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The Best Thrillers of Christopher Nolan, Ranked

Tenet may have flopped, but these certainly didn't.

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  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros. and Syncopy

Christopher Nolan has become a celebrated and influential figure within Hollywood. Known for his unique vision, Nolan has created many expectation-shattering films. Ambitious and imaginative, Nolan’s films are marked by their intricate plots, unconventional methods of storytelling, and dazzling cinematography. 

Consistently impressing fans and critics alike, Nolan has worked on projects that range from the neo-noir films of his early career, like Following and Memento, to big blockbusters, like Inception and most recently Tenet.

His talent and success have given him a powerful voice within the film industry, which he recently used to speak out about Warner Brothers’ controversial decision to release their slate of movies for 2021 to theaters and HBO Max simultaneously. He criticized Warner Brothers’ decision and the lack of notice they gave to many top stars, directors, and producers, in his comments to The Hollywood Reporter.

Having shaped the industry over the past two decades, Nolan’s remarks carry weight. His films have made him a force within the industry. To see exactly how Nolan became such a prominent voice and well-respected auteur, we've collected Nolan’s captivating films below, leading up to his most exciting thrillers. 

11. Following (1998)

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  • Photo Credit: Next Wave Films

Nolan debuted his first feature length film Following in 1998. Just beginning his career, Nolan wrote, directed, photographed, and edited the film himself– piecing it together on a shoestring budget.

A neo-noir crime thriller, Following centers on a young writer who trails people through London as inspiration for his work. But when he becomes fixated on one man in particular, he finds himself pulled into a criminal underworld, and becomes increasingly caught up amongst a cast of shifty characters. Well received by critics, Nolan’s sharp and edgy Following began to hint at his potential in the industry. 

10. Insomnia (2002)

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  • Photo Credit: Alcon Entertainment

An original take on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, Insomnia follows two Los Angeles detectives sent to solve a murder in Alaska. Investigating the meticulous killing of a teenage girl, the detectives arrange a straightforward sting operation. But the raid goes horribly wrong and its fallout creates an even more complicated set of circumstances that gives rise to new torment and lies. A gripping psychological thriller starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank, Nolan’s Insomnia was a critical success as well as a box office hit.

Related: 23 Killer Crime Movies of the 21st Century 

9. Interstellar (2014)

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  • Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures

Despite being a science fiction film, commended for its accurate rendering of many scientific theories, Interstellar still conveys much of the same tension as many more traditional thrillers. In a far-reaching and desperate fight for survival, a team of engineers and scientists are tasked with saving humanity. After leaving Earth and traveling through a wormhole, the team must determine which prospective planets are best suited to establish a human colony. Along their expansive journey, the team is faced with grueling conditions, a warped sense of time, and difficult decisions. 

With crisp visual effects and intellectually engaging concepts, Interstellar is akin to Nolan’s earlier work Inception. However, with spells of desolate space travel mixed with sporadic action, the film is less intense than some of his other thrillers. 

8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

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  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

The final installment in The Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises follows Batman as he tries to save Gotham from a new adversary. Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Batman must come out of hiding to save his city against Bane, a rogue from the League of Shadows who has his mind set on the ultimate destruction of Gotham.

Though Nolan himself was originally unsure about making another Batman movie in the already highly acclaimed series, the conclusion to the trilogy somehow managed to live up to the high bar set by his first two Batman films. 

7. Dunkirk (2017)

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  • Photo Credit: Syncopy

Based on history and grounded in reality, Dunkirk follows the WWII evacuation of Allied troops from Northern France in 1940. On the defensive, Allied forces were being hemmed in by advancing German soldiers. Pushed to the French coast, their only hope was evacuation ships coming by way of Britain.

Seen through the perspectives of individuals on land, in the air, and at sea, Nolan moves back and forth from different points of view. Relying heavily on cinematography and sound, in place of dialogue, Nolan creates a sensory experience, marked by its creeping sense of unease and foreboding atmosphere. Though Dunkirk marked a departure from Nolan’s more elaborate and twisting films like Inception and Interstellar, it received widespread praise and became the highest grossing World War II movie ever made.

