With Tenet finally in cinemas, Ella Kemp considers its place within the filmmaker's epic canon and sorts the misfires from the masterpieces...
Stories of love, war, heroes, villains, dreams and sleepless nights make up the world of Christopher Nolan, which in turn has come to define so much of ours. The British filmmaker is prolific, precise, and has been steering us towards a new kind of epic cinema for close to two decades. With Nolan, each new film arrives as a major event – an exercise in expansion, in dreaming bigger, in pushing cinema to its very limits.
Now, delayed three times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tenet has finally made it to the big screen, just when it began to seem like an impossibility – and has been saddled as the saviour of cinema. But how does the time inversion thriller compare with the rest of this filmmaker's canon? Does Tenet have what it takes? To find out, here are Christopher Nolan’s 11 films to date, ranked from worst to best…
*this article was originally published on July 24, 2020. It has been updated to include Tenet
11. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
What a shame. To go from the incendiary, historic depth of The Dark Knight to the overblown, scattershot and almost pantomimic chaos of The Dark Knight Rises feels like such a disappointment. The film suffers from a reliance on too many familiar faces – both characters and actors – to animate the action, but doing so dilutes the narrative and confuses the viewer. And while Tom Hardy’s Bane is certainly entertaining, the film still feels too somber to work with the character’s jokes.
It feels disconnected in the same way Batman Begins did – as soon as the story leaves Gotham, my attention wanders. As the focus shifts away from Bruce Wayne, in favour of either tying up ends you didn’t even know were loose, or winking at characters comic book fans will riot for, Nolan tramples all over the film’s subtleties.
There’s some staggering set pieces – the football pitch scene remains one of the most vast and calamitous things Nolan has ever designed – and the occasional emotional tug, as Alfred and Bruce reckon with their own loyalties, regrets and insecurities. But the film overall is marred by too many showy, shocking, extreme twists to provide anything of much depth, anything that could truly stand the test of time.
10. Following (1998)
Everybody has to start somewhere, but the place where Christopher Nolan starts feels somewhat too obvious and familiar. There’s no great failure in Following, only the inescapable influence of all the greats Nolan was clearly schooled on. A moody and twisty psychological drama, it plays out slightly too mechanically, too clinically to be able to be called a thriller.
Alfred Hitchcock and David Fincher are woven into the seams of the film, in theatrical dialogue and brooding stares. It’s a head-to-head between two frustrated men, a wrestle with time full of mind games. All the ingredients are there, but hindsight hasn’t been too kind to this one. All the pieces were only played better in subsequent films, naturally – with better actors, sturdier scripting, more robust visual and sonic worlds.
There are plenty of pin-drop moments, of twists that would later define entire decades in The Prestige or Inception – and there’s even a character named “Mr. Cobb” here – but not quite enough detail or conviction to make them fly as they would in almost every film to come. But as far as debuts go, this is a fine effort. If anything, Nolan’s subsequent strength is what lessens this one’s impact.
9. Tenet (2020)
Christopher Nolan had the world in his hands, and decided to squeeze it, break it, reopen his palm, present us with all the broken pieces and still call it a sphere. Confused? You are on the right side of history, as Tenet, Nolan’s latest, far from greatest, film is everything the writer-director had been building up to – and it proves just how far he had to fall.
Aiming to explain the plot is – for this writer, at least – hopeless. Tenet laughs in the face of those who might have called Nolan’s other films “cryptic” with a storyline so convoluted, dense, secretive and outright baffling that its characters will tell you to stop trying to understand it and just “feel it” roughly 20 minutes in – with a galumphing two hours still to come. Tenet veers closer to Inception than Interstellar, in the sense that high-concept existentialism drives the film, at the expense of any emotional grounding.
Nolan has done “deep” before, and does it better than most, but here he goes so deep into his own mind, his own script, that he loses sight of what anyone else might take from it. It’s visually tremendous, sonically devastating and exciting, and the actors – John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, particularly – are charismatic and committed. But this is a Christopher Nolan film engineered to irritate those previously dismayed by Christopher Nolan: those who called him clinical, overly complicated, somewhat entitled, perhaps, in his lifelong ambition to save cinema in its traditional, big-screen, big-budget format, might have finally been proven right. He could have done anything, and he simply blew everything up.
