Top 6: Movies That Play With Time

Posted in Top 6 at 4:59 am by Sam

Our Top 6 list for Episode 18 is about movies that play with time, excluding actual time-travel movies. Movies have a freedom to play with time in various ways. Most obviously, a movie can mix up the chronology of a narrative, so that events occur out of order. But there are other ways movies can play with time, and we think our Top 6 lists cover the bases pretty well.

What are your own favorites?

As always, we recommend listening to the episode before reading further.

  1. Citizen Kane (1941)
  2. Memento (2000)
  3. Run, Lola, Run (1998)
  4. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
  5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
  6. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
  1. Memento (2000)
  2. The Killing (1956)
  3. Citizen Kane (1941)
  4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
  5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
  6. Nick of Time (1995)


  1. Parker (16) said,

    January 30, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    I still need to see most of these, but I’m glad Memento and Eternal Sunshine made your lists. I’m very surprised that there’s no The Butterfly Effect on here as well. Time *travel* movies are probably my favorite kind of film, but that’s a whole other Top 6 list.

  2. wintermute (157) said,

    January 30, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    I think that The Butterfly Effect would really count as a time travel movie. Certainly significantly more so than Run, Lola, Run, so if that was borderline, Butterfly would be right out.

    And besides, Sam isn’t going to pick that for his Top 6 anything. Except maybe “movies that are worse than the Bakshi version of Lord f the Rings“. I don’t know how Stephen feels about it, but I’m guessing he’s not a massive fan,either…

  3. Ferrick (140) said,

    January 30, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Two that popped into my head were Sliding Doors and The Usual Suspects. I’m going back and forth on whether or not they would qualify. Does tUS really play with time or just narrative?

    Run Lola Run was one of the first to jump into my head.

  4. Sam (405) said,

    January 30, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    Sliding Doors is a movie I quite like; it only just missed my list.

  5. Rifty (64) said,

    January 30, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    I was kinda disappointed that you both picked Memento in your top two.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great movie, and I loved it, and I’ve seen it probably a hundred times, but it’s such an obvious choice. Although, I guess it’s more like the top One Hundred Plays of the Year in SportsNight- where peole keep suggesting The Yankees Winning the World Series (”Yeah, that was a REAL big surprise after winning 127 games” “Our goal is not to be cunning, is it?”)

    So, I guess yeah. I was talking with a friend last night about the podcast this morning, and I thought FOR SURE that you would think it was such an obvious choice that you would decide not to use it.

    Ah well. Not the first time I’ve been humiliatingly embarassingly wrong.

    Eternal Sunshine was awesome though.

    Nick Of Time sunds interesting, though. Kinda like 24:The Movie, which I’ve heard rumors about them planning, but, and here’s the stupid thing: It won’t be in real time. Which in my opinion totally defeats the purpose of 24.


  6. Ferrick (140) said,

    January 30, 2007 at 7:31 pm

    If Run Lola Run counts, and I think it does, what about Groundhog Day? Did either of you consider it?

  7. WarpNacelle (48) said,

    January 30, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    How about “Hero”? Telling the same story from different points of view and situations. Loved it.

    Also “Dead Again” perhaps. How it jumped from past situations to present and then tied them all together again. One of my favorite movies.

    “Hero” made me think of another topic I would love to hear you list upon. Movies that made the best use of color.

  8. Stephen (221) said,

    January 30, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    Sam claims Groundhog Day is a timetravel movie, which I’m not convinced about. He specifically told me I couldn’t use it for this list, or else it’d be there. We’ll do a true time travel list in a bit.

    I’ve avoided watching Butterfly Effect because: 1. It looks terrible. 2. It has Ashton Kutcher in it (was that redundant?).

    Rifty, I’m not sure I get your complaints about including Memento. If I were doing a list of top mob movies, would I have to avoid Goodfellas and Godfather just because they’re obvious picks?

    Dead Again is a great pick, and I could see Hero as well. Actually, after we recorded this, I realized neither of us had Rashomon, which is probably the most prominent of the “different takes on the same events” movie.

  9. Rifty (64) said,

    January 31, 2007 at 1:02 am

    I wasn’t complaining, just saying that I thought it was horribly obvious.

    Goodfellas and The Godfather are, to my mind, at least, different in relation to the topic of Mob Movies then Memento is to MTPWT.

    It’s mostly that, when you mention movies that play with time, the very FIRST one I thought of, and also the only one I could think of, was Memento, and I was excited about hearing more choices about movies that play with time.

    When it comes to Mob Movies, there’s just so many that I already know, that none of them seemed inherently obvious. The Godfather is just as obvious a choice as Mickey Blue Eyes in my mind.

    I don’t know. Am I making myself clear enough? I didn’t get my nap this evening.


