Ranking the Films of Director Christopher Nolan Before ‘Dunkirk’

With director Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature length film, Dunkirk, releasing in theaters soon, now felt as good a time as any to run through and rank the director’s previous nine films. Since breaking out on the scene with his first film, Following, in 1998, Nolan has continued to impress critics and audiences alike, exploring multiple genres including crime drama, science fiction, and action. Nolan has demonstrated tremendous range and buckets of talent whether directing a simple film about a detective on the hunt for a murderer, a bold heist film where the heist involves breaking into someone’s mind, or a comic book movie aiming to reintroduce audiences to an iconic DC Comics hero.

With a career having spanned several genres, July’s theatrical release of Dunkirk, based on the Battle of Dunkirk which took place during World War II in 1940, will be the director’s first attempt at a war epic. Judging from recent trailers and an exclusive 7-minute prologue which played in select IMAX theaters in recent months, Dunkirk is looking to be another great addition to Nolan’s body of work. Now without further ado here is my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s previous nine feature length films. Also, keep in mind possible spoilers are ahead.


#9 of 9 – Following (1998)

The fact that Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut is so low on this list only says a lot about how far the director has come since. Following deserves any good credit it gets, considering it was nearly completely funded by Nolan himself and shot during weekends due to the actors having to work their regular weekly work schedules. The story is simplistic, but edited in a way that makes it feel a bit more complex than it truly is, following a writer who stalks people for stories and eventually gets involved in the seedy life of a burglar he pursues.

Following has a classic film noir style to it, but at the same time screams of “first film,” shot completely in gritty black and white and attempting to be a bit too artsy at times. Following is without a doubt a decent first film, but I find no reason to re-watch other than for the sole purpose of seeing the director’s roots.


#8 of 9 – Insomnia (2002)

Unlike Nolan’s other films, Insomnia is the director’s attempt at a remake, this time remaking a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Having not seen the original, I can’t comment on whether or not it’s better or worse, but I do understand that there are some differences, especially in each film’s respective ending. Nolan’s Insomnia follows Detective Will Dormer, played by Al Pacino, who is sent to Alaska to investigate a murder during a time of perpetual daylight. The investigation goes awry after an attempt to capture the murder suspect fails and leads to Dormer accidentally shooting and killing his partner, with whom he had possible career-damning issues. The guilt over his partner’s death coupled with his choice to lie about what happened, and Alaska’s Midnight Sun, causes Dormer many sleepless nights and leads him to making some questionable decisions involving the murderer he’s there to find.

While Insomnia is low on this list, it is certainly not a bad film in the slightest. The film features some very strong performances from Pacino who constantly appears tired, but also intense. In addition to Pacino, the late, great Robin Williams plays Walter Finch, the murderer at large, who uses his knowledge of Dormer’s accidental shooting as leverage against him. Williams delivers an exceptional and dark performance, bouncing off Pacino very well. Despite the film’s talented cast and notable editing, nearly making you feel the same insomnia Dormer has, the film is ultimately forgettable and doesn’t have the same re-watchability as Nolan’s other works.


#7 of 9 – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

When The Dark Knight came out in 2008, my only real complaint about the film was that it was too good. As silly as that sounds, I remained worried that its follow-up would not reach the same level of quality as its predecessor. Unfortunately, my expectations were met.

Now, The Dark Knight Rises is in no way a bad film. Despite some flaws in its storytelling, the film has plenty of redeeming qualities, including a solid ensemble cast, some elaborate set pieces, a remarkable score from Hans Zimmer, and a near perfect ending which solidified the idea of Batman being more than just a man, but a symbol. As far as comic book movies go, the third part in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy is entertaining from beginning to end, and unlike other comic book movies the film features a multitude of practical effects over CGI. The Dark Knight Rises is definitely one of Nolan’s more ambitious films, but is low on this list due to its issues with the story, which include holes, obvious predictable twists, odd structuring, especially leading into the film’s third act, and a surprising lack of chemistry between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle.


#6 of 9 – Interstellar (2014)

Only slightly better than The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar is yet another ambitious film from Christopher Nolan. Interstellar is Nolan’s attempt at a hard science fiction film. It stars Matthew McConaughey as a former NASA pilot named Cooper who travels into space with a small crew, in an effort to travel through a black hole and find another world capable of sustaining human life due to Earth’s decaying environment. What seems like a simple premise on paper is further complicated as the film progresses and deals with concepts of time travel, surreal ideas about love in relation to science, and a conclusion which left audiences debating the origin of the black hole the film is centered around.

Visually Interstellar is a masterpiece, combining a seamless blend of CGI and practical effects, with a high quantity of scenes shot using IMAX cameras, a trend Nolan began with 2008’s The Dark Knight and continues with Dunkirk. The ensemble cast is great, and both Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are given time to shine. Where the film fails is in its unnecessarily long run time, its desire to over-complicate simple ideas, and some odd  choices from certain characters including that of Jessica Chastain’s Murph. I’m still confused as to why no one immediately thought Murph was crazy for realizing her father (McConaughey) was communicating to her through a magic book shelf in her childhood bedroom.

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