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Christopher Nolan Movies Ranked Worst To Best

Christopher Nolan might be best known among genre fans for his seminal "Dark Knight" trilogy — and for good reason — but he's also made some fantastic movies outside the superhero realm.

From ambitious, mind-bending sci-fi fare to murder mysteries and war epics, Nolan has managed to put his unique stamp on more than a few genres over his two-decade career as a director. Ranking Nolan's output is tough — few modern filmmakers can boast his level of critical and commercial acclaim — but you have to start somewhere. From worst to best, these are the films of Christopher Nolan.

12. Following (1998)

One of Nolan's earliest works, "Following" is pretty good in its own right, but more than anything, it stands as a testament to the types of movies he'd go on to make. Clocking in at just over an hour, it's a relatively short film but accomplishes a lot in a tight little package. The story kicks off with a man who likes to follow people, which leads him down a dark path (no pun intended). The narrative jumps around between the future and present — just one reason why looking back, critics have called it a "harbinger" of the great films Nolan would deliver in years to come.

11. Insomnia (2002)

Fresh off his groundbreaking thriller "Memento" in 2000, Nolan tried his hand at a suspenseful crime thriller with "Insomnia," a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. Nolan uses his Alaskan setting to provide some stunning imagery, and critics praised the end result as an "intricately constructed thriller" and a tour de force for a young director kicking off his career. As he would so often later in his career, the director also benefited from a talented marquee cast; Nolan's "Insomnia" is led by Al Pacino and Robin Williams, who delivered one of his most chilling performances.

10. The Prestige (2006)

Nolan brought his trademark intelligence to a period-set mystery with "The Prestige," pulling off one of the best twists in modern cinema in the bargain. The story follows a pair of dueling magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) as they battle to one-up one another in the late 1800s. We won't spoil the big reveal, but the deeper the film goes into these magicians' lives, the more delightfully deceptive the story gets. Reviewers lauded Bale and Jackman, as well as Nolan's deft execution of the big twists in the narrative. In a magician's performance, the "prestige" is the big reveal of the illusion — just one way Nolan's film lives up to its title.

9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

"The Dark Knight Rises," the final entry in Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, wasn't quite as strong as its predecessor, but it's still a fantastic film. Nolan brought his series to a rousing end with massive action that turned the entire city of Gotham into a war zone under the control of Bane, a classic comics villain who — as played by Tom Hardy — was one of the most imposing superhero bad guys ever brought to the big screen. Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, meanwhile, brought a wry spark and wit the franchise had been missing. Although the Bat-formula was arguably getting a bit thin at this point, Nolan managed to go out with a bang.

8. Tenet (2020)

The year 2020 was definitely a strange one. With the world locked up inside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, movie theaters suffered from the lack of an audience. Released at the height of this uncertain time was "Tenet," which was meant to be the major tentpole to get everyone back to the movies. Unfortunately, it didn't prove to be the savior many thought it would be, as the audience waited for it to hit digital instead, and it achieved a $360.2 million haul from a $205 million budget.

In terms of the actual movie, "Tenet" is Christopher Nolan's answer to "Back to the Future," but with a spy thriller narrative. The ambitious story follows a character known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington) who learns how to manipulate time to stop future events from happening. In typical Nolan fashion, the film is like an onion that needs its various layers peeled back to reveal more about its message. In this instance, it's humanity's relationship with the concept of time. Also, since the director isn't the biggest fan of CGI, he revealed to Total Film that he actually blew up an actual Boeing 747 for one of the action sequences.

Ultimately, "Tenet" may go down as one of Nolan's less-celebrated projects, mostly because of the bad timing of its release. That being said, it should take nothing away from the film, since it's another innovative story that makes for the perfect double feature with "Inception."

7. Interstellar (2014)

Nolan walked a tightrope with "Interstellar," telling a fairly grounded sci-fi story melded with a metaphysical message about the transcendent power of love. It's a wildly ambitious saga spanning dimensions with the fate of the human race at stake, but Nolan worked hard to get the science right — and juggled blockbuster spectacle against showing how a black hole affects the passage of time, for instance, or using a wormhole to introduce a few positively stunning alien worlds. In spite of all that, Nolan never lost touch with his story's heart; at the middle of it all is a mission to save humanity with poignant personal stakes, as Matthew McConaughey's character copes with the fact that playing hero will likely cost him his life with his daughter.

