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The genius of filmmaking: Christopher Nolan’s 11 movies, ranked

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Warning: This post contains spoilers for “Following,” “Memento,” “Insomnia,” “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight,”  “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Inception,” “Interstellar,” “Dunkirk” and “Tenet.”

Christopher Nolan, the filmmaking genius who started his career with a $6,000 budget, is now recognized for his successful million-dollar blockbusters. As a director, Nolan is known for his detailed, original, mind-blowing scripts and spectacular, tense, realistic cinematography. Most of his movies probably should be watched again to understand them completely — Nolan harmonizes complex stories with strong film grammar and confusing shot angles, keeping the audience captivated.

In my opinion, every filmmaker must study Nolan’s movies because he is a rare director who knows both how to create a compelling story and how to deliver it on-screen. I admit it is not really my place to rank all of his brilliant movies, but as someone who adores and tries to understand his movie techniques, here is my ranking of 11 feature movies directed by Nolan.

11. “Following” (1998)

Nolan’s first debut feature movie, “Following,” gained him an international reputation as a writer and director. The movie is about the story of a young writer, Bill, who follows strangers around the streets of London to find inspiration for his first novel but is drawn toward the crime of breaking into people’s houses. Nolan shot “Following” with only a $6,000 budget, amateur lighting and 16 mm film stock. Nolan was young, ambitious and bursting with ideas at the beginning of his professional career. While watching this movie, one sees how practical Nolan can be even with an ultra-low budget because the product is not from someone who was trying to be a filmmaker, but rather someone born with a gift of filmmaking intelligence.

The plot is not as confusing as Nolan’s other movies; even so, as in his later works we see his satisfying plot twists, manipulative characters, deep human psychology and narrative background. The film features some difficult cinematic techniques that later became his signatures — extreme close-ups shots, non-linear storyline and cross-cutting scenes; even back then, he handled these techniques pretty well.

10. “Insomnia” (2002) 

“Insomnia” is an adaptation of a 1997 Norwegian crime-thriller about a flawed cop with a troubled past — a character type we see often in Nolan’s movies — who accidentally kills his partner and tries to cover up the murder. There is an intense, personal relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist, and the storyline is hard to predict. Compared to Nolan’s recent movies, the plot is more logical, human and relatable. 

With the combination of Nolan’s calculated filmography and talented actors like Al Pacino and the great Robin Williams — who showed his dramatic side rather than his iconic humor — “Insomnia” is one of the most unforgettable crime movies of all time. The movie can also be tedious, however — nothing happens. After working indie for a while, Nolan once again proved that he knows the balance between a professional budget and a quite limited budget — he worked inside a studio system with a large budget without going too far with the production.

9. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

The final installment of “The Dark Knight” trilogy may not get as much attention as the legendary sequel with Heath Ledger starring as the Joker; even so, “The Dark Knight Rises” does not disappoint. After abandoning the role of Batman for eight years, Bruce Wayne must return to Gotham to save it from the villain Bane. The plot is well-written, but at times challenging to understand since there isn’t an explanation of why the antagonist chose to terrorize Gotham.

The movie’s masterful casting is one of the elements that make it successful. Hardy’s performance as Bane was the highlight of the movie. Nolan again made us think about our life choices with Bane’s assertion to Batman: “Peace has cost you your strength. Victory has defeated you.” Hats off to Hans Zimmer, who made the movie more intense and terrifying with the musical score.

8. “Batman Begins” (2005)

Initially, many thought that Nolan wouldn’t be able to pull off a superhero movie. But considering Batman’s non-magical, technology-based powers and relatable characteristics — including ambition, anger after losing someone he loved and pursuit of fairness — he is the most suitable superhero to be reinvented by Nolan. 

“Batman Begins” isn’t just a superhero movie with capes, masks and endless action scenes. It is also about Batman’s trauma after he’s orphaned, psychological problems, flawed characteristics and transformation into the Dark Knight. Nolan did not portray Batman as a special hero to whom people cannot relate — he made Batman a human like everyone else. The action scenes are adequate, and there aren’t any unnecessary dialogues; the ending, however, wasn’t as satisfying as the rest of the movie.

7. “Tenet” (2020)

After Nolan pushed the limits of reality in the masterpiece “Inception,” no one thought he would take the mind-bending plot even further. But after watching “Tenet” I believe there are no longer any limits. 

A CIA agent only called the “Protagonist” (John David Washington) is trying to prevent the end of the world. He is given a secret code that could solve everything: Tenet. The whole “time inversion” idea is difficult to understand, and things get even more incomprehensible with all the car chasing and fight scenes. Though the action scenes are entertaining and jaw-dropping, Ludwig Göransson’s intentionally confusing sound mix makes some dialogue hard to understand — the most frustrating aspect of the movie.

All in all, Tenet is a spectacular movie that extends beyond the limits of reality, but not for a casual watcher — it gets deeper as it progresses, and leaves the audience member with no choice but to watch it again.

