Rough Cut Rankings: Nolan Performances
Like many of the great auteurs, Christopher Nolan has built a considerable stable of recurring actors across his filmography. It’s no surprise that actors jump at the chance to work with Nolan; his films are almost universally well-regarded and always widely seen, and even amidst bombastic action or sci-fi premises, they often provide actors with more material to work with than your average blockbuster. Unlike a troupe of stalwarts working together in various permutations, however, Nolan’s work features a wide range of actors who make just a couple of appearances, usually in close succession. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, he spreads the wealth around; actors rarely appear in more than 2 or 3 of his movies.
In honor of Nolan month here at Rough Cut, I asked our staff to rate the performances in every one of his movies on a 10-point scale, and I averaged out all of our scores to assemble our official Rough Cut Nolan Performance Rankings. We ended up with a quantified top 25 featuring performances from all but one of his released feature films so far (with apologies to all the Following fans out there). With any exercise like this, some favorites will be left off (catch me outside my home screaming about the Hathaway disrespect), but that just leaves plenty of room for the best part of any list: arguing about the results.
Here we go!
Tom Wilkinson - Batman Begins
Kicking off the list with a bang is British character actor Tom Wilkinson as Carmine “the Roman” Falcone, a Gotham City crime boss and early antagonist in Batman Begins. Wilkinson makes a full meal out of a pretty minor role, highlighting Nolan’s skill with directing actors and foreshadowing similarly stacked casts in later Batman movies.
Rebecca Hall - The Prestige
Gary Oldman - the Dark Knight trilogy
Coming in at the 23rd spot are Rebecca Hall in The Prestige and Gary Oldman in the Dark Knight trilogy. Like Wilkinson, Hall and Oldman are a perfect representation of the depth of Nolan’s casts, where even the fifth-billed cast members are extremely overqualified actors knocking supporting roles out of the park.
Marion Cotillard - Inception
Cillian Murphy - Inception
Cillian Murphy - Dunkirk
Ellen Page - Inception
Joe Pantoliano - Memento
A traffic jam here in 19th place. Nolan’s movies have a tendency to be very male-dominated, but both Ellen Page and Marion Cotillard leave a powerful enough impression in Inception to crack the list here. They’re joined by Joe Pantoliano, Memento’s only representative in the top 25, and fellow Inception cast member Cillian Murphy, who also double dips with his role as “shivering soldier” in Dunkirk. Spoiler alert: it’s not his last appearance on the list for Murphy, who has starred in five Nolan movies (the second most, after Michael Caine).
Michael Caine - the Dark Knight trilogy
Fionn Whitehead - Dunkirk
Speaking of Michael Caine, the legendary screen veteran is Nolan’s most prolific collaborator, appearing in every one of the director’s films since 2005, including the upcoming Tenet. Nolan has described the two-time Oscar winner as his “good luck charm,” and he makes his only appearance on our list as Alfred Pennyworth in the Dark Knight trilogy. He shares the 17th spot with his near-polar opposite: Fionn Whitehead, who made his feature debut as the lead of Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Tom Hardy - Dunkirk
Al Pacino - Insomnia
Tom Hardy makes his first appearance on the list at the 14th spot with Dunkirk, alongside Al Pacino, who gives what might have been his last great screen performance in 2002’s Insomnia, if not for his double-comeback in last year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman.
Christian Bale - the Dark Knight trilogy
Jessica Chastain - Interstellar
Tom Hardy - The Dark Knight Rises
Tom Hardy - Inception
Ken Watanabe - Inception
Another five-way tie here as we move into the top ten (the somewhat inevitable result of a poll with only five respondents). Tom Hardy makes his second and third appearances on the list with two very different performances, the hulking, inimitable Bane and the suave, mercurial Eames. Joining the Toms Hardy here are Jessica Chastain, who anchors Interstellar’s terrestrial B-plot, Christian Bale’s dual roles as Bruce Wayne and the Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy, and Ken Watanabe, Inception’s secret weapon.
Robin Williams - Insomnia
Over the course of his career, Robin Williams chased numerous parts to try and subvert his comedic persona, and never better than in Insomnia. Standing toe-to-toe with the great Al Pacino in a back-and-forth game of cat and mouse, Williams comes away with the victory in our team’s eyes as he locks down 8th place.
Christian Bale - The Prestige
Aaron Eckhart - The Dark Knight
Christian Bale showed up earlier in this list playing dual roles as Bruce Wayne and Batman in the Dark Knight series, and he does it again here with his excellent performance(s) in The Prestige. Nolan clearly likes characters that allow his actors to play two sides of the same coin, and so do we: Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent/Two Face fills out the other half of our sixth place tie.
Cillian Murphy - the Dark Knight trilogy
Mark Rylance - Dunkirk
Another tie, another repeat appearance. Often overshadowed in the cultural lexicon by the other villains in the Dark Knight trilogy, Murphy’s Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow made enough of an impression on us across those three films to break into the top five. Murphy is the highest-ranked repeat player on this list; the rest of the top five have only appeared in a single Nolan film. That includes Mark Rylance, who followed up his Oscar win for Bridge of Spies with a starring role (and an excellent sweater) in Dunkirk.
Matthew McConaughey - Interstellar
Rylance wasn’t the only one to follow up an Oscar with a headlining role in a Nolan Picture. In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey proved that the McConaissance was no fluke and delivered the finest performance of his career. It’s interesting that Nolan isn’t considered more of an actors’ director, because based on his work with McConaughey (and the rest of our top three), he absolutely should be.
Hugh Jackman - The Prestige
I was a little surprised to see Hugh Jackman hit the number two spot here, but upon rewatch, The Prestige might be the best performance he’s ever given. It combines the two things he’s best at: slick, crowd pleasing theatricality and long-simmering rage. It’s Greatest Showman by way of Wolverine: a near-perfect showcase for Jackman’s many talents. How could it be better? Four words. The Prestige: The Musical.
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
In what should come as a surprise to no one, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight tops our list. It’s an undeniable performance; the only one in a Nolan film recognized with an Oscar nomination to date (and of course, Ledger posthumously received the award). Over a decade later, and it’s still astounding to watch.
And there you have it. Where will the cast of Tenet fit in to the list? Only time will tell.