In Honor of Memento, Here Are 10 Great Nonlinear Films

Time destroys all things

By The Editors

In Honor of Memento, Here Are 10 Great Nonlinear Films
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16 March 2016

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.

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Primer

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)

Pulp Fiction

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.

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Citizen Kane

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.

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Rashomon

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.

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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.

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Amores Perros

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Irreversible

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.

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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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