Special Birthday Post: Ranking Christopher Nolan’s 7 Feature Films

As part of my Inception-countdown series, I ranked five of Christopher Nolan’s movies. Well, now he’s got two more under his belt, making his total of feature-length film to seven [excluding Following which wasn’t widely distributed].

Just a quick bio per Wikipedia:

Born in 1970 in London, Nolan was one of three sons of a British father, who owned an advertising business, and an American mother, a flight attendant for United Airlines. Nolan and his brother Jonathan spent their childhood in both London and Chicago. He began film-making at the age of seven using his father’s Super 8 camera and his toy action figures.

For his undergraduate, Nolan studied English Literature at University College London Union (UCLU). He chose it specifically for its film-making facilities, which consisted of a “Steenbeck editing suite (real film, real spools) plus a couple of 16mm cameras.” Nolan was president of the college film society from 1992 to 1994; a contemporary described him as talented and focused on learning as much as possible about the mechanics and technology of film-making.

His big break in Hollywood came with Memento, starring Guy Pearce, which was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best screenplay.

So in honor of his 42nd birthday, I thought I’d rank those seven Christopher Nolan feature films in order of favorites. By favorites I mean those that have the best re-playability value to me, as I do think all of these seven are great-to-excellent. So far, there is none of his films that I didn’t like, and Nolan is the only director whose ALL of his work I have seen.

Without further ado, here…we… go:

1. Batman Begins (2005)

The ultimate origins story and I think it’s still the one to beat in terms of the um, inception of a superhero goes. Christian Bale is perfectly cast as the dark, tormented caped crusader and he’s surrounded by a slew of top notch actors such as Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy, etc. The movie also benefits from a fantastic script and a formidable villain in Ra’s al Ghul (Demon’s head in Arabic). I’ve always loved a villain that starts out as friends of the hero, and Neeson’s makes that transformation from fatherly mentor to sinister nemesis convincingly. I’d even overlook the miscasting of Katie Holmes on this one, it’s THAT good!

2. Inception (2010)

Perhaps Nolan’s nod to the Bond franchise, Inception is one of those films that gets better and more satisfying with each repeated viewing. The cast is top notch, with scene-stealing performance from Tom Hardy and fun, rousing action set pieces. What I love most is the intriguing ‘idea heist’ sci-fi concept, and whilst the romance between Cob and Mal wasn’t as compelling as I would’ve liked, I’ve warmed up to it a bit more than I did the first time I saw it.

3. The Dark Knight (2008)

It’s rare that a sequel lives up to the original, especially when one already sets the bar so high, but Nolan did just that! It’s nothing short of casting genius to have Heath Ledger play the Joker, though a lot of people were skeptical at first, the late Aussie actor’s iconic performance forever defined that character that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing that role (neither did Nolan as he said here he won’t bring back the Joker character for Batman 3). The complex story and the level of character development in this film makes me forget this is a superhero film! Gone are the circus-y and frivolous-ness of the previous Batman flicks, as both Nolan’s versions become the quintessential thinking person’s superhero movie. This is definitely a welcome trend for this genre!

4. The Prestige (2006)

As I said in this post, I wasn’t blown away by this film on initial viewing. But about a year later I rewatched it and wow, I was riveted. We’ve got a brilliant tale of two magicians who become friends as well as rival, which intensified when one of them came up with the ultimate magic trick, and Nolan cast two great actors in those roles: Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. Nolan’s good luck charm Sir Michael Caine also has an important part, and plus who doesn’t get a kick seeing David Bowie’s cameo as the genius inventor Nikola Tesla!

I have a whole new appreciation for it after the second viewing and felt that I could connect to the characters more, especially with Borden (Bale). The whole twist and turns are utterly perplexing (in a good way) and that ending is just WOW! Set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century London, Nolan did a fine job in setting up a beautifully-shot period piece with gorgeous cinematography, costumes and wonderfully-rich atmosphere.

5. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Now that I’ve seen all three, I think The Dark Knight Rises is my least favorite, though by a very small margin. If you’ve read my super long review, then you’ll know that there are quite a bit of issues I have with it that no amount of cool action pieces would solve. That said, I have only seen it once by now so there’s a chance I might change my mind 😀 I do think visually it just gets better and better, this latest film does boast a visual spectacle that’s meant to be seen on IMAX.

Seriously though, I think Nolan’s Batman trilogy is ace and no doubt I’d buy the Blu-ray box set when it comes out. I think that’s quite a feat considering Nolan didn’t envision a trilogy when he first signed on to do Batman Begins, at least that’s what I learned from various interviews.