8. Memento (2000)
A masterclass of a mindfuck, Memento set the blueprint for all perception-distorting psychological thrillers to come and marked the first collaboration between Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who wrote the short story Memento Mori on which the film was based.
The strength of Memento lies in the way Guy Pearce, as Leonard Shelby, dances around his immediate sensations, the severity of the words inked on his skin, the gaps that have plagued and defined his life. Suffering from anterograde amnesia, Leonard must piece together the timeline that led to his wife being killed – through polaroid photos and broken conversations. The film’s double narrative, with one story moving in one direction in black-and -white, the other moving another way in colour, mimics the tangled modus operandi of the human mind, creating a dizzy and often frustrating sense of immersion that felt, and still feels like, a real game-changer in terms of just how vivid and dangerous cinema can be.
It’s a probing experience, one that forces you to participate and interrogate your own evaluative faculties and contribute to the puzzle-solving process. It works, but also demands great commitment from the viewer. Memento needs patience, intelligence, belief. There’s little spectacle – it’s about the moments we take for granted and the impressions we don’t even register until forced. It’s undoubtedly excellent, but somewhat more difficult upon a revisit versus a lot of the later stuff.
7. Insomnia (2002)
The only film that Nolan didn’t write himself, Insomnia still feels so emblematic of all the best things the filmmaker has achieved across his career. Hillary Seitz’ script is laser-sharp, dense with subtext and rich psychology. We are again faced with two men at odds with each other – memory and perception distorting facts, blackmail and guilt changing the face of a situation that strangles those unlucky enough to find themselves at the centre of it.
The formula of the veteran detective coming in to help a murder case, working alongside a plucky young detective who has always looked up to him, is played out smartly here, with Al Pacino and Hillary Swank developing an always engaging creative partnership. But Pacino is better matched by the inimitable Robin Williams, as detective and suspect play a game of cat and mouse in which integrity matters more than life itself.
Considering Nolan’s usual penchant for non-linear narrative, Insomnia is surprisingly easy to follow. The disorientation is mainly limited to Pacino’s performance, with the actor’s eyes and body language containing the overwhelming anxiety and shame that ultimately leads to his demise.
The film also commits to a grayscale landscape, evoking a certain iciness that would come to define Nolan’s approach throughout his career – both emotionally and visually. Here, the first time it’s deployed, it still feels like one of the most visceral depictions of such an atmosphere.
Insomnia matches its visuals with endless psychological details, not always contributing to the obvious and immediate answers in this whodunit, but still making it richer. We are confronted with the power dynamics between young women and influential men; the precision and impact of your means of defense and attack; the repercussions something as plain as a sleepless night can have on the entire world around you. The difference between death and murder. It all matters, it all clicks, and it’s a thrill like none other when it all does.
6. Batman Begins (2005)
Nobody needed a fresh start more than Batman. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy began after the central character had already lived a 70-year life, since his first appearance in 1939. But this Batman is darker, more vulnerable, and so is the film around it. Nolan claims to have taken inspiration from comic storylines in The Man Who Falls, Batman: Year One, and Batman: The Long Halloween. A reliance on several difference source texts is felt, as the film sometimes seems disconnected between its various chapters. It takes a whole hour for Bruce Wayne to become Batman in Batman Begins – we follow him as he trains, and grows, and harnesses his deepest fears to use them as armour.
Christian Bale is convincing as Wayne, the moody and eccentric billionaire galvanised by injustice choosing to take a stand. He is – I cannot stress this enough – very serious. Batman Begins is not a funny film, and it seems Nolan really relishes that fact. There is also a clear mastery of the psychological stakes, to the point where there is little room for subtext. “I assume this persona is to protect those you care about?” a character says out loud, doing the job of explicitly explaining possibly subtle assumptions for the viewer.
Still, there is severe terror in Cillian Murphy’s performance of Scarecrow, and compelling performances across the board that emphasize just how much force can be given to a person, a symbol, a society, by exorcising the demons of one scarred individual. A sturdy, respectable first chapter.
