Total Recall

Rank All of Christopher Nolan's Movies

We count down all of the Dunkirk director's films.

by | July 19, 2017 | Comments

He’s taken us to Gotham, inside the human subconscious, and to the furthest reaches of time and space — and this weekend, Christopher Nolan‘s putting us in the trenches with Dunkirk, about the heroic efforts of real-life British citizens to rescue stranded Allied troops during World War II. Clearly, this is the perfect time to take stock of his filmography, offering an overview of an acclaimed career’s brightest critical highlights while giving you the chance to make a ranking of your own. It’s time for Total Recall!

1. The Dark Knight (2008) 94%

(Photo by Warner Bros.)

Having already brought an end to the candy-colored, Schumacher-wrought nightmare that gripped the Batman franchise in the late 1990s, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale had fans primed for a successful second act — but even after the smashing success of Batman Begins, few could have guessed just how popular The Dark Knight would be in the summer of 2008. A sprawling superhero epic that somehow managed to make room for jaw-dropping visuals, a compelling storyline, and stellar performances, Knight climbed out from under months of intense speculation — not to mention the shadow cast by Heath Ledger’s shocking death — with a worldwide gross in excess of $1 billion, a towering stack of positive reviews, and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ledger. Richard Roeper joined the chorus of near-universal critical praise, calling it “a rich, complex, visually thrilling piece of pop entertainment, as strong as any superhero epic we’ve ever seen.”

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2. Insomnia (2002) 92%

(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

Al Pacino has played an awful lot of cops during his career, but arguably none more complex than Insomnia’s Will Dormer, the officer whose murky past and tortured conscience can’t erase the fact that he’s a formidably dogged investigator. Dragged out of L.A. and into a gloomy corner of Alaska, Dormer cracks a murder case in spite of his partner’s death and an attendant absence of sleep — and that’s when things really start to get grim for him. Nolan shrouded the entire affair in arctic gloom and stocked the supporting ensemble with a cast of talented actors that included Hilary Swank, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, and — as the world’s skeeviest crime writer — Robin Williams. The end result racked up a healthy $113 million at the box office and wowed critics like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who grinned, “Here’s proof that it’s still possible to make pop-oriented yet personal movies with an A-list cast and a zillion bucks.”

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3. Memento (2000) 93%

The grim noir puzzle that served as Christopher Nolan’s full-fledged Hollywood coming-out party, Memento offered an early glimpse of his fondness for narrative games — as well as his ability to get the most out of his actors. Playing a man who spends most of the film as not only a mystery to the viewer, but to himself, leading man Guy Pearce won a pile of honors from various film critics’ circles, and was a major part of what led the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan to call Memento “Provocatively structured and thrillingly executed film noir, an intricate, inventive use of cinema’s possibilities that pushes what can be done on screen in an unusual direction.”

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4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) 87%

(Photo by Ron Phillips/Warner Bros.)

Trilogy-concluding sequels don’t come much more highly anticipated than 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, which put Christian Bale’s gravel-voiced Batman on a backbreaking collision course with the nefarious Bane (Tom Hardy) while setting up the cataclysmic conflict that brought the story Christopher Nolan started with Batman Begins to an appropriately senses-shattering conclusion. And although Rises failed to meet some critics’ expectations in the shadow of its widely lauded predecessor The Dark Knight, it still did pretty well for itself, racking up over a billion dollars in worldwide box office while amassing an impressive number of accolades from the likes of the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, who called it “A disturbing experience we live through as much as a film we watch” and added, “This dazzling conclusion to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is more than an exceptional superhero movie, it is masterful filmmaking by any standard.”

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5. Inception (2010) 87%

(Photo by Melissa Moseley/Warner Bros.)