6. Insomnia (2002)

Did you ever notice Nolan’s really skimpy when it comes to his movie titles? His one-word-titled movie starting with an ‘i’ is a small film with a budget of less than $50 million. Under less capable hands, the story of two Los Angeles homicide detectives set to investigate a methodical teenage murder in Alaska might’ve end up to be a run-of-the mill thriller. But the smart, twist-ridden script and excellent performances from the cast made this into something memorable and thrilling to watch. Al Pacino as the increasingly unhinged LA detective and Hilary Swank as the young cop who adore him work well together, but it’s Robin Williams’ as the creepy nutcase who’s the scene-stealer. I think comedians actually make for the eeriest villains. Despite the title, Nolan certainly kept the audience wide awake with this one.

7. Memento (2000)

One of the most original story and most innovative narrative structure, it’s one that rewards with multiple viewings. Nominated for two Oscars for Best Editing and Best Original Screenplay, this is the first time mainstream audiences are introduced to Nolan’s genius work. A tale of a man who, suffering from short-term memory loss, uses notes and tattoos to hunt for the man he thinks killed his wife. Guy Pearce is astounding as Leonard, it’s a shame he was snubbed of any major acting nods! As #28 in IMDb’s Top 250 Movies (along with three other Nolan’s movies), this movie is etched in many people’s memories for years to come. That said, this is perhaps the one film from Nolan that I have yet to see again and I’m not as keen to revisit it as I do the others.

Well, I’m sure everyone will have their own ranking of Christopher Nolan movies, so let’s hear it!

61 thoughts on “Special Birthday Post: Ranking Christopher Nolan’s 7 Feature Films

  1. This one is hard to do, but…:
    1. The Dark Knight Trilogy – now that the TDKR is finally out, it’s hard not to see this set as one larger singular story. So, I can’t make them apart for my ranking.
    2. Memento
    3. The Prestige
    4. Inception
    5. Insomnia
    6. Following

    1. Hi Michael. Ah yeah, somehow I knew some people might lump the Batman trilogy together but I feel like each film works on its own as Nolan didn’t intend on making a trilogy.

  2. Ted S.

    Nolan’s definitely one of the best young directors currently working in Hollywood today, can’t wait to see his next project, whatever that is. Hopefully a Bond film or The Prisoner, which I hope he goes back and make that film happen.

    My list is similar to Micheal’s but with one minor difference because I still believe Memento is his best work:

    1. Memento – One of the most original films ever and I can watch over and over again. I still remember when it came out in theaters, we here in MN of course has to wait a long time before we get to see it. I think I went to that tiny theater in Uptown to see it since it was the only theater to have shown it.
    2. The Dark Knight Trilogy – I love all three of these films so I’ll rank them equally.
    3. The Prestige – Love the twists and turns in the film, I somehow missed it in theater and bought the Blu-ray without seeing the film in theater and I was not disappointed.
    4. Inception – Great concept but I just thought he didn’t execute it properly.
    5. Insomnia – Very good thriller, I still like the original film better.
    6. Following – I’ve seen this a couple of times and still amaze how good it was and he made it with zero budget. I’ve seen many low budget films and many and I mean many of them were atrocious. This one shows what a great talent Nolan is.

    1. Yeah, I know I’ll be tuned in to his next project too! I do hope he cast someone he hasn’t worked with before though. I think Memento is brilliant, but because this is in order of what I consider ‘favorites,’ it’s the least that I want to see again. I guess I should’ve included Following, it was great indeed, and that Batman sign on the door post made me smile when I saw it. What a premonition!

      1. Ted S.

        It would be great to see him work with an actor he’s never worked with before and I won’t be surprised at all if it’s Mr. Cruise. 🙂 Cruise always finds a way to work with big named directors. But for my money, I think he’ll cast either Bale, Hardy or Gordon-Levitt as the lead in his new flick.

        I meant to say I’ve seen a lot of first time director small budgeted films and most of them were bad but Following was an exception because Nolan’s truly talented. Yeah I remember that Batman logo, didn’t Nolan said he put it there in hoping that he would get to make a Batman film someday? Well it came true for him.

        1. Well Cruise is gonna need his career to heal his wounds from the divorce, ahah. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does get to work w/ Nolan one day. I’d like to see my Gerry to get a shot at it of course, I mean his previous co-stars Tom Hardy and obviously Bale has caught Nolan’s attention.

          I’m curious why the actor in Following doesn’t go anywhere, I mean he’s friends w/ Nolan, no?