5. The Prestige (2006)
Life is walked on a tightrope in the name of success in The Prestige. A spectacular battle of wits, finding severity and high stakes in the world of magicians. No trivial, cartoonish performances here, the film is the best example of how Christopher Nolan might just be the most serious man in the world. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play rivalling magicians with immense commitment, terrific showmanship. Accents and emotions galore, it would certainly pave the way for Jackman’s turn in The Greatest Showman as PT Barnum, and Bale’s career-making work in the Batman trilogy. Nothing says showbiz like a nice bit of fragile masculinity.
The Prestige takes what is often seen as a frivolous topic and finds its darkest, most damaging corners: how much illusion can harbour serious sacrifice, how much performance can substitute true talent, how far you can push a lie to keep up an act. It’s satisfying for the viewer purely because of how much of the mechanics we get to see, because nothing is off limits in the name of a good trick. The structure is clean, following the same pattern as the trick itself: during the pledge, we see something ordinary, two men who are both magicians. In the turn, we see something made extraordinary, the rivalry that pushes these men to the limits of their lives. And finally in the prestige, both the ordinary and the extraordinary are trumped in the name of something even more dangerous and impressive. That’s the secrets, the transformations, the violence of the ego which change everything in one drop of the hat. It’s electric, it’s magic. Nothing is too much when everything is at stake.
4. Dunkirk (2017)
Christopher Nolan has a specific talent: turning a mundane, overfamiliar phenomenon, and making it feel as if he invented it himself. With Dunkirk, he takes that of the ticking clock, be it literal or otherwise, and amplifies it, multiplies it, relies on it so heavily and distorts it with such power that it feels wholly disorienting. He also takes a topic so familiar in cinema and turns it inside out, with a war film that thrusts the viewer into the heart of the moment in three ways at once.
One week on land, one day at sea and one hour in the air happen at the same time – where others might opt for two dancing timelines at once (as Memento first showed), the challenge is one level more difficult here. It’s a rare example of a film where such enormous and complex ambition, demanding a million intricate layers rather than just a few extreme ones, truly pays off, with breathtaking and overwhelming results just to begin to wrap your head around it too.
It comes down to the Shepard tone, a musical distortion effect that sees three different tones across three octaves layered on top of each other. In short, the score doesn’t quit: strings rub and swell violently, the ticking is relentless, time keeps closing in. A freight train, a spitfire and a foghorn at war in a heartbeat.
Dunkirk also offers a curious and compelling ensemble cast: hundreds of traditionally attractive men, pained, terrorised, unsure and unstable. There’s Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Harry Styles (yes, that one), Fionn Whitehead. There’s little dialogue, forcing these men to convey an ocean of feeling in body language and furrowed brows.
The most staggering moment in Dunkirk occurs when, for a split-second, there is silence. It is so earned, so unsettling that the fear and shame and loneliness and trauma all float to the surface at once. For but a moment, the suffocation of these men feels like ours. There might not have been so much literal silence in their survival – but it sounds deafening now.
3. Inception (2010)
Simultaneously creating and perceiving constantly, Inception understands the depth and significance of dreams where so many others could just dismiss and move on. Dreams often justify outlandish scenarios on screen, conversations that the characters wish they could have the courage to act out situations too terrifying to even dare to think about. But Inception believes in dreams as creating their own consciousness, their own microscopic details that carry weight and lodge themselves in your brain long after you’ve woken up.
The mission is simple enough: infiltrating a person’s mind to plant an idea, in order to make them do something once they have woken up. Inception is the act of planting, extraction the act of digging it up – often by stealing it. The film grapples with contagion, sabotage, guilt and deception in ways that point to the selfish notion of happiness and the life-long effort of rebuilding trust when one split second has broken it.
It is also one of Hans Zimmer’s finest scores, a constantly oppressive and emotional orchestra that intensifies what’s at risk, how time is bending and folding in on itself while all we can do is live through it. This notion of time, of how seconds can turn into years and those years can mean nothing when you have to then live with the fact that they have ended, is what makes Inception one of Nolan’s most heartbreaking films. For both Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard this feels like proper heart-wrenching stuff, and everyone else is doing deeply committed work too. Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and Tom Hardy bring some kind of welcome levity, too, as pawns in the game navigating the minefields established by their deeply broken boss.
