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Nordling's Weekly Top 5! The 5 Best Time Travel Movies!

Nordling here.

I can't wait for LOOPER. I think everyone on the site's seen it but me, and maybe Billy the Kidd, and if I had any hair on my head I would have pulled it out already.  I'm a big fan of Rian Johnson's films thus far, and judging from the two reviews I've read (and I refuse to read any more, I think I may have already figured out some of the twists in the third act, based on the trailers) I'm going to adore this one as well.

I also love time travel movies.  It's an interesting sub-genre of science fiction because realistically, it's not very plausible.  FTL travel, alien lifeforms, the exploration of other worlds - these things may very well happen in our future.  Time travel isn't likely, unfortunately - or fortunately, based on many of the mishaps we've seen in movies thus far.  Yes, I am aware that faster-than-light travel is in theory, a kind of time travel, but the time travel we've seen portrayed in movies so far will probably never happen.

The best time travel movies aren't really about the mechanics of it anyway. Tachyons, causality loops, flux capacitors - it's not about the how, normally, it's about what happens when.  The best time travel movies are, thematically, about regret; regret in a life not lived, regret in a bad past, and most time travel movies are about changing things, fighting inevitability and our fate.  Pretty heady stuff, and when it's executed well, the result can be pretty powerful.  Alternate realities, loops in the space-time continuum, paradoxes - all fun to think about when watching a time travel movie.

So in celebration of LOOPER coming in a couple of weeks, I made a list of what I think are the Top Five time travel movies ever made.  There are, of course, many more that will be left off - some people have asked me why a top five list and not a top ten.  It's because five forces your hand a bit.  With ten you can spread out the joy a little bit, but five forces you to make a choice.  Sometimes you have to take something great off - and with this list in particular I left some really great ones off.  But these are the five that I'm sticking with.


I only just saw this one last week for the first time - and I'm embarrassed to say so, because Nacho Vigalondo isn't only a terrific director, he's also an acquaintance.  But just through lack of time and options this remained unseen by me for some time until recently.  And TIMECRIMES floored me, I must say.  I love how the movie dives into deep concepts of the immutability of fate, destiny, and regret, and it does so on a very small budget.  

I've noticed that in particular about time travel movies - how it's more about ideas than in special effects, and TIMECRIMES is full of them.  As Hector (Karra Elejalde) desperately tries to repair the damage he's done in the timeline, what must pass must pass, and the weight of his struggles becomes more and more difficult.  Like Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, Vigalondo, with this and EXTRATERRESTRIAL, isn't so much interested in the actual event, be it time travel or alien invasion, as he is in the people who are experiencing it.  Vigalondo cares about his characters even as he's putting them through the ringer.  

TIMECRIMES is available on Instant Netflix, so if you haven't seen this terrific little movie, you should seek it out.  and if you have, watch it again - the movie's pretty much flawless when it comes to setting up its scenario.  I couldn't find any holes in it.


If you look back on the esteemed career of Bill Murray, it's full of rich wonderful performances, but I think it was GROUNDHOG DAY that made people really pay attention to him as a great actor.  I don't think you can get a movie like RUSHMORE or LOST IN TRANSLATION without a GROUNDHOG DAY.  Harold Ramis' movie is a masterpiece of comedy precision, restraint, and character building.  

I love the article about how long Phil Connors remains in the time loop, although I don't agree with the conclusion.  I think he's in there for a lot longer than that that article supposes.  It might even be thousands of years, as Phil's omniscience of the townsfolk of Punxatawney seems to extend to every last citizen.  And in my honest opinion, it's one of Bill Murray's greatest roles.  For me, Murray's always been the sad clown of comedy - there's real pathos to his humor and his wit always seems to be a front for a broken man beneath. GROUNDHOG DAY gets to the meat of Phil Connors in such a way that when he finally has his catharsis, what could have been sarcastic and smarmy feels genuine and real.  That's due to Murray and Ramis, and Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis's script, which is smart, funny, and almost devoid of plot holes.

Someday someone's going to have the idea to remake GROUNDHOG DAY - I'm sure someone already has, and I can only hope that that person is stuck in a time loop on the day they saw TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN for thousands of years.  They'd deserve it.


Call LOOPER the third movie in Bruce Willis's Time Travel Trilogy.  THE KID may not exactly be a time travel movie, but it does involve Willis meeting with his past self, so it counts.  My list, my rules.  But the first movie? 12 MONKEYS?  It's amazing, and Willis gives hand's down one of his very best performances in it as Cole, a man so lost in time he can't be sure if he's going insane or not.  

