Let's face it, a straightforward story can be boring - we've seen it a thousand times before. Generally speaking, watching a film that's not afraid to take risks with its narrative can be a breath of fresh air, especially when that narrative can jump from one moment in time to another in a blink of the eye.
Experimenting with nonlinear structures in movies has been around since the silent film era, and movies like Manchester by the Sea and Deadpool prove that the cinematic technique is still alive and well. Movies that don't rely on chronological order can be complex exercises that challenge the audience, surrounding subjects like imagination, memory, and perception. The next 15 films on this list are some of the best examples of movies that refuse to move in a straight line, and for that we commend them. As far as ranking them goes, rather than going by overall quality, the films are ordered by how effective their use of nonlinear approach is, and the impact each film has had on the technique as a whole.
Here are 15 Best Movies With Nonlinear Stories.
Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, Arrival is a movie that floored audiences this past year with its non-linear narrative, which doesn’t become fully clear until the final few minutes. Throughout the film, Amy Adam’s professor Louise Banks appears to be having memories of her young daughter who is shown to be dying from a rare disease. Though painful, Banks uses those memories to decode the language used by mysterious aliens that have landed on Earth.
It is revealed in the end, however, that the memories Banks was recalling were not flashbacks, but flash-forwards. Once deciphered, the alien language allows the mind to experience different points in time before they happen. It turns out that what Banks was witnessing was actually the future, not the past.
It is certainly quite the emotional gut-punch once the viewer realizes that Louise is destined to lose her daughter, but it is also uplifting in the sense that time is cyclical. Director Denis Villeneuve is able to provide an emotionally resonating experience with Arrival, one that is sure to spark debates as soon as you leave theaters. It makes us all the more intrigued to see what he has up his sleeve for Blade Runner 2049.
14 Annie Hall
Woody Allen never played it safe when it came to experimenting with his films, and Annie Hall marks one of his earliest experimentations with nonlinear narratives. It’s one of the director’s most celebrated movies (even though he himself considers it a disappointment), which broke new ground by subsequently breaking the fourth wall.
There are many moments in Annie Hall where nonlinearity is introduced by Alvy (Allen) specifically addressing the audience. The movie can jump backwards to show instances with Alvy getting embarrassed in grade school or it can flash-forward to his romantic breakups as an adult. Though openly implicating the viewer during the film is risky, Allen’s decision to chronologically jump around is ideal to immerse the audience in the film’s main conflict. After all, Annie Hall is an endearing tale that depicts a man’s neurotic behavior surrounding relationships, so it would only make sense that the film’s main structure would be just as sporadic as he is.
13 Run Lola Run
The brainchild of filmmaker Tom Tykwer, Run Lola Run is a largely successful example of playing with several different timelines within a narrative. After her boyfriend botches a money delivery, Lola has only 20 minutes to come up with 100,000 Deutschmarks and get them across town. But instead of providing just one scenario where the event plays out, director Tykwer presents the viewer with several.
Run Lola Run explores the concepts of arbitrariness, chance and the idea the slightest difference can largely affect the outcome. Lola makes several runs during the course of the movie, but minor changes each lead to very different conclusions.
Besides the fact that the film is technically stunning and has Franka Potente is possibly her best role, Tykwer keeps the audience on their toes by constantly tweaking his chain reaction. The film is a parable of the butterfly effect, the belief where a minute change can have gigantic effects elsewhere. It is filled with high energy, upbeat performances and a nonlinear plot that is sure to keep you guessing until the very end.
12 Citizen Kane
Rewriting the rules on moviemaking, Orson Welles begins his groundbreaking film Citizen Kane with the death of its main character, Charles Foster Kane, a millionaire newspaper tycoon who utters one final word before dying: “Rosebud.” As a newsreel journalist desperately tries to decipher the word’s meaning through interviews with family and friends, the movie transports the viewer back in time to show Kane’s rise to becoming one of the most powerful people on the planet.
Welles uses the techniques of flashbacks and multiple narratives to weave together the tapestry of Charles Foster Kane’s life. It tells the story of a man who thought he had everything, but in reality had nothing. Today, Citizen Kane is often hailed by film scholars for its groundbreaking cinematic techniques. Indeed, Welles did a number of things visually that no one in cinema had attempted to try before, which includes letting his story unfold in a nonlinear style. Although the movie was underestimated at the time of its release, Welles’ experimentation ultimately paid off, as Citizen Kane has become one of the most influential movies of all time.