The Dark Knight added extra clout to Nolan’s fast-rising profile in the film industry, and to his credit — and filmgoers’ enjoyment — he quickly took the opportunity to step away from franchise filmmaking in favor of an original project. Enlisting a star-studded ensemble that included Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, and Ellen Page, Inception imagines a world in which people can enter the subconscious thoughts of an unwitting target — great for corporate espionage, but fraught with incredible peril. It’s heady sci-fi stuff, punctuated with thrilling set pieces and impressive visuals, and topped off with an ending that viewers are still arguing over years later. “Inception is that rare film that can be enjoyed on superficial and progressively deeper levels,” wrote an admiring Ann Hornaday for the Washington Post. “[It’s] a feat that uncannily mimics the mind-bending journey its protagonist takes.”

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6. Batman Begins (2005) 84%

(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

The Batman franchise languished in development hell for close to a decade after 1997’s Batman & Robin underperformed, with numerous attempts to bring the Caped Crusader back to theaters starting strong — and attracting everyone from Darren Aronofsky to Joss Whedon and the Wachowskis — only to grind to a halt. It wasn’t until the studio enlisted Nolan and David S. Goyer to put together a treatment for a darker, more grounded reboot that things finally got moving again, and while fans of the character probably would have preferred a shorter wait, the end result exceeded expectations. Earning nearly $375 million worldwide and earning widespread critical acclaim, Batman Begins relaunched the franchise with the first chapter in a beloved trilogy that grounded the classic character while taking his story in compelling new directions. “Here’s how any great franchise should start,” argued the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson. “With care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere.”

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7. Following (1999) 80%

(Photo by Zeitgeist Films courtesy Everett Collection)

Although he was still years away from commanding the sorts of big Hollywood budgets that would allow him to pursue some of the more visually incredible limits of his vision, Nolan was still thrillingly ambitious as a young filmmaker — as evidenced by his debut, 1999’s Following, in which a writer (Jeremy Theobald) attempts to work his way out of a creative rut by trailing strangers on the streets of London. Confronted by one of his quarries (Alex Haw), he finds himself drawn into an increasingly dark and dangerous life — just as the audience is absorbed into a noir-flavored viewing experience that toys with genre conventions as brilliantly as it subverts narrative expectations. “Audiences,” predicted the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, “will walk out of the theater shocked to find that only 70 minutes have gone by.”

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8. The Prestige (2006) 76%

(Photo by Touchstone Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

After Batman Begins hit big, Nolan and Christian Bale had their pick of projects to choose from — and they opted to reunite for The Prestige, a film Nolan had been eyeing since his early post-Memento days. In this adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel, Bale stars opposite Jackman in the tale of two early 20th century magicians driven to dangerous lengths in their personal and professional feud. With a plot hinging on a series of progressively more unpredictable twists and turns, The Prestige was bound to provoke a number of divergent responses — and it did, splitting RT’s top critics almost down the middle — but with gross receipts over $100 million and a 75 percent Tomatometer, it packed enough of a suspenseful flourish to earn praise from scribes such as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who observed, “there are nifty tricks galore up the sumptuous sleeve of this offbeat and wildly entertaining thriller.”

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9. Interstellar (2014) 72%

(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures)

Even in his less inspired moments, Christopher Nolan has rarely been less than thought-provoking, and even as the weight of the blockbuster expectations attached to his projects has increased, he’s refused to curtail his ambitions. All of which leads up to 2014’s Interstellar, which juggles all manner of weighty subjects — including the future of the human race and the meaning and power of space, time, and love — against the sprawling backdrop of a desperate journey across the cosmos. Critics agreed the end results were visually stunning while offering a more mixed range of opinions about the movie’s narrative merits; on either side of that divide, however, many pundits agreed that seeing Nolan’s reach exceed his grasp was still more than entertaining enough to justify a trip to theaters. “This isn’t Nolan’s best movie, but his ambitions and trust in the audience keep getting bigger,” argued Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald. “He’s one of Hollywood’s few true remaining visionaries, and he’s only getting warmed up.”

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