I’ve been working on this list of the top 20 of the greatest time travel movies ever, for a couple of years now. The problem though, has been that every time I learn about a new time travel movie that I’ve never seen it derails the writing of the list indefinitely. I was researching this list a couple years ago when I heard of the movie Timecrimes, and there went six months chatting with the director and completely immersing myself in that awesome movie. And a few months after that I discovered the clever little movie entitled Timelapse which introduced me to BP Cooper and Bradley King. It seems like every time I have a sewn up list, a new time travel movie drops in out of nowhere and derails this post. Or like when I found Coherence, and started chatting with the director James Byrkit and writer for the film. I just can’t seem to button this list up.
But I have honed my list and thrown out the movies that aren’t worthy that normally make everyone else’s lists of the best time travel movies. (Cough, Bill and Ted’s anyone?) Yes, you are very welcome for that. And I have tried to represent both the hardcore sci-fi interests as well as the more centrist-mainstream, easier to swallow time travel movies for those of you out there that aren’t completely hardcore about science fiction. But if you know me at all, you already know what movie has to be number one on this list. Its a forgone conclusion. But hopefully there’ll be a few new movies in this list of the top 20 of the greatest time travel movies ever.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Place in list – Honorary Mention Director – Collin Trevorrow
Safety Guaranteed begins with a simple enough, real life, Craig’s List ad: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. You must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” I can’t add a better summary than that.
The acting here is fantastic. The plot is brilliant. And the real question here is… is this really a time travel movie or not? Is this guy a complete nut job… or not? Which makes me wonder, what was I thinking dropping this movie on the list? Except for Duplass of course.
But from a time travel movie standpoint, this movie features time travel as the least pivotal part of this list and therefore, the honorary Mention. But with that, let’s start our official list off with number 20…
Place in list – #20 Director – Rian Johnson
Ok, so Looper was two really great movies. There was the time travel segment that was really really a great time travel movie. And there was this other part about a boy that could make it rain up in here. Two, totally different movies. Not even close to each other.
But I adored the Looper time traveling section… and I also adored the make it rain movie, but they can’t be the same movie. Just isn’t ok with me that Rian decided this was a good idea. But regardless, even in spite of the chaotic left turn at the little rainmaker, I think this movie warrants a place on this list. So there.
The Jacket (2005)
Place in list – #19 Director – John Maybury
The Jacket stars Adrien Brody and Kiera Knightley. Basically a Gulf war veteran is wrongly sent to a mental institution for insane criminals, where he becomes the object of a Doctor’s experiments. And when pushed to the brink it would appear that he travels in time. Or does he?
I’m personally a little unclear about what I feel about this movie, and need to delve deeper on it. But there are too many other amazing time travel movies on this list that I have yet to delve on at all. Gah! Regardless, good little “time travel” movie to fill in our number 19 spot.
Déjà Vu (2006)
Place in list – #18 Director – Tony Scott
Remember this movie? Good old Denzel on a time traveling war path. After a ferry is bombed in New Orleans, an A.T.F. agent joins a unique investigation using experimental surveillance technology to find the bomber. But you know what? It goes all pear shaped real fast.
The Lake House (2006)
Place in list – #17 Director – Alejandro Agesti
The Lake House centers on an architect living in 2004 and a doctor living in 2006. The two meet via letters left in a mailbox at the lake house they have both lived in at separate points in time; they carry on correspondence over two years, remaining separated by their original difference of two years.
I’m almost a bit embarrassed to include the Lake House here – but despite Sandra Bullock, and Keanu Reaves leading this travel junket, the idea of the Lake House is so captivating I can’t leave it out. I have often wanted to go back to the original South Korean movie Il Mare that The Lake House is based on, but haven’t been able to find it. Any ideas?
Source Code (2011)
Place in list – #16 Director – Duncan Jones
U.S. Army pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), last aware of being on a mission in Afghanistan, wakes up on a commuter trainto Chicago, at 7:40 am. To the world around him – including his traveling partner Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) and the bathroom mirror – he appears to be Sean Fentress, a school teacher. As he comes to grips with this revelation, the train explodes, killing everyone aboard. And then he does it again. And again. And again… all for the sole purpose of figuring out what happened.
