’s a bonafide brand despite not being much of a personality; his films do all the talking for him, “Inception” going so far as to become modern vernacular’s go-to word for describing literally anything with layers (“that nacho was stuck to that other nacho, it was like a nacho ‘Inception,’ bro!”).
Of course, Nolan wouldn’t have it any other way. To truly understand who he is — to appreciate his body of work — you can’t rely on public image, you have to take stock of his films and solve them for the secrets they hide. And with “Dunkirk” slated to hit theaters on July 21, now is the best time to do just that. Here are all 10 of Christopher Nolan’s films, ranked from worst to best and laid flat so as to reveal what binds them all together.
(Note: This article was updated on July 17th to include “Dunkirk”)
10. “The Dark Knight Rises”
Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/REX/Shutterstock (5885759u)
“I was wondering what would break first… your spirit, or your body?” Lol.
Dubious proof that ending a trilogy well is always the hardest part, “The Dark Knight Rises” was never going to live up to Nolan’s previous Batman movie, but the finished product doesn’t even live up to Joel Schumacher’s previous Batman movie. A clumsy, busy, politically confused attempt at manufacturing closure from an inevitable cash-grab, the final chapter of The Dark Knight Trilogy is the work of a director who had summited a mountain without a clue as to how he might climb down. The result is the messiest thing that Nolan has ever made, an overstuffed movie that shares its hero’s desperate need to put this story behind him.
The rare 165-minute film that clearly wants to be over from the moment it starts, Nolan’s last Batman doesn’t build towards a resolution for its saga so much as it just circles the drain, running out the clock on a character whose self-actualization at the end of “The Dark Knight” had left him with nowhere to go. It’s interesting to chart Gotham’s evolution from Pittsburgh to Chicago to New York, but by the time Bane and Batman are lifelessly punching each other on the steps of City Hall it feels as though the saga has completely lost its sense of place, and its purpose along with it.
9. “Following” (1998)
A curiously shaggy debut for a filmmaker who would become famous for his severe formalism, Nolan’s first feature might seem like an inauspicious first step for someone whose path ultimately led to incredible fame and fortune. For one thing, this super lo-fi psychological thriller was made for a cool $5,000 (a sum that probably doesn’t even cover the tea budget on the director’s later films) and promptly rejected from Sundance. Everybody’s gotta start somewhere, but even Colin Trevorrow hit the ground running faster than that.
But if “Following” didn’t exactly set the world on fire, this scrappy, sordid, 69-minute black-and-white exercise in raw suspense hides a lot of clues about its maker’s brilliant future. It’s a nifty bit of foreshadowing, at the very least. The 16mm story of a broke young writer who seeks inspiration by stalking the people he sees on the street, the film’s innocent premise soon spirals into a monochrome mind-fuck about the hazy border between finding a purpose and developing an obsession.
As a movie, “Following” isn’t particularly satisfying. As a footnote, it’s pretty remarkable. In hindsight, you can hear Nolan teething behind the camera. His characters are already defining themselves by their jobs, their plots already feel less organic than engineered rather. There’a guy named Cobb who says things like “You’re developing a taste for it,” and “Everyone has a box.” Sometimes, the connections are so uncanny that it feels like Nolan already knew where he was going, and the rest of us were just trying to keep up.
8. “Insomnia” (2002)
This is where things start to get interesting.
On the surface, Nolan’s first Hollywood feature seems like something of a calculated anomaly, a low-risk / high-reward studio gig designed to finesse the nascent auteur’s transition from low-budget indies to massive summer blockbusters. A remake of a bleak 1997 Norwegian thriller that probably didn’t need to be remade, “Insomnia” remains the only one of Nolan’s films on which the director doesn’t also have a writing credit (though he did author the final draft of the script). The protagonist doesn’t even have a dead wife! In other words, it feels — at first glance — like the least personal of his projects.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (that’s always been such a bullshit metric). Either way, “Insomnia” is still a crucial piece of the puzzle. Set in the Twin Peaks-esque town of Nightmute, Alaska (a real place which quickly begins to assume the feeling of a purgatorial limbo), Nolan’s third feature is an absorbing morality play in the guise of a boilerplate murder-mystery. Al Pacino, just on the right side of self-parody, plays a detective with a guilty conscience — Nightmute’s constant daylight isn’t the only thing keeping this guy up at night. Like so many of Nolan’s protagonists, Will Dormer is an ambitious and exceedingly capable (but profoundly lonely) middle-aged man who’s tortured by his past and struggling to find the best way forward. He’s a man whose cold exterior hides a raw underbelly, a man whose job — whose function — has become both the cause of and solution to all of his problems.
It’s just that his problems aren’t particularly interesting. The most straightforward film that Nolan has ever made remains his least re-watchable, bogged down by dull procedural elements and an undercooked antagonist who can’t support the full weight of the fascinating changes that this adaptation makes to his character. How are we supposed to play cops and robbers when we have no idea about where to sort ourselves? How can we assign guilt to strangers when it torments us from the inside out? “Insomnia” eventually finds intriguing ways to pose these questions, but — even with a couple of limp shootouts and that silly chase scene where Robin Williams sprints across trunks of floating timber like he’s auditioning for “American Ninja Warrior” — it can be hard to stay awake until the end.
7. “Batman Begins” (2005)
Perhaps the true genesis of modern superhero movies (if only for how its gray-toned grit inspired Marvel to balance things out with a shinier, happier, more plastic cinematic universe of their own), “Batman Begins” didn’t leave many clues that it was the start of something huge, but it very clearly established how a realist like Nolan might survive in a world full of spandex. Far removed from the garish cartoon grime that Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher brought to their Batman films, Nolan’s approach was characteristically hyper-literal to the extreme, taking the Caped Crusader at face value and conceiving an origin story that defines the man by the mask he chooses to wear.
Hardcore fans had good reason to be worried — WB hired a British guy who only thinks in circles to make a movie about an American icon who has always thrived in squares — but Nolan ended up being the perfect choice. It turns out that the director of “Memento” (and the future director of “Inception”) was a natural fit for a genre in which the characters regularly communicate by just shouting psychological diagnoses at each other. Out of context, it’s hard to tell if Liam Neeson is playing Batman’s nemesis or his therapist. Example dialogue: “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things.” Meanwhile, Rachel Dawes is less of a love interest for Bruce Wayne than she is the sentient self-help book next door. “Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”
Nolan lives for this stuff; he stumbled upon a genre where the characters are actually supposed to be stiff and didactic, a genre where “subtlety” is a bat suit without nipples. “Batman Begins” is the work of a director who’s coming into his own right when his talents are needed most. The action is weak, Nolan would need a mulligan on the Katie Holmes casting, and the film’s blunt examination of fear is surface-level at best, but the sheer force of its moral fervor established that he had tapped into something real.
The list continues on the next page.