Acclaimed writer-director Christopher Nolan possesses an extensive, impressive filmography. His signature style includes non-linear narratives, sweeping emotional stories, and an emphasis on intricately woven plots and characters. And with over 15 years of experience in the movie industry, he’s had a lot of time to create silver-screen masterpieces.
Let’s take a look at some of the best Christopher Nolan films below.
When people think of Nolan’s best films, they unfortunately don’t think of Dunkirk (2017). This nuanced World War II drama is hidden between Nolan’s blockbusters, a softer, subtler approach to action that jostles the viewer from silence to cacophony, stillness to chaos in an instant.
This movie doesn’t fit into the sci-fi or superhero genres like Nolan’s usual work because it’s a dramatization of an actual historical event. What’s so unique about it is that the it is told in parts—Land, Sea, and Air—out of chronology, and that its characters are all more metaphor than person.
The protagonist Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), for instance, is never given a name; Tommy is simply slang for a common soldier in the British Army. The ‘Shivering Soldier’ (Cillian Murphy) is PTSD. The two pilots, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), represent survivor’s guilt and heroic sacrifice, respectively. George (Barry Keoghan) is indicative of civilian casualties, and the list continues down the character sheet so on and so forth.
It’s a thrilling and tense adventure that’s worth the watch, especially if you’re not a fan of Nolan’s usual cerebral shenanigans, with enough of his trademark intrigue that die-hard Nolan fans will still absolutely enjoy the experience.
4. Batman Begins
Every new Batman is met with skepticism. When Nolan and Christian Bale were handed the keys to this classic character, audiences weren’t sure what to expect. Still, Batman Begins (2005) exceeded expectations. Bruce Wayne’s origin story is paced and plotted carefully, taking us through his training with Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) interrupted expertly by flashbacks to the infamous Wayne family murder.
Once Bruce returns to Gotham, he becomes its hero through trial-and-error. We hold our breath, anxious to see the final design as he goes through the first iterations of the Batsuit with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). We gaze in wonder at the Batcave, the 21st century Batmobile, and grimace in horror at the Scarecrow. It’s a solid contribution to the DC Universe.
While Batman Begins wouldn’t go on to be the best in the trilogy, it certainly cemented that Nolan would go on to create one of the most beloved versions of the Batman in cinema history.
Inception (2010) is incredible because it’s entirely Nolan’s own world. Part heist and part thriller, Inception introduces us to a group of talented individuals running, hiding from, or attempting to atone for their pasts. Ariadne (Elliot Page) is the freshest face among them, recruited by Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to create what he can no longer. But everyone else on the team has such mystery surrounding them that audiences longed for—and still wish for—a continuation of this erudite adventure.
The lore itself isn’t complex, but the emotions that play into the lore definitely are. What do we long for when we’re waking, but are haunted by when we sleep? What is control, really? Inception asks all this and more under the thinly-veiled guise of a complex kidnapping and corporate plot. And just like dreams, the movie lingers with you long after you’ve left it.
2. The Dark Knight
Praised as one of the greatest superhero films of all time, The Dark Knight (2008) is a gritty, gruesome crime story that pushes Batman to his emotional and moral limits. It manages to include multiple major DC Comics villains without feeling overstuffed, intertwining each of their stories beautifully.
First, The Joker. Who can forget Heath Ledger’s legendary performance, the cartoonish Clown Prince turned into a sinister, charming, and anarchistic yet grounded bad guy? The interrogation scene is the best scene in the film—and arguably the best hero and villain confrontation of all time—because it forces Batman to accept his relationship with and responsibility to Gotham’s criminals, especially his twisted, interconnected, and almost symbiotic dance with The Joker.
Harvey Dent AKA Two-Face also plays a significant role in this film. He is a character in his own right, a man with good intentions who is betrayed by his own heart, but he’s also an extreme representation of Batman’s failure. The ending of The Dark Knight, as Batman is persecuted and pursued by the people he’s sworn to protect, speaks to Nolan’s genius in turning the tired hero story into a timeless commentary on human nature.
Tenet (2020) is Christopher Nolan’s best film. It’s time travel without gimmicks, action—and fantastically choreographed action at that—with heart, and the most compelling leading man he’s ever cast: John David Washington, playing The Protagonist. Yes, really, that’s the only moniker we’re given, and Nolan’s script is so precise that there’s never a moment where this choice becomes awkward.
If you haven’t seen Tenet, it is, at its face value, an international espionage thriller about a secret agent who stops a plot to end the world through a specific kind of radiation called inversion. The inversion looks super cool, and there’s a real jet that crashes into a real building at one point. Except Tenet is a lot more than that. The Protagonist is a new kind of hero, one who values the lives of the people working with him and wants to protect humanity not for some institutional, badge-of-honor reason, but because he genuinely cares. His compassion and self-awareness are extraordinary and hopefully set a precedent for action films to come.
Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is one person who The Protagonist has sworn to protect. Her story is as important as The Protagonist’s, and is in fact inextricably linked both by plot and thematic, emotional resonance. As she escapes the clutches of the film’s villain, her abusive husband Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), she rescues herself and her son, and her survival as a strong mother ultimately represents hope for a safer future.
There’s also Neil (Robert Pattinson), the sloppy-yet-suave sidekick with a huge role. It’s difficult to discuss him further without spoiling the film, but suffice it to say he’s got the most heart-wrenching arc of these three main players. Really, part of what makes Nolan’s films so great is that he leaves so much ambiguity and yet not much at all at the same time. You know what you need to know about the characters, and we get details, little bits of information, that we can create our own stories out of, and that’s beautiful.
But Nolan, if you’re reading this, we’d still really like a Tenet sequel. Or prequel.
What’s your favorite Christopher Nolan film? Did it make this list? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!