From Memento to Interstellar: our writers pick their favourite Christopher Nolan films

With the much-anticipated staggered release of Tenet, writers argue why each of Christopher Nolan’s 10 previous films should be seen as his best


Shot in parts over the course of a year on a shoestring budget of roughly $6,000, Christopher Nolan’s auspicious debut hearkens to the sort of lurid, low-budget productions made by Poverty Row studios in the Golden Age of Hollywood. And I don’t mean that as a dig. Quite the contrary, there’s something gloriously raw and rough-edged about this twisty curtain-raiser, a London-set, black-and-white neo-noir replete with crooks, murders and a Hitchcock blonde.

The story follows a nameless wannabe writer sucked into a life of crime by Cobb, a soigné man with a penchant for burglarizing the homes of random people and peering into the intimate details of their lives. The younger man is easily drawn into Cobb’s schemes – no surprise, considering his own voyeuristic tendency to follow strangers around on the streets. But what initially seems like straightforward intrigue (albeit told as a flashback) fractures into smaller, scrambled pieces as Nolan screws with the film’s chronology to loosen our grip on reality. With its non-linear structure and final act aha moment, and its fascination with the slippery nature of identity and memory, Following announces with remarkable clarity the career that would follow.

Yet his first feature captures his enduring fixation with the subconscious with far more palpable, erotic energy than anything in the rest of his epic, but curiously sexless, oeuvre (a gritty, synth-heavy score by David Julyan certainly helps). It’s a bit like stumbling into Nolan’s bedroom and feeding on the private, messy details behind all his perfectionist masterminding. BLoayza


Twenty years ago, Christopher Nolan released the movie that was to make his name: Memento, starring Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss. This was a complex thriller and a daring experiment with narrative which succeeded also in being a pregnant meditation on time, memory and identity. Memento was a dazzlingly stylish and accomplished piece of work which was agile, witty, disquieting and fun all at once. Nolan didn’t seem to be an epic film-maker at this stage (the misleading term “Kubrickian” had yet to be attached) but he announced something excitingly ambitious and Memento also prefigured the unashamedly cerebral approach of later, bigger pictures such as Interstellar, Inception and the most recent Tenet.

Pearce plays a guy who wakes up one day with memory loss, having apparently been hit over the head. But it’s his short-term memory he’s lost – his long-term memory, full of anguish and horror, is still in place. Now he must catch the man who he’s certain attacked him and murdered his wife, but as he keeps losing his memory hour by hour, he must fanatically take Polaroids of key informants and also tattoo vital information on his skin to make sure he doesn’t lose and forget it. His raddled, agonised body has become the grotesque simulacrum of his existence.

At the time, I felt it was like an Oliver Sacks case-study written by Raymond Chandler. In the two decades that have followed the movie’s release, dementia has become one of the most urgent issues of our time, with a population increasingly burdened with a memory in the long term, but not in the short term. Memento now seems more relevant, more poignant than ever. PB


Christopher Nolan’s work is hardly known for its sunny disposition but for sheer unrelenting sadness, his first studio movie, a 2002 remake of 1997’s Insomnia, takes quite some beating. It’s also, cruelly, his brightest film visually, a murky story told within an unforgivably and oppressively darkness-free Alaskan summer, without anywhere for characters to hide from the things they’ve done and the guilt that lingers.

In one of his finest and most restrained performances, Al Pacino plays a weathered detective, whose past weighs heavy, a career filled with impossible decisions he’s had no choice but to live with, the cost of each festering beneath a hardened surface. It’s a character study of a flawed man, a description that could easily be attached to many of Nolan’s films but Insomnia gives us a knottier and more substantial examination than most, a difficult drama with the trappings of a crime thriller, cutting deeper than most glossy summer releases would ever dare.

While the film works well as a sunny neo-noir (a neo-blanc, perhaps), as it tightens it transforms into something far grander, a piercing tragedy of considerable scale, of a man finally confronting the demons he’s spent decades running away from. Pacino’s descent becomes more heartbreaking as he crumbles further, as he spars with a wonderfully insidious Robin Williams and as he tries to save a plucky Hillary Swank from making the same questionable choices he’s made. In a filmography that, for me, has now become a little too mechanical, Insomnia remains Nolan’s most human film, populated by people rather than pawns and uncomfortable, disquieting truths about the horrible things we can do and the devastating price of having to live with them. BLee

Batman Begins

Even the normally comic-book ambivalent (me, for example) were given pause by the bravura film-making, the psychological nuance and the textured approach to character in the first of Nolan’s three Batman films. It raised the bar for spectacle cinema – after Batman Begins, any tentpole extravaganza which tried to solely dazzle with showy pyrotechnics without delivering on the meat of an emotionally compelling story, without showcasing an awards-level performance, felt like a waste of time. The film represented a gritty, existentially knotted reboot for the Bat-franchise but, more importantly, it gave Nolan access to the kind of budgets and studio trust that would allow him to expand his vision and ambition. It was a crucial turning point in his career.

