Film and TV Top 10: Christopher Nolan

Tom Millward

With Christopher Nolan recently winning the Best Director award at the Oscars, alongside a general sweep for his work Oppenheimer, it seemed fitting to revisit and rank his previous work. This is the first Top 10 ranking for Entertainment with more retrospective pieces on actors and directors coming soon! Whilst all of Nolan’s films contain unique and time-tinkering ideas, he has also directed more grounded and realistic films, a Batman trilogy, and a biopic, making for a distinct and diverse filmography. But how do his works compare against one another, and which film comes out on top? Impact’s Tom Millward ranks his top 10.

10- Inception (2010)

Whilst often hailed as a quintessentially Nolan film, this 2010 box-office success’ parts are better than the resulting sum of them. Although the idea is intriguing, the promise of Leonardo DiCaprio is there, and the ending remains gripping, the film is undermined by an unconvincing relationship between its two love interests and the classic flaw of concept outweighing execution.

9- Insomnia (2002)

One of Nolan’s first films focuses on an LA detective, played intensely by the legendary Al Pacino, attempting to find a murderer in an Alaskan town where the sun never sets. The link between the setting and Dormer’s (Pacino) guilt leading to insomnia is astute and a clever synthesis of character and setting. The subversion of expectations with Dormer having to work with the killer (Robin Williams) makes for interesting character work even if the film doesn’t push the boundaries as much as Nolan’s later work.

8- The Prestige (2006)

a reveal too obvious that removes emotional weight from the film’s ending

Nolan’s 2006 film starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as two rival magicians in the late 19th century dazzles with its clever tricks from the protagonists but suffers from a reveal too obvious that removes emotional weight from the film’s ending. The twist falls into the lower tier of plot twist, where the reveal explains the audience’s confusion from the previous two hours, but doesn’t provoke an emotional reaction or greater understanding of events as films higher on this list are able to do.

7- Batman Begins (2005)

Bale and Nolan’s work on Batman Begins successfully redefined the Caped Crusader for a new generation and put the building blocks in place for a commercially successful and more grounded trilogy compared with previous entries. The film devotes serious amounts of its runtime to establishing Bale’s Wayne away from the corruption of Gotham and paints a convincing portrait of an isolated orphan who decides to serve an idea greater than himself. Although the handling of Liam Neeson’s villain is too unoriginal, the film doesn’t suffer from the same issue as The Prestige where the entire ending of the film is built upon a twist involving this character. Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy’s performances were so good that Nolan kept collaborating with both to reach even greater heights in the subsequent sections of this list. This 2005 film also propelled Nolan, whose previous filmography was limited to Following, Insomnia, and Memento, into the mainstream and allowed for an upscaling of his future films. Batman Begins was very much a beginning in multiple ways.

6- The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Despite being the most flawed of Nolan’s Batman pictures, the sheer spectacle and emotionally resonant ending is enough to propel Rises to 6th on this list. From the opening plane heist to the stock exchange robbery to Bane’s brutal beatdown of the Dark Knight, the closing chapter of this trilogy delivers on scale and is the most ambitious of the three films. However, significant pitfalls regarding Bane’s identity, Cotillard’s performance, and Alfred’s character-assassinating decision to leave Bruce undermine the final result. The ending is almost good enough to rectify all these issues. Rises is Nolan’s own Return of the Jedi.

5- Memento (2000)

the audience is thrust into the confusing mess that is Leonard’s life, allowing us to sympathise with and understand his condition

The underrated Guy Pearce delivers a nuanced portrayal of a vengeful man suffering from short-term memory loss. Memento’s greatest strength is that it shatters one of the most prevalent myths about Nolan. The greatest criticism levelled against the director’s style is that his portrayal of time and non-linear structures are gimmicks and, whilst creating interesting premises, fail to add anything of true substance to the story. Whilst untrue across his filmography, Memento is the film that best shatters this illusion.

By placing many scenes out of order, the audience is thrust into the confusing mess that is Leonard’s life, allowing us to sympathise with and understand his condition. This structure also means that the film’s eventual reveal of Leonard’s true nature is a moment of realisation for both Leonard and the audience, allowing both to look back upon past events with true understanding and leading into the film’s profound message of how people live with their lies.

4- Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar is both Nolan’s grandest and most intimate picture. The awe-inspiring visuals of interstellar travel juxtapose the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murph in an impressive result. Beyond this, Hans Zimmer’s score and Matthew McConaughey’s performance are phenomenal. The film also contains two of Nolan’s greatest scenes in Cooper’s realisation he has missed decades of his children’s lives and when he, against all odds, manages to salvage the mission and crew’s Endurance ship. Regardless of love or hate for the Tesseract sequence, Interstellar was already one of Nolan’s best works ¾ of the way through.

3- Tenet (2020)

A controversial ranking to be sure. Tenet is Nolan’s least appreciated work of all. Whilst other fans will emphasise how essential a rewatch is to understand and appreciate the film, this is untrue. Tenet has one of Nolan’s greatest ideas with the inversion of certain materials and humans and this is used to great effect in the film’s action sequences and makes for much more interesting combat than many of the other films on this list. However, the core of Tenet’s appeal lies in its character work. The relationship between Washington’s Protagonist and Pattinson’s Neil is the emotional core of the film and the reveal that the ending of the film merely marks the halfway mark in their friendship is poignant and comes during one of Nolan’s greatest scenes of dialogue.

The concept of both men experiencing a friendship whilst the other is unaware of this, until this final scene, is heartbreaking and leaves the audience tantalisingly imagining how the Protagonist’s future will pan out. This emotional centre is not just built on fanciful imaginations of the future but is reinforced by the chemistry between the pair throughout the film. Washington grows into his role as he slowly realises his place amongst the temporal operation and Pattinson remains charming and composed throughout. The film also offers a satisfying and intriguing take on what inversion means for free will, placing it amongst the higher echelons of films centring around time travel.

2- Oppenheimer (2023)

Nolan’s greatest technical achievement

Not much more can be added to the dialogue surrounding Oppenheimer this late into award’s season. The film is Nolan’s greatest technical achievement. Every element of the film is representative of a director and team that are performing at the top of their game and have honed their craft to near perfection. Beautiful cinematography, fast-paced editing, and a terrific score all coalesce around Nolan’s own screenplay. Perhaps the director’s greatest feat, however, is his ability to bring the best out of the team of actors that populate the picture. Every actor is at the top of their game in this film and Nolan’s ability to command such universally special performances from such a stellar cast, there are three Oscar-winning actors with mere minutes of screentime, is a testament to the director’s skill and prestige. The Best Director and Best Picture award are deserved and long overdue.

1- The Dark Knight (2008)

Similarly to Oppenheimer, a level of saturation has been reached with the amount of praise able to be bestowed upon this 2008 picture. The film’s script is intelligent and executed with an immense level of precision which delves the audience deep into Gotham and the psyches of its three primary characters. Away from the actual events of the movie, the genius of Nolan’s work lies more deeply in, as Ledger’s Joker puts it, the battle for Gotham’s soul. The film explores profound themes of morality, chaos, and the human psyche.

The heart of the screenplay lies in how the three main characters interact with one another and react to their surroundings. Whilst the focus of critic’s praise was rightfully aimed at Ledger’s Joker, his performance is often misunderstood. The Joker is not depicted as insane, far from it. Ledger infuses the character with undertones of genuine humanity and the truth of his character lies in the lies he tells. He is not the agent of chaos he proclaims to be, and a tragic human being is present underneath all the madness. It is this level of nuance that cements Ledger’s performance as a true all-timer.

However, the star of the film’s climax is not Ledger but Eckhart’s Dent, whose descent into madness holds a mirror up to the rest of our protagonists and Gotham as a whole. Eckhart’s performance has been largely overlooked given the prominence of Ledger and the accompanying tragedy, but Dent’s evolution is where the brilliance of the film lies.

Tom Millward

Featured image courtesy of Michael Marais via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article videos courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers, Warner Bros. Pictures, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. UK and Ireland, via Instagram. No changes were made to these videos.

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