How I Rank: Christopher Nolan's Movies
With Dunkirk hitting theaters this weekend, I thought it would be a good time to try out my new editorial series, "How I Rank". Here, I take something in the film world. It could be a director, an actor, a franchise, or anything really along those lines, and I rank the films within it based upon my personal preferences. Some of these rankings you may agree with, and some of them you may view differently. Please feel free to jump into the comments section to voice how you think these movies should be ranked. These aren't necessarily based on how objectively good the film is; it's all based on my own personal preferences, and how I would rank these movies based on my individual enjoyment of them. So take a look at the lists I've crafted, starting with how I would rank all of Christopher Nolan's movies.
If you saw Following right when it came out in 1998, before you knew who this Christopher Nolan guy was, then I think you would be pretty taken aback by it. It's ambitious and ballsy, and showcases the artistic side of Nolan's filmmaking. However, when you see it after having seen his later films, such as Memento or Inception, you find that Following doesn't exactly hold up. It has a lot of bold ideas, but Nolan didn't know exactly how to balance them all then. It's intricate and it's fascinating, but all the moving pieces aren't organized and woven in the same brilliant manner that Nolan does with his later films. It's as if Following was the birthplace of a lot of Nolan's ideas, and then he was able to perfect them later on down the line. The main character's name is Cobb, which is the same name of Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Inception. So Nolan certainly took a lot of the ideas he had and tried out in Following, and incorporated them later on. So after seeing his later films, it's hard to then go back and see Following for the first time, without it feeling like a testing pool for Nolan's brilliant ideas. When compared to his later work, Following doesn't hold up as a feature film, and doesn't hit in the same way that say Memento or Inception do. But it cannot go unnoticed that Following is what broke Nolan into the industry, and it's where Nolan conceived a lot of the brilliant ideas he's recognized for in his later films.
Insomnia is one I have to rewatch, as I haven't seen it in several years. But this was another one that I went back and watched after I was already a Nolan fan. What stands out most about Insomnia is that it is a movie that Nolan only directed; he didn't write this one. And this largely stands out. It doesn't feel like a Nolan movie, or rather a Nolan movie we've come to expect. There are certain common threads in films like Memento or The Prestige or The Dark Knight that you recognize to be hallmarks of Nolan's movies. However, these are largely absent from Insomnia, because he did not craft the film from scratch. He was brought in simply to direct. On the directing side, Al Pacino and Robin Williams deliver fantastic performance. And it's a very well shot film. But ultimately, it does not feel like it is a Christopher Nolan movie. It is a very well directed film, and a movie that is very good. But this is not a Christopher Nolan film. I think that's why people are turned off the most by Insomnia. Following clearly has Nolan's style, and so people can more easily identify with it. But Insomnia feels more like a traditional 90's/early 2000's crime thriller that could have been directed by anyone. For me, I think Insomnia is a little bit of a better made movie than Following. Following feels more like a student film, whereas Insomnia is a Hollywood-produced movie. That's mainly why I ranked it above Following. But I think both of these movies are two kinks Nolan had to work out before he could hit his stride.
After the high of seeing movies like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, I went into Interstellar with mammoth expectations. I wanted to see Christopher Nolan dive head-first into the science fiction genre, and give us his 2001: A Space Odyssey. I enjoyed Interstellar a lot when I saw it, though my main problem with it was that I thought it bit off more than it could chew. The craftsmanship and the technique behind the film is stellar (pun intended), and Nolan once again proves just how masterful he is behind the camera. Where the movie falters is in how much information it has to convey to the audience in order for them to understand what is happening, and its inability to have a lot of things make sense. Now, I have only seen Interstellar once. With most of Nolan's movies, you have to see them multiple times to truly appreciate them. And for people who were originally critics of Interstellar, they have said that they enjoyed it immensely more upon rewatching it. Like I said, I really enjoyed it when I saw it in theaters, but I thought it was nowhere near the heights of some of his other movies. I eventually will rewatch Interstellar, and perhaps my opinion will change on it. Maybe I'll see it as more than just an entertaining movie, and appreciate more of its deeper and philosophical undertones. But as it stands right now, Interstellar had a lot to say, and I just don't think it did a good enough job communicating it.
#6 Batman Begins
Now we are into Nolan's famous The Dark Knight Trilogy. While many would put The Dark Knight Rises as their least favorite of the three, I actually put Batman Begins in that spot. But that is no dis to how great Batman Begins is. There is an upper echelon of comic book movie origins. In that list is the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, and Iron Man. Also included in there is Batman Begins. Nolan did such a fantastic job reinventing the character. People tend to forget the state of Batman on film at that point; eight years prior had seen the release one of the worst films ever put to screen in Batman & Robin, which single-handedly killed the Caped Crusader's cinematic appearances until Nolan rebooted him. Where Batman & Robin went off the deep end (to say the least) in terms of campiness and ridiculousness, Nolan brought the character back to what he should be: serious and dark. He told the most perfect origin story for the character, in a way that I don't think you could ever perfect. The time and dedication Nolan takes to fleshing out Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a character, so that we could then care about Batman, was staggering. The film falters come the third act, and Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) is wasted a little bit in favor of Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson). But this doesn't take away from how great the first half of the film is, and how important this movie was in bringing Batman back into prominence.