This reminds me of Edge of Tomorrow in it’s repetitiveness in order to get the situation perfect in the time allotted. Or maybe Groundhog’s Day? But Source Code has a secret hiding behind it’s time travel exterior. Right? It’s a time travel movie with a twist ending to end all twist endings.
La Jetee (1962)
Place in list – #15 Director – Chris Marker
La Jetee is by far the most experimentally crazy time travel movie ever. It even out does Shane Caruth’s Primer by a factor in the extreme category. La Jetee is a 1962 French science fiction featurette constructed almost entirely from still photos, that tells the story of a World War III, post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. It is 28 minutes long and shot in black and white. It won the Prix Jean Vigo for short film. Oh, and have I mentioned that it is an epic head job yet?
I recently watched it again and realized this movie has got to be actually made. I definitely am not going to be the one volunteering to do the making. But I will say that this movie is possibly the only movie with the potential of knocking Primer off the top of this list (oh wait, did I just ruin the surprise? Daggum, I hate it when I do that) – but only if it actually gets made. Right now it’s just stills and a very few cut scenes of film that was hashed together.
Place in list – #14 Director – Gregory Hoblit
Is this technically a time travel movie? Frequency is about an accidental cross-time radio link which connects a father and son across 30 years. Which is all well and good until the son tries to save his father’s life, but then he needs to solve the rippling consequences as a result. Quaid and Caviezel are quite good together across the distance of time.
Place in list – #13 Director – James Ward Byrkit
An argument could be made, that this movie doesn’t belong on this list. My response would be, seriously? But the moment you get to that argument you would have to have a doctoral level understanding of this movie. And after chatting with Cameron, and tearing this movie apart completely, I still don’t know. Coherence is a time splitting, reality splitting, movie about a comet that splinters reality for a group of people at a party. That’s it. That’s all I’m telling you. It’s an awesome little movie regardless of whether you think it should be on this list or not. If this movie was clearly demarcated one way or the other I’d drop it into the top five or ten in a heartbeat.
So James Ward Byrkit just came out and said out loud, there was no time travel occurring in his movie. But to that I yell foul. How is it physically possible to split the space continuum without splitting space-time continuum? Here’s his tweet
About Time is possibly one of the most counter-genre movies in this list… and all the more fantastic for it. I absolutely adore this movie. The short of it is that at the age of 21, Tim discovers he can travel in time. As could all the males in his family. So Tim uses his new powers in order to change his life for the better and get the girl that eluded his grasp. But obviously, changing everything for the better is not as easy at it might seem at first blush and the ongoing complexities of this movie are fantastically well achieved… especially for a romantic-comedy. Love this movie.
Place in list – #11 Director – Michael Spierig
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00QGL1P5G]Ethan Hawke just broke your brain with this mobius strip, twisting turning, head job of a movie. I can’t really say much about this movie without completely ruining it all. So I will just say this – Predestination is basically about a time-traveling Temporal Agent (Hawke), who has to track down the one criminal that has eluded his grasp over and over again over the course of his career. That’s it… that’s all I can tell you about the movie while still keeping my soul in tact. This is a movie that I have had plans to do a long review of, a deep deep dive, but forgive me if I have a beer instead… thank you very much.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Place in list – #10 Director – Woody Allen[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B006O5Y09C]I am on the record as a huge Woody Allen fan. But this particular Woody Allen movie blows the doors off the rest of the movies in his oeuvre. While on a trip to Paris with his fiancée’s family, a nostalgic screenwriter (Harrelson) finds himself mysteriously going backwards in time every night at midnight. Yet another movie that turns the tables on the cookie cutter time traveling movie.
Terminator 2 (1991)
Place in list – #9 Director – James Cameron
A cyborg, identical to the one who failed to kill Sarah Connor, must now protect her young son, John Connor, from a more advanced cyborg, made out of liquid metal. But in this installment T2 begins looping back on T1 and forward to the future, and it starts to get really intricate. Yeah, if you plot the timelines of T1, to T2, and the interlooping dependencies that start radiating outwards we have some serious time causality chaos happening here my friends.