          1. Ted S.

            I always assume that a director tends to work with someone they’re comfortable with and vice versa for actors; that’s why I think it’s hard for actors who aren’t in the A-list to get cast in a Nolan, Spielberg or Scorsese film. Of course if you’re an A-list actor then you can always get what you want.

            That’s a good question about the actor in Following, I don’t know if he’s friends with Nolan but even if they’re friends, if studio executives doesn’t want to cast him then he’s out of luck. Too much politics, just like every other big businesses.

  3. I think Nolan makes great films, but I don’t consider him a god like others.

    I’d rank his films thus:

    1. Following
    2. The Prestige
    3. The Dark Knight Rises
    4. Inception
    5. Insomnia
    6. Memento
    7. Batman Begins
    8. The Dark Knight

    The Dark Knight Rises is quickly becoming my favorite Nolan film, but I absolutely love the complete package that Following and The Prestige offer. I’ll probably watch TDKR more than those two, but I still think they’re his best films.

    1. Oh I don’t consider ANYONE a god, so neither is Nolan. I just think he’s a great filmmaker, that’s all.

      I do think his Batman films are exceptional, so far they make half of his entire work, I’m curious how those would look once he makes a half dozen more films.

  4. Jackyyy

    My favorite directer ever! Has a way of looking into projects and giving it a special Nolan twist if you can say so. Happy Birthday to my favorite director of all time. Since I am a die hard Batman fan, I have to say the The Dark Knight Trilogy are my favorite movies, don’t have one that I love more though! (Hope he wins an Oscar!)

  5. Ha! I just rewatched Batman Begins and your description is very accurate. Katie Holmes really was a drag on that movie… but it was still great (and VERY re-watchable) otherwise.

    I really owe re-watches to Memento and The Prestige. The Dark Knight is one of the few movies I’ve seen in the theater more than once. It’s #1 for me. The more I see it, the more I’m convinced that Ledger is the difference. He really takes that movie someplace special (for me). If you flip-flopped Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and Memento and The Dark Knight Rises, that would be my list.

    Great article, Ruth. It’s fun because Nolan really hasn’t made a truly “bad” movie.

    1. Oh really? That’s great to hear John! I’m still baffled that Nolan cast Holmes but oh well, thankfully the rest of the cast more than made up for her. I’m so glad to see Maggie Gyllenhaal in TDK though, what an upgrade!

      Oh yeah, I think in terms of quality, I do agree w/ you TDK is #1, it truly is the BEST of the trilogy and my fourth viewing recently confirmed it even more. I think Ledger is a major factor but I also like the Harvey Dent storyline. I think my soft spot for Batman Begins is that it’s truly more about the dark knight and how he became that symbol.

  6. Great write-up about a great director. Well, here’s my take on his 7 feature films:

    1. The Dark Knight – Sheer superhero brilliance
    2. Inception – One of the most ambitious and well-executed films I’ve seen.
    3. The Dark Knight Rises – Incredible finish to an incredible trilogy.
    4. Batman Begins – Incredible Start to an incredible trilogy.
    5. Memento – Can you get any more creative than this?
    6. The Prestige – A crafty Nolan film with many Nolan favorites.
    7. Insomnia – A slick thriller

    1. I’m glad you also broke down the Batman films, Keith and I could easily go between TDK and Batman Begins as #1, but as I told John above I guess I have a soft spot for ‘Begins’ as it’s more about the hero and I’ve always have a fondness for origins stories.

      1. Begins really impressed me with it’s non-traditional approach to the origin story. I mean Bruce doesn’t put on the bat-suit for at least an hour into the film. Good storytelling and character groundwork. Begins is a wonderful film.

  7. Cool idea for a post Ruth! OMG, I forgot about INSOMNIA! Somebody rescind my Nolan Fan Club card. So this is mine:
    1. Inception
    2. The Dark Knight Trilogy
    3. The Prestige
    4. Memento
    5. Insomnia

    1. Ahah, lack of sleep perhaps? 😉 So did you like Insomnia or you just can’t remember much about it to know if you enjoyed it or not?

  8. Great list, mine would look something like this:

    1. The Dark Knight
    2. Memento
    3. Inception
    4. Batman Begins
    5. The Prestige
    6. The Dark Knight Rises

    Haven’t seen Insomnia

    It’s a testament to Nolan’s craft though that your list and the others posted are so different.

    1. Insomnia is really good, should be worth a watch just for the cast. Plus the setting in Alaska is quite unsettling which adds to the atmosphere.