#5 The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises tends to be one of people's least favorite Nolan movies, and I'm not exactly sure why. I do have some conflicting thoughts on it. There are some glaring technical mistakes that should not have been in there, and some story beats don't make a lot of sense. Parts of it seem kind of lazy for a person of Christopher Nolan's stature. But the good in The Dark Knight Rises far outweighs the bad, at least in my opinion. Tom Hardy as Bane is one of the most underappreciated villains in all of cinema. I would say he is on par with Heath Ledger's Joker. Not as good, but on par. Not only does he give an absolutely chilling performance, but the writing behind his character is just brilliant. Almost every single line of dialogue he has is memorable and quotable. He is just a straight-up badass character, and I think he is the epitome of the character from the comics. Sure, he doesn't have his venom that turns him into a giant hulking monster, but Nolan writes the character in such a way that you don't really miss that element of him. Hardy's Bane doesn't need it to be formidable; it's already in his DNA. A big part of what makes The Dark Knight Rises work for me is Bane. Anne Hathaway is also really good as Catwoman, and Christian Bale is once again great as Bruce Wayne/Batman. But what sells this movie for me is Bane, and how excellent of a villain he was. It's amazing that Nolan was able to succeed with Bane on the level that he did, especially coming off of the monumental success of Ledger's Joker.
Memento is damn near a masterpiece. From the way its story is structured, to the beauty of the shots, to the intricacy of the writing, to the brilliance of the performances... Memento is just a really fantastic film. Following was Nolan's only movie before Memento, and you can really see a lot of the same themes carry over from that film into this one. Same with Inception. And that's why Following falls apart a little more for me, because Nolan broke that movie apart in order to make movies like Memento, which are infinitely better. The personal journey you go on with Guy Pearce through this movie is gut-wrenching and emotional. Nolan is able to craft the movie so that you experience things along with him, and you are able to feel the frustration of Leonard's condition. The writing behind this film is absolutely brilliant, and garnered Nolan an Oscar nomination. The excellence in writing is highlighted by how well Nolan directs this movie. For people new to his name, this sent a flare up in the air that this Christopher Nolan guy meant business. And for fans going back and rewatching his older films, not only can you appreciate Nolan's roots, but you get an equally great film that rivals some of his classics down the line. With some of his other older films, you see the birth of the Christopher Nolan we know today. With Memento, he already was that Nolan.
#3 The Prestige
I struggled as to whether I should rank Memento or The Prestige higher, and I ultimately went with The Prestige. I've seen it more times, and while I think Memento is a masterpiece, I do believe The Prestige to be Nolan's most underrated film. I do believe it too to be a masterpiece, and is just an absolutely brilliant film all around. The performances are all fantastic. Up until I saw Logan, I had maintained that this was Hugh Jackman's best performance. Christian Bale gives another stellar performance, and one that's often overlooked. There are also great supporting performances from Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis, and David Bowie. The story of these two competing magicians is riveting, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, wondering what was going to happen next. The way Nolan structures the film easily could have become a complete mess, when you consider all the intersecting timelines. But Nolan pulls it all off with such grace, that you honestly believe he must be a magician himself. This movie is endlessly rewatchable, because you pick up on so many new things with each viewing. The twist in this film is fantastic, and isn't exactly praised as being one of the all-time great twists, as it deserves to be. Along with movies like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, the twist in this movie completely alters the shape of the film, and makes multiple viewings incredibly rewarding. The Prestige is Nolan's most underrated and least talked about film, despite it ultimately being one of his best.
While everybody loves Inception, I think it is still underappreciated for just how brilliant it is. I think Inception will be looked at in the years to come as a defining film of this decade. It is an absolutely brilliant movie, with so many different levels and intricacies. I don't think you can fully appreciate just how much there is to unpack with this movie until you've seen it a few times. It is one of the few movies where I just don't know how it works as a film. When you look at this movie, it should have completely failed. It should be a complete mess of a movie. And in the hands of pretty much anyone other than Christopher Nolan, it would have been. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances, and one that not a lot of people talk about as being one of his best. There is just so much emotion and power wrapped into his character, and DiCaprio pulls it all off in spades. Marion Cotillard is equally as good, and even outshines him in a few scenes. I do wholeheartedly consider this to be a masterpiece in filmmaking. I think it was Inception that really defined Nolan as a filmmaker. Sure, Memento was incredible, and Nolan had completely reinvented Batman, and gave us the best comic book movie ever made in The Dark Knight, but Inception proved that Nolan wasn't f*cking around. He wasn't a one-trick pony. He is a powerhouse behind the camera, and Inception is just more proof of that.
#1 The Dark Knight
If I wasn't as big of a fan of Batman as I am, then perhaps Inception would take my top spot. But The Dark Knight just barely edges it out. Not only is it the quintessential Batman movie, but I believe it to be the best comic book movie ever made. I don't even really consider it a comic book movie; to me, it's just a crime thriller. Nolan is able to push Batman to his limits, and really test the character in a way that I don't think any other comic book movie has really done. It's a character study, of what a hero will do to protect the lives of innocents. And this is one of the few comic book movies where the villain wins at the end. The Joker wins, through the corruption of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckart) into Two Face. That was an incredibly ballsy move, and it absolutely pays off. Heath Ledger gives not just the best comic book movie villain performance of all time, but one of the best cinematic villain performances period. He is radiant in this movie, and acts circles around everyone else. A lot of people forget just how good Aaron Eckhart is in this film, because of how incredible Ledger is. Eckhart gives the best performance of his career, and gives a fantastic villain performance. His transformation and arc feels entirely organic, and the movie ultimately hinges on it. Nolan is able to bring his arc full circle, so that it completely alters the fabric of the movie. It's brilliant the way Nolan handled the character. So, The Dark Knight, in my opinion, is Christopher Nolan's best movie.
What do you think? How would you rank Christopher Nolan's movies? Are you looking forward to seeing Dunkirk? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Written by: Nate
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