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Our favourite Christopher Nolan films, ranked, from Memento to Oppenheimer

Chasing shadows: Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the brain-bending blockbuster Inception (PA Archive)
Chasing shadows: Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the brain-bending blockbuster Inception (PA Archive)

Ranking Christopher Nolan films is like being asked to pick out a favourite holiday destination from Greece, Italy or France: essentially, an endlessly delightful task.

There are Nolan’s earlier works – thought-provoking, challenging thrillers. There are the Batman blockbusters – his biggest earners. And then there are his genre-bending sci-fi films, which often include time travel, alternative universes and intense characters. Nearly all are superb, so further classification takes real nitpicking.

Nevertheless, given that Nolan’s most recent film, Oppenheimer, is in the running for 13 Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), and given that the biopic was the Sunday night’s BAFTAs big winner (picking up seven trophies), there’s never been a better time to take a closer look at the British director’s excellent films. Here we rank six of our favourites, in ascending order.

The Dark Knight (2008)

When Nolan picked up the baton of DC’s Batman franchise with Batman Begins, it had been eight years since the release of Joel Schumacher’s 1997 Batman & Robin – a camp, silly adaptation of the comic books. Nolan utterly transformed the franchise: his Gotham was seriously dank, his Batman – Christian Bale – was suitably dark and complicated, his baddies were believable, and terrifying. “Batman Begins is the seventh live-action film to take on the comic-book legend and the first to usher it into the kingdom of movie myth,” said one reviewer, echoing the sentiments of thousands of fans.

Our favourite of Nolan’s three Batman’s films is The Dark Knight, the third film in the trilogy. It was the film in which Heath Leger gave his Oscar-winning performance as The Joker – The Dark Knight was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two, an astonishing feat for a superhero movie. Today it has made over $1 billion at the box office, making it Nolan’s first billion-dollar film.

Interstellar (2014)

Nolan’s version of a space film remained true to form: while the director gave the audience extraordinary visuals of the galaxy, he used the infinite and enigmatic nature of the universe to explore philosophical themes. And, of course, he threw in some time travel for good measure.

But despite being an absolutely excellent film, with some top notch performances from Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine, some bits were unnecessarily sentimental – strange for the famously low-key Brit known for his reserve. The story follows former NASA pilot Cooper (McConaughey) who is sent with a crew through a wormhole to try and find an inhabitable planet for the human race, as Earth is becoming increasingly hostile.

Insomnia (2002)

This terrific thriller has none of the scale of Nolan’s later films – but all of the intellectualism and intensity. A remake of a 1997 Norwegian film starring Stellan Skarsgård, it tells the story of two hardened LA detectives, played by Martin Donovan and Al Pacino, who are sent to rural Alaska to try and apprehend a killer. The killer starts playing games with Pacino’s character, Will Dormer, who then makes a huge mistake. While the story is as familiar as they come, Nolan’s use of bright, white light, gave the film a modern edge that’s still impactful 20 years later. Hilary Swank and Robin Williams also star.

Memento (2000)

Only Nolan’s second feature film, neo-noir mystery Memento catapulted the director into international fame: it premiered at Venice, was nominated for two Oscars, and now sits in the United States Library of Congress, selected for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

The absorbing story, which starred Guy Pearce and The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss, follows a man as he tries to track down his wife’s killer. He suffers from short-term memory loss which makes his task even more difficult. With simultaneous timelines and half the scenes ordered in reverse, the film was very much Nolan finding his stride.

Oppenheimer (2023)

Since its July release, reviewers have invariably described Oppenheimer as “boldly imaginative”, a “triumph, like witnessing history itself being split open”, a “brilliant achievement in formal and conceptual terms” and “extraordinary”. The Standard gave it five stars.

The endless praise is well-founded: from the moving violin-focused score by Ludwig Göransson, to the film’s ferocious courtroom scenes, to Cillian Murphy’s phenomenal performance – not to mention the star-studded supporting cast (which includes Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett and Benny Safdie) – Nolan’s biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer is the stuff of movie-lovers’ dreams.

The film comes in at number two because, given the heavy subject-matter – Oppenheimer and his team created the first atomic bomb – and its eye-watering three-hour run time, it’s not exactly the kind of film you’ll stick on the TV on a Sunday night.

Inception (2010)

Inception is the perfect film: a thriller with a terrible twist; a cerebral action movie with several torturous love stories at its heart. Aesthetically gorgeous and endlessly thought-provoking, in under two-and-a-half hours Nolan tells the labyrinthine story of a group of individuals who have managed to make a profit off dreams. They are skilled at both entering into them, and creating them, and are duly hired by the world’s wealthiest men to extract information and plant ideas.

When we meet the team, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb – the leader of the talented team (which includes Elliot Page, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – has been presented with the ultimate challenge: to sow a mental seed to make the heir of the conglomerate split up his father’s business when he inherits. He accepts the task, but building complicated imaginary worlds inside of imaginary worlds starts to take its toll. The exquisite Oscar-nominated score is one of Hans Zimmer’s most memorable.

The Oscars will take place on March 10; oscars.org