I've been a movie enthusiast my whole life and been writing movie reviews for over 15 years.
As of this writing, writer/director Christopher Nolan’s newest movie Tenet has another (tentative) release date of September 3, 2020. Now available on disc and as of December 15th. I know a lot of things are out of our control, but I think all movie fans hope for a release date, any solid release date. If not, then this list is can be a primer for whenever Tenet drops into theaters.
Whether you love his movies or you think they’re just ‘Meh’ Christopher Nolan has found the alchemy to bring grand, heady ideas mixed with big budget spectacle. Obviously, not all his movies are entirely successful, but at the very least one has to respect that he swings for the fences with every film. Some of his characters are cardboard and more than a couple of his films can leave you cold, but you’re rarely bored and never regret seeing his movies on the big screen.
As per usual, details on Tenet’s story remain vague, but you can be sure that when you see it, a seemingly random plot point will be hammered into the viewer at least 3 or more times before its importance is revealed with about 20 minutes left in the movie.
Before Tenet’s released, here’s Christopher Nolan’s movies ranked one through ten(et).
1. Memento (2000)
For most of us back in 2001, this was our introduction to Christopher Nolan. The low-budget puzzle box movie for the new century. There were times when we felt like we might be lost, but because of Nolan’s ingenious screenplay, we were right where the movie needed the audience to be in every given moment and even then Nolan was 2 big steps ahead. Is it gimmicky? Yes, but what a gimmick. You could watch Memento linearly and the story would make sense but seeing it in its original form is genuinely thrilling in a way that most movies aren’t.
For most of Memento’s running time, the viewer and Leonard Shelby (a mesmerizing Guy Pearce) are discovering the movie as it progresses. Until…you get a new version of Unreliable Narrator.
If you’ve never seen it or if it’s been years since you’ve watched it. See it again. You usually pick something up you missed before. I know I do.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Hearkens back to a time when there was only 1(!!!) movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I know, 2008 was a long time ago as it’s hard to remember a time when Marvel wasn’t saturating the cineplexes with history’s most expensive television series released to theaters. The MCU, notwithstanding, The Dark Knight remains in the upper echelon of comic book movies and in many categories the best comic movie (emphasis on “movie” and not some fan service fantasy) ever made. If you saw in in theaters, TDK transcended as well as embraced its comic book origins.
Some like to quibble about Two-Face’s arc in the 3rd act and there are portions of it that are valid, but that 3rd act is better than most movies and it certainly was better and more engaging than The Reader. I only mention that afterschool Holocaust special because it inexplicably got nominated for Best Picture while The Dark Knight got robbed.
Heath Ledger got an Oscar for his Joker for the ages, but even he didn’t suck all the air of the movie. Because of Nolan, everyone in the cast had moments to shine and The Dark Knight remains a cinematic endgame.
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3. Inception (2010)
Cinephiles may remember that in 2010 The King’s Speech curiously won Best Picture. Yeah, that was pretty dumb. But for real people Inception was the movie of 2010. When gigaplexes were just starting to become hammered with a comic book movie every two week, Christopher Nolan gave us exhilarating piece of entertainment that mixed in highbrow dream theories but never lost sight that sometimes we just want to be entertained. You remember seeing it. You remember telling your friends about it, almost demanding that they see it. Did Dom make it back home (the consensus remains yes) or was he trapped in his dreams forever? It may have taken you a handful of viewings to be sure, but you were never tired of the ride.
There were times when I found Inception cold, but that was a very minor quibble in what proved to be more than mere diversion. It didn’t hurt to have a such a huge movie star playing a rather archetypical role. I still laugh every time I see Ken Watanabe’s character simply because he’s one of those characters you only see in the movies: The man that can afford EVERYTHING, therefore solving mundane implausibility in just a few seconds of screentime.
4. Batman Begins (2005)
I watched the movies, but I was never really a Batman fan. I am a fan of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy mostly because they never really feel like comic book movies. And because I love Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne as well as Batman. After the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher live action cartoons, there was something refreshing about a film that took itself seriously but never too seriously. Having an A-list cast (Morgan Freeman AND Gary Oldman?) embody comic book characters lent Begins a gravitas you never knew you needed but missed when it was missing (most Marvel movies). If you remember the “calling card” moment, you were hoping the upcoming sequel wouldn’t disappoint considering what you just watched.