11 I’m Not There
Todd Haynes’ biopic of Bob Dylan, which makes use of six different actors of both sexes and race, is certainly adventurous and ambitious in scope. While it’s highly experimental, I’m Not There manages to avoid the clichés of a biographical-film by providing a fractured portrait of the famous folksinger through different periods of his life.
It begins by depicting Dylan’s motorcycle crash in 1966 and then jumps back in time from his beginnings in Greenwich Village to his shocking tour across Europe. Each point of time is represented with a new actor playing the folk-singing icon, including talent by the likes of Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett. While this might sound rather jarring, the movie works as a whole because of Hayne’s use of experimenting with time and casting. Dylan was himself a shapeshifter as he went through different periods of his life, which enables I’m Not There to perfectly capture the artist’s complexity and fluctuating existence with its nonlinear approach.
10 Once Upon a Time in America
Though he cemented his legacy with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America is perhaps the director’s most ambitious project. The sweeping gangster epic is just under four hours in length, and chronicles the lives of two Jewish hoods, played by Robert De Niro and James Woods, during three distinct periods of time. Though initially hailed during its reveal at Sundance, the movie received major backlash when the running time was cut in half for major distribution.
Watching the shorter version of Once Upon a Time in America is like ripping a painting in two and hanging just the lower half in a picture frame. Against Leone’s wishes, the movie was cut to make it more accessible to audiences. The story was nearly incoherent as a result, with the original non-chronological sequences that skip between the 1920s, 30s and 60s reworked into a straight, linear narrative. Thankfully, Leone released the longer version of Once Upon a Time in America after the failure of the theatrical cut, restoring it to its nonlinear glory.
One of the more polarizing movies of the last 20 years is Gasper Noé’s Irreversible, a powerful thriller that many consider important while others consider it unwatchable. Understandable, considering it features some very graphic and disturbing imagery. The film starts with perhaps the most brutal and disturbing rape scene ever captured on film, a sequence which is hard enough to sit through bearing in mind it’s the first scene. Though it is certainly disturbing, Noé creates a backwards march that explains what people are capable of and how violence is easily incited.
At its core, Irreversible is very much a revenge story, but thanks to its narrative that moves backward in time, its more about the fragility of human nature. Indeed, there is some nasty violence in the movie, some of the most disturbing for even the most experienced audiences. However, the payoff is more than earned, suggesting a haunting and uplifting moral about the duality of human nature.
8 (500) Days of Summer
Director Marc Webb’s feature-length debut explores the failed relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) through reverse chronology. After Tom thinks Summer has finally left him for good, he reminisces on the past year of their relationship, but rather than let the romance play out in typical fashion, the film skips around with dates, jumping from day 1 of their relationship to day 249.
(500) Days of Summer uses reverse chronology to show that what we want to remember is not always what happened. Specific moments between Tom and Summer are recalled that constantly build to their moment of heartbreak, moments that would not be as powerful if merely presented in a chronological fashion.
Though most audiences tend to miss the point of the movie (sympathizing with Tom even though he was being unreasonable in the relationship), Webb's directorial debut is a stunning examination of the up-and-down nature of relationships that uses a non-chronological approach.
7 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Another great example of a romantic comedy with a scattered story, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind plays with the conventions of a normal narrative order. Dizzying but thoughtfully endearing, its structure is carefully plotted in the script by Charlie Kaufman (whose life is chronicled in another nonlinear film, Adaptation).
After Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) becomes heartbroken that his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) underwent a procedure to erase her entire memory of their relationship, he decides to do the same. But as he watches the memories the two have shared vanish before him, he realizes that he’s still in love with her and that it may be too late to reverse his mistake.
Joel’s melancholic memories provide the perfect backdrop to introduce audiences to his fragmented relationship with Clementine. Indeed, the film’s heart is its actors, Carrey and Winslet, but the reason it succeeds is its risky gamble in unconventional storytelling. Its nonlinear structure explores the concepts of memory and, specifically, the relationship between memories and lost love.
6 Peppermint Candy
Told in reverse chronological order, Peppermint Candy opens with the main character, Yong-so, committing suicide as he’s run over by a moving train. Instead of having this shocking scene end the film, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong decides to lead off with it. The rest of the movie explains how the story got there, encompassing five phases of Yong-so’s life and what exactly led him to that fateful moment on the railroad tracks.
Working backwards, Peppermint Candy is an unflinching portrait of the kind of brutalities and repression that would lead someone to committing suicide. It explores the circumstances of Yong-so’s psychological trauma that continue to build and build until he becomes a walking monument of self-hatred. Knowing the end of the film, which is in this case the beginning, the audience is shown why Yong-so feels as though he has lost his identity, and why he resorts to ultimately taking his own life on the railroad tracks.