  9. Sam Fragoso

    I’m not the biggest advocate of Nolan. I think he’s a visual craftsman if there ever was one, but stuffs his films with bloated overarching narratives. That said, I enjoy a lot of his work — and am looking forward to seeing Memento.

    Inception tops it for me.

    1. I hear ya Sam. One thing I think he’s lacking is creating a convincing romantic depiction, for some reason his movies lack warmth even though there’s some romantic storyline present. Oh you haven’t seen Memento yet? I’m curious to hear what you think.

    2. Same thing Sam. A very promising director but he doesn’t seem to be taking the next step toward with better integrated narratives and more subtle emotional payoffs.

  10. Hmmmm, we’re halfway through The Prestige and I’m not riveted. (As you said you were not initially.) Thanks for this list and the movie ideas. At least one member of my family thinks Christopher Nolan brilliant.

    1. Give it another shot, Brenda. I was kinda meh about it too but on second viewing I was like, did I watch a different movie?? So who in your family thinks Nolan is brilliant? Your hubby? I do think he is indeed brilliant 🙂

    1. Which movie did you see Andina? Doodlebug? I haven’t seen that yet but yeah, even with a shoestring budget for Following, it’s clear that he’s a visionary.

  11. OW He is only 6 years older than Cillian…no wonder they can get along well 😉

    I haven’t seen Following and Insomnia yet, so I am going to exclude those two…I will watch them one day for sure.

    1. Inception
    Incredible and complex concept of dreams…I haven’t been awed by sci-fi again since The Matrix till I see inception.

    2. Memento
    Unpredictable and very original.

    3. The Prestige

    4. Batman Trilogy with order: Batman begins (thank you for introducing me to Cillian), TDK, TDKR.

    I am glad he won’t be shooting any superhero in a while….more movies like 1,2,3 in my list pleas Mr.Nolan

    1. Oh, so he introduced you to Cillian, wow I’m sure you’re forever indebted to Nolan, Nov 😉 Yeah, Inception is indeed very intriguing, I want to rewatch that again soon, I love Cillian and Hardy in that one. I’m with you about your last sentence, looking forward to seeing what he’ll do next.

  12. I believe that Insomnia is a reinterpretation of a Norway film with the same title directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg in 1997. Nolan did it great eventually. I Enjoyed most of Nolan’s film but with short list of major works I still haven’t found it yet the need to make a list of his best works. nice post anyway and Nolan is great director as far 🙂

    1. Hi there, welcome to FC! Nice to see another visitor from Indo 🙂

      Yeah, Insomnia is a remake but I think Nolan did a good job. Usually remakes are crap but this one might actually be on par or better than the original.

      1. thank you 🙂 Indo juga? yes you re right, Sleuth remake for example 🙂 and maybe i should give it a try to ranking Nolan’s film, and the result is
        Following and Memento will top of the list follow by The Prestige, TDK, Inception and the rest. I’m more a drama man rather than action one LOL

  13. For me I haven’t seen Following or Insomnia yet.

    1. Memento
    2. The Dark Knight
    3. Inception
    4. The Prestige
    5. The Dark Knight Rises
    6. Batman Begins

  14. a great post here Ruth. I’m glad that Ted mentioned “The Following” in his comment. I keep forgetting to see that one. I like your list. I would probably rank hist top 5 this way:

    1. The Dark Knight
    2. Inception
    3. Batman Begins
    4. The Prestige
    5. The Dark Knight Rises

    Hope you had a great weekend. I got to see TDKR once again. Enjoyed it. Get to see “Safety Not Guaranteed” today.

    1. Thanks T. I think Following is worth seeing for Nolan fans, though I’m not as enthralled w/ it, but I do see that Nolan’s got a keen eye for intriguing storyline.

      Wow, everyone seems to have seen TDKR a second time. I might not get to that until end of August, as I want to see Bourne and Total Recall first.

  15. Memento at the bottom is pretty bold.
    I’ll be honest, seeing begins at the top is surprising. I would have to put Dark Knight there myself, but I see where you’re coming from.

    1. Not bold, just honest. As I said I ranked these based on favorites and as much as I appreciate Memento, I’m not too keen on watching that again.

  16. It’s tough for me to rank Nolan’s film because TDKR is still so fresh in my mind and many of his films are just about equally appealing. The Prestige and Batman Begins would likely top my list.

