Monday 10 November 2014

Rank the Films: Christopher Nolan

As any regular reader of this blog will know, lists are pretty darn nifty. I have a profound appreciation for straight-up lists. This is the thinking behind Rank the Films, a regular feature that pulls apart the pros and cons of a series of films, ranking them in order of bad to good.

This month, I'm looking at the complete filmography of Christopher Nolan, a director considered to be one of the best directors currently working today. 

From his breakout hit Memento to the Dark Knight trilogy and his latest release Interstellar, Nolan's distinctive style has certainly left an impact on modern day cinema, with his fingerprints and influence resonating across genre and mediums. 

So, without further ado, let's dive straight in - this is every Nolan film ranked worst to best. Did your favourite reach the top? Read on...

9th - Following (1998)

Well, I guess it is called Following for a reason
Filmed way back in 1998, black-and-white thriller Following was Christopher Nolan's first feature film. Armed with a shoe-string budget of $6000, Following runs for only 77-minutes, and has a cast comprising of little known names, including Nolan's own brother, Jonathan. 

With such a small budget, Nolan had to work economically to put together Following - many of the scenes were rehearsed heavily before the cameras were turned on, and the majority were wrapped in just one or two takes. 

In hindsight, this simple neo-noir thriller has none of the spectacle of his later films, but it did enough to impress those in the industry - just two years later, Nolan was hard at work on indie sleeper-hit Memento. So whilst it is by far his weakest film, there is a lot of positives and praise to be heaped on Following,

8th - The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Batman is shocked to hear the news that Ben Affleck is
replacing him
Upon its release in 2012, I found The Dark Knight Rises to be simply spellbinding - the most satisfying and suitable send-off for Nolan's towering trilogy.

Since then, I've changed my mind. Yep, I hate to admit it, but I was wrong about The Dark Knight Rises. After a handful of repeat viewings, it dawned on me that it kind of sucks. Well, it majorly sucks.

It really pains me to admit it, but this concluding chapter is a real mess narratively. I'm not going to go into detail about why - a lot of you can probably figure out the film's glaring issues and plot holes for yourself. I mean, c'mon - why on Earth does every police officer in the city willingly march into the sewer system? How does Bruce just strap on a magical robot leg brace and completely heal? Why, for Christ sake, does Batman even become a recluse for 8 years after one guy he barely knew gets offed by the Joker? Eurgh, I could go on for a while. Maybe that's a post for another day.

The casting is also pretty bad for this film - don't get me wrong, I like Marion Cotillard, but she just didn't fit the role of Talia al Ghul. Tom Hardy is completely wasted behind a Darth Vader voice changer also. At least Anne Hathaway offer's some saving grace as a suitably snarky Selina Kyle.

In terms of film-making, The Dark Knight Rises looks brilliant. You can't fault Nolan's camerawork on this film. If only the plot had been as flawless and enchanting.

7th - Insomnia (2002)

"Have you seen a woman around here? Looks like you, dressed
like a housekeeper. Really silly looking wig..."
By 2002, Nolan had transitioned into (fairly) big-budget studio films - his first production was Insomnia, a crime thriller headlined by Al Pacino and Robin Williams.

If Nolan was feeling the pressure of delivering after the surprise success of Memento, it didn't show. Insomnia is a slick, sombre thriller that is supported by two fantastic performances in Pacino and Williams, the latter in particular taking on a role a million miles away from Mrs Doubtfire and Jumanji as a killer set on framing the boyfriend of his victim.

Visually, the film looks amazing. Nolan, and his cinematographer of choice Wally Pfister, encapsulate the majesty of the sprawling Alaskan landscape through some gorgeously wide shots. A haunting scene set on a fog-drenched river bank and the maddening perennial daylight make this a early example of Nolan's ability to frame scenes in a way that perfectly captures the unsettling tone of a film. It's not up to scratch with his later work, but Insomnia is a great thriller and worth checking out.

6th - Batman Begins (2005)

Press X to divebomb
Batman Begins is the film that established Chris Nolan as something other than just an indie film wunderkind. Handed a blockbuster budget and the reins to the most iconic of superheroes ever, Nolan was tasked by Warner Brothers with reinvigorating a character left tarnished and broken by the kooky and neon-drenched Joel Schumacher movies (which I promise never to mention again, ever).

His first Batman film is a gorgeous neo-noir take on the Caped Crusader that easily eclipsed the previous entries into the series. It's in this film that we get to see Nolan's distinctive style remain strong amongst the confines of a franchise film.

