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The Ultimate Guide to Christopher Nolan's Movies.
Following Oppenheimer; a deep dive into Christopher Nolan's filmography in three acts. Plus a ranking.
Prologue: Why is Christopher Nolan Special?
For the casual movie goer, British-American director Christopher Nolan is the guy who directed The Dark Knight. For the more initiated follower, he is what the Domaine de la Romaneé-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru is to somaliers; the most elite director working today.
Scorsese, Spielberg and my dearest Terrence Malick are still making gems, no doubt, but their best work is behind them, in a bygone era. Tarantino, Anderson and Fincher are Nolan’s peers; but in terms of grand cinematic spectacles that are more akin to events than mere movies, none of them compare.
Christopher Nolan is special because he’s the guy who built the strongest bridge between thought-provoking cinema and box-office entertainment (Denis Villeneuve is catching up, but still behind). Over the course of 25 years and 12 films, from Following to Oppenheimer, Nolan has confounded audiences with brain-twisting narratives and labyrinthine storytelling while still raking in millions upon millions.
In honor of the great man’s 53rd birthday, and as a way to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a filmmaker, I’m taking a deep dive into his filmography and the most important relationships that helped shape it. The piece is structured in honor of Sir Michael Caine’s Mr. Cutter from The Prestige, who delivers a quite fitting monologue for this occasion.
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't.”
ACT I, The Pledge: Reality, Memory & The Rise of a Hero.
As T.E. Lawrence said, big things have small beginnings. A very rough, student-like black-and-white debut caught enough attention on the indie circuit to pave the way for a sophomore effort that propelled a young and dapper Christopher Nolan towards directorial immortality. He never looked back since.
Emma Thomas (Wife and Producer)
Not only has Thomas been by Nolan’s side for all 12 films as his producer, but she has been by his side as his life partner for even longer. They met in university and developed a bond (which blossomed into love, marriage and four kids) based on - among other things - a shared love of films and filmmaking. Talk about destiny.
Movies Collaborated On: Every single one.
Jonathan Nolan (Brother and Co-Writer)
Starting as a grip on Following, and serving co-writer duties as far as Interstellar, Jonathan Nolan’s biggest contribution to his older brother’s career is with Memento. Jonathan wrote a short story called “Memento Mori” which Christopher adapted into a cult classic that kicked Hollywood’s door off the hinges.
Movies Collaborated On: Following, Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar
Wally Pfister (Cinematographer)
Pfister played an essential role in capturing that hard-to-define, effervescent aspect of cinema for Nolan: mood and atmosphere. From the raw intimacy and visceral grains of Memento, through a sleepless Alaskan myst and shadowy alleyways of Victorian England, to the IMAX vistas of elaborate 5-star dreams-within-dreams and the dynamic, sweeping aerial shots of a hyper-real Gotham.
Movies Collaborated On: Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises
David Julyan (Composer)
Christopher Nolan’s movies would be visual husks without their accompanying score. From the very first frames in Following, the audience is arrested into attention by music that’s more sound effect than sound were it not for one exotic synthesized screech. David Julyan paved the way for future composers who helped define (and elevate) Nolan’s brand.
Movies Collaborated On: Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige
A lonely, aspiring writer is ensnared by a charismatic criminal’s devious schemes.
A noirish experiment in voyeurism and obsession that would’ve most likely faded forever into obscurity were not Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut.
The non-linear storytelling, the role of memory in the recollection and construction of thoughts, and the deception and trickery at play both in the story itself and the way it’s presented are like tiny little seeds that have, over the course of the last 25 years, grown into superpowered tentacles wrapping themselves all around Oppenheimer.
A man suffering from anterograde amnesia seeks revenge for his wife's brutal murder.
Armed with more than just a shoestring budget, a solid cast of professional actors and the likes of his brother Jonathan and cinematographer Pfister by his side, Nolan was able to direct an unforgettable cult classic.
Memento firmly planted the seeds that Following sprinkled; Nolan's reputation as a master of complex, cerebral narratives was born. The film’s exploration of unreliable memory, with its grimy psychological and existential consequences in tow, is only matched by its renowned reverse-chronological order of play.
A cat-and-mouse game between an insomniac detective and a soft-spoken serial killer during Alaska's Midnight Sun Season.
The first and to date only remake in the director’s magic kit, Insomnia is a 1997 Scandinavian serial killer story that Nolan Americanised with his own 2002 version, working with a couple of powerhouses in Al Pacino and the late, incomparable Robin Williams.
