I recently made my first short film since college, a 60-second entry for Getty Images' "The Next Big Idea" competition. I titled it The Closest Thing to Time Travel as I - like many filmmakers before me - have long been fascinated by the concept. The irony is that there is no actual time travel in my film; I think it's impossible, and so for my story I tried to come up with, as the title suggests, the closest one could plausibly come to it. The following nine films, however, all used the magic of time travel as a plot device. The cinematic medium, with its inherently subjective use of time, is perfect for these kinds of stories.
- Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis). One of the most entertaining movies to ever come out of Hollywood (or anywhere else), this action-comedy covers all the time travel bases you can think of, in a perfectly plotted script. Its two sequels pale in comparison.
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron). The film that set the standard for modern-day special effects. Cameron the screenwriter is ham-handed as usual, and the time travel element takes a back seat to the action, but it's a non-stop thrill ride and easily the best installment of Hollywood's other great time travel trilogy.
- Primer (2004, Shane Carruth). Now we get as far away from studio blockbusters as we can for Carruth's brainy, baffling indie drama about two friends who create a time machine of sorts, then use it and abuse it. A perfect example of what a filmmaker can accomplish with less than $10,000, and also a terrific exploration of the "paradox" problem inherent in time travel scenarios. Carruth set out to tell as realistic a story as possible about the concept, and succeeds - even if viewers are left totally confused by the end.
- Time After Time (1979, Nicholas Meyer). This fanciful plot suggests that H.G. Wells not only wrote about a time machine, he actually built one - then used it to chase Jack the Ripper into 1979 San Francisco! A delightful picture that gives you suspense, romance, comedy, and social commentary, with three strong performances by Malcolm McDowell as Wells (who knew he would be such a funny leading man?), David Warner as the Ripper, and especially Mary Steenburgen, who is irresistible as the contemporary woman who falls for Wells. Only downsides are a weak ending and cheesy (even for their time) special effects.
- Happy Accidents (2000, Brad Anderson). Sort of a bookend to Time After Time, only minus the villain, with a strange man coming to the present not from a semi-distant past but from over four hundred years into the future - or so he says. As the "back traveler", Vincent D'Onofrio is fine as usual, and writer/director Brad Anderson - who I think is one of the most interesting American filmmakers working today - shows that it's possible to deliver a rich, complex science fiction story with nary a special effect. Geeks beware, however: this is primarily a romantic comedy.
- Twelve Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam). An underrated gem from Gilliam (whose fans may prefer his other time travel movie Time Bandits over this one), this adaptation of Chris Marker's haunting short La Jetée is, in my opinion, Gilliam's best work after Brazil, full of rich detail and with a sad, disturbing, ultimately fatalistic finale. And did I mention that I designed the official web site for it, many moons ago?
- Peggy Sue Got Married (1986, Francis Ford Coppola). Yet another underrated film from a great filmmaker, this wistful story about a middle-aged woman (Kathleen Turner) who returns to the 1950s of her teenage years with her older and wiser worldview was written off as a Back to the Future copycat, but there's something lovely and special about it. I haven't seen it in twenty years, though, but even if it doesn't hold up, it's still worth a look, if only to see so many movie stars in their pre-fame days (such as Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey, Helen Hunt, and Joan Allen).
- Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner). Although it wasn't until the later, stupider sequels to this classic that back-and-forth time traveling was really incorporated into this saga of man vs. monkey, the original Planet of the Apes remains one of the best examples of the genre, even if I'm sort of giving away the twist ending (to the three people on Earth who don't know it) by citing this as a time travel picture.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004, Alfonso Cuarón). Most people don't think of this when they think of time travel films, but of course it counts! Now, perhaps if I'd seen some of the other notable time traveling movies - Somewhere in Time, The Philadelphia Experiment, even Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure - I'd include one of them in this slot. [UPDATE: I HAVE SINCE SEEN SOMEWHERE IN TIME, AND IT'S GOOD.] But this third Harry Potter movie is still pretty cool. (I also have to give a nod to other decent time travel movies: Star Trek IV, The Navigator, the aforementioned Time Bandits, and naturally George Pal's original The Time Machine, corny as it is.)