Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer

All Christopher Nolan Movies Ranked From Worst to Fine to Oh OK, You Won Me Over

Christopher Nolan is one of the most compelling directors working today, never shying away from a strong POV and vision in his films. This means you’re pretty much guaranteed to have strong feelings when you watch his work. Those strong feelings won’t necessarily be positive ones.

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Here is a list of all current films Nolan has directed in order from worst to best as decided based on the completely subjective taste of someone who admittedly has a lot of issues with the guy’s work.

We’re already looking forward to the intense discussions in the comments!

12. TENET (2020)

John David Washington as The Protagonist in a scene from 'Tenet.' He is a Black man with short hair and a beard wearing a grey polo shirt driving a speedboat. There is a blonde, white woman in a summer dress sitting casually in the back of the boat.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Nolan doesn’t have much use for linear time, and nowhere is this more clear than in his 2020 film Tenet, in which a CIA agent (John David Washington) has to “invert” himself backward through time to stop an omnicidal man (Kenneth Branagh) from destroying the world. Edward Cullen is also in it.

Nolan is a director first and a writer second, his screenplays primarily serving as documents outlining his vision, rather than being complete, character-focused stories in and of themselves. This is how we get a protagonist literally named The Protagonist and a story with stakes so large and abstract as to be meaningless. This is how we get a film that’s light on characterization and theme and heavy on Wow! Isn’t this cool?! Isn’t this concept of time travel SO INTERESTING?

Well, no. Not if we’re not invested in the people involved or what will become of their world. In my opinion, Tenet is Nolan’s weakest film to date, because it feels the most like an exercise in cool filmmaker pyrotechnics and less like a story we should care anything about.

11. INTERSTELLAR (2014)

Anne Hathaway as Amelia and Matthew McConaughey as Joseph in a scene from 'Interstellar.' Amelia is a white woman with short, black hair. Joseph is a white man with short dark hair. They are both wearing NASA astronaut suits with their helmets off as they look at something off camera.
(Paramount Pictures)

Like Tenet, Interstellar suffers from Nolan’s focus on visual pyrotechnics and Big Ideas while giving less attention to character. Where it does better than Tenet is in its attention to humanity and theme. It at least tries to provide viewers with a story that’s relatable on a human level and themes about issues relevant to all of us.

Despite that, the execution is so silly. Nolan doesn’t seem entirely comfortable addressing the emotional. Even when Interstellar‘s characters directly address their feelings, those moments don’t seem like genuine expressions of an internal life. They either seem like an intellectual exercise, or like bad melodrama.

Nolan’s reputation allows him to pull talent off the top shelf. Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and the rest do their best to fill in the emotional blanks. Yet, without Nolan’s focus on these areas, their efforts can only do so much.

10. INSOMNIA (2002)

Robin Williams as Walter and Al Pacino as Will in a scene from 'Insomnia.' Walter is a white man with brown hair wearing a light brown corduroy  jacket over a blue shirt. Will is a white man with dark hair wearing a black leather jacket over a blue buttondown shirt and a red tie. They are seated closely together on a bench on a ferry.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

We’ve arrived at “meh” territory. Insomnia is the only one of Nolan’s films so far that he didn’t write. Its screenplay was written by Hillary Seitz (based on Norwegian film of the same name by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg), and you can feel the difference in Nolan’s approach when handling a story that originated with someone else.

Insomnia is a thriller about a cat-and-mouse game between a detective (Al Pacino) and a killer (Robin Williams) set in a small Alaskan town where it’s daylight for half the year. This daylight is what makes it difficult for Pacino’s visiting detective to sleep, giving him the titular insomnia, and you can tell that visually dramatizing the insomnia is where Nolan seems to have had the most fun on this.

The story itself is a boilerplate (and boring) murder mystery made worse by centering a cop who’s running from an Internal Affairs investigation into his mishandling of a case. All the cop scenes involve some version of cops talking about how Internal Affairs is a hindrance and that all they do is sit behind desks and they don’t know what it’s like to be “real cops.” Cop-aganda at its finest. ACAB.

9. THE PRESTIGE (2006)

Scarlett Johansson as Olivia and Hugh Jackman as Robert in a scene from 'The Prestige.' Olivia is a white woman with long, curly blonde hair wearing a Victorian style black and white dress. Robert is a white man with dark hair wearing a white shirt under a black, Victorian-style vest. They are seated in a theater looking at something in front of them and surrounded by empty red seats.
(Touchstone Pictures)

The Prestige, like Interstellar, was co-written by Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan (who’s made more of a name for himself in TV with Person of Interest, Westworld, and the upcoming Fallout series). It’s worth mentioning that several of Nolan’s films that are most successful at character work and infusing a high-concept story with humanity are the ones Chris co-wrote with Jonathan.

