Ranking Christopher Nolan films (UPDATED!!!):
I have yet to see one of my most anticipated films of the year, as I hope to see it this week. Christopher Nolan is my absolute favorite director, responsible for some of my all time favorite films. In anticipation of seeing Oppenheimer, I wanted to rank his films. Nolan excels in creating just visually stunning and narratively intriguing films to a degree no other director does. To celebrate Nolan, and discuss his work in my anticipation of seeing this next film, I decided to celebrate and discuss his past films.
He is known for his work on Batman in the Dark Knight series, and his industry leading work in Sci-fi with works like Inception or Interstellar. I will admit this is not an exhaustive list, as there are a few of his older films I have just never seen, but for now, this is my ranking. I am very curious to see where Oppenheimer is going to fall on this list!
*UPDATE 7/28/23. Now that I have seen Oppenheimer, I am updating this to where it fits on my list! Where does Oppenheimer rank on your list? Tell us on your preferred social media platform!
Here's my top 9 Nolan films (so far) 9. Oppenheimer
Updating this list by placing Oppenheimer at the bottom of this list may make it seem like I hated the film. I don't. In fact, it surprised me where it landed. But when I asked myself...which movies on this list would I least want to watch again...It was crazy even to me how Oppenheimer was the answer. It's spot may also give the impression that I maybe just don't like biopics. I do. One of my favorite movies of the year is very surprisingly a film about the origin of Nike. I care neither about sports or shoes, and somehow a historical character drama about the early days of Nike made for a fantastic film. I enjoy good historical films, slow character dramas, and slow narrative focused biopics. Oppenheimer is an exceptional film, and something I would recommend watching. However, I feel misled with the marketing. I also am absolutely baffled by the focus of the film.
This movie is 3 hours long, and it has a LOT of just dialogue. Now here's the thing. If all that 3 hours of dialogue was focused on the science that went into the Manhattan Project, or the evolution of our knowledge physics like I was watching a very serious episode of Big Bang Theory with a lot of techno babble, then that would have been good. I expected a lot more SCIENCE. Yes, there's some in there, but way less than you'd expect for 3 hours of scientists talking. I expected more science, almost like a historical sci-fi film without the "fi". Interstellar or even Inception's pseudo-science, heck even Nolan's film about MAGICIANS had more science than this film. For a film about one of history's most important physicists, I was surprised how little science takes of the screen time. Perhaps the film could have focused on the moral quandaries, which was definitely a larger theme, but even that felt like a subplot to the story. The film has too little debate on the morals of dropping this bomb on cities for its three hour run time.
So what takes up the majority of this run time? The majority of the film focuses on the wrong thing. Not the bomb, but years after the bomb Oppenheimer in a review board discussing his security clearance while a character you've never heard of also is trying to be cleared for the President's Cabinet, a lengthy scene where Oppenheimer isn't even present. It's just very odd how so much of the movie is focused on a character no one knows of or cares about, and how so much of the plot is focused on two events that have NOTHING to really do with the building of the bomb. It's not that it's three hours of dialogue...it's that it is three hours of dialogue where 80% of it feels very unnecessary. The big plot twist reveal that Iron Man is the bad guy all along was just ...dumb. Now let's get to the biggest WHIFF of the film. I knew going into this that the movie was three hours long. A big part of the movie's heavy marketing was that the film featured "no cgi". This was to include the Bomb scene. There was much pre-release discussion on how big an undertaking it must have been to recreate the trinity test / atomic bomb with practical effect only. News articles dropped about how impressive this film was to be visually. In this era where "CGI" has become a bad word thanks to the ridiculous "cartoonification" by Marvel and Disney, this seemed to be a huge selling point. Practical Effects often can look way better than CGI. It was reported that some theaters even had to retrofit their projectors to handle the insanely large max reels for the film. No CGI was a mistake. My biggest disappointment of the film was the actually trinity test itself. I would forgive 3 hours of often boring dialogue if the 30 seconds of the REASON WE SAW THE FILM was actually worth it. This is a perfect time where maybe going for "realism" in the difficulty of viewing such bright phenomena, or the "practical effects" just don't do it justice. In fact, I thought it was pretty unimpressive.
I was expecting the see the screen light up the entire room. I was expecting to be BLOWN AWAY. So much hype was built up for this explosion scene and it was just...awkwardly bad. It was also strangely silent. You can uses silence to build hype for a sonic boom...but it was just not done well. The tenseness of the moment was conveyed, but the explosion was somehow underwhelming. The trinity test was about 2 hours into the film...so at first I thought they were taking a Godzilla 2014 approach. Tease and not pay off until the end. Don't really show Godzilla until the grand finale. The trinity test was like the tiny little glance they were building up to the Hiroshima explosion right? Wrong. If the trinity test was to the be the tease to a grande finale then it would be worth it.
But the Hiroshima explosion is NOT SEEN ON SCREEN. It is heard about on a radio. Imagine waiting 3 hours for a decent nuclear explosion scene and getting a radio broadcast. With CGI or even practical effects, today's technology, the trinity test and the Hiroshima explosions should have been way more impressive. I've seen more visually impressive explosions in much older films.
