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SYFY WIRE Oppenheimer

Ranking Christopher Nolan's Best Movies Before Oppenheimer: Inception, The Dark Knight & More

Lauded director Christopher Nolan has a laundry list of must-watch films, so let's we rank 'em!

By Tara Bennett
Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Oppenheimer (2023)

When you look at the track records of modern directors, Christopher Nolan possesses one of the strongest bodies of work out there. From his first film, Following (1998), to his latest, Oppenheimer (in theaters this Friday), there's literally not a dog in the bunch. There might be a sliding scale, which many have debated in terms of specific titles and their impact and overall cohesiveness, but no one goes to a Nolan film who isn't wowed by something original and visually stunning.

If early critical reactions to Oppenheimer are any indication when it comes to the opinions of mainstream audiences, all signs point to another winner on his C.V., with some critics saying this might actually be Nolan's best film yet.

As it's always a good time for a Nolan-movie marathon, SYFY WIRE is revisiting his entire theatrical catalog and assessing our preferences for his very best. So without further adieu, let's get to the rankings!

RELATED: Watch This 5-Minute First Look at Christopher Nolan’s Epic Oppenheimer

Ranking Christopher Nolan's Films

11. Following (1998)

Nolan's very first theatrical film that he wrote and directed, Following is a very low budget project that Nolan shot in black and white, very economically, so he wouldn't run out of 16mm film stock. His hands are over all parts of it, from the writing to the camera and the editing. It's an effective neo-noir thriller that certainly shows shades of what he would mature into later in his career.

10. Tenet (2020)

One of Nolan's more divisive efforts, with some hailing it as an ambitious experiment, while others labeled it a confusing, aurally muddy misfire. There's certainly some interesting visuals and performances to eke out in Tenet, but on the whole, the film's just not as cohesive as many of his best. 

9. Interstellar (2014)

The success of Interstellar is mostly determined by how moved you are by the father/daughter relationship that resides at its emotional core. Matthew McConaughey plays Joseph Cooper, with Jessica Chastain playing the adult iteration of his daughter, Murphy "Murph" Cooper. They do a fine job independently, but there's something a bit missing in the actual connections in the film. But there's lots of twisty real science laid into its structure that challenges the brain and is augmented by some incredible sequences that portray deep space travel in ways never seen before. 

8. Dunkirk (2017)

An admirable depiction of the grisly realities of World War II, Dunkirk puts audiences in the thick of battle almost as an immersion exercise. Harrowing and gripping, Nolan really succeeds in shattering that distance between audience and warfare. Not the easiest of watches, but a potent historical and visual representation of a war that changed the course of history.

7. Insomnia (2002)

A very underrated gem on Nolan's resume, Insomnia features two incredible performances by Al Pacino and Robin Williams. Set in Alaska during summer when there's a perpetual sun, Pacino plays an L.A. detective plagued by a terrible bout of insomnia as he tries to help the local police track down a killer. It's got an effective true crime vibe about it, but it's the exploration of the psyches of two men on opposite sides, playing a game of cat and mouse, that really leaves an impression. Williams is stellar playing against type.

6. Batman Begins (2005)

In Batman Begins, Nolan revitalized the beloved character by casting Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and playing everything as gritty and real. There wasn't a drop of kitsch or camp as far as the eye could see, and that made all the difference in putting some wind in the sails of the venerable comic book franchise. Nolan also staged one of the best car chases captured on cinema. 

RELATED: Christopher Nolan Explains How Atomic Blast in Oppenheimer Differs from The One in Dark Knight Rises

5. Inception (2010)

A story about thieves stealing from the subconscious part of people's brains is one hell of a heady concept, but Inception goes there. And Nolan underpinned that highest of concepts with some truly mind-boggling visuals that bent reality and left jaws-dropping. He assembled a fantastic cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio, and together they managed to make a very emotional story about the most existential of concepts. There's also something to be said about how much the visuals of Inception went on to influence a bevy of sci-fi films that have since followed.

4. Memento (2000)

Only Nolan's second film, but Memento remains the gold standard of non-linear storytelling. It's also a fantastic mystery. Guy Pearce knocked it out of the park as Leonard Shelby, a man suffering from a short-term memory problem that is tied to a mystery he's trying to piece together. Visually inventive, wholly original, and shockingly mature for a second film, it's a modern classic that holds up fantastically.

3. The Prestige (2006)

Nolan brought Bale with him to make this period piece about rival magicians and a seemingly impossible "trick" called "The Transported Man." Usually films that hinge on a reveal end up feeling lesser once the trick has been exposed, but The Prestige is the rare effort that is so richly told that it only gets better with repeat viewings. Bale and Hugh Jackman are exceptional foes, who give equally devastating performances. 

2. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The third film in Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Bruce Wayne's world gets a lot bigger with the introduction of Bane (Tom Hardy), Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the man who would be Robin, amongst others. More epic in scale, The Dark Knight Rises closes the story in a very satisfying way as Gotham is saved and Bruce chooses life. Nolan proves that comic book material treated seriously can be worthy cinema. 

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

In The Dark Knight, Nolan did the impossible and presented a fresh cinematic version of the Joker (Heath Ledger) that almost made us forget about Jack Nicholson's iconic rendition of the character. This sequel markedly improves upon what Nolan started in Batman Begins with a more engaging and emotional story that amps up the stakes for Bruce Wayne and his small circle. And then Ledger's Joker embodies the chaos and anarchy of the character that feels all-together unique and frightening. Shot partially in IMAX, Nolan immerses us into his Gotham with sweeping aerial shots and noir action capturing one of the best Batman stories ever.

Oppenheimer, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, drops with a bang July 21. Click here to pick up tickets!