When we first decided to do a top 10 Christopher Nolan post (way back in June!), Tenet was yet to grace our cinema screens. For various reasons, compilation of this post was delayed on more than one occasion (probably down to me still not having seen The Prestige – Lee), but we’ve still decided to focus on the 10 movies that Nolan was responsible for before Tenet. So, here is our top 10 Christopher Nolan. Finally!
10. Following (1998)
Matt: Unless you’re a die-hard Nolan fan I imagine most either won’t have heard of Following or won’t actively seek it out. And that’s understandable – it is obviously much less well known than the rest of his work, not to mention probably much harder to find a copy of! But if you are interested to see the genesis of the traits that define almost all of his later films, this is certainly a fascinating watch; here you can glimpse the earliest manifestation of his signature non-linearity, noirish crime thrillers, morally ambiguous characters, and core themes of identity and obsession. It feels much like a short film (in fact, at just short of 70 minutes in length is almost qualifies as one) so it’s not likely to have a massive impact, but it does make it easier to give a look-in if you ever find yourself with an hour or so free! Full review here
9. Insomnia (2002)
Mary: I think this film improves with every viewing, it is actually more complex than it first appears and there are a lot of interesting themes at play. This was considered Nolan’s first studio film and I think it is the film that has the least Nolanesque (if you will) style. It definitely has his ideas in there you can see that but it feels like the studio had more of a hand in this than any of his other films. The main reason to watch this is definitely the performances of Al Pacino and Robin Williams, both fantastic apart but totally brilliant together. Give this a re-watch you’ll find a lot more there to discover than you remember.
8. Memento (2000)
Matt: Memento is such an impressive “breakthrough” film that it is hard to believe it came so early in Nolan’s career. Structurally, this film is up there as one of the most unique and distinctive ever put to screen in my opinion. A detective story that intercuts two halves of a timeline – one half moving chronologically in flashback and the other depicting the events that follow in reverse until the two meet with a stunning ‘penny drop’ moment as the final piece of the puzzle falls into place. It’s definitely a case of style over substance (the story itself, cast and characters you can take or leave really) but it’s all about the experience – Nolan puts you inside the head of a protagonist with short term memory loss, and by fragmenting the sequence of events you are forced to question your own process of memory too! Watch the YouTube video of Nolan explaining the film with a chalkboard, and you’ll understand the genius of it all.
7. Batman Begins (2005)
Mary: This is one of those movies that I don’t ever remember the details of but know I like it just not why. Then when I re-watch it I end up having such a great time. It’s not my favourite in the trilogy but it settles nicely in the middle. I like the origin story I think it’s really well done and that is mostly because of how realistic it feels. I do have my issues with Christian Bale’s Batman but there are so many pluses to this movie. For me mainly the old guard of Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. This is worth giving another watch it’s definitely better than most of the reviews it gets.
6. Dunkirk (2017)
Matt: Unlike many of his other films, with Dunkirk Nolan ventures into new genre territory and is one of his few not to be based on written material (e.g. original scripts, remakes, novel, short story or comic book adaptations), instead he delves into real historical events but that’s not to say that there aren’t a few of his signature stylistic traits present here… Blending three timelines and perspectives together – one week on the beaches, one day at sea, and one hour in the sky – Nolan perfectly captures the panic, danger and unpredictability of one of history’s most pivotal moments, and the unimaginable struggle for survival faced by thousands of British soldiers. The entire experience is fortified by one of the most visceral sound designs I’ve ever heard – from the ticking clock that has you biting your nails from start to finish, to the relentless onslaught of bullets and enemy planes nose-diving upon you – plus an incredible 100-minute Hans Zimmer composition that barely lets you come up for air. It’s the perfect example of why all Nolan films MUST be seen in the cinema! I’ll never forget it.
Lee: When I first watched Dunkirk on the big screen, it absolutely blew me away. The Hans Zimmer score certainly helped, but the build-up as the three separate timelines began to converge was just outstanding, so intense. I recently watched Dunkirk again on the small screen and really didn’t get that feeling at all, echoing what Matt has already mentioned – that this is definitely a film best experienced in the cinema.
