Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer
Essential Christopher Nolan Films to Watch
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With a career spanning 25 years and countless genres, two-time Oscar winner Christopher Nolan has cemented himself as one of the most recognizable and respected auteurs of the modern era.

Nolan has known he wanted to be a director since he was a boy. Born in London, he became obsessed with Star Wars at a young age, and by the age of 7, began shooting movies using his father's Super 8. Nolan later studied English literature at University College London, where he was president of the film society and shot his first short film, Larceny. UCL is also where he met his future wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas.

A leading filmmaker of the 21st century, Nolan is best known for his brain-teasing blockbusters. Created alongside Thomas, his blend of intricate plots and cinematic spectacle has resulted in a body of work that truly must be seen — and heard — on the big screen to be fully appreciated. Over the years, he has curated a close-knit group of collaborators, including stars Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman.

With Oppenheimer, Nolan created his masterpiece. An IMAX-sized biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Murphy), the film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Directing.

"Movies are just a little bit over 100 years old. I mean, imagine being there 100 years into painting or theater," Nolan remarked while accepting his Oscar. "We don't know where this incredible journey is going from here. But to know that you think that I'm a meaningful part of it means the world to me."

Here, A.frame looks back at the essential films of Nolan's career.

1
Following
1998
Following
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Shot in gritty black-and-white 16mm, Nolan's debut feature uses the template of a London crime film to introduce the manipulation of time and the twisting of narrative that would become his storytelling signatures. Shot on weekends for over three months utilizing extensive rehearsals, the film charts a nameless young man (played by Jeremy Theobald) as his practice of following strangers around the city to glean material for his novel entangles him in a world of gangsters and a possible femme fatale.  

2
Memento
2000
Memento
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Nolan's masterful sophomore feature, the psychological thriller Memento was an immediate sensation on the indie film scene and launched his career. Here, he adopts the story points and style of film noir with a novel twist: the film unfolds chronologically in reverse. This brave choice was partly done to reflect the short-term memory loss of the film's protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), who is seeking the man responsible for his wife's death with the aid of Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). Intermittent linear flashbacks add to the layers of the film's intricate twists, which culminate in a devastating conclusion (or its beginning, if you prefer).

Nolan's script is based on a short story written by his brother Jonathan Nolan, and at the 73rd Oscars, Memento was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, as well as Best Film Editing for film editor Dody Dorn's extraordinarily innovative cut of this groundbreaking thriller.

3
Insomnia
2002
Insomnia
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The sole remake of Nolan's career is an Americanized take on a 1997 Norwegian crime film of the same title with Stellan Skarsgård — albeit with several changes here, including a significantly darker ending. Shot on location in Alaska and British Columbia, the film stars Al Pacino as a cop who's investigating a young woman's murder and teams up with local detective Hilary Swank. The film was startling at the time for its menacing performance by Robin Williams, cast very much against type here in the first of several very dark roles throughout the decade. Insomnia has since been singled out by Nolan as one of his favorites.  

4
Batman Begins
2005
Batman Begins
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Nolan entered the blockbuster Hollywood arena with this singular take on DC Comics’ legendary crime fighter of Gotham and his millionaire alter ego, Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale in what would ultimately become a cinematic trilogy. Repeat players like Cillian Murphy (terrifying here as Scarecrow), Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe and Michael Caine were introduced to the Nolan 'verse here, and Bale became a full-fledged star while facing off against the mysterious leader of criminal organization League of Shadows and kindling a romance with assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes).

At the 78th Oscars, Batman Begins earned cinematographer and frequent Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister his first of four Oscar nominations. His first Oscar win would come with Inception.

5
The Dark Knight
2008
The Dark Knight
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Nolan first dove into the super-sized possibilities of shooting on IMAX with this superhero sequel. The scope expands considerably from Batman Begins, which questions the ethics of a surveillance state raised through dual plotlines involving the Joker's (Heath Ledger) disruptive crime spree with a message and the shining hope of Gotham public servants, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who experiences a colossal fall from grace. Returning composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer also provide a dynamic, bass-heavy score that matches the scale of the visuals on-screen.

The Dark Knight made history with Ledger's posthumous Oscar win for Supporting Actor for his indelible performance as the Joker. In addition, The Dark Knight won Best Sound Editing at the 82nd Oscars, with eight total nominations.

6
Inception
2010
Inception
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Viewers still love to debate the details (especially the final shot) of this ultra-twisty heist film about a break-in staged within the mind itself. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, the head of an intrepid team of consciousness crackers who dive into several action scenarios to crack a secret inside the brain of Robert Fischer (Murphy), the heir to a business empire. A balletic performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard’s uncanny turn as Cobb’s late wife Mal, and mind-bending imagery — including Paris folding up on itself — are just a few of the many highlights in this philosophical and emotional sci-fi action thriller.

Inception took home four Oscars in 2011: Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects, with eight total nods including Nolan's first Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

7
Interstellar
2014
Interstellar
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Though he had flirted with sci-fi elements in his previous films, Nolan fully embraced the genre for the first time with this sprawling story of a team of astronauts, including Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, whose journey through a wormhole is tied to the only possible salvation for a rapidly dying Earth and its population. The role of time and its effects on parent-child relationships takes center stage here, with portions of the story unfolding at different speeds that pay off with an unusual and heartfelt conclusion.

Interstellar earned five Oscar nominations for Zimmer's organ-laced original score, as well as production design, sound editing, and sound mixing. The film ultimately won Best Visual Effects at the 88th Oscars.

8
Dunkirk
2017
Dunkirk
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One of England's most famous moments from World War II had already been adapted on film multiple times, but never like this Nolan rendition unfolding over three different time speeds, reflecting the efforts via land, sea, and air to evacuate a large, stranded group of Allied soldiers from certain death on the French coast. Spectacular combat scenes and white-knuckle moments of suspense highlight this intricate new take on the World War II epic, with the stacked cast including Murphy, Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles, and Mark Rylance.

Dunkirk received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Nolan's first Directing nod, with wins for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing for Nolan's frequent collaborator Lee Smith.

9
Tenet
2020
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Nolan returned to sci-fi with yet another challenging puzzle film, here spinning time forwards and backwards as onetime CIA agent John David Washington and ambiguous handler Robert Pattison use highly unorthodox means to stop a catastrophic terrorist attack engineered by Branagh. By this point, it had become a tradition to use the openings of Nolan’s films as early promotional hooks, with this film’s stylish initial opera house siege drumming up excitement without giving away much about the plot itself. Still being dissected today, the film pushes Nolan's action approach and intellectual gamesmanship to new heights of tantalizing abstraction.

At the 93rd Oscars, Tenet won Best Visual Effects and received an addition nomination for Best Production Design.

10
Oppenheimer
2023
Oppenheimer
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Adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's biography American Prometheus, Oppenheimer is Nolan's biopic about theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb," and his work with the Manhattan Project during World War II. The film marks Nolan's sixth collaboration with Murphy, who stars as Oppenheimer, with an ensemble that also includes Emily Blunt as his wife, Katherine "Kitty" Oppenheimer, and Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, who served as the head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission during Oppenheimer's 1954 security clearance hearings.

At the 96th Oscars, Oppenheimer was the winningest film of the year, taking home seven Oscars including two for two: Best Picture and Best Director, both of which were firsts for the filmmaker.

"When you make a film on a large scale, obviously, you have to believe there's some audience for it out there," Nolan told A.frame. "The response from people around the world far exceeded anything that I imagined possible. Winning this recognition from my peers is just the icing on the cake."

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