Traditionally we digest stories linearly and in chronological order. What happens first we find out about first, the second thing comes second, and so on. As storytelling becomes more complex and nuanced, however, storytellers mess with traditional formulas and present more challenging structures: unreliable narrators, genre-hopping, and the one we’re checking in on here, time distortion.
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Sometimes a story is just that much more interesting if we’re given a glimpse into the future of our tale. Even moreso, we might not even know that’s what we’re looking at when it happens. That way, when it comes around again we get that ‘Holy Crap’ moment of recognition. That moment that makes us feel both intelligent and stupid all at the same time. There are so many ways to accomplish this feat in film and this is 10 of the best examples of the device. Obviously, there’s spoilers abound so keep that in mind because pretty much all of these are really good flicks. Well, The First Matrix was. Reloaded… not so much.
10 The Prestige
This movie does plenty of time jumping to keep the audience off its trail. Directed by Christopher Nolan is this tale of two warring magicians. Narrated by Michael Caine’s Cutter, he explains the mechanics of magic tricks. While he does this, we see a forest of abandoned top hats. A little girl enjoying a transported bird trick. Hugh Jackman’s Angier stepping into a lightning cage while Christian Bale’s Borden observes in disguise. Angier drops into a water tank and Borden tries to save him.
All of these come back throughout the movie, at varying points towards the end. It is then reframed as a court case seemingly due to Borden failing to save the drowning Angier and Cutter declaring Borden the culprit in his murder. It’s all done at pace so we’re never quite steady on our feet and yet it still grabs us by the throat. An awesome movie even when you learn the trick it’s pulling.
9 Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino’s vaunted 1994 criminal compendium. What makes this entry so interesting is that chronologically the beginning and end of the movie take place right in the middle of the intertwining stories. We see the opening as two diner patrons, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, discuss robbing the establishment. They go into detail of plans and strategies to make it work. It ends with them standing up and declaring themselves with guns drawn.
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What the rest of the film fleshes out is that on the other side of the diner are two hitmen. Jules and Vincent Vega, dressed in street clothes for reasons we’ve explored through their parts of the movie. All these elements come together as only Quentin can concoct, and the audience is left with jaws on floors. It’s a wild ride, and this bookending technique is central to why it works so well.
8 Total Recall
Here we have a controversial ‘is it actually the end’ moment that opens the film. Arnold Schwarzenneger in a space suit with an undisclosed woman, on a red, rocky planet. Seconds later the ground gives way and he slides down the red dirt cliff. He smashes open his mask on a rock and his face bulges and distorts sickeningly from the presumed lack of atmosphere. Smash-cut to Arnold waking up in his bed with Sharon Stone.
Depending on your view of how the movie resolves, this is possibly a premonition, a simulation, or a dream. Either way, Arnold does end up on Mars (the red planet) in some form or fashion by the end. It’s one of the elements that makes rewatching the movie essential because it only muddies up the waters for what really went down. Whichever way you interpret it, it’s a sure-fire way to grab the world’s attention to have the biggest movie star of the day have his head about to explode within a minute of starting.
7 12 Monkeys
Cleverly, this ‘beginning is the end’ situation is somehow also chronologically correct. How? Good old time travel. Bruce Willis’ wakes up from dreaming about a kid. That kid, presumably him, saw a guy running through a crowd with a gun only to get shot in the back. A woman rushes to his side, the kid watches on, then ‘Future Willis’ wakes up in a cage and we’re off to the races.
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Over the course of this strange Terry Gilliam flick, we find out that Bruce was both the child and the guy getting gunned down. Between those two events, the entire world was overrun by a man-made virus. The version of himself he saw die was attempting to stop that eventuality, but this is one of those movies where time is a perfect loop and nothing can be changed. Bleak, weird, and definitely worth a watch, this one.
6 Forrest Gump
Here we have the good old ‘framing device’ where Forrest Gump sits at a bus stop and tells the entire story of how he came to be there. Heartwarming, improbable, funny, and fulfilling, his journey inspires with the extraordinary lengths he goes to in his remarkable life.
By the time we realize that he’s actually waiting at the bus stop for a reason concerning this whole tale, we’ve watched two hours of prime Tom Hanks goodness. There is still a bit of movie left to go after this point, but the greater chunk has been told. It’s funny how simple the idea is here, but you can’t deny that director Robert Zemeckis nailed it from end to beginning.
5 The Hangover Parts 1 & 2
We’ve all had those foggy, panicky mornings after a big night where you have to make an unfortunate phone call. This is the ultimate version of that. We see Bradley Cooper’s Phil making the dreaded phone call to his friend’s soon-to-be bride, laying out the worst possible scenario. They’ve lost the groom. This setup is brilliant for what it promises as we recap how we got to that state of affairs.
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The universal relation people have to making that giant mistake. The prospect of reliving what must be an insane bachelor party. The consequences of destroying someone’s wedding hanging over the whole deal. Say what you will about the sequels being too similar and then off the rails entirely, this first one is comedy at its heights. Bonus mention to Cooper’s other film that began at the end, Limitless.
4 The Matrix Reloaded
The first Matrix movie is enshrined among the most relevant and excellent of the genre. This second entry, a whole chunk less. What it does have though, is an intense opening scene where Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity gets shot by a dreaded Agent after a bike-splosiony, bullet-timey, defenestratey blast of action. Of course, this is followed by Keanu Reeves’ Neo waking up from the bad dream, but it’s more than that.
We find out it was an almost perfect premonition of things to come. This allows him to affect those later actions knowing his love’s life is on the line. At this point, we were still high off of the excellence of the original. We weren’t to know the cliff the series was in the middle of falling off of. Nevertheless, this opening is one of the cooler parts of this less cool sequel. This and the highway chase.
Christopher Nolan didn’t just dabble with time in his later film The Prestige. In this earlier flick, he directly went against the flow and had this movie begin at the end. Memento is the story of Guy Pearce’s ‘Leonard’, a man with an inability to create new memories.
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Therefore every new scenario, he is experiencing without context, and this allows Nolan to take us backward instead of forward. All in all, we see the ending that we backtrack from, all the way to the inciting event that led to it. Segment by segment we backtrack until Leonard’s ‘origin’ is revealed. It’s fascinating and still holds up today.
2 Pain & Gain
Michael Bay tells this hilarious story of gym meatheads caught up in criminal shenanigans. We open with Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo doing mega-crunches on a billboard when sirens go off and the first word we get is a panicked “F***!” Lugo hightails it and we get a taste of what’s to come. He’s done something to not only have scores of cops swarming on his location, but SWAT teams with guns drawn.
It culminates with him running into and bouncing vertically off of the hood of a cop car at speed. It’s a great ‘how did we get here’ setup for the insane true-life events to follow. Later on, we catch up with this and see that no amount of guessing could have prepared us for the insanity in between.
1 Fight Club
After one of the cooler film credits you’re likely to ever see we get a closeup of Edward Norton with a face literally full of a gun muzzle. Doesn’t get more intense than that. Norton then lays out that he’s in a building set to blow up, a revolution is about to take place, and he’s mostly concerned with whether that gun is sanitary. To top all of that off he muses that “this all began with a girl named Marla Singer.”
Smash cut to Norton burying his face in Meat Loaf’s giant bosom months earlier. You can’t pretend you aren’t fascinated, if from nothing else than bemusement. A dark comedy with a double-twisted message, and one whose original writer actually prefers the film over his own book. Fight Club can be watched a hundred times over and you’ll catch something new most times. Everything takes on new meaning and is doubly awesome for it. Don’t fight yourself, give it a watch.
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