Back in 2014, upon the release of Christopher Nolan’s ninth film Interstellar, we decided to stack up his ouevre to date and, as we who write about movies on the Internet are wont to do, rank it. As with most things Nolan-related, it was divisive! Well, now there’s a new Nolan feature in the world, the WWII epic Dunkirk, and thus it’s time to revisit this career appraisal, and adjust accordingly. Confession: while not quite a full-on Nolanite, I am a fan who values the filmmaker’s place as a rare purveyor of mainstream, blockbuster entertainments that are also thoughtful, provocative, and built to last. Here’s how they stack up, to my eyes (and, probably, mine alone):
Nolan’s slender (70 minutes), low-budget ($6,000, legend has it) debut feature was greeted with warm reviews and was subsequently given the Criterion treatment. But most importantly, it gave the filmmaker his start, and served as a viable demo reel for Memento. So does the movie itself hold up? Eh, not really. Nolan makes ingenious use of his limited budget and shows an early flair for inventive plotting and mood, but taken on its own terms, it’s mostly a forgettable piece of work. Still, everybody starts somewhere, and as debut pictures go, you could do a helluva lot worse.
Its low ranking in the Nolan-ography speaks less to its lack of quality than to the tough competition that preceded it. And it finds him doing what cottage-industry filmmakers seldom do: trying new things, refashioning his action aesthetic to accommodate healthy doses of both science fiction and heavy drama, and trying not only to make his audience cheer and thrill, but to make them cry. He’s not altogether successful; the movie kicks and grinds and threatens to go off the road entirely, particularly in its lumpy opening passages. But there’s much to admire here, and some alluring glimpses of possibilities that lie ahead.
8. The Dark Knight Rises
Nolan cynics — and there are many of them — started to get some wind in their sails with the somewhat muted response to this 2012 hit, concluding his Batman trilogy with an installment that some accused of going overboard in length, scope, and grimness. They may have had a point, but this viewer admires the picture’s willingness to go all the way with its dark vision, painting a wide-ranging and thought-provoking portrait of a Gotham that looks and feels an awful lot like the world outside the comic books.
Nolan’s latest is his most experimental film in years, disposing at it does with his usual heavy doses of exposition, freeing itself of the bulky historical context typical of war pictures, and trafficking in a visceral immediacy that’s usually present in his action beats, but rarely sustained for the length of an entire feature. It only ranks this low because of the not-quite-successful fractured timeline, a bit of structural trickery that doesn’t really add to the experience (though it doesn’t necessarily detract from it). You would think, by this point, that a brand-name filmmaker like Nolan would have settled in to a stylistic groove; that he’s still taking chances, this far along, is cheering indeed.
6. Batman Begins
It’s easy to forget, with 2005 this far in the rearview, what a giant risk the folks at DC and Warner Brothers were taking when they handed the keys to Gotham to a soft-spoken Brit who’d directed three movies that indicated, in no way whatsoever, that he had a Batflick in him. But he did, and his inaugural outing injected a much-needed shot of energy into a limp, all-but-forgotten corpse of a franchise; in just over two hours, Nolan redefined what the superhero movie was, and (for better or worse) shifted the course of modern mainstream moviemaking.
The movie that got Nolan the Batman gig could have been a real disaster: a remake of an acclaimed foreign thriller (and we know what a tricky business that is), starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams in the midst of their shout-y and cloying periods, respectively. Yet Nolan not only pulled off a faithful and respectful adaptation but made a terrific, moody thriller in its own right, basking in a sleepwalk-y heaviness and heady contemplations of the nature and responsibility of guilt. Even more impressively, he pulled performances of admirable restraint from Pacino and frighteningly muted danger from Williams.
Perhaps the smartest thing Nolan did while making the Dark Knight trilogy — aside from, y’know, making it — was spacing it out. His choice to make an unrelated picture between each installment was a savvy way of reminding critics and moviegoers that he wasn’t just the Batman guy, so between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, he turned out this wonderfully warped tale of rival turn-of-the-century magicians whose attempts to top each other take a sinister turn. Some twist-heavy movies depreciate with repeat viewing once their secrets are known, but not this one; on return visits, you can note and appreciate how the clever filmmaker calls upon his subjects’ tools of the trade, using fast patter and flashy misdirection while executing his tricks in plain sight.
3. The Dark Knight
The robust box office and solid critical reception for Batman Begins made a sequel inevitable; what no one expected was the degree to which Nolan’s 2008 film would top its predecessor. From the unexpectedly effective casting of the Heath Ledger (whose premature death lent the already haunting performance an extra layer of ghoulishness) on down, Nolan seemed determined to push the limits of what his tentpole movie could do, inserting chewy political subtext and post-9/11 dread into a story that became much more than just another superhero movie.
With his 2010 smash, Nolan proved that he could do with non-Dark Knight movies what he’d done with that franchise, utilizing the budget and resources of a major studio picture to create something complex and challenging that still delivers the summer goods. And, to their credit, audiences took to the picture for the very reason that most play-it-safe execs would fear it: because of its intricacy, which wrapped the film in a breathlessly complicated narrative that runs (sometimes literally) along several levels at once. It’s still a little stunning that he got away with it — and that the movie works as magnificently as it does.
Nolan’s best movie may still be his breakthrough, a giddily dazzling and bracingly scrappy wind-up toy of a movie that starts with a neat trick and then spends two hours turning it back on itself. There’s little surprise it marked Nolan as a filmmaker to watch; aside from its welcome departures from the genre norms (it’s a noir homage, but played out mostly in broad daylight, free of smoky shadows and vertical blinds), it displays a cheerful disregard for the rules and an ongoing quest for new ideas in form and formula.