7 best performances in Christopher Nolan’s movies, ranked

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Christopher Nolan is back on the big screen with the biographical thriller Oppenheimer. Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who played a key role in developing the first nuclear weapons. Murphy and supporting player Robert Downey Jr. are receiving rave reviews across the board, with many critics considering them early contenders for the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars, respectively.

Rave reviews are not an abnormality for Nolan’s films — the auteur who revolutionized the comic book movie is behind many of the best sci-fi movies from the 2000s and 2010s. Still, Oscar talk for his leading actors is; after all, the late Heath Ledger remains the only performer to win an Oscar for acting in a Nolan film. However, his movies have several incredible performances, thanks to Nolan’s heavy, thought-provoking dialogue and the top talent he attracts to his projects. From deranged clowns to loyal butlers and femme fatales, here are the best performances in Christopher Nolan’s films.

7. Marion Cotillard (Inception)

Marion Cotillard as Mal aiming a gun at someone off-camera in Inception.

Widely considered one of the best movies of the 2010s, Inception stars an ensemble led by Leonardo DiCaprio. The plot centers on a group of thieves who infiltrate their target’s subconscious and steal information in the world of dreams. Tasked with planting an idea rather than stealing information, the group must venture ion a dangerous mission.

Nolan’s films are often deservedly criticized for their underdeveloped female characters, and Inception is no exception. However, Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard elevates the material, delivering one of the best takes on the noir femme fatale. As the shifting and dangerous Mal, Cotillard is alluring yet distant, cold and lethal, the perfect shadowy antagonist to a thrilling oneiric film.

6. Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight)

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent giving an interview in The Dark Knight.
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

When discussing the masterpiece that is The Dark Knight, most of the praise usually goes to Heath Ledger’s tour de force performance, deservedly so. However, the film has another excellent performance in Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Knight, whose fall from grace gives the film its most tragic layer.

Eckhart has one of the film’s toughest tasks. He must embody Dent’s righteous fight throughout the first half and sell his corruption during the third act, all while making it believable and compelling. The actor rises to the challenge, delivering a passionate and committed performance that is as vital to the film’s success as Christian Bale’s heroic take on Batman or Ledger’s villainous turn as the Joker.

5. Robin Williams (Insomnia)

Robin Williams and Al Pacino as Will Dormer and Walter Finch talking in Insomnia.
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

A remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, Nolan’s 2002 psychological thriller Insomnia stars Al Pacino and the late Robin Williams. The plot follows a police detective who accidentally shoots his partner while investigating a girl’s murder in Alaska. After the killer witnesses the act, the two form a shaky alliance to avoid prosecution for their crimes.

Williams shines as Walter Finch, Insomnia‘s eerie and cunning antagonist. The Oscar-winning actor delivers one of his most chilling portrayals as Finch, a precise, almost-charming, but still unsettling creation that ranks among his finest big-screen efforts. Williams might have been most famous for his comedic roles, but he excelled when playing dark, twisted figures, and Insomnia is the perfect example.

4. Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar)

Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in his astronaut suit looking to the distance in Interstellar.
Image via Legendary Pictures

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call Interstellar Nolan’s most ambitious movie. Set in a dystopian future where Earth is ravaged by blight, the story centers on a group of astronauts who undertake a dangerous mission and travel through a wormhole looking for a new home for humanity. Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, an ex-NASA pilot who leaves his family behind to go on the mission.

McConaughey has the difficult task of being Insterstellar‘s heart, a tall-enough order worsened by the plot’s cold and hardened approach. However, the actor succeeds, delivering a warm and engaging performance that keeps the film grounded, even when Nolan’s intellectual ambitions threaten to take it over the edge. Interstellar is among the all-time best space movies, largely thanks to Nolan’s uncompromising approach and McConaughey’s career-best work.

3. Michael Caine (The Dark Knight Rises)

Michael Caine as Alfred at a restaurant in The Dark Knight Rises.
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

The Dark Knight trilogy is undisputedly the best superhero saga ever to grace the big screen, and Sir Michael Caine is its beating heart. The two-time Oscar winner plays Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler who staunchly and unwaveringly supports him in his quest to become an avenging vigilante.

Nolan’s films can often seem overly cold and clinical, but Caine’s inexhaustible warmth prevents the Dark Knight trilogy from succumbing to its hyperrealistic despair. Caine delivers his finest work in the third film, the divisive The Dark Knight Rises. As Bruce reaches the end of his journey, the loyal Alfred must hold a mirror to his face and confront him with the man he has become, even at the expense of his love. Caine is heartbreaking as Alfred, providing the film with the emotional hook expected from the final film in a trilogy

2. Guy Pearce – Memento

Image via Summit Entertainment

The neo-noir psychological thriller Memento stars the underrated Guy Pearce opposite Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano. The story revolves around Leonard Shelby, a man dealing with anterograde amnesia that leaves him with short-term memory loss and unable to create new memories. Using pictures, notes, and tattoos, Leonard attempts to track down the men who attacked him and killed his wife.

Memento was Nolan’s ticket to the big leagues. The film earned him his first Oscar nomination and cemented him as a once-in-a-generation talent. However, it’s also a brilliant showcase for the familiar, but severely overlooked Pearce. The actor delivers a harrowing and magnetic performance as the amnesiac Leonard, crafting an astounding performance that seamlessly balances tension, desperation, and determination. It’s an incredibly tough act to pull off, yet Pearce does so with admirable aplomb and emerges victorious.

1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger as the Joker sitting down with Batman behind him in The Dark Knight.

What can be said about Heath Ledger’s now-iconic performance as the Joker that hasn’t already been covered? The late Australian actor reinvented the legendary character, leaning on the Clown Prince of Crime’s sociopathic and anarchic tendencies to redefine him for a new generation.

Ledger posthumously won the 2008 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. He remains the only performer to receive an Oscar nomination for acting in a Nolan film, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Ledger is haunting, yet mesmerizing in The Dark Knight, a cinematic monster of epic proportions that towers over other comic book villains. No performance will ever come close to touching Ledger’s take on the Joker, no matter how many new versions of the Joker come out.

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