Clare: I watched Dunkirk during lockdown, and if it hadn’t of been for the purpose of doing this top 10 I would have turned it off by the hour mark. Whilst visually impressive, it was an utter bore with characters held at arms length and too much reliance on war symbolism to force you to feel something, rather than actually connecting us to those on screen. There were elements of potential, with Fionn Whitehead doing his best to fill out a blank character, but it never hit the mark. It ranks as my lowest Nolan film, even with the impressive sound design.
5. Interstellar (2014)
Mary: The thing I will remember the most about this film is that it is the one film still to this day that has rendered me speechless in the cinema at the end of the movie. I could not believe what I had just seen, not just the ideas unleashed on screen but the visuals. it is an unbelievably beautiful film. There are shots in the movie that just defy the mind, I was blown away. Obviously, that feeling is very hard to keep at that level, and it’s true I don’t think of it so fondly as I did in the first few days after I’d seen it. But I will always love it for the feeling it gave me that day and I do think the premise is superb and something very close to home (like all of Nolan’s work) and it looks amazing, its never a bore watching this one.
Matt: Hear, hear! One of the only films Mary and I have seen together, and we were both completely immobilised afterwards. I vividly remember not being able to take my eyes off the screen as it pulled me deeper and deeper, it can only be described as the perfect cinema experience. As I’ve already said with Dunkirk – a perfect example of why Nolan’s films must be experienced in the cinema (emphasis on the word ‘experience’)!
Lee: And here comes Lee to ruin everything… This one was a real bone of contention when the team were pulling together our top 10s as I had it ranked it so low. The reason? I watched this on a flight back from the States a few years ago and it did nothing for me, to the point where I fell asleep for much of the second half. I appreciate that I was probably tired and that the in-flight movie experience isn’t really the best for this kind of movie, but it just put me off ever watching it again. I really should have watched it again for this post… but I’m lazy.
Clare: And here I am on the fence! I rated this quite high, and I would have ranked it as a 4.5 star film if not for one thing… THAT BOOKSHELF. I nearly threw my phone at the screen. I could see it coming and thought ‘no… surely not’. It ruined what would have otherwise been a pretty perfect film. I still ranked it as my number 2 for Nolan, because Chastain just blew me away, and it’s the one Nolan film I’ve seen where I actually cared about the characters – he finally filled them out a bit. The father/daughter relationship was so beautifully done, and considering McConaughey and Chastain never share the screen.
4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Mary: This is my favourite in the Batman series, for many reasons, I do always love the last film in a series I like all the plots being completed and worked out. I love the casting of Anne Hathaway in this, I love her! I think the plot is great here and also by this point all the recurring actors are comfortable in their parts and really play them so well. I will always remember coming out of the cinema in the dark after the movie and asking my sister what she thought and she just exclaimed EPIC! Need I say more.
Lee: I’m with Mary in that this is my favourite of the Nolan Batman series and it’s all down to that one word that she mentioned – EPIC! The Dark Knight Rises is just epic in scale. A lot of what makes this the stand out for me may be down to how good the previous movies were, they paved the way for a movie that needed to provide a satisfying conclusion to this particular Batman saga. And it delivered. The plot, the cast… incredible.
3. The Prestige (2006)
Mary: This film appeals to me on so many levels; the time period really draws me in, the casting is really interesting, I could not imagine Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman together but it seriously works. And obviously the magic element, but not only magic but the fact that it is completed grounded in reality. This film like so many of Nolan’s is just so clever, the concept is brilliant, the way the narrative plays out is genius, there is so much to see, you can go back to this numerous times and find more and more clues it is amazing. I’ll never get tired of watching this film.