Rather than being smothered by a strict studio system, Warner Bros afforded Nolan the creativity to shape Batman in his own style. The result is a slick, urban Gotham that isn't overshadowed by needlessly kooky and cartoonish characters. Nolan's Batman is grounded, utilitarian, disciplined and motivated - his foes are deranged and unhinged but not camp. It's a very polished, grim take on Gotham City - and it's great.

5th - Interstellar (2014)

"Hail Hydra"
The most recent addition into Nolan's filmography is a stark shift in tone for the director. Gone are the dark, brooding thrillers of the past, as Nolan does away with the urban, shadowy settings and the sharp men in suits. Into the light steps something quintessentially Spielbergian, a plot loaded of hope and exceptional human endeavour. It's a brighter, more ambitious film than he's ever taken on before - and it's a refreshing change of pace, a possible stepping-stone onto even bigger things.

That's not to say this isn't a 'Nolan film' - on the contrary, the director has firmly held onto many established tricks of the trade, from the booming sonorous Hans Zimmer score to the keen eye for those wide vistas that leap from the screen. The scenes set in space are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and the foreknowledge that Nolan utilised as little green screen as possible only makes the film that more impressive.

What also stays is the deeply-affecting relationship between damaged male character/father figure (Cooper) and their significant female relation - in this case, Cooper's daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain). Despite its lofty time and space themes, Interstellar is a deeply personal film for Nolan - at its heart is a simple story of an estranged father and daughter, something that isn't weighed down or suffocated by, y'know, all the interstellar travel going on.

You can read my full review of Interstellar here.

4th - The Prestige (2006)

The crowd weren't impressed with David Blaine's new
'rabbit-out-of-the-hat' trick...
After the success of Batman Begins, Nolan afforded himself a creative change of direction by tackling The Prestige, an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Christopher Priest.

Shot, edited and released in the space of about 8 months, The Prestige was also filmed on a budget smaller than that of Insomnia. Not that you can tell - the production value on this film is amazing, the cast is brilliant (Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie lending credibility to a fairly small-scale production) and the result was a $109 million gross that proved Nolan can balance both franchise films like Batman and his own, more personal endeavours.

Visually, The Prestige is probably Nolan at his most Nolany, and all the hallmarks of his evolving style are on display here, from the psychologically damaged protagonist seeking revenge, to the non-linear structure, flashbacks, crosscutting and a 'hero and villain' who serve as mirror images of one another. It's a dark, absorbing film that continually impresses with repeat viewings. Even with foreknowledge of that 'killer' ending, it's holds my attention time and again. A superb, and arguably underrated, period piece that keeps you guessing.

3rd - Memento (2000)

Leonard was taking polaroids before it was considered hipster

Memento isn't just credited as Christopher Nolan's breakthrough film - it's credited with being one of the best films of all time.

The sleeper hit of 2000, Memento appeared like a bolt out of the blue. All of sudden, here was this young director tackling a movie with one of most unique and intriguing premises in years - and pulling it off in fantastic fashion. It instantly put him on the map, and got the industry and audiences alike buzzing with word of mouth that spread like wild fire.

Memento is Nolan at his most experimental, toying with artistic camerawork, direction and, most notably, narrative structure. In case you didn't already know, Memento is told in reverse - our protagonist, Leonard, has a condition that prevents him from making new memories (after he suffers a traumatic experience I'll leave unspoiled) and as a result, the film bends over backwards to put the audience in his shoes. It's really clever, and keeps the audience invested as they continually piece together the disjointed fragments of Leonard's reverse journey. If you haven't already, defiantly check this one out.

2nd - The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight is often referred to as the greatest comic-book movie of all time.

However, I disagree with that. In my opinion, it's not just a comic-book movie. It operates on an entirely different level, transcending the cheesy genre where it holds its roots and establishing itself as something instantly iconic. Simply put, The Dark Knight is one of the best films ever made.

Heath Ledger gives the kind of performance that only comes around once in a generation. He is absolutely hypnotic, you just can't seem to take your eyes off of him; the way in which he twists and drawls his lines still gives me chills every time I watch this film.

For Nolan, it was the film that asserted him as one of the greatest directors working today. The scene composition and technical elements that went into this film are masterful, with many scenes worming their way straight into the modern cultural zeitgeist - the interrogation scene for example, or the bike chase (above). It also saw Nolan revel in the moral ambiguity and hero/villain mirroring that defines the Batman/Joker relationship.

I can't say much more about The Dark Knight that hasn't already been said. And truth be told, you already know why it's such a brilliant movie because you've seen it a dozen times.

1st - Inception (2010)

Just keep spinnin', spinnin', just keep spinnin'...
Whilst my head says The Dark Knight or Memento should go at the top of this list, my heart says the place belongs to Inception.