  10. Eric (44) said,

    January 31, 2007 at 4:34 am

    This is the first time I actually participated ahead of time and made my own top six list in advance. It is as follows:
    1. Run Lola Run
    Groundhog Day
    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    High Noon
    I can see the argument that Groundhog Day is a time travel movie, but I wouldn’t agree. Classic movie, though, definitely one of the funniest I’ve ever seen.

    High Noon is on there because of its (almost) real-time. I haven’t seen a lot of stuff i real-time, but from what I have seen, this is the one that worked best for me. The way it used realtime creates very effectively a sense of urgency, and it also helps you get inside the main character, to be able to experience the movie with him. Very well done.

    And Intolerance, of course, cross-cuts betwee four stories in completely different historical eras, highlighting the parallels between them. In particular, I remember the end of the film, where the four stories are coming to their dramatic climaxes, and the cutting between them gets more and more frantic, and it had me on the edge of my seat. Can’t recommend it enough.

    An honorable mention goes to the 1905 short “Rescued by Rover”, which was one of the first movies, if not the first, to cross-cut between simultaneous events, and also to use “elliptical editing” (you don’t have to see the dog’s entire journey to know that it went from point A to point B). This is all pretty standard today, but it was pretty innovative in its day, and I am a pretentious film student, so it deserves mentioning.

  11. Sam (405) said,

    January 31, 2007 at 9:58 am

    Rifty: Trust me, “The Godfather” is at least as obvious a mob movie as Memento is a “play with time” movie. But Stephen’s argument holds for me as well. What’s obviousness got to do with it? It is a great movie that plays with time in one of the most original and effective ways ever. I can certainly appreciate wanting to be surprised by our choices, and frankly sometimes I do fudge a little on the 4-6 slots to favor obscurity with near-ties, but when something is solid at the top, it’s solid at the top.

    Stephen/Eric: How is Groundhog Day not a time-travel movie? He travels through time. As far as I can tell, the only thing that makes it any different from more conventional time-travel movies is he can’t control it. But the list isn’t Top 6 Movies That Play With Time Except For Time-Travel Movies But It’s OK If the Time-Travel Isn’t Controllable. He travels through time, ergo, it’s a time-travel movie.

    Intolerance and Dead Again are great choices. Hero and Rashomon are fantastic movies, but I don’t know that I’m particularly kicking myself over missing them. They don’t play with time so much as perspective. The actual time part takes the form of conventional flashbacks, which is not inherently interesting. But I think a Top 6 Movies That Play With Perspective is actually a great idea, as certainly I’ve seen many that do so in fascinating ways, those being two titles that would probably make my list.

  12. Grishny (156) said,

    January 31, 2007 at 10:07 am

    Besides Memento, the only other movie I could think of for this Top Six was Groundhog Day. I guess I just haven’t seen many movies that “play” with time without also being time travel-ish.

    I want to disagree with Sam on Groundhog Day, but the more I think about it, the more I can see his point. Seems like the plot elements that are present in most time travel movies are present here: main character travels through time and makes attempts to alter how events will turn out by changing things. The absence of a time machine or any explanation whatsoever for how he’s going back in time just makes it seem like it’s not a time travel movie, especially since the story doesn’t really focus on that or try to explain it; it’s more about how the whole process causes the main character to grow and change.

  13. Dave (130) said,

    January 31, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Groundhog Day is definitely not fit for this list, I think. It definitely plays with time, but clearly in my mind it’s a time travel movie. He doesn’t know how it’s happening, but he keeps repeating the same day over and over. I’m sure there are explanations for what is happening that don’t technically involve time travel, but I think the fact that he’s aware that he’s repeating the same day over and over basically disqualifies the movie in my mind. I haven’t seen Run, Lola, Run, but now I want to. It sounds like the same idea as Groundhog Day, only played straight and without the added element of the main character knowing what is going on (although from listening to you guys talk, I guess that’s debatable).

    Also, I don’t get how avoiding Memento would have been a good idea. I think I’d have been upsent if neither Sam nor Stephen had included it in their top two, and frankly I fully expected them to both have it at number one. It would have seemed gimmicky to me to leave it off, or just a massive oversight.

    Time travel movies are some of my favorite types of movies when done well, but I can’t come up with any movies that fit this list that haven’t been mentioned yet. But definitely do a list of “Top 6 Time Travel Movies” at some point. But make sure to avoid 12 Monkeys. That’s too obvious.

  14. Sam (405) said,

    January 31, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    Dave: Also, I hear 12 Monkeys is a really, really terrible movie when you don’t pay attention to it.

  15. Dave (130) said,

    January 31, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    Sam: Strangely, you’re correct. Not actually paying attention to the movie also tends to lead one to believe that Timecop is actually a better time travel movie than 12 Monkeys, as well.