6. “Interstellar” (2014)

Only Nolan could cook up an original plot about the impact of traveling through an intergalactic wormhole on human relationships and psychology. “Interstellar” is not like other sci-fi movies that are about space and aliens. The movie instead focuses on the characters’ mental states after they leave their families behind to find a potential new home in outer space.

While space is often depicted as a place full of unknowns and adventure, in “Interstellar” Nolan makes us see it as more of a lonely place. One of the greatest scenes takes place on the water planet Miller — Hans Zimmer’s brilliant score features a prominent ticking noise in the background which happens in 1.25-second increments, and each tick corresponds to a whole day on Earth. The movie is too long, slow and explanatory, however, at least compared to other Nolan movies. Even the great performances of Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine don’t cover up the slow pace of the movie.

5. “Dunkirk” (2017)

“Dunkirk” is Nolan’s first movie based on a historical event. One of the most common plotlines for blockbuster war movies is having a group of soldiers face a challenging moment and then finish triumphant. Nolan did not follow this mold.

The movie is about British and French soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk after Nazi forces surrounded them. But unlike his previous movies, Nolan did not get deep into background storytelling of the plot, such as the reason for war and what happens in the war in Dunkirk. Instead, he focused on the 400,000 soldiers’ struggles to stay alive. He tells the stories of three groups on different timelines and in different terrain: air, sea and land.

For some, the movie seemed pointless — it has little dialogue and features the cliches of war movies such as explanations of strategy. But I appreciate what Nolan tried to do in “Dunkirk” by realistically visualizing the tension of the battlefield and focusing on soldiers’ trauma and emotions. “Dunkirk” is one of the most realistic war movies, with fantastic visual achievements and tense background sounds — credit to the musical genius of Hans Zimmer and sound designer Richard King.

4. “Memento” (2000)

After his success in “Following,” Nolan had a larger budget and came up with another full-length film noir feature, “Memento,” that people couldn’t stop talking about in the 2000s. The movie is about Leonard (Guy Pearce), who suffers from short-term memory loss and tries to take revenge on his wife’s rapist and murderer. He knows that he keeps forgetting what happened, so he tattoos clues on his body. Interestingly, the story is told in reverse.

The plot is dark, tragic and based on an original short story written by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, with whom he worked many times throughout his career. Even though it’s only Nolan’s second movie, we can see his signature techniques: a relatable character, non-linear storytelling and detailed plot. The cinematography, score, script and exploration of the protagonist’s mind through the end of the movie make “Memento” one of Nolan’s greatest movies. The fact that “Memento” is his second movie makes us appreciate his film genius even more.

3. “Inception” (2010)

Dreams, dreams and more dreams. The most iconic, mind-bending Nolan movie is about manipulating ideas via dreams. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief who specializes in stealing secrets from people’s subconscious, and is tasked to plant an idea into someone’s mind. Planting an idea is not simple — they have to get deeper into every dream, pushing their brains’ limits. The plot is masterful and is the most original idea I have ever seen. I think at some points, however, the plot is so confusing that nobody seems to really understand it, and one might even question if the film is genius or just ridiculous.

The film grammar is very strong, the shooting angles and visuals are spectacular and make the movie even more confusing. The paradoxical storyline and complex ending with a solid cast make “Inception” ahead of its time, and even after a decade people can’t stop referencing it.

2. “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Nolan made a successful opening to the Batman trilogy; the second movie, however, is the true masterpiece. The opening scene of the Joker’s bank robbery foreshadows the movie’s brilliance. Heath Ledger’s comical yet terrifying performance as the Joker is one of the greatest film performances of all time. If it wasn’t for his untimely death, “The Dark Knight” held proof of his bright future career. In addition, his chemistry with Christian Bale as Batman was spectacular — they were born for those two roles.

Like his previous Batman movie, “The Dark Knight” isn’t just a superhero movie — it has deep philosophical and political themes from which Nolan doesn’t shy away. The movie is all about chaos and conflict, but there isn’t a definitive good or bad — both sides are gray, and the movie explores the natural conflict between them.

1. “The Prestige” (2006)

Nolan takes us to early 20th-century London and introduces us to magicians Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, whose characters are engaged in a lifelong, deadly rivalry for supremacy, jealousy and obsession. The Nolan brothers took a difficult path to continue their careers by turning the 1995 Christopher Priest novel into a screenplay, and hands-down they did a great job.

While we watch conflicts between characters, the movie gets deeper into their psychological journeys, like in many Nolan movies. There are many twists and hidden hints in “The Prestige,” and the fact that it is about magicians perfectly harmonizes the movie with them; viewers want to watch it again a couple of more times. The story is not chronological, instead following a broken narrative timeline. Visually, sensorially and technically the movie is a masterpiece.

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Aslıhan Alp is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.