5 The Killing
Though it may not be as popular as some of his other titles, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing was a definitive milestone in the director’s career, and a vastly important movie for all of cinema noir. Intricately structured and beautifully shot, this heist movie revolves around a group of crooks that are looking to rip off a large sum of money from a horse race-track. Though systematically planned, the heist is complicated by the treacherous wife of one of the robbers, leading to a bloody and brutal finale.
It wasn’t an immediate hit at the box office, but along the years The Killing has become a staple in film noir thanks to Kubrick’s unique direction. This movie practically pioneered the use of splintered timelines by showing different characters’ perspectives throughout the heist. It’s a nonlinear approach back when it was almost unheard of in cinema, and has since influenced films of all different varieties including major blockbusters like Ocean’s 11 to indie productions like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
4 Pulp Fiction
Speaking of Tarantino, here is another director whose films often take a nonlinear approach to their narratives. Though we love the non-chronological bank heist in Reservoir Dogs and the thrilling kung fu flashbacks of Kill Bill, Tarantino’s 1994 breakout hit, Pulp Fiction, has to be our pick for being a major contributor to the growth of nonlinear films in postmodern cinema.
Beginning at the end and ending at the beginning, Tarantino’s study of American nihilism revolves around two low-rent hitmen, a washed-up boxer, a mob-boss’s wife and an English couple who decide to rob a diner. The eclectic mix of characters and the use of dark, violent humor come together through three main segments shown out of order that are linked by different storylines.
Though some attribute the film’s success to its dialog and pop culture allusions, its unconventional structure is important and necessary to understanding the film’s themes of emptiness, violence and redemption. There is a reason Tarantino pieced together Pulp Fiction the way he did, which has now become one of the best modern examples of unconventional timelines used in movies.
3 The Sweet Hereafter
Told entirely in reverse, director Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter combines intricate storytelling with an emotional power unlike any other. Based on the novel by Russell Banks, it follows a small community that is torn apart by a tragic accident which kills many of the town’s children. Looking to make a profit, a lawyer visits the victims’ families in order to stir up their anger and launch one class action suit after another.
Egoyan does a phenomenal job with the narrative, which is not so much about the tragedy itself as it is about the grief it leaves behind. Though it may be difficult to follow on a first time viewing because it is not immediately clear that some scenes are flashbacks, the story starts to piece together by the end. It is because the timeline is so chopped up that the story works as well as it does, which reveals secrets that many of the characters have buried deep inside themselves. There are so many layers in The Sweet Hereafter, that repeat viewings are not only recommended, but necessary in order to get the full experience.
Christopher Nolan has never been one to use straightforward storytelling in his movies. The Prestige effortlessly glides backwards and forwards in time, and the first act of Batman Begins is essentially one long flashback. Nolan has made so many nonlinear films that half this list could have been movies from his catalog. However, if we could only choose one, we would have to go with his experimental and highly effective 2000 mind-bender, Memento.
Chronicling two separate stories of a man named Leonard, who can’t retain new memories, Nolan’s thriller moves backward in time in two minute intervals. Leonard is on the hunt for the man who killed his wife, but since he can’t remember anything, leaves clues behind for himself, and in a sense, for the audience as well.
Every scene is like a new puzzle piece; the viewer can’t find where it goes until the movie reveals the piece after. As Leonard’s story goes along in reverse chronological order, the audience starts to get a view of the full jigsaw puzzle that is Memento. It may be disorienting at times, but Nolan’s neo-noir is ultimately captivating and one of the very best examples of reverse chronology in modern cinema.
“It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.”
While standing in the rain, listening to a story about betrayal, a man remarks why humans are so compelled to lie: it’s just in our nature. It’s a major theme that comes into play in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic, Rashomon, in which an atrocious crime and its aftermath are recalled from contradictory points of view.
Rashomon is a unique film in that it lets the editing play a major part of the story. A man’s murder is recalled by the bandit that supposedly killed him, the man’s wife, and even from the ghost of the murdered man himself. Although each story is similarly structured, they all differ when it comes to certain details.
Kurosawa’s film shows us that we only hear what we want to hear and that there really is no objective truth. Unlike so many other movies, there is no definitive conclusion of the crime. Rather, it leaves the viewer to interpret the events how they want to. Though there have been many imitators over the years, no film's linear structure has been quite as influential like that of Rashomon, a movie which more than earns the number one spot on this list.