  17. Great post, Ruth! I absolutely love Nolan, think he’s a genius. He’s one of my Top 5 favorite filmmakers, along with Almodóvar, Fincher, Scorsese and Woody. Like you, I’ve seen all of his filmography and this is how I would rank them:

    1. The Prestige
    2. The Dark Knight
    3. Inception
    4. Memento
    5. The Dark Knight Rises
    6. Batman Begins
    7. Following
    8. Insomnia

    1. Great list, Fernando, I can see why you’d put The Prestige up there. I’m afraid I’m not familiar w/ Almodóvar’s work, nor Scorsese & Woody for that matter, but no doubt they’re all great filmmakers.

  18. jeremia

    1 Inception is the best movie ever .unique. Tom hardy was the best especially ds quotes I had an ample opportunity to observe browning ….. 2 The dark knight. The joker was the best. All nolan movies they have a meaning behind the scene “joker >if ur good at something never do it for free”. 3 The dark knight Rises ( Tom Hardy at the of the movie we realized that Bane was a good person hero to someone . 4 Memento :the mind can change the color of a color . 5 The Prestige

  19. Awesome! Now I know what you voted for in my current poll. 🙂

    Not sure how I would rank Nolan’s films. I haven’t seen Memento or Insomnia in years, so I don’t think it would be fair to compare them to TDK trilogy or The Prestige, both of which I have watched recently. I am a little surprised that you ranked Memento at the bottom — I do remember enjoying that one quite a bit.

    1. Oh I appreciate Memento but of these seven, it’s the one I enjoyed the least, that’s why this is a ‘favorites’ list, not ‘best’ exactly. As I said on the post, it’s the one I’m not keen on revisiting.

  20. Great post! I would personally go:
    1. The Dark Knight
    2. (or 1A) Inception
    3. The Dark Knight Rises
    4. Batman Begins
    5. The Prestige
    6. Memento
    7. Insomnia

    Honestly, I think his movies are really tough to rank like this. All but Insomnia are “A’s” or “A-s” in my book.

    1. Thanks Brian, I see you rate Inception and TDK the same, I can see that. I think TDKR is more of a B+ for me but it’s splitting hair really, they’re all ace.

  21. My # 1 would surely be Inception. I never really reviewed it but, to this day, I have it at the top of my favorite films from 2010. I do not think it’s perfect, but there’s so much depth and complexity to it that I still find it amazing how Nolan and his team were able to break it down to film and trap us in the maze that he crafted.
    I have read many different reviews of it but my ultimate favorite is the one by Roger Ebert which I found to be extremely thought-provoking.
    I should get to the Prestige which is the only one of his films I have yet to watch.

  22. Jon317

    Hi Ruth. I love all Nolan’s films, but in terms of a list, here is mine.

    1) Inception
    – Amazing conceptually and emotionally, never get bored of it. Dicaprio is sensational and the tangled love story between Cobb and Mal makes the film more than anything else.

    2) The Dark Knight
    – Heath Ledger is amazing and the action and ideas are epic too. Batman-Joker relationship is well done. Best of the three Batman films.

    3) The Prestige
    – Most underrated of Nolan’s films. Brilliant pay-off. The script is awesome. The female characters, particualrly Johannson’s, were very underdeveloped though.

    4) Batman Begins
    – Strangely,I didn’t see Batman Begins until a few days ago, once I’d already seen DK and DKR. It as an excellent analysis into how Wayne became Batman, and while it felt a little too much like a psychology essay for the first hour, it actually had a brilliant and well delivered plot. And Cilian Murphy was brilliant, so creepy…

    5) Memento
    – Excellent puzzle piece which is multilayered and leaves me thinking different things every time I see it. Sometimes, however, the ideas get in the way of the emotions. It’s quite a cold movie in many ways.

    6) The Dark Knight Rises
    – Great action spectale and a good finale. The first hour was very suspensful and while done, with multiple threads and new characters adding to the film. However, the more the plot unravelled the more questions I had about certain plot points that didn’t seem to add up. the whole thing didn’t quite hold together in my opinion but I won’t put spoilers on here.

    7) Following
    His first film and its a very clever one. Very Nolan-esque in the way he plays with time and flashbacks. Low budget crime thriller. Good fun.

    8) Insomnia
    An intriguing psychological thriller, which is very tense, but perhaps just too dark and deressing. The pure doom and gloom of this film put me off giving it a secodn viewing

  23. I would have to have The Prestige at the top. The acting, cinematography, and subtext are all exceptional.

    2) The Dark Knight
    4)Batman Begins
    7)The Dark Knight Rises

  24. Pingback: Five for the Fifth: MAY 2015 Edition |

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