5. Insomnia (2002)
Christopher Nolan’s follow up to Memento was a remake of an excellent Norwegian original. By far the darkest of Nolan’s films and remains a territory you wish he’d visit more often. Robin Williams quietly steals every scene he’s in as the ostensible villain of the movie even though he’s not the only one who’s committed a crime. There are times when you’re on Walter Finch’s side even though you really don’t want to be. Speaking of quiet, kudos to Nolan for eliciting one of Al Pacino’s less yell-y roles (comparatively) but no less intense. You wish Hilary Swank’s Ellie would have a little more edge to her aw-shucks character, but that seems to be more how the character is written more than how Swank plays her.
More than likely the Nolan movie you’ve seen the least. See it again when you get the chance.
6. The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige is another parlor trick of a movie, but with this cast, you hardly care. Hints at the darkness I love about Insomnia, but that ultimately disappears in a puff of smoke. I like the movie a lot, but the more I’ve seen it the more it rings hollow. One of Hugh Jackman’s best performances and (deceptively) great work by Christian Bale. Scarlett Johansson may have the best female character ever written by Nolan and Co, which is not saying much at all. Rewards repeat viewings, but only up to a point.
7. Dunkirk (2017)
I have to admit that one of the main reason Dunkirk is at this position on the list is because it’s the Nolan movie I’ve seen the least. I make up if I’d seen it more it might move past The Prestige but one never knows. One of the things I love about Nolan’s screenplay is that with 3 disparate threads to follow, the audience is never lost. Sure, most of the characters are written pretty broadly, but you don’t care because the movie’s momentum more than carries you through. Upon the first couple of viewings I felt the “time stamp” aspect of the movie was an unnecessary stunt only designed to call attention to itself. I still haven’t wavered on that opinion.
Spectacle and exposition. If you don’t get a lot of one you get a lot of the other. Released in theaters amidst the pandemic of 2020 and a relative box-office failure considering the cost. It’s a movie made to be seen in theaters as it’s pretty much the only way you’d forgive it’s weaknesses. Seen at home or on a phone, they’re as glaring as some of the plot holes as you’re able to pause the movie to see how you actually understood. Some of Nolan’s worst characterization juxtaposed with some of his best visuals, however thin. The lone female character of any importance (Elizabeth Debicki) is barely a cardboard character. How much you’re taken along for the ride is proportional to how much you forgive Tenet’s flaws. Needless to say you’ll need to see this twice which will expose and magnify both its strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully you’ve opened the right door, more or less.
9. Following (1998)
Christopher Nolan’s first feature film feels exactly how you’d expect a first movie to be. It’s messy. An astute viewer would be able to guess the ruse (I didn’t, I’m just saying an astute one would). You can tell Nolan was working within the boundaries of a limited budget. But it also has sequences of brilliance. You wish all first films were this accomplished.
10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
It’s the least of the Dark Knight trilogy but it’s still better than most Marvel movies by a wide margin. Mostly because it has an actual filmmaker behind the camera instead of a corporate mouthpiece. The Bane-taking-Gotham-hostage plot is ridiculous upon repeated viewings. Batman’s/Bruce Wayne’s final choices are also puzzling. But you notice those only after the credits roll. When you watch it, you’re swept up in Nolan’s vision.
11. Interstellar (2014)
Some of the shots are sublime and a portion of the sequences are visually stunning, but the main reason Interstellar is one this list at number 10 is because of all the fake crying. I got the feeling Nolan knows his films really don’t have an emotional center, that stimulate the mind more than they tug at the heart. With Interstellar he overcompensated by having characters cry at the most random and unearned times. I remember thinking while viewing this in theaters for the first time, “Someone’s going to cry now,” and being right more often than not. I still like movie very much but more than once Nolan’s reach exceeded his grasp.
A recap of Christopher Nolan’s films before Tenet. Maybe this time Nolan and his writers will finally have a fleshed-out female character. But based on his track record, probably not.