Inception is a film like none other in its subject and its execution. It feels like the sole entry in its genre, an education on the power of the human mind and the fallibility of our hearts. Masterful.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Arguably the best superhero film of all-time, this film has everything: terrifying action, rich psychology, jagged, leering humour, and some of the best performances, both subtle and enormous, that I've ever seen. The Dark Knight does what so many of Nolan’s other films fail to do – it understands what’s at stake, and finds ways to communicate the threat, ever-present, through micro-details rather than laying them plain in dialogue.
The contradictions that define the trilogy, and a lot of Nolan’s character studies, here are more complex, spinning a web of three, four, five conflicting truths rather than just two opposites. It’s not merely about Batman and the Joker – Harvey Dent matters, Rachel matters, even Commissioner Gordon matters. There’s a nervous energy to it, one that manifests in jerky, off-balance camera work and spasmodic body language. It’s a film about the danger of narcissism, of the cult of a personality, the belief of a symbol in place of an actual functioning, loyal, sturdy society.
It’s also one of the few films to disregard logic, in favour of a more rebellious, live wire tone that just has to follow its corrosive players rather than puppeteering them in any one impressive set piece. The Dark Knight is about the dark and dangerous things that make us feel alive: justice, redemption, loss, madness and chaos are all explored through the visceral, immediate experience of men on the verge. It’s electric. And Heath Ledger, breathtaking, heartbreaking Heath Ledger: there has never been anyone like him. There never will be.
1. Interstellar (2014)
If the people you loved the most were at risk of slipping away, would you do whatever you could to save them, even if it meant leaving them behind? Love is a gargantuan, unknowable and overwhelming thing, and it is the driving force behind Christopher Nolan’s greatest film, one of the all-time greatest films ever. It breaks the glass heart everyone says Nolan is plagued with, it feels deeper, moves further and just is braver than anything he’s ever done. Interstellar starts by showing you just how far belief will take you by rearranging your misconceptions about Murphy’s Law: it doesn’t mean that something bad will happen, it means that whatever can happen will happen. That notion of power, of possibility, is everything. Logic and planning and timing must bow to the sheer faith that, well, love will find a way.
The emotion of Interstellar is three-fold: Nolan’s script, co-written with his brother as with all his best stuff, masters not only notions of black holes, wormholes, quantum data and telemetry, but it also makes a case for love as the one thing – feeling, fact, movement, message – that can mean more and do more than anyone in our current time, on our existing planet, can comprehend. “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful. It has to mean something,” Anne Hathaway’s character Brand observes. And it’s true: why do we mourn the ones we have lost tens of years after the fact? How does one moment trigger a lifetime of memories, despite no physical contact or mental reconnection offering a direct link? There is something mystical and magical about it all, which feels paralysing and all-consuming to process.
Then there's the score, the greatest thing Hans Zimmer has ever done. It’s as if in order for every note to go higher they had to invent more notes, as if for each one to go higher it has to be pulled from a hook which itself is logged in your heart. And tug, tug, tug: as the score rises and swells, it takes you with it.
And what of those living and feeling this story? Mackenzie Foy as young Murph performs heartbreak with such raw, caustic pain that you can almost feel the heat of tears beyond the screen. Her resentment, her fury of the lies and the abandonment of it all is immense. Jessica Chastain relays this brilliantly as her adult counterpart, while Timothée Chalamet and Casey Affleck do fine work as the gruff son, an epitome of cold masculinity forced into bitterness.
But it is Matthew McConaughey, with his drunken conviction to save humanity for his daughter, to do right by her because no love is greater, who makes this into a masterpiece. His voice dizzy with anger, bravery and often panic, his eyes petrified and devastated when he knows how much disappointment he causes – his face, his tears, as he sees his daughter, his Murph, after so many years through a video screen. That silent, vibrating agony of the separation emanates empathy like nothing I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of every moment I have ever had my heart broken. Every time I thought I had lost something forever. I would have never thought any film could speak to that so violently. But then – Interstellar isn’t just any film. I don’t think it’s something to get over, because that would imply that these ideas – this belief in love – is something that can fade. I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone.