It’s somehow already a decade and a half ago that Christopher Nolan’s Memento was released, a brilliant film built on what could have been a gimmicky concept (spoiler alert): the entire film takes place in reverse chronological order, from the perspective of a man with short-term memory loss who is hunting the man he believes killed his wife.
Bold, yes. But not new.
As shown below, film has a long history of breaking from chronology. Here are 10 highly watchable examples … presented, in the spirit of our article, in no particular order.
Primer is so nonlinear it’s nearly incomprehensible. Two engineers construct a time machine in their home and things get messy. Here’s a graph charting the film’s intersecting timelines.
TM & © Miramax Films (1994)
Not every film that plays with time has to be as conceptual as Memento or as perplexing as Primer. Vincent Vega’s mid-film fate — surprising, considering the stature of the actor playing him — seems to make little difference in the beginning. Or the end.
Considered by many to be the greatest film ever made, the titular character’s story is told in flashbacks, and by various, overlapping and often unreliable narrators.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece is a study in the obfuscation of fact and the fallibility of memory. Four different storytellers tell the story of the same murder, with the truth slowly revealed through reason and contradiction.
I’m Not There
Sometimes a nonlinear film isn’t confusing because of a complex narrative, but rather because narrative isn’t really of concern to begin with. That’s the case with Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, a disjointed character study in which six different actors — including Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger — portray different versions of Bob Dylan’s inner persona.
Few directors create films that consistently think about time the way Alejandro González Iñárritu does. His debut film involves three different stories linked by a car accident, a style of storytelling referred to as “hyperlink cinema” that is also a hallmark of his next two films, 21 Grams and Babel. He’d later go on to make a film obsessed with its own linearity in the Oscar-winning Birdman.
Run Lola Run
This award-winning German film from the director of Cloud Atlas and Perfume is a frenetic film that continually restarts from the beginning, hoping its protagonist, Lola, can find a different outcome.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine comes from the minds of a couple auteurs obsessed with the possibilities of time: director Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep) and writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation; Synecdoche, New York). Jim Carrey’s Joel remembers his relationship in reverse, such that the true weight of events is only revealed as viewers are made aware of what preceded them.
Once Upon a Time in America
The greatest mob film you’ve never seen, this was the final film from spaghetti western godfather Sergio Leone. Irony alert: when it was first released, the movie was mangled by the studio from a non-chronological (but logical) film into a linear mess.
A traumatic, unforgettable film in which two men attempt to avenge a brutal rape of one’s girlfriend. Its message, as it moves from earth-shattering finale to idyllic, beautiful exposition: time destroys all things.
Honorable Mentions: Tree of Life, Michael Clayton, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Reprise, 8 1/2, The Phantom of Liberty, Weekend, Mulholland Drive, Annie Hall and a couple by Nolan himself with Following and Inception.
— Dustin Luke Nelson
Main image by Danny Rothenberg – © 2001 – IFC Films
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