  16. Ferrick (140) said,

    January 31, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    Top 6 Time Travel Movies would be good but I would love to see your lists of Top 6 BAD Time Travel Movies. It is hard to make a good time travel movie and, it seems, easy to make a really bad time travel movie.

  17. Dave (130) said,

    January 31, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    Top 6 Bad Time Travel Movies:

    1. Timecop
    2. Timecop
    3. Timecop
    4. Timecop
    5. Timecop
    6. Timecop

    It takes all six slots. It’s that bad.

    I actually can’t think of a whole lot of bad time travel movies off the top of my head. I can think of a bunch that I like. 12 Monkeys, Time After Time, Groundhog Day, Millennium (this may, in fact, be a bad movie–but I have fond memories of it and haven’t seen it in years), the Back to the Future movies, the Terminator movies…

    I guess I’d like to see a list of Top 6 Bad Time Travel Movies just to get some recommendations. ;-)

  18. Rifty (64) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 12:20 am

    Alright, now that I’m rested, let me try to explain my line of thinking (note that I didn’t say reasoning, because my sense of rationality is highly screwed up, like the rest of my life).

    Memento was a GREAT choice. I never meant to imply it wasn’t. I know it came across that way, but I didn’t mean that. I meant it was obvious, and I was disappointed, not because you guys picked it, because, when it’s all said and done, that’s EXACTLY where it should have been, but because I knew that it was going to be #1 on at least one, and possibly and probably both lists, and that took all the suspense out of what was going to be number one.

    So, it’s not anything that you guys did, and I’m not saying you guys made a bad choice, because you didn’t. It was an excellent choice. I’m disappointed with myself because I was able to guess the ending, as it were.

    The same thing happened with The Village. I guessed the twist about two weeks before it’s release, and that caused me to be disappointed when I saw it.

    So, I didn’t mean to attack you guys, and I’m sorry if it came across that way. I inadequately expressed the reason for my disappointment, and for those reasons, I formally apologize and ask forgiveness.


  19. Sam (405) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 10:12 am

    No apology necessary. We’re just talkin’.

  20. WarpNacelle (48) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Bad time travel movies! Oh my ….

    1) “Timeline”
    2) “Time Runner” (a dismal Mark Hamill, post Star Wars attempt. Anyone see it? Horrible. The entire budget of the movie was used in the first 5 minutes.)
    3) “Timecop” - yep, big disappointment.
    4) “The One” - made no sense at all.

    I can’t list anymore, it’s to painful to think about.

  21. Ferrick (140) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Bad time travel movies that I can think of at this moment…

    Timecop (definitely a benchmark)
    Millennium (yes, a bad movie)
    Godzilla vs. King Ghidora (so bad and so good. Plus, I know two people in it)

    Freejack and Millennium might as well be the same movie except Mick Jagger is in one of them.

    Maybe there aren’t that many terrible ones but I think I saw several in a short period of time so it just seemed that way. Here is a cool site to check out about time travel movies. He doesn’t mention Primer that I can tell so I don’t know how up-to-date it is.


  22. Ferrick (140) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    Correction, he does mention Primer, he just hasn’t analyzed it.

  23. Grishny (156) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Maybe I’m the only one, but I liked The Butterfly Effect. However, I will say that I think the Director’s Cut with his preferred ending is a better film than the theatrical version. If you’ve never seen it, I suggest watching that version first. The theatrical ending is sort of trite, contrived, and “too happy” for the tone of the rest of the movie.

    I doubt anyone will ever convince me to watch the sequel, though.

    Sam or Stephen, question: for next week’s T6, are you talking about specific uses of music in a movie, or the overall effectiveness of the entire soundtrack? I’ve been proceeding under the assumption that it’s the former.

  24. Dave (130) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    I discovered that MJ Young site a long time ago, when I saw 12 Monkeys again and went trolling for info on the net about it. I rediscovered it just yesterday before you even posted the link while basically doing the same thing.

    The only thing I *don’t* like about the site is how he insists on using the theory of timelines from his game system Multiverser to analyze every movie. It works really well for some movies (the 12 Monkeys analysis is awesome) but for some movies it falls flat because it’s clear either the movie doesn’t subscribe to that same kind of theory in the first place (Back to the Future and Terminator come to mind) or the movie just isn’t serious enough to even care (Bill and Ted).

    I did like his analysis of Minority Report, though, since he broke away from his one strict interpretation of timeline theory and suggested other possible theories that fit that particular movie much better.

  25. Sam (405) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Grishny: Specific uses, yes. It can’t just be an overall soundtrack. The other thing to note is that, while specific moments in a musical score are fine, it can also be a use of music within the story itself.