It’s no wonder Nolan was drawn to the story and its cinematic atmosphere; underneath a cut-and-dry detective story is a much deeper exploration of guilt, deceit, and the blurry, morally complex line between good and evil. It’s some of Wally Pfister’s greatest work too, as the permanent daylight of the Alaskan landscape provides an appropriately misty and eerie setting.
Batman Begins (2005)
The tale of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman, under the guidance of Ra’s al Ghul.
Nolan’s stratospheric rise into the pantheon of Godhood really began with Batman Begins.
Resurrecting Batman from the ashes of Joel Schumacher’s dumpster fire known as Batman and Robin (1997) was no small feat, but armed with his biggest budget, a reliable film crew of regulars, and an impressive cast led by Christian Bale, Nolan reimagined the iconic superhero through a realistic and grounded lens, transforming escapist fantasy into a intimate study of fear and justice. The superhero genre was never the same again.
“The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret, but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.”
ACT II, The Turn: Secrets, Superheroes & The Stuff Dreams are Made Of.
The period between 2006 and 2012 saw Christopher Nolan transform into a God. Viewed as a collective whole, his Dark Knight Trilogy is arguably the most artistic work in the superhero genre; blending the intimacy of heist and thriller genres with infamous Batman lore, and having an undercurrent of intellectual and philosophical curiosity run through some of the most elaborate set pieces ever created for a comic book movie.
What’s remarkable though is that between his now-classic Batman movies, Nolan directed an original piece of work that is counted among his greatest achievements and an adaptation of a Christopher Priest story about creative obsession, secrets and magic that very much mirrors Nolan’s own filmmaking nature.
Christian Bale (Actor)
They’ve only collaborated on four films, but without Christian Bale the second act of Nolan’s career would have been decidedly less extraordinary. Every flashy villain needs a grounded hero, and oftentimes it’s the latter, less praised, part that’s harder to pull off. Not to mention Bale’s marvelous turn as the mercurial Alfred Borden in The Prestige.
Movies Collaborated On: Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises
Michael Caine (Actor)
No actor has worked on more Nolan movies than Sir Michael Caine, whom the director once dubbed his lucky charm. An icon of British cinema in both voice and gentlemanly screen presence, Caine fits into Nolan’s world like a £100,000 velvet glove. A 15-year collaboration that began with Batman Begins has seemingly come to an end with a pivotal cameo role in Tenet.
Movies Collaborated On: Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet
Hans Zimmer (Composer)
BRAAAAAAAAM. Hans Zimmer was a match made in audio-visual heaven for Christopher Nolan. The man behind the Oscar-winning Lion King score and the groundbreaking Gladiator somehow became even more famous with his string of epic scores for Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. As instrumental as Pfister was in shaping the look of a Nolan film, Zimmer was just as important in shaping Nolan’s signature sound.
Movies Collaborated On: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk
Lee Smith (Editor)
The editor never gets as much love as he or she should, but their role is absolutely crucial. If the cinematographer is in charge of the story’s look, and the composer is in charge of the story’s sound, the editor holds the reins of the story’s feel. The reason Nolan’s films attain that aura of earned grandeur, and leave the audience in breathless awe, is mostly down to guys (and gals) like Lee Smith.
Movies Collaborated On: Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk
The Prestige (2006)
Two Victorian magicians obsess over secrets, tricks and one-upping each other.
The Prestige is not an original work, but everything about it screams Nolan. So much so that the director’s entire filmography to date is analogous to the film’s idea of a magic trick.
Just about every protagonist and villain in a Nolan movie is obsessed with something, but none make it their reason for being as much as the duelling magicians in The Prestige. The film's layered narrative, replete with twists and turns, continues to massage and expand Nolan’s mastery in crafting intricate plots and the perpetual dance between illusion and reality.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Immovable object meets unstoppable force as Batman clashes with Joker to prevent a state of chaos in Gotham.
As a genre story on an unprecedented plane, full of psychological complexity with its examinations of chaos and anarchy, The Dark Knight is the kind of generational movie with the power to change the entire industry.
Christopher Nolan experiments with IMAX for the first time and directs one of the greatest superhero films of all time, featuring Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of the Joker. A movie more akin to Michael Mann and Heat than anything from the DC Universe.
A crew of dream thieves band together to plant an idea deep inside a man’s psyche.