A lot of the heavy lifting in that department was also done by this film being an adaptation of previously existing source material. In any case, despite being less memorable than the films further up on this list, this thriller about magicians in Victorian London (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) competing over a perfect teleportation trick is solid, entertaining, and gives its top-tier cast a lot to work with.

8. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Tom Hardy as Bane and Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from 'The Dark Knight Rises.' Bane is a white man who is bald and wearing a metal mask clamped over the top of his head, and over his cheeks, nose and mouth. Batman is wearing his signature cowl over his head, revealing only his mouth. they are grappling mid-fight.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

We’ve arrived at the Batman layer! For many, Nolan’s Batman films are the reason they’re fans of his work, and it’s easy to see why. As wonderful as the 1966 and 1989 Batman films were, the Batman trilogy that started with Batman Begins (along with Marvel’s Iron Man in 2008) ushered in a new way of doing superhero movies.

However, The Dark Knight Rises, the third in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, was his least successful outing. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, and there were some pretty big missteps story-wise (Bane simply wanting to pull a Ra’s al Ghul?) and character-wise (Anne Hathaway, who’s a great actor, was nonetheless not a great choice for Selina Kyle). There was also an inelegant attempt to shoehorn in fan service (Bruce is off making a life with Selina? John Blake’s legal name is “Robin?” Come on!) which didn’t do the film any favors.

7. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in a scene from 'Batman Begins.' Wayne is a white man with short dark hair wearing a purple-grey polo shirt. He's standing in front of his Batman suit.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

As much as Batman Begins gave us—Christian Bale’s intriguing performance as Bruce Wayne, a tone that is very purposely not campy, an attempt at seriously wrestling with the politics and social injustices of Gotham City—it’s still yet another “origin story,” and as such will never be as interesting as a film that simply gives us a fully-formed Batman being Batman, because it needs to spend so much time doing set-up.

Also, while Batman has always had one of the best menageries of villains in comics, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) among them, there’s one that both hardcore Batman fans and more casual fans care about the most. Which is why the Nolan Batman film that is highest on the list has to be…

6. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

Christian Bale as Batman and Heath Ledger as The Joker in a scene from 'The Dark Knight." Batman is a white man in a black Bat suit that covers him entirely except for his mouth and chin. The Joker is a white man in messed up clown make-up with medium length, stringy hair that's been dyed green, and wearing a purple blazer over a green vest, a blue buttondown and a patterned tie. Batman is walking forward and The Joker is following closely behind.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Dark Knight is by far Christopher Nolan’s best Batman film. It provides the most straightforward story while using the rise and fall of two very different men—The Joker (Heath Ledger) and Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart)—to explore themes around anti-capitalism, social responsibility, and what heroism means. Through it all, we see those themes explored within Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) himself as he wrestles with his own approach to protecting the city he loves and calls home.

The brightest spot of the film, of course, is Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as The Joker. While Ledger’s talent as an actor can’t be denied, an enormous part of a director’s job is casting the right people in the right roles and then drawing a performance out of them that serves the vision of the film as a whole. As was mentioned above, Nolan has always attracted top-tier talent. The Dark Knight is a film where his ability to match the perfect actors to the perfect roles and then draw their best out of them is on full display.

5. MEMENTO (2000)

Guy Pearce as Leonard in a scene from 'Memento.' Leonard is a white man with short, frosted blond hair. He's sitting shirtless at a table by a window and has words tattooed all over his body. He's reading his arm and some papers he has in front of him.
(Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate)

For film lovers of a certain age, Memento is the film that made them aware of the brothers Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan, Memento was based on a short story called Memento Mori written by his younger brother, Jonathan, which ended up being published in the March 2001 issue of Esquire.

Told through multiple timelines, Memento tells the story of a guy named Leonard (Guy Pearce) who, thanks to a violent trauma, is experiencing short-term memory loss. Through an elaborate system of tattooing information on his body, photos, and handwritten notes to himself, he works to piece together what happened to him and who killed his wife.

This film certainly wasn’t the first film to play with multiple timelines to tell a story. After all, Pulp Fiction came out in 1994, and that wasn’t even the first. Nolan himself did it earlier in his first film, which is higher up on this list. Yet Memento was a perfect blend of Christopher Nolan’s skill at using time as a filmmaking tool and Jonathan Nolan’s skill at applying a high-concept story to human beings we come to care about in a story we can relate to.