  26. Grishny (156) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Well, so far, just about every list item I’ve come up with has been a specific usage of a specific song at a specific scene or series of scenes in a movie. So I’m good.

  27. Ferrick (140) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Sam: I’m hoping you detail your ground rules for next week’s Top 6 because my list is getting long and I’m sure I can cut some out that don’t really qualify. The reasons I am putting them in are varied, too.

    I am also interested to hear how Stephen’s list compares to yours. I’m thinking they will vary quite a bit.

  28. Ferrick (140) said,

    February 1, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    I think that one ground rule has to be that you can’t pick any Tarantino or Coen Bros. movies.

  29. Grishny (156) said,

    February 2, 2007 at 10:03 am

    Why not? Because they’re particularly good at or well known for using music for good effect in their films? If that’s the case, then why would you want to penalize them for being the best at what they do?

  30. Sam (405) said,

    February 2, 2007 at 10:36 am

    Ferrick: Unfortunately, the ground rules do not narrow the field down at all. Stephen picked this one, and he was perfectly maniacal for doing so. “Top 6 Non-Musicals” is a much, much narrower field. But there are at least dozens of musical moments in every single movie, on average, and they’re all eligible. If I recall correctly, I complained about that to Stephen at the beginning of the segment. If not, I did so “off the air.”

    He laughed. I think he enjoyed my distress.

  31. Ferrick (140) said,

    February 2, 2007 at 10:48 am

    Grish: Because they always pick something by Tarantino or the Coen Brothers, for good reason. They are directors who like to use a broad array of styles in their movies so they usually have something that fits the Top 6 lists very well. I just know how much Sam and Stephen like them so I was giving them a hard time.

  32. Andy Timko (13) said,

    February 18, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    Hey everyone, first time poster

    I realize I’m a few weeks behind here but I wanted to bring up a few movies for this category:

    - The Village
    - Irreversible
    - Frailty
    - Donnie Darko (I guess that would be time travel)
    - Saw II (don’t laugh)

    SPOILERS below

    The Village’s misleads us regarding when it takes place
    Irreversible’s scenes take place in reverse order (with a reason) similar to Memento
    Frailty takes place partly in the past, partly in the present, and has a great twist when connecting the two time periods. This is an underrated movie
    Saw II leads us to believe two stories are happening simultaneously, when in fact they are not.

    I’d love to hear other thoughts on the qualification of these movies for this category (especially from Sam and Stephen)

    I can’t wait for the time travel list….even if it is a foregone conclusion that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure will be #1

  33. Sam (405) said,

    February 19, 2007 at 10:20 am

    Andy: Welcome here. From the sounds of it, interesting picks. I’ve only seen The Village and Donnie Darko in that list, and I’m in an apparent minority that hated Donnie Darko. But yeah, that’s definitely a time travel movie, as opposed to the kind we’re looking for here.

    Your description of “Saw II” reminds me of another movie that does the same sort of thing, called “The Clearing.” It’s an interesting device.

  34. Stephen (221) said,

    February 19, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    Frailty is an interesting pick, I think — and a movie well worth checking out. It works on a couple of different levels, and is creepy and weird in a good way. Andy, I agree that the movie is underrated. It didn’t get a lot of fanfare when it was released, but a friend encouraged me to watch it and I’m glad he did.

    I haven’t seen Irreversible, but it was a movie I was thinking of while compiling my list.

  35. Stephen (221) said,

    February 19, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    Oh, and as for my enjoying Sam’s distress: this is the guy who picks things like “train movies” just because he’s such a psycho that he already has lists of train movies he likes, while I have to scramble madly to remember what a train is. He doesn’t deserve your sympathy.

  36. Nevermore (17) said,

    March 8, 2007 at 2:03 am

    With the attention currently focused on time-travel movies, I thought I’d take a step back to where I’m better acquainted.

    I must agree with Andy Timko for “The Village”. While it could have been done heaps better (Ivy’s showdown with the monster could have been much more thrilling if we were still under the impression they were REAL), I still hold on to the fact that the twist was interesting and made me think.

    Now for a couple of my new favourites that tell the story in a non-linear timeline (as opposed to weird time-play as in “Memento”):
    - The Prestige
    - The Constant Gardener

    I found “The Prestige” to be very, very compelling. Nolan’s use of non-linear story-telling in this film made me sit puzzled, waiting to discover who the bad guy really was (and the ending didn’t really clear things up much). But again, very interesting. It has to be one of my top films of ‘06.

    “The Constant Gardener”, too, tells the story in a non-linear way to make you question what is really going on.

    I know that lots of films play with time in this way, but I just enjoyed these films so much that I have to give them a special mention.

    14 weeks, 6 days to go…

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