There’s much to admire about Batman Begins, not least the fact that it stars Christian Bale: undoubtedly the actor who has most satisfyingly filled the batsuit to date. It introduced an awesome incarnation of the Batmobile which was part monster-truck, part jet-propelled weaponised Humvee.

It forced us to stare into Cillian Murphy’s Arctic blue eyes and see terror and madness within. It harnessed the fears that lurk in the shadows of Bruce Wayne’s psyche, wormed its way into the flaws in his character. It gave us a glimpse of the deft visual sleights of hand which would become the film-maker trademark – a ninja training scene in which Wayne’s identity shifts between masked figures, like a human game of find the lady, is pure Nolan. But what sets the film apart for me is the flicker of wry humour which illuminates even the darkest moments. A game-changer. WI

The Prestige

Nolan used a movie about magic to make a statement about the magic of the movies, perhaps the most personal he’s ever allowed in his left-brained oeuvre. In this twisty turn-of-the-century period piece, the monomaniacal need to answer the nagging question of “how’d he do that?” engulfs a pair of rival prestidigitators, much in the same way it would consume a movie director obsessed with the technical mechanisms behind these fantastical illusions. The flashy showman Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and pizzazzless genius Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) spend years spying and sabotaging and one-upping, driven by jealousy and the need for glory in equal measure. To the auteur’s signature gumbo of dead wives and simmering regrets, the labyrinthine plot adds lookalikes, twins, clones and transatlantic parallels. (While the tricksters have it out in England, David Bowie’s mannered Nikola Tesla goes to war with Thomas Edison over in the States.)

From this point in his career onward, Nolan would limit his output to massive spectacles dwarfing The Prestige in terms of scale. But this feature, his last that could be conceivably labeled “mid-budget”, doubles as a rationale for that insatiable ambition. He can’t stop pushing the limits of physical possibility through the wonders of practical special effects, a more inherently noble and craftsmanlike pursuit than the pre-viz CGI laziness favored by some, ahem, other cinematic universes. Detractors have charged Nolan’s work with sacrificing emotional resonance for technological intricacy; here, he successfully coaxes the former from the latter, exposing the agonies and ecstasies of what would otherwise seem like behind-the-scenes jerry-rigging. CB

The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan’s movies can feel expansive, exploring the depths of our subconscious in Inception or the farthest reaches of the universe in Interstellar. And yet, their preoccupations are usually hermetic. More often than not, Nolan’s movies would fuss over how images, memory and time interact and function in cinema, rather than clock what’s going on in the world. Just look at Dunkirk, a (whitewashed?) second world war movie that flattens humanity into positions on an imaginary clock.

The Dark Knight is that rare Nolan movie that peeks its head out from a film geek’s shell, engaging with the War on Terror and breathing in the fear and anxieties of that time. The most startling example of that is an al-Qaida style video starring Heath Ledger’s Joker. Meanwhile, Christian Bale’s caped crusader resorts to extraordinary rendition and Patriot Act-level surveillance. In the film’s pivotal sequence, Batman brutally interrogates the Joker, nodding to US torture tactics, and gets misinformation as a result.

While The Dark Knight is the Nolan movie most engaged with the real world, the Joker, is the most unhinged from it. Ironically, he’s Nolan’s greatest creation. There’s a reason Ledger is the only actor to ever score a nomination from the director’s films. The people in Nolan’s movies can end up pawns to overarching themes and ideas. Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is a casualty in this case, twisting his humanity to fit the grander scheme. But Ledger’s Joker thrives in that environment. He’s not a person but a thematic device that triggers reactions. He’s uninhibited by back-story, selfish motivations and humanity’s limits. He’s a self-described man without a plan, free to manifest chaos and watch our world burn. RS


It is easy to be cynical about Inception, Christopher Nolan’s bendy one-last-job in a dreamscape heist film released in 2010. The plot is difficult to parse and impossible to firmly grasp for long, despite dialogue that could double as Dream Sharing wiki entries. It’s neither Nolan’s best nor most acclaimed film – some have called it self-obsessed tautology, a baffling “let’s throw money at four dream levels” indulgence – but I’ve always had a soft spot for Inception as one of the first movies that left me dizzied, an audacious spectacle that folded the streets of Paris and my brain over on itself.