4. INCEPTION (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb in a scene from 'Inception.' He is a white man with slicked back dark blond hair wearing a grey buttondown and black pants. He's leaning over a table with his hands on its edge staring at a small metal top that's spinning there.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Inception performs the difficult feat of making corporate espionage interesting by making the stealing and planting of information, something that should be paper-pushy and boring, beautifully visual. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are professional “extractors” (ie: thieves) who use dream-sharing technology to retrieve information from people’s subconsciouses. They are hired by a businessman named Saito (Ken Wantanabe) to do something even more bananas than going into people’s heads to take out information. He wants them to go into someone’s head … to put something in.

Even though Nolan seems to do his best work on stories where the human element is provided by a co-writer, a previous writer (when adapting someone else’s IP), or historical fact (where relatability is provided by the fact that these “characters” actually existed), Inception is the rare jewel in Nolan’s oeuvre where he came up with an original, high-concept, sci-fi story that could employ all of his timeline/perception tricks while also giving us characters we cared about enough to follow. Inception is the anti-Tenet.

3. FOLLOWING (1998)

Black and white image of Alex Haw as Cobb and Jeremy Theobald as Bill in a scene from 'Following.' Cobb is a young white man with short, dark hair wearing a suit and tie and carrying a large tote bag down a street in London. Bill is a young white man with shaggier brown hair wearing a leather jacket over a buttondown and jeans following Cobb at a distance.
(Momentum Pictures)

First Features are, by their nature, hit-or-miss. It’s rare that a director comes out of the gate fully-formed, effectively expressing who they are and what they do. Following is that kind of first feature film for Christopher Nolan.

Following tells the story of a “writer” named Bill (Jeremy Theobald) who follows random people, because he’s curious about their mundane lives. One day, he follows the wrong person, a guy named Cobb (Alex Haw) who ropes him into a situation and a way of life that ends up being more trouble than Bill bargained for. And yes, the character’s name is Cobb, which is where the guy in Inception got his name.

All of the Nolan trademarks are there: a non-chronological story, black-and-white film, a mystery, a young man with a weird skill that allows the film to delve into deeper questions. Does it feel the teeniest bit like a pretentious film student film? Absolutely, but in the best way possible. It’s a strong, confident first film that gives us the earliest glimpse into Nolan as a filmmaker.

2. OPPENHEIMER (2023)

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer
(Universal Pictures)

Oppenheimer is a beautiful film and a clear masterpiece. It’s a film about a controversial historical figure during a tumultuous time in world history that warrants its three-hour runtime by remaining compelling throughout.

Again, Nolan employs the use of different timelines to tell his story, differentiating between them using black-and-white or color and being specific about costume and hair choices. And you’ll see a lot of familiar faces from his go-to stable of brilliant actors giving career-defining performances.

What’s interesting about this film is that Nolan wrote his Oppenheimer screenplay in the first person. So whereas stage directions in screenplays are usually in third person (“He walks into the room”), the script has Oppenheimer himself tell us (paraphrasing) “I walked out into the garden toward Einstein in the distance.”

The screenplay is written to put the reader, as well as the team making the film, entirely in Oppenheimer’s head. That gives the entire film a clear point of view, and an internal life that allowed wit, humanity, and emotion to permeate the film even when the discussion was science-focused or abstractly philosophical. If you found yourself emotionally invested in this enormous cast of characters, it’s likely because “J. Robert Oppenheimer” informed why you should be.

1. DUNKIRK (2017)

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in a scene from 'Dunkirk.' Tommy is a young white man with shaggy dark hair wearing a 1940s British army uniform. He stands on a beach looking up with other soldiers in the background behind him.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

A “war movie” can be aesthetically beautiful? A movie that has minimal dialogue can make you fall in love not only with individual characters, but with the spirit of an entire country? Can a non-chronological Nolan film actually be straightforward? Yes. That film is Dunkirk, and it is Christopher Nolan doing the “things he does” in the most loving way possible.

It tells the story of Allied soldiers during WWII were surrounded by enemy forces at Dunkirk during the French Campaign in 1940. The film divides the action up by time period and location: “The Mole” (one week), the place on the beach where British soldiers converged hoping for boats to take them home to England before they’re killed by Germans; “The Sea” (one day), where civilians asked by the British government to register their personal boats to serve the military made the trek through wartime waters to help get soldiers home; and “The Air” (one hour), where fighter pilots shot down German planes to protect the soldiers below from being shot like fish in a barrel.

Nolan always plays with time, but unlike other films where his use of time feels more like a filmmaker trick, time is an actual character in Dunkirk. There is a real race against the clock to get these vulnerable soldiers off the beach, and so Nolan’s temporal tricks enhance the storytelling. These are boosted by creative uses of sound, gorgeous visuals, and nuanced performances from actors who convey so much with few words. It’s clear that Nolan wanted to tell this particular story with respect and love, and he succeeded beautifully.

Which Christopher Nolan movie is your favorite?

(featured image: Universal Pictures)


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Author
Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.