Ranking the Films of Director Christopher Nolan Before ‘Dunkirk’



#5 of 9 – Memento (2000)

This is the part of the list where we get into the truly great and memorable films by the director. Memento is Nolan’s second film and is a tremendous improvement from his first. Starring Guy Pearce, Memento is another noir-esque film, this time centered around a man named Leonard (Pearce) unable to make new memories due to his Anterograde amnesia. Leonard goes on a mission to find and eventually kill his wife’s murderer, but as the film progresses we learn that not everything is as it seems.

Memento is a film that demands a repeat viewing. Told in a non-linear format, beginning where Leonard’s journey ends, the film benefits from a re-watch as certain events that take place will make much more sense a second time around. That being said, the film isn’t so out there that one can’t comprehend it on first viewing. In addition to a compelling narrative and unique structure, Memento also features a stellar cast which includes Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano, who each portray a twist on common film noir tropes. Leonard is the detective of the story, though due to his amnesia he is forced to use some interesting and elaborate solutions, including tattoos and Polaroids, in order for him to stay on track with his case. Memento is a great film that still holds up 17 years later and demonstrated Nolan’s potential as both a writer and director.


#4 of 9 – Batman Begins (2005)

The first installment in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy had a lot to prove. Warner Bros. had not commissioned a Batman film since Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin in 1997, which was a critical and box office failure. Batman Begins not only had to complete the task of delivering an entertaining Batman story, but also had to prove that Batman was still a viable product and had to wash out the bad taste Batman & Robin left in our mouths. Thanks to Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins was a success.

With this reintroduction to the Batman character, Nolan approached the source material very seriously with tremendous respect. Dismissing the campiness of its predecessors, Batman Begins was appropriately grounded in reality and featured a cast already known for their previous strong dramatic roles, including Christian Bale as the titular Batman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Cane, Liam Neeson, and Gary Oldman. The film serves as one of the best examples of a superhero origin story to date, borrowing elements from classic Batman comic book stories like Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. While some of the action presented in the film is subpar by today’s standards, Nolan once again gets points for his solid use of practical effects. The film suffers a little towards the third act, ditching the grounded feel and bringing in a water-vaporizing, fear-inducing super weapon to Gotham City, but overall Batman Begins is still a great origin story and was a worthwhile reintroduction to Batman.


#3 of 9 – The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige marks the second film in which Nolan wisely utilized actors Christian Bale and Michael Caine. Joining them for this magical ride were Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, and the late, great David Bowie. The film follows two rival magicians, one of whom is obsessed with getting revenge for the unintentional death of his wife and is also determined to outdo the other’s mind-blowing “Transported Man” trick.

Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige is a fascinating look at the different levels of sacrifices a person may go through in order to achieve their ultimate goal. Both rival magicians, played by Bale and Jackman, each sacrifice something different in order to perfect their craft. Christian Bale’s Borden sacrifices time lost, living a shared life with his twin brother, while Hugh Jackman’s Angiers sacrifices something arguably far grander in order to match Borden’s “Transported Man.” In addition to being a compelling character-driven story with a stellar cast, The Prestige features a surprising science fiction twist. The film is uniquely structured, putting us in the respective minds of both magicians and presenting a nonlinear narrative. Even after seeing the film once and knowing its two main twists, The Prestige remains an entertaining drama to watch.


#2 of 9 – Inception (2010)

Was there any doubt in your mind that Inception would be so high on this list? With Inception, Nolan crafted a very unique take on a heist film, where a team of criminals don’t break into a vault and steal something physical, but break into a person’s mind in order to implant an idea. It’s without a doubt a far fetched premise, but the film only gets more far fetched and intriguing as it explores and sets up rules involving dreams and memories. The film takes an adequate amount of time setting up its rules while also exploring Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, a character with a tragic past we learn more and more about as the film progresses.

The film’s second half is all about the actual heist. The audience gets to experience everything they came to expect following the set up in the first half, including different levels of dreams and the orchestration of entirely new environments. As far as action is concerned, Inception serves up some very entertaining set pieces including a suspenseful car chase and mind blowing anti-gravity hallway fight scene. Featuring another great ensemble cast and a highly original and engaging story, seven years after its release the film continues to impress and its ending is still one worth discussing.


#1 of 9 – The Dark Knight (2008)

After already wowing comic book fans with Batman Begins, Nolan followed up with The Dark Knight, which is not only arguably the best Batman film, but one of the best comic book movies to date. Yet again Nolan wows us with some impressive practical effects within a complex and compelling story that’s respectful and true to its source material. Nearly ten years later, there isn’t anything that can be said about The Dark Knight that hasn’t already been said countless times before. It deserves all the credit it’s received, pushing the comic book movie genre into brand new territory.

In my opinion, there hasn’t been a comic book movie released since that has reached the same level of quality as The Dark Knight, though of course some have come close. Everything from the action, to the script, to the acting is top notch. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is by far the best we’ve ever seen (sorry Jared) and even Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent is amazing in its own right. Of course the film isn’t without its flaws. Christian Bale’s Batman voice continues to be a laughable blemish on this near perfect entry. That being said, The Dark Knight continues to be one of those films that should be watched at least once a year, just to be reminded of what a great comic book movie looks like. Hopefully, Warner Bros.’ next take on the character will be able to rival Nolan’s masterpiece.


And that’s a wrap. Those were all nine of Christopher Nolan’s feature length films ranked. Hopefully Dunkirk will be another solid addition to Nolan’s body of work and will at least make it in the top five. Check it out in theaters this July 20 and in the meantime feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear how you would rank these films. Do you agree or disagree with my rankings? Would you place The Dark Knight at number one or do you think my DC bias is showing? Please let me know and thanks for reading.


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