Nolan is, as evidenced by the protracted theatrical gamble of Tenet, a connoisseur of the cinematic experience, and Inception was, above and beyond his other films, a specific feel: generative, galaxy-brained, chasmic (cue: Hans Zimmer). I still do not understand the plot despite combing through the movie and its still-active Reddit forums several times, but watching Inception felt then, and still now, expansive and hopeful. Spinning around its conundrums tucked in dreams-within-dreams, peppered with decent one-liners and a stellar lineup of actors (Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard – Nolan’s casting solid as ever), seemed to spiral somewhere; Inception felt far-reaching rather than meaningless, which is more than I can say for most other thought circles of the past decade. To this day, I can’t think about the weird mood hangovers of sleep without thinking of Inception – the movie has permanently implanted in my mind the idea of implanting an idea through a dream, which is perhaps the best praise one can give it. AH

The Dark Knight Rises

All of Nolan’s films are designed for multiple viewings, but none requires it quite like The Dark Knight Rises. The set pieces are predictably great, but the story seems needlessly intricate and frustratingly opaque. What do an underfunded orphanage, a clean energy reactor, a leather-clad cat burglar, and a proletarian revolution have to do with each other? For a time, it seems like only Nolan himself knows, and it’s hard to appreciate anything happening in the film with your brain working overtime.

With repeated viewings, however, the pieces of Nolan’s design click into place, and while the plot doesn’t necessarily enthrall, understanding it allows you to relax and let the film’s poetry wash over you. Much like its predecessor, The Dark Knight, it’s the story of a city, standing in for society as a whole, we’re not sure is worth saving. Bane destroys the power structures of Gotham, gives the city back to the people, and watches them overreach, brutally balancing the scales of justice.

The rich thrown out of their Park Avenue apartments and left to fend for themselves on the streets, the kangaroo courts in which guilt is predetermined and victims are left to choose their method of death; even Bane himself, a strongman whose ability to break the shallow bonds of our civilization is both terrifying and alluring. Sure, Batman saves the city because that’s what a Batman does, but the film admirably ignores the urge to resolve the ambiguities of power and revolution. Most of Nolan’s works leave you dazzled by his imagination and delighted by his narrative trickery. This one just leaves a mark. NG


Interstellar is thrilling, unpredictable, gorgeous-to-look-at, and genuinely profound, which I recognize some may scoff at considering it concludes with higher-dimensional beings teaching Matthew McConaughey to wind a wristwatch.

A common complaint with Nolan is that is his formal adroitness comes at the expense of humanity. I take Interstellar as the director challenging this criticism, exploring very basic tragedies while telling the grandest-scale story possible. The sequence of Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper impotently watching his children grow into adults wounded by departure has been the stuff of online memes for years. But the emotion of lost time at light speed still resonates. People near death must accept that their loved ones will live on without them, and without their guidance. But when they are gone, they at least don’t have to see it. Cooper does. It’s an unbearable punishment, and achingly sad.

Comedy, of course, is subjective, but literal clown Bill Irwin voicing the stentorian sliver-slab robot TARS brings about three layers of jokes to each line delivery. That a generous portion of his screen time is spent bartering over how high his humor meter should be is even better. Even Nolan’s comic relief is appropriately crafty.

The stakes in Interstellar couldn’t be higher and there is no shortage of gloom. The message (that love is the Grand Unifying Theory, basically) might be corny, but with all the Hans Zimmer pipe organ arpeggios and cool special effects, Nolan more than sells it. JH


Nolan’s original stories can often feel as if everything is subservient to the central conceit, but Dunkirk showed how effective his trademarked techniques can be when applied to someone else’s story. Dunkirk was conceived and made before the 2016 Brexit referendum, but it was released into the thick of Britain’s culture war. It had a political minefield to negotiate. But rather than pandering to patriotism, Dunkirk uses it as cover, to smuggle into cinemas what must rank as the most avant-garde war movie ever made.

It is a movie with barely any dialogue or named characters; instead it proceeds with elemental simplicity. Nolan’s penchant for tricksy chronology is deployed with elegant restraint: three storylines running at different speeds, which intersect for a rousing climax. And complementing the minimalist story are some awesomely maximalist visuals, which, as we all know, Nolan is rather good at. Not only are there moments of nail-baiting tension and flinch-in-your seat combat, Dunkirk delights in semi-abstract compositions: the snowfall of propaganda pamphlets, bodies huddled on jetties or lined up on beaches, expanses of serene ocean.

The soundtrack is a work of art in itself: a bombardment of subsonic rumblings, shrieking klaxons and ever-escalating tension. It all fits together seamlessly, forming one sober, immersive, visceral experience. The full power of cinema is deployed to communicate the full the terror and chaos of war. SR


Beatrice Loayza, Peter Bradshaw, Benjamin Lee, Wendy Ide, Charles Bramesco, Radheyan Simonpillai, Adrian Horton, Noah Gittell, Jordan Hoffman and Steve Rose

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