Inception marks a high point in Nolan's now-signature blend of high-concept narrative with blockbuster spectacle. With an all-star cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and his first completely original story since Following, the director discovers new boundaries to push in terms of cinematic storytelling with its exploration of malleable world-construction within dreams.
As both an intimate anti-heist film, a blockbuster with spectacular set-pieces (the city of Paris collapsing upon itself will never not look extraordinary) and an emotional core that leads to a classically ambiguous finale, Inception is the archetypical cerebral blockbuster.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Batman emerges from semi-retirement to prevent terror and rebellion ignited by Bane.
Nolan's Batman trilogy ends with a bang as The Dark Knight Rises opens with one of the director’s greatest practical feats, cementing his reputation of staying as far away from CGI as possible.
The stakes are raised to nuclear levels (foreshadowing the director’s fixation on the end of the world during the third act of his career), as the Dark Knight’s journey completes its narrative arch in appropriately grandiose fashion. An epic tale of sacrifice and redemption, featuring another unforgettable villain in the form of Tom Hardy’s Bane, concludes Nolan's unique take on the Batman mythos.
“But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’”
ACT III, The Prestige: Time, Space & The End of the World.
The third act of Nolan’s magical career was the hardest part in many ways. How do you keep raising the bar even higher after the most successful superhero film trilogy of all time? How do you follow-up your most award-showered film that wasn’t about Batman? You’ve become a God, now what?
Christopher Nolan’s horizons as a filmmaker only expanded. His third act ends up being his most creative, emotional, urgent, epic, entertaining and spectacular. Utilising the full force of IMAX cameras, having the carte blanche to direct any passion project that’s been percolating for years regardless of budget, and re-shuffling his deck of collaborators; Nolan transcended himself.
Nathan Crawley (Production Designer)
Perhaps for some other directors, they wouldn’t play such a pivotal role. But for someone who is as meticulous and steadfast as Nolan in his cinematic vision, long-time collaborators in production design are absolutely essential. The texture of Nolan’s signature wouldn’t be as pristine without Crawley.
Movies Collaborated On: Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet,
Hoyte Van Hoytema (Cinematographer)
Picking up the camera where Wally Pfister left it, Van Hoytema is the purest of all Act III collaborators having worked on all four of Nolan’s films from this period. The two have clearly made a special connection, bonding over a shared love of the seemingly infinite possibilities that the giant IMAX canvass can offer.
Movies Collaborated On: Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet, Oppenheimer
Kenneth Branagh (Actor)
Who do you turn to if Sir Michael Caine isn’t around and why is it Kenneth Branagh?
Branagh’s own directorial schedule hasn’t stopped him from working on Christopher Nolan’s last three films, which have seen the thespian’s versatility in full display, including his penchant for accents and a chameleon-like ability to convince as both bastion of nobility (Dunkirk) and cold-blooded cunt (Tenet).
Movies Collaborated On: Dunkirk, Tenet, Oppenheimer
Jennifer Lame (Editor)
Nolan has seemingly moved on from his collaboration with Hans Zimmer with Ludwig Goransson taking over the modulators for both Tenet and Oppenheimer, but as good as Goransson’s scores are - I think the more impactful switch-up happened in the editing room.
Much like how Nolan’s vision needed a new director of photography to capture it, so too do Nolan’s worlds need a fresh pair of eyes to cut it into thrilling, frenetic and breathless chunks. Enter Jennifer Lame, who has successfully grabbed the torch from Lee Smith and made Nolan’s last two films feel like compact 80-minute heist films from the French New Wave.
Movies Collaborated On: Tenet, Oppenheimer
A father leaves his family to join a crew of scientists searching for a liveable planet.
Nolan hired Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to ensure the representation of wormholes and black holes in Interstellar are as scientifically sound as possible, further fortifying his reputation as a director who keeps it real, even in space.
Nolan’s sci-fi takes cues from both Spielberg and Kubrick; a film that relies heavily on physics, and the manipulation of time and space, while still managing to pull at the heartstrings and thrill audiences in ways rarely encountered before.
Dunkirk's historic evacuation re-enacted from the perspectives of land, sky, and sea.
Dunkirk continues Nolan’s unique blend of hard science powered by an emotional core in the face of apocalypse, further expanding the director’s ability to needle intricate narratives into threads of vast thematic depth.