6. Tenet (2020)

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  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros. and Syncopy

Postponed multiple times and released amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Tenet did not receive the blockbuster theatrical opening that so often accompanies Nolan’s films. However, the film shared other similarities to Nolan's prior works, including its minding-bending plot and stunning visuals. 

Following a secret agent who is part of an international espionage organization known as Tenet, the film traces his efforts to invert time and prevent the outbreak of World War III. With daring action sequences and sharp twists and turns, Tenet brings together all the best parts of Christopher Nolan's films. 

Related: 9 Thrilling Cold War Movies for Super Spies and Double Agents 

5. Batman Begins (2005)

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  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Taking the Batman franchise in an entirely different direction, Nolan’s Batman Begins provides a dark backstory to explain the origins of the hero. Spanning from his childhood, to his training, to his return to Gotham, Batman Begins reboots the franchise in a deep and compelling manner. It casts classic moments in the hero’s life like, his parent’s tragic murder, his face off with the League of Shadows, and his take down of The Scarecrow in a more personal light. 

Remaining grounded in its contemporary setting and feeling, Nolan’s Batman Begins creates a world that seems close at hand. The film’s heavier mood and more realistic context earned Nolan widespread praise and revitalized the superhero genre. Often referenced in discussions of other films, Batman Begins left a lasting influence as a touchstone and source of inspiration within the movie industry.

4. The Prestige (2006)

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  • Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros.

Centered on the bitter rivalry between two magicians at the end of the 19th century, The Prestige tells a mesmerizing and suspenseful tale of illusions, sabotage, and ever more dangerous stakes. As each tries to out-do the other, the two enemies are driven toward the brink by their obsession.

The thriller’s star-studded cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, and David Bowie was largely praised for their performance. Similarly Nolan’s film was commended for its cinematography, and was nominated for an academy award for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.

3. Memento (2000)

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  • Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment

Memento not only became Nolan’s breakout film, but also earned widespread praise, a host of nominations and awards, and a spot on many all-time best films lists. The film follows a young man left with anterograde amnesia after a horrible injury. Only able to remember the past fifteen minutes, he uses a series of polaroid photographs, notes, and tattoos to try to track down one of the men who brutally attacked him and killed his wife. Making use of a nonlinear narrative, as he did in later films like Inception and Interstellar, Nolan’s neo-noir thriller winds towards a shocking conclusion. 

Related: 13 of the Best Neo-Noir Films You Can't Miss 

2. Inception (2010)

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  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Wrapping sci-fi and action into one, Nolan’s Inception packs mind-bending twists and turns into a film that travels in and out of the human consciousness. Known as “extractors,” a duo of professional thieves use experimental tactics to steal intelligence from the unconscious minds of their marks. But when presented with a more complicated job, to implant an idea into a subject’s mind, their work takes on entirely new dimensions. To carry off the “inception,” the thieves and their team must create a multileveled dream within their subject’s mind. 

Intricately detailed and thoroughly plotted, Nolan’s Inception blurs the lines between reality and dreams to create a masterpiece that keeps its audience lost in thought long after the credits roll. Challenging viewers intellectually, Nolan’s Inception strayed from many other blockbuster movies that purely entertain. Achieving commercial and critical success, Nolan's Inception combined complex and engaging storylines, the riveting performance of an ensemble cast, and Academy Award winning visuals, sounds, and cinematography to create a striking impact and unforgettable film. 

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

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  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Topping the success of Batman Begins, Nolan’s The Dark Knight brought Batman to new heights. Building off the dark mood of the preceding film, The Dark Knight followed Batman’s battle against the Joker– played by Heath Ledger, who posthumously received an Academy Award for the role. Expanding its scope, Nolan drew in the police, justice system, and elites of Gotham to tell a story that probed beyond criminals and vigilantes to deliver a captivating, nuanced, and affecting film.

The Dark Knight was lauded for everything from its screenplay, to its cinematography, to its performances. Praised across the board, fans and critics alike celebrated the movie. It not only grossed more than one billion dollars worldwide, but is considered one of the best films of the 2000s – and is certainly one of the best thrillers in Nolan's body of work. 

Featured still from 'Tenet' via Warner Bros and Syncopy