Time Bandits (1981)
Place in list – #8 Director – Terry Gilliam
I watched Time Bandits the very first time on a Laser Disc. Which automatically means that it is awesome. Time Bandits was written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam… um. YEs? Two of the founding members of Monty Python. So THAT automatically makes this movie awesome… again. Did I mention that it stars Sean Connery, Terry Giliam, Palin, Kenny Baker, and more awesome Pythons? More awesome. And then there is the story, wherein a boy accidentally joins a band of dwarves as they time travel from era to era trying to find awesome treasure to steal. Did I mention yet how awesome this movie is?
Place in list – #7 Director – Chris NolanInterstellar is a mess to try and track from beginning to end. But I’ve done my best in several different posts here. But basically the gist of this movie is that mankind travels through a wormhole to find a solution for the quickly dying earth. Toss a tesserract into the mix and you have some serious crazy time traveling happening here.
Place in list – #6 Director – Nacho Vigalondo
I recently chatted with Vigalondo about his movie after doing a full-tilt deconstruction review of his amazing movie Timecrimes. Many don’t like Timecrimes because of its seemingly simple concept, but I say that if you think this movie is simple… you weren’t paying attention. Timecrimes was about a man who accidentally gets into a time machine and travels about an hour backwards in time. Then when the poor schlep accidentally runs into himself he kicks off a terrible chain of events that only get worse and worse. Great job Señor Vigalondo!!
Place in list – #5 Director – Bradley King
Oh how I love this movie, Timelapse, let me count the ways. It was written by Bradley King and BP Cooper who have both been kind enough to chat with me at certain points about this deceptively simple looking movie. The movie is all about a machine that can take photos 24 hours into the future, once a day. Or can it? You tell me. Because we are still arguing about it over here. But regardless, this is a low budget movie, with an enormous budget of an idea. The production values are great and the increasing level of reveals here are the best in this list. I cannot recommend this movie enough.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Place in list – #4 Director – Doug Liman
Edge of Tomorrow, or Live, Die Repeat… or Groundhog Day with Mechs, whatever. As far as time traveling goes, if sheer number of jumps were all I was looking at, Edge of Tomorrow would be the number one movie in this list. I have spent quite a bit of time evaluating how Edge of Tomorrow works and have really enjoyed the effort involved with deconstructing this movie. Basically this movie is all about an alien race that can apparently control time and a woman that has the ability to beat them. Or something. The movie is based on the really fantastic book, All You Need is Kill. And although the movie didn’t do swimmingly, it was definitely one of my own personal favorite movies of the year.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Place in list – #3 Director – Richard Kelly
I’ve been working up to a Donnie Darko review for about a year now. But damn, if this isn’t a head job of a movie. What’s brilliant about this movie is that time travel is discussed, but it never happens… or so you think. This is a mind-job time travel movie of truly epic proportions and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this one with a coherent unitarian mental map of how this movie actually works. Think blue prints taped to walls, schematics and 3D models… it’s getting all kinds of crazy up in here with this movie. This movie, But when I do, I promise you, you’ll hear about it.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Place in list – #2 Director – Terry Gilliam
The question we are posed in Terry Gilliam’s time traveler saga 12 Monkeys is simple enough, is time movable? Or is it a fixed? And Bruce Willis is our test simian as we send him back and forth through time in order to stop a killer plague wiping out 98% of the planet’s population. As a bonus recommendation, if you enjoyed 12 Monkeys the movie, you will adore 12 Monkeys the television show.
Place in list – #1 Director – Shane Carruth
Was there really any doubt? Since starting writing this list up I’ve wandered about and checked out a few other lists out there highlighting the best time travel movies, and invariably, they conclude with Back to the Future. Which, I’m sorry… Is bull crap. Sure, I enjoyed Back to the Future just as much as the next guy. But it deserves to be on the top of a time travel best of list just about as much as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure does.
Primer is the perfect time travel movie experience. It is a story driven by the egos and the pride of our two heroes. And we willingly follow them into the abyss of this experience. Kudos to Mr. Carruth on this, the pinnacle of Time Travel Movie experiences.
Don’t agree with any of these movies? Think I should have added your favorite instead? I want to hear about it in the comments. I promise I won’t tell you that you are a complete idiot to your face. Promise. hahaha.
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