Look, It's not just that I want the "big boom is pretty". If I only was satisfied with a "big boom" I can see any Michael Bay film. But this entire films premise is the existential dread of this massive bomb, the size of it, how just unbelievably massive it is. How it just vaporizes everything within a massive radius. It is a film designed to give us a new appreciation of the responsibility that comes with it...that needs to be SEEN. That needs to be CONVEYED. it just feels small. There's not even the moral ickiness of showing the explosion in all its glory...as the Trinity test at least killed no one.
8. Tenet (2020):
"Tenet" ventures into the realm of time inversion and espionage, with the protagonist (John David Washington) attempting to prevent a world-threatening catastrophe. The film's complex plot and time-bending action sequences offer a unique cinematic experience. However, some viewers found the narrative challenging to follow, leading to mixed reviews. Despite this, "Tenet" showcases Nolan's commitment to pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and delivering ambitious, high-concept cinema. I would argue that Tenet is Nolan's most complex and hardest to understand, but it is that brain twisting aspect that really just excels in a must watch film.
7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012):
"The Dark Knight Rises" concludes Nolan's Batman trilogy as Bruce Wayne returns from seclusion to face the formidable threat of Bane (Tom Hardy). The film delves into themes of redemption, sacrifice, and the endurance of the human spirit. While it may not have reached the same heights as its predecessor, "The Dark Knight Rises" provides a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy and further explores the complexities of Batman's character.
6. Dunkirk (2017):
"Dunkirk" is a war film that depicts the tense evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II. Nolan's choice to tell the story from three different perspectives (land, sea, and air) creates a gripping and immersive experience for the audience. The film is characterized by its intense, pulse-pounding sequences and minimal use of dialogue, relying instead on its visuals and Hans Zimmer's impactful score to convey the urgency and chaos of war. Dunkirk is Nolan meets WWII and that is just a visual and narrative combination that needed to happen as it is phenomenal.
5. Batman Begins (2005):
"Batman Begins" serves as the origin story of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as he transforms into the iconic Batman. The film's focus on character development, grounded approach to the superhero genre, and exploration of Wayne's inner struggles set it apart from previous Batman films. Nolan successfully revitalized the Batman franchise, and "Batman Begins" laid the foundation for the darker and more serious tone that would define "The Dark Knight" trilogy.
4. The Dark Knight (2008):
"The Dark Knight" is often hailed as one of the greatest superhero films ever made. Nolan's gritty and realistic take on Batman, portrayed by Christian Bale, and the legendary performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker elevate this film to a new level. The intense battle between the Dark Knight and the chaotic Joker poses ethical dilemmas and questions about the nature of heroism. With its complex characters and morally gray situations, "The Dark Knight" transcends the superhero genre and is considered a groundbreaking achievement in blockbuster filmmaking. While many put the Dark Knight at not only #1 for Christopher Nolan films, not only the greatest super hero film ever made, many would put it as one of the greatest films ever made. I could easily see and understand why this film would rank higher for some, but the next three on my list is just that good.
3. Interstellar (2014):
"Interstellar" combines human emotions with awe-inspiring space exploration. Set in a future where Earth is dying due to environmental catastrophes, a group of astronauts, led by Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), embarks on a journey through a wormhole to find a new habitable planet for humanity. The film's stunning visual effects, Hans Zimmer's captivating score, and powerful performances by the cast make for an emotional and thought-provoking experience. "Interstellar" explores the themes of time dilation, the bond between parent and child, and the resilience of the human spirit. Interstellar could easily be a #1 rank, not just on this list, but on an all time list. The visuals and story and grandeur of this film make it so hard for me to believe that this is "only" rank 3? This only speaks to the scale breaking level that is the next two picks.
2. Inception (2010):
"Inception" takes audiences on a mind-bending journey into the world of dreams and the power of ideas. Dominated by stunning visual effects and practical action sequences, the film follows a skilled thief, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who specializes in entering people's dreams to steal their secrets. However, this time, he is tasked with implanting an idea into someone's mind instead. The film's complex narrative and ambiguous ending invite intense discussions about the nature of reality and the human mind's fragility. "Inception" solidified Nolan's reputation as a master of creating intellectually stimulating blockbuster cinema. Over a decade later, we are still debating aspects of the film. Its visuals have not aged at all, and the narrative is still just as mind bending as ever. This film could also easily rank number one on my all time list, let alone this list, if it weren't not for the existence of the next one on this list.
1. The Prestige (2006):
"The Prestige" is a mesmerizing tale of two rival magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), whose obsession with outdoing each other leads them down a dark and twisted path. The film explores themes of sacrifice, obsession, and the cost of ambition. With its intricate and non-linear narrative structure, "The Prestige" keeps viewers engaged until the shocking and thought-provoking climax. The movie showcases Nolan's skill in storytelling and the art of deception, leaving audiences questioning reality and the sacrifices made in the pursuit of greatness. The Prestige is not just my favorite Christopher Nolan film, it is my favorite non franchise film of all time. It has an intriguing story that just infatuates the viewer. It contains multiple mysteries and twists that are just absolutely incredible. The ending is something you won't see coming. The mysteries behind each Magicians "main trick" is something that just enthralls and keeps me talking about this film a decade later.