In 25 years, Christopher Nolan has gone from making tightly wound low-budget thrillers to crafting some of the most ambitious feature films Hollywood has ever known.
But how do they stack up?
As Nolan’s latest, the historical biopic Oppenheimer, is released in cinemas, we rank all his feature-length films.
12. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Choosing the "worst" Nolan film is a task fraught with danger – every movie will have its supporters. The Dark Knight Rises, released in 2012, is the third in the Batman trilogy and has some splendid moments, from the mid-air hijack that it opens with to the staggering explosion on the football pitch in Gotham City. The similarities to the then-prominent Occupy Wall Street movement also gave it currency. But Tom Hardy’s anarchic antagonist Bane, his dialogue hampered by his mask, lacked real power and the feeling was that this was always going to be a film that floundered in the shadow of The Dark Knight.
11. Tenet (2020)
What might be the closest we’ll ever get to a Nolan-directed James Bond movie, this time-twisting espionage tale starring John David Washington had some critics taking aim. Some bemoaned Tenet’s lack of dimension in the female lead – Elizabeth Debicki’s abused wife – while others felt the overpowering sound design muffled key exposition. But typified by the scene where a 747 jumbo crashes into an airport hangar, the sheer scale is jaw-dropping. And who else would dare construct a narrative this fiendish, where characters move backwards through events we’ve already seen? A true head-spinner.
10. Interstellar (2014)
Sci-fi Interstellar is one of Nolan’s more divisive films in his canon. No doubt the way it explores space and time – Nolan even got physicist Kip Thorne on board as a consultant – is fascinating, as a mission to find mankind a new planet to live on goes dangerously wrong. The visuals, especially the US Marine Corps robot Tars, are also splendid. But the result is one of his more sentimental projects, driven by the relationship between Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut Joseph 'Coop' Cooper and his daughter Murphy 'Murph' Cooper (Jessica Chastain), and Hans Zimmer’s non-stop organ-saturated score.
9. Following (1998)
Nolan’s debut feature film, Following, about a would-be writer (Jeremy Theobald) embroiled with a burglar (Alex Haw) and a femme fatale (Lucy Russell), is a convincing neo-noir that makes remarkable use of its London backdrop. Shot in black-and-white over weekends and made without an ounce of fat on it (it runs to just over 70 minutes), its jigsaw-like structure set the template for what Nolan would go on to achieve, narratively, in later films. David Julyan’s propulsive, scratchy score gives the film its edge, while Haw’s charismatic mischief-maker remains one of Nolan’s most entertaining creations. That final shot of him, in the Covent Garden crowds, is absolutely killer.
8. Insomnia (2002)
After the success of his second film Memento, Nolan took a huge step up, taking on this American remake of the 1997 Norwegian film about a sleep-deprived detective riddled with guilt. Relocating the story to the wide-open spaces of Alaska, Nolan cast Al Pacino as Will Dormer, a Los Angeles cop way, way off his beat. Though the masterstroke here was perhaps hiring the late comic genius Robin Williams as the creepy antagonist, novelist Walter Finch. The action sequences – a shoot-out in the fog, a chase across huge floating logs – also lend the film real class.
7. Batman Begins (2005)
For his first entry into the comic book universe Nolan forcefully reinvented the Batman mythology. Casting Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and his Caped Crusader alter-ego, Nolan ditched the day-glo aesthetic seen in the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films to create something more grounded. Just take another look at the Batmobile to see how. A film that also kick-started key relationships with Michael Caine (as butler Alfred) and Cillian Murphy (as the villainous Scarecrow), Nolan showed everyone how to make an origin story. Sadly, Hollywood wasn’t smart enough to learn the lessons.
6. Oppenheimer (2023)
Curiously, there have been precious few films about J Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb. So it somehow seems apt that Nolan, a director fascinated by the complexities of the physical world around us, should take on his story in what is the first biopic of his career. Aided by a vast support cast, Cillian Murphy’s turn as Oppenheimer is memorable, a man whose brilliance didn’t prevent him from being cold-shouldered by his own government. But again, it’s the ambition of the film – its sky-high Imax imagery capturing the Trinity Test, as the bomb is detonated in a not-so dry-run in New Mexico – that blows the mind here.
5. The Prestige (2006)
Made between Nolan’s first two Batman films, this smaller scale drama about warring Victorian magicians – played by Bale and Hugh Jackman – is a masterful tale of illusion and fantasy. Adapted from Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel, it’s a thrilling look at rivalry and obsession that (just) stays ahead of its audience. Among its manifold pleasures is the performance of David Bowie as pioneering inventor Nikola Tesla, the musician bringing real enigma to the role. But what really captivates is how Nolan captures late 19th century society, a world on the edge of re-invention as the modern age fast approaches.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
This could be the greatest superhero movie of all time. Beginning like a nod to Michael Mann’s Heat, with that remarkable heist, Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins is as hard-edged as reinforced titanium. Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for playing the Joker, is the film’s Jack-in-the-box weapon, the gold standard when it comes to comic-book villains. But this is a movie far greater than one man’s performance; Bale’s turn as the tormented Dark Knight, cast out by Gotham, is every bit as meaningful.
3. Dunkirk (2017)
At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is one of Nolan’s shortest but most satisfying dramas. Split across land, sea and air, it’s an adrenalin-fuelled look at how Allied troops amassed on the beaches of Dunkirk narrowly escaped the German forces. Hans Zimmer’s spiralling score truly jangles the nerves, while newcomer Fionn Whitehead and former One Direction singer Harry Styles give committed turns as two young British soldiers just trying to make their way home. For pure thrills, the Imax-shot aerial footage of the Spitfire and Messerschmitt dogfights remains among some of the best sequences Nolan has ever directed.
2. Memento (2000)
The film that truly announced Nolan’s singular mind to the world, for Memento he adapted his brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori, into an indelible portrait of a man caught in a perpetual cycle of grief and vengeance. Partly playing out in reverse order, Nolan’s structural dexterity put the audience squarely in the memory-addled mind of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance investigator seeking the man who raped and murdered his wife. For those who criticise Nolan for lacking emotion in his films, simply watch Pearce’s mournful turn in this timeless LA noir.
1. Inception (2010)
Set in a world of corporate espionage where even sleeping isn’t safe, this cerebral blockbuster, Nolan’s crowning achievement, blends huge spectacle (like a fight played out in a rotating hotel hallway) with brain-tickling ideas. Like Memento, Nolan invests huge emotion into his lead character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), another man struggling with the loss of his wife. That the ending is still debated to this day shows why Inception remains one of the most enigmatic films of the 21st century.