Lee: I literally watched The Prestige for the first time, just a few days before we compiled this list and it immediately took a very high spot on my personal top 10. Outside of knowing the name and the cast, this one had somehow always been completely off my radar and it’s one of those occasions where I could kick myself for not checking it out sooner. Bale and Jackman are amazing, as always, and I found the magic aspect, along with the period setting, simply fascinating. Throw in a bit of Scarlett Johannson and this is definitely one of Nolan’s best for me.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Clare: My number 1 Nolan, it stands as the measure for what great adaptations could and should be. It’s been over 10 years and people still rank it as the best comic book adaptation of all time. Whilst most of this feels down to Heath Ledgers once in a lifetime performance rather than Nolan’s film making, there is plenty to admire in the technicalities. Don’t worry, I won’t make you read my pre-dissertation essay on how The Dark Knight signalled a change in postmodern film making – but it really did change things. It also makes me long for Nolan to do more direction and less writing. He proves time and again that his skill is in the technical and by working with someone else’s source material here, we see everything that makes him excel.
1. Inception (2010)
Matt: I stand by the claim that Nolan absolutely defined a new decade and era of filmmaking when Inception exploded onto the scene in 2010. It’s safe to say that no one had ever seen anything like this before, so it’s totally deserving of our top spot (in fact, with 3/4 of us putting it at #1, it’s possibly the closest to unanimous we’ve ever been?) Inception’s just got it all really, not only is it outlandishly creative, packed with action, mind-bending concepts, jaw-dropping visuals and a stellar cast, but most of all it showcases exactly what cinema can do, and what it is capable of in the right hands. The limits were well and truly ‘pushed’ with this one!
Mary: This is by no means in my top films of all time, shocker I know because I grew up with the intention to marry Leonardo DiCaprio. However, despite that there is no way I could not give this film five stars. It is mind-blowing, the concept is just unbelievable, you watch this film thinking how could someone’s brain come up with this?!! As per with Nolan the visuals are out of this world, the building of worlds and the moulding of it is something else. Watching the street fold in on itself is something I will never forget, not a film I watch very often but after my most recent watch, I will definitely be coming back to this one again. It is nothing short of spectacular and absolutely deserves the top spot.
Lee: Matt and Mary have nailed their description of this one as far as I’m concerned. Inception is my favourite movie of all time and, having re-watched it recently, with a couple of years passed since my last viewing, I’m happy to confirm that it remains there. Such an intricately brilliant plot, which is as easy to follow as an episode of Bob the Builder when compared to Tenet! Great cast, and a soundtrack which regularly gets a play from me on Spotify. A well deserved number 1.
Matt: 100% hands-down one of the best and most exciting directors working today. I don’t know of many other filmmakers whose work is as anticipated as highly as Nolan’s is, and his name is now completely synonymous with quality, innovation and spectacle! With Tenet he undoubtedly brings something completely new to the table, albeit not to everyone’s taste, but one thing certainly is clear – Nolan knows exactly what he wants to make, and he delivers on his vision every time. As ever, I can’t wait to see what he does next and/or which cinematic boundary he’s going to push beyond recognition!
Mary: It is really hard to make this list because so many of Nolan’s films are close to perfect visually and their concepts are all strokes of genius. It’s all really down to taste and what we are individually drawn to as all of his films are probably hands-down better than most other movies we will ever see.
Lee: I’m always going to be interested in watching whatever Nolan comes up with next. Tenet, for me, was a huge disappointment and probably would have featured fairly low in my top 10 if we’d included it. But that’s not to say I didn’t appreciate its bold, brave storytelling, something which is always present and appreciated in his work.
Clare: Before doing this Top 10 I had only seen The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. Only 2 of those 4 I would give more than 3 stars, so I was interested to see how I would feel delving into his back catalogue. I’ve now seen 9 of his 11 films (Insomnia and Following eluded me) and I have to agree that he is one of the most impressive visual directors I’ve ever studied – and one of the worst writers. Plot and character will always be at the forefront of importance for me when I watch a film and Nolan has proved time and again that either he cannot maintain this, or doesn’t care. I’ll save my hatred of Tenet for my Letterboxd page, but wow, give me those hours back. I pray Nolan starts to collaborate with other screenwriters as if he found the right connection, he could easily make the best film I’ve ever seen. But right now, I’m relieved to never have to watch another of his films again.