But instead of an apocalyptic future, he travels to the apocalyptic past, creating the single most immersive war film based around a singular point in history. Capturing the intensity of the Dunkirk evacuation from multiple perspectives, it's an experimental and visceral exploration of survival and communal bravery.
A globe-trotting spy must use the future invention of time-inversion to prevent the end of the world.
As if playing with the concept of time in the sci-fi and war drama sandboxes wasn’t enough, Nolan takes his creative obsession to brand new heights in his most perplexing, fascinating, and breathtaking film to date.
Tenet is James Bond on psychedelics, an espionage thriller that experiments with cinematic structure as a palindrome. Yeah. The concept of reversed entropy is stretched beyond its scientific edges for dramatic effect (consciously, of course) and what’s left in its wake is an endlessly re-watchable, adrenaline-fueled thought experiment and a spectacular testament to the power of cinema.
A biopic of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who invented the atomic bomb.
After getting teased in Tenet (the scientist who invents time inversion is likened to Oppenheimer), Nolan tackles the real guy and the tricky genre of the biopic in Oppenheimer. The story of the most famous theoretical physicist and how he became ‘the destroyer of worlds’ as the Father of the Atom Bomb couldn’t have been in better hands.
With the mercurial Cillian Murphy leading an all-star cast (another Nolan moniker), this near-3-hour period drama is somehow both intimate and epic. Shot almost entirely with IMAX cameras and containing multitudes begging to be unpacked on repeat viewings, Oppenheimer rounds off Nolan’s third act in signature spellbinding fashion.
Epilogue: Christopher Nolan’s Movies Ranked
Ranking Christopher Nolan’s movies feels exceedingly ridiculous. The difference in cinematic quality, depth, impact and entertainment value between most of them is so microscopic it’s like ranking hues in a Vincent Van Gogh painting.
But ranking is so fun! So here goes nothing.
#12 - Following (1998)
Just because it’s better than most directorial debuts, doesn’t make it better than anything else that came after it. It’s more of a sign of things to come than the thing itself.
#11 - Insomnia (2002)
Remakes are just.not a natural part of Nolan’s wheelhouse. It’s better on second viewing, but star-power and excellent cinematography aside, it doesn’t have much oomph.
#10 - Batman Begins (2005)
The two sequels have so much more at stake and time hasn’t been so kind to its script (or Katie Holmes’s performance). Still an excellent film - this is why ranking Nolan is hard!
#9 - The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
I honestly love this movie. More than a lot of its critics (and it has its fair share). The opening plane scene and Tom Hardy’s performance are highlight-reel stuff, but the third act does drop the ball a bit.
#8 - Memento (2000)
It’s not as awesome (in the real sense of the word) as when you experience it for the first time. In other words, if I suffered from short-term memory loss, Memento would be number one.
#7 - Dunkirk (2017)
I might bump this one once I get my 65” inch OLED TV and surround sound system; it’s all about the technical prowess. So much so that it’s a little bit unbalanced in that way.
#6 - The Dark Knight (2008)
Surprise! Most people probably have this as their number 1 or 2. As incredible as it is - and of course it is - I just think Nolan directed five films that are…a little better?
#5 - The Prestige (2006)
Having recently rewatched it in preparation for this piece, I was pleasantly surprised in how well it has aged. It really is a perfect mirror to Nolan’s career, and I mean…David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Come on!
#4 - Oppenheimer (2023)
I need to re-watch this. It is very tentatively sitting at number four because it feels like one of Nolan’s greatest accomplishments. But it begs for repeat viewings because Nolan, of course, made the timelines so convoluted!
#3 - Interstellar (2014)
Probably my favorite sci-fi of the past…20 years? I’d need to process that, but it’s up there. It has absolutely everything - heart, philosophy, science, depth, twists and some of the greatest space imagery ever put on film.
#2 - Inception (2010)
Just about the quintessential Christopher Nolan movie. It’s interchangeable with the number one spot really; the concept is ridiculous yet brilliant and it plays out like a action heist film. And that ending never fails to get me.
#1 - Tenet (2020)
Remember when I said Inception was just about the quintessential Christopher Nolan movie? Well, Tenet is the quintessential Christopher Nolan movie. Brilliant action? Check Brilliant concept that twists your brain into a pretzel and forces you to think? Check. Brilliant acting? Check. An emotional investment? Check. Endlessly re-watchable? Check. Music? Check. Set pieces that drop your jaw to the floor? Check.
I can’t wait to see what’s next for Christopher Nolan.
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