6. Memento (2000)

The movie that first put Nolan on the map, "Memento" is also a textbook example of what makes him such a great filmmaker. A noirish mystery and a gripping thriller with the most unreliable of narrators, it forces the audience to piece together its story one tiny detail at a time while searching for clues across the tattoo-covered skin of its protagonist (Guy Pearce). The fact that Nolan both wrote and directed showed Hollywood he had the chops to take big ideas and turn them into something people would rave about on the big screen. Critics called it one of the most original films in years, and a masterful execution of a high-concept idea.

5. Batman Begins (2005)

The Batman franchise was in shambles when Nolan's pitch for a back-to-basics approach set the series back on track — and reinvented the superhero genre in the bargain. "Batman Begins" nailed the classic character's origin story, breathing new life into a familiar tale with Christian Bale in the title role and reinvigorating the Dark Knight's appeal for a new generation of fans. Entertaining as a comics adaptation or simply as a straight-up action thriller grounded in surprisingly relatable human drama, "Begins" put Batman back on top of the box office — and proved Nolan had the chops to helm blockbusters that transcend simple popcorn flick status.

4. Inception (2010)

"Inception" would have been a mess in the hands of a lesser director, but with Nolan at the helm it's a mind-bending masterpiece. An all-star cast led by Leonard DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, and Ellen Page fill out this twisty thriller, which is so ambitious it aims to bend reality to its will—and actually pulls it off. 

It's a heist film set in the deepening layers of the subconscious, and Nolan handles the dizzying layers of the story so deftly that it's almost impossible not to be drawn in by the narrative even as you're trying to get your bearings. Hailed by critics as a smart, flashy visual effects extravaganza, it remains a movie unlike any other — and Nolan is still one of the few directors with enough cache to get a non-franchise picture with this kind of scope through the Hollywood system at all.

3. Dunkirk (2017)

There's certainly no shortage of war movies, and World War II might be the most frequently revisited conflict of them all, but Nolan still managed to give it his own spin with "Dunkirk." The story focuses on the daring real-life evacuation of Allied troops from the titular French city before the area was overrun by Nazis. Instead of relying on big action, though, Nolan used a narrow perspective to show the crisis up close from the perspectives of the soldiers awaiting rescue — and the men braving all-but-certain death to save them. A talented ensemble lined up for "Dunkirk," including Kenneth Branagh and Nolan favorites like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy; he even made room for his lucky charm Michael Caine via voice cameo. Critics called the results "masterful" — and a fitting tribute to a harrowing yet inspirational mission.

2. The Dark Knight (2008)

Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy includes some of the best superhero movies ever put to film, led by its second installment, 2008's "The Dark Knight." After setting the stage with "Batman Begins," the director started filling in his canvas with the sequel, casting the late Heath Ledger — whose mesmerizing, Oscar-winning performance is arguably the highlight of the entire franchise — as the Joker. 

The action is top-notch, the story is tight and focused, and the visuals are stunning. Christian Bale had settled into the character at this point, and his command of the cowl—and that signature Bat-growl—made him a hero nearly as compelling as his foe. Critics lauded the movie as one of the "smartest and most stylish" films ever made, and the nearly universal acclaim is justified: "The Dark Knight" isn't just one of the best superhero movies of the past decade, it's one of the best movies period.

1. Oppenheimer (2023)

It's humorous how the release of "Oppenheimer" became entangled in the Barbenhemier showdown, opening alongside Greta Gerwig's "Barbie." The hilarity aside, "Oppenheimer" might be — as star Cillian Murphy told /Film — Christopher Nolan's "magnum opus." The biopic tells the real-life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy), the man who is often referred to as the father of the atomic bomb. It explores the nature of Oppenheimer and his team's groundbreaking scientific achievement, while also presenting the philosophical and moral side of the equation, as he essentially armed humanity with the weapon to destroy itself.

Nolan assembles an all-star cast featuring Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, and Robert Downey Jr., who all turn in sensational and nuanced performances. This is a complex film about one of the most harrowing times in modern history — and everyone treats it with the consideration it deserves. Nolan doesn't pull out the Hollywood gloss and turn Oppenheimer into an unfortunate martyr or provide the traditional happy ending that studios so often demand of their big films. Instead, he lets a thought-provoking question ring long after the credits roll: How far are we from total annihilation?

From the pristine technical execution to the deep thematic exploration, "Oppenheimer" is an achievement in cinema. It isn't only Nolan's best, but also likely to be remembered as one of the greatest films of all time.