Nobody knows when Tenet will drop. Originally scheduled to premiere July 17, the new Christopher Nolan flick was then pushed to mid-August, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. But since America can’t get its COVID-19 resurgence under control, now Tenet is delayed indefinitely.
Nolan has kept Tenet under tight wraps, though teasing it as “the most ambitious” film of his career. The enigmatic flick, starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, shot last summer in seven different countries with a massive cast, gigantic set pieces, and a reported budget of $225 million — making it Nolan’s most expensive movie to date. Nobody will be making films on this scale for quite some time, thanks to the pandemic, lending Tenet’s release extra significance, as one of the only blockbusters we may get for some time.
Mirroring the real world, where drive-in theaters have dealt with the dearth of new entertainment by screening beloved older titles, Fortnite recently hosted a Nolan film festival inside the video game, showing three fan-favorite titles: The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010) and The Prestige (2006). That got us thinking: with everyone (hopefully) sticking close to home for a while longer, it’s a great time to rewatch Nolan’s impressive oeuvre. Some of his best films are intricate puzzles that get better, and more complex, with every rewatch.
So here’s Mic’s definitive ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films — including some you probably haven’t seen.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Lots of critics consider The Dark Knight to be the greatest superhero movie of all time. It took the genre to another level, blending blockbuster sensibilities with the emotional intrigue of an expertly-executed thriller. Lots of superhero franchises pack as many heroes and villains as possible into one movie (ahem, Marvel’s Avengers saga), but The Dark Knight structures its drama around two main threads: Batman’s show-down with his most iconic nemesis, the Joker, and the descent of good-guy Harvey Dent into gruesome baddie Two-Face. Nolan’s deft handling of not one but two compelling villains makes Todd Phillips’s Joker look like film school drivel. Also, we’d be remiss not to crow about Heath Ledger’s brilliantly possessed turn as the grinning goon. It’s one of the best film performances of all time, and revisiting The Dark Knight emphasises how much talent the world lost when Ledger died tragically in January 2008 — six months prior to The Dark Knight’s release.
2. Memento (2000)
Nolan’s second feature is also one of his most impressive, and it’s all about the structure of this neo-noir thriller. You see, Memento centers on a man with short-term memory loss (Guy Pearce) trying to track down his wife’s murderer. Since each day for him starts anew, he’s devised an ingenious method of collecting evidence and furthering his investigation. Nolan’s deft and intricate backwards-moving storytelling is the thing most people crow about — the filmmaker showed a wild confidence it takes most people many movies to build up. But what’s so impressive about Memento’s structure is how the storytelling device serves the development of its main character. The film puts the audience inside its protagonist’s mind, which makes the fatalist finale of Memento all the more devastating when it unfolds.
3. Inception (2010)
The number of times I’ve seen Inception on an airplane… honestly diminishes how masterful it is. Like so many of Nolan’s films, it’s a visual feast best enjoyed on the big screen, full of sweeping snowy vistas and vast metropolises that collapse and fold into themselves. One thing that’s super cool about Inception is how Nolan pulls off an ensemble heist film, but stages it “within the architecture of the mind,” and ultimately narrows his focus to the psychology of the film’s main character: Cobb, played with depth and pathos by Leonardo DiCaprio.
4. Batman Begins (2005)
The first installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy was also the director’s first foray into the blockbuster genre, and with this gritty, realistic retelling of the superhero story, he upended the genre irrevocably, spawning a slew of imitators. One thing that’s notable is we don’t even see Christian Bale in the Batsuit till halfway through the movie, but it almost doesn’t matter, because there’s so much emotional intrigue built into the script. Audiences fell in love with Michael Caine as Alfred; Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox injected levity into the otherwise dark story. Even Katie Holmes is dynamic as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s love interest and a crucial connection to his past. Cillian Murphy stole the show as the villain of Batman Begins, too. His Scarecrow (and those icy blue eyes of his) provided a dynamic nemesis.
5. Dunkirk (2017)
Okay, Dunkirk isn’t my kind of movie. (I’m not big on war movies.) But it’s hard to deny that this World War II epic is the kind of film Nolan has been building towards his entire career. This is the movie that proves he’s the best in the biz at using film as an artistic medium unto itself. Nobody monologues their backstory, there’s not a ton of formal dialogue, period. But by dropping viewers into three facets of the battle unfolding along different timelines — by land, air, and sea — Nolan wields his camera as an experiential storytelling device and the result is otherworldly, helping audiences feel the anxiety and heroism of war by immersing them in it.
6. The Prestige (2006)
The cultural impact of The Prestige, starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as obsessive entertainers, was somewhat blunted by the release of another magician movie around the same time: The Illusionist, a mystery-romance hybrid starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel. More than a decade on, The Prestige shines as a thrilling example of Nolan’s storytelling prowess. If the aim of the movie was simply to surprise the audience, it’d only work as a one-time viewing. But The Prestige gets better when you watch it again and again, taking note of how deftly Nolan teases and obscures the various reveals later in his film.
7. Following (1998)
Unlike his epic later films which clock in at nearly three hours, Following is short and sweet, just an hour and ten minutes long. Nolan’s feature film debut is a black and white noir, telling the twisted story of a young writer with a compulsion for following strangers around London. One day, the tables are turned when he finds himself followed by a stranger himself. Nolan served as his own cinematographer, and all the shaky, handheld footage underscores the protagonist’s anxiety and paranoia. Following is such a compelling debut, because it’s wholly original, with a dynamic story that presented Nolan as a fully-formed artist.
8. Interstellar (2014)
When we talk about the epic scope of Nolan’s films, it doesn’t get much bigger than a cross-universe, time-and-galaxy-hopping adventure flick about the quest to save the human race from extinction. Matthew McConaughey is excellent as the pilot struggling to choose between seeing his family again or saving the human race; Jessica Chastain, his daughter left back on Earth, is tough and heartbreaking in equal measure. But while Interstellar is a mostly exciting and visually-stunning space epic, its final act really stumbles, and the film never totally pays off.
9. Insomnia (2002)
While Insomnia features one of the finest ensembles of any of Nolan’s films — there’s Al Pacino as slightly dirty cop with a guilty conscience, Robin Williams playing a murderer on the lam in Alaska, and Hillary Swank as the small-town cop who idolizes the big-city detective come to help her nab the killer. But unfortunately, Insomnia is pretty plain and predictable — especially when compared to Nolan’s other, more ambitious fare. The jewel of this film is Williams, who shows off his impressive dramatic chops, which we didn’t get to see that much of during his lifetime.
10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Personally, it took me years to muster up the courage to see The Dark Knight Rises after it came out. There were too many associations with the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, where a gunman opened fire just as a midnight screening of Nolan’s film began. When I finally did watch The Dark Knight Rises, I was rather disappointed, to be honest. Sure, Anne Hathaway is fabulous as Cat Woman, and Tom Hardy would be terrifying as Bane — if that mask didn’t cover half his face and drain him of personality. The time-jumping in this film seems haphazard, too. It’s definitely not as structurally-sound as some of Nolan’s other titles.