For me, Inception is one of the only times I can recall being 100% hooked in the cinema. Mouth agape, eyeballs pinned to the screen, Inception is like one giant puzzle for the audience to solve, keeping them completely and utterly invested in the perfectly-executed action and weighty character drama.

Inception is Nolan at his layered, convoluted best. On the surface, the premise seems impossible to pull off - a team of criminals must delve deep into the subconscious of their target, and through understanding his deepest dreams and fears, plant an idea which will foster completely natural, unaided inspiration. Through each of the layers, gravity and time dilation is altered, and the further they go, the more they battle with the notion of what is real, and what is not.

The film remains to this day one of the only times the entire audience has gasped, and then applauded at the very end of a film that I've seen in the cinema. It's also one of the few films that keeps me coming back time and again, repeat viewings only strengthening the intricate plot. It's for this reason, and so many more that I'll save for a later post, that puts Inception atop my ranking of Christopher Nolan's acclaimed filmography.

So there we have it - Chris Nolan ranked worst to best. Where did your favourite Nolan film come? Feel free to debate and criticise in the comments below - I love hearing everyone's thoughts. What did you think of Interstellar? Let me know in my review post here.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Great list :) I've nearly seen all of Christopher Nolan's films and I reckon my list would look very similar to yours in terms of ranking. Memento just might be my number 1 though, maybe...
    - Allie

    1. Thanks Allie :) Funnily enough, Memento is the most recent film I've seen for the first time. My girlfriend and I wanted to be up to date on Nolan films so we raced through Insomnia and Memento after watching Interstellar at the movies :)

  2. Haha, mine would actually be reversed - I have not seen Following but Inception is the worst and TDKR the best for me. I remember thinking I'll hate it and the movie just blew me away and is my win for BP that year. I don't have high hopes for Interstellar but I'll try to see it on Friday :)

    1. Fair enough! :) There are just too many issues with the Dark Knight Rises for me to overlook I'm afraid. Shame, as it also blew me away when I first saw it. Thanks for commenting Sati!

  3. Good list, man! Nolan is one of my favorites, for sure, and at least TDK and The Prestige would be in my top ten of all time, if I ever took the time to map that out. The Prestige is my favorite Nolan film, by far, but you're right that Inception was the most intriguing. Interstellar similarly screwed with my head... just not quite to the same extent of Inception!

    1. Thanks Tanner :) The Prestige would be an interesting pick for No. 1 - I'd be interested to read that list! :)

  4. I still need to see Interstellar...but for now I'd say, off the top of my head:

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

    1. Great list Fisti :) Why no love for Insomnia though? :O

  5. Nice work. I've seen 6 of the 9. For me...

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

    1. Nice stuff Wendell :) Memento is certainly deserving of the top spot with that inventive premise!

  6. On the one hand, I like that you didn't rank TDKR high. On the other, man Batman Begins landed pretty low, lol. As for my own rankings, they'd go something like this:

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

    TDKR is the only one I'd actually call a bad movie, but I dunno, Memento didn't do it for me. It felt far too gimmicky, one of the most gimmicky movies I've ever seen in fact, and I couldn't get past that while watching it. Pretty spot on write ups on The Prestige, definitely one that holds up even if you know the twist, and TDK is just a masterpiece.

    I've been putting off reading any Interstellar reviews until I came up with one of my own, so apologies for that. But I'll check yours out soon enough. ;)

    1. Batman Begins and Insomnia are pretty close to be honest, but I think Robin Williams just edged the latter ahead. I can see why Memento might be divisive for some people - whilst I don't agree that it centres around a gimmick, I can understand why it might get on people's nerves for the entire running time.

      I'll be sure to check it out when you do post it Chris! :)

  7. Great list! I think mine would look something like
    1) The Dark Knight
    2) Inception
    3) The Dark Knight Rises
    5) Interstellar
    6) Batman Begins
    7) The Prestige
    8) The Following
    9) Insomnia

    1. Thanks Brittani :) Interested to hear why you'd put Insomnia so low and TDKR so high though! :) Love all the difference of opinions happening down here in the comments :D

  8. Solid rankings here. (And I LOVE those posters that lead in to the article). My favorite will always be Memento, but I can never argue against Inception. What a fantastic puzzle that film is.

    1. Thanks Alex! They're awesome aren't they? I love the ideas people come up with for alternative, minimalist posters and the results are often gorgeously simple. Kinda like the teaser posters studios come up with, but more arty. My personal favourite out of the crop in the header is the Inception one, it's good enough to hang in my room! :D

  9. Great list!! I have seen some of the movies like the dark Night, Inception, and Interstellar but could not conclude it as per film ranking. But anyways thanks for sharing the blog.

    1. That's awesome Cris, thanks for commenting and sharing! :)



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