Based on the short film "La Jetée", Terry Gilliam's movie, like so many of his other films, rages against the dying of the light.  Even though Cole fights to his last breath the inevitable tide of time, even though he must lose, he still struggles against it as time washes over him, indifferent to his fate.  Madeleine Stowe gives a terrific performance as the woman who can't help but question Cole's sanity until she sees for herself what Cole is experiencing, and then there is Brad Pitt, all twitches and madness, in one of his singular performances (and nominated for Best Supporting Actor).

David Webb Peoples really is one of the best screenwriters out there for this kind of stuff.  Whether it's a look at the future, or the dying old West, or time travel, he brings a sense of humanity to what in lesser hands would just be another genre movie.  Peoples, along with his wife Janet, have crafted a script that is as tight as a whistle and just as harmonious.  Terry Gilliam has never been a director to take the easy route in making his movies but 12 MONKEYS never goes off the rails.  As Madeleine Stowe's character looks into young Cole's eyes, the circle repeats as it must, and time is the wheel of the mill that grinds us all.

2.  The BACK TO THE FUTURE Trilogy

There was no way in hell that I could get away with having a list of time travel movies and not include BACK TO THE FUTURE.  And I realize it's a bit of a cheat to put all three in one slot, but my list, my rules.  They're practically one movie anyway, the way they cut into each other.  Ask any person off the street what their favorite time travel movie is, odds are it's one of these.  Strangely enough, my favorite one is the second one - I love 2015 and all the silliness therein, from the 80s Cafe to the hoverboards.  Chicago Cubs fans must anxiously be waiting for that year by now, although Steven Spielberg better get cracking if he's going to catch up to JAWS 19.

The BACK TO THE FUTURE Trilogy is easy to love, but you can tell that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale put a ton of thought into each movie, even if they never really planned for sequels.  But there's so much love and friendship in the relstionship between Marty McFly and Doc Brown that you can't help but want to see them together.  They may be light entertainment, but each movie is paced like a Swiss watch - never a dull moment and even the quieter scenes in the movies are full of great little character touches.  Pardon the term, but these movies really are timeless.

When you think of 1980s films, you can't help but think of BACK TO THE FUTURE, and I think movies like them are sorely missed today.  There's a sense of earnestness, of tenderness and honesty in these films that are gone in today's cynical world.  In the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies, everything really is going to be all right, and unlike many other time travel movies, there's an optimism that makes it so easy to put these movies in time and time again.  People will say that there's no such thing as a "perfect" movie, but the BACK TO THE FUTURE Trilogy may well be the perfect trilogy.  Not a bad movie in the bunch.


I've seen PRIMER only a few times - I think three, by my count.  And it's such a puzzle box of a movie that I feel like I've barely scratched the surface.  Shane Carruth's utterly brilliant, unnerving, complicated movie was made on such a shoestring budget but the ideas that it puts on display are richer than the ancient kings of Egypt.  PRIMER doesn't give a damn, either.  If you can't keep up, than go to hell - PRIMER is unapologetically for the smart set, and those left behind are left to writhe in its wake.  I love how Shane Carruth was a consultant on LOOPER, and if time travel is a possibility, I think Carruth is probably the man to make it happen.

Woe to us if he does, though.  As the movie loops tighter and tighter around itself, daring the audience to follow along, it becomes clear that fucking around with the continuum is a bad, bad thing.  With multiple timelines and characters looping back upon themselves, it's no wonder that this diagram below looks like very complicated stereo installation instructions (click to embiggen, and thanks to UnrealityMag for the chart):

It gives me a headache just looking at it.  I really, really want to sit down one day and devote some serious time to PRIMER and just watch it for twelve hours nonstop just to see if I can crack the fucker.  I just might do that sometime soon, although it looks like the DVD is out of print at this time if Amazon is any indication.  That's too bad.  It is, in my opinion, the best time travel movie ever made, and takes the science seriously and treats its audience like intelligent people, a rarity in today's age.

I've barely scratched the surface with time travel movies, of course - I love Tom Twyker's RUN LOLA RUN, and Nicholas Meyer's fantastic H. G. Wells/Jack the Ripper time travel movie TIME AFTER TIME (that came damn close to making the list).  Duncan Jones's SOURCE CODE, if you want to get into the nitty-gritty, isn't strictly about time travel, but it fits here in my opinion. My list should definitely address George Pal's adaptation of H. G. Wells' THE TIME MACHINE, and yeah, the fact that it's not on it can be a legitimate beef.  Of course there's Terry Gilliam's joyous TIME BANDITS, probably his most fun movie with one of my favorite lines of all time in it - "Nipples for men!".  You could even count a movie like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, with its alternate universe, and then there's James Cameron's TERMINATOR movies.  I'm sure you'll think of more that I haven't mentioned.  Have a good week, everyone - next week I'll be at Fantastic Fest and I'm not sure I'll be able to write a Top 5 column, but I'll give it a good try.  Thanks for reading.

Nordling, out.  Follow me on Twitter!

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