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Warning: I hate spoilers as much as anyone, and I’ve taken care to exclude spoilers from all the movie descriptions in this article. However, sometimes knowing that a movie involves time travel could itself be a spoiler! Read on at your own risk.
Time travel movies have been done to death, and a lot of time travel movies suck because they so easily fall into the same old cliches. But there’s still so much narrative potential left to be mined in the genre, as evidenced by some notable films that have come out in the past decade—not to mention some of the older classics!
At the end of the day, all films are meant to deliver an entertaining experience for the viewer. With that in mind, here’s what I consider to be the best time travel films of all time. Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments!
A time-traveling agent’s final assignment is to track down the one criminal who he’s never been able to capture. But the further down the rabbit hole he goes, the more mind-bending the truths become. What sets this film apart is how deftly it handles its deeper themes, and how expertly the narrative unfolds.
With Earth on the brink of extinction, a team of astronauts travel through a wormhole to find a new planet for humans to colonize. For all its flaws, Interstellar packs a thrilling story on top of dazzling visuals and one of the most moving soundtracks of any film, period. This is the kind of film that’ll have you thinking long after the credits roll.
In the face of an alien invasion, a soldier relives the same day over and over every time he dies. As far as time loop movies go, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the better executed ones. The tight story is well-paced, and the stars Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt put in excellent work carrying the narrative forward from start to finish.
When aliens arrive on Earth, a linguist is brought to the frontlines to decipher their language and establish communications. Easily one of the most cerebral science fiction movies ever made, Arrival takes things to the next level by exploring themes and ideas that few other films have dared to touch.
5. Source Code
A soldier is stuck in a time loop that simulates a mission: find the bomb on a commuter train before it explodes in 8 minutes. However, there’s more to it than meets the eye. While it may not be as deep as some of the other science fiction films on this list, Source Code is a thrilling experience that’s highly rewatchable beyond the time loop.
A convict is sent back in time to investigate the cause of a man-made virus that decimated the world. Involving one of Bruce Willis’s best performances, Twelve Monkeys starts off slow but ends with a bang. There’s a lot to love about this mind-bending movie, if you can get through the slow but necessary setup.
In the wake of a yachting accident, a group of friends find their way onto an empty cruise ship that’s filled with horrors. Well-done science fiction horror is hard to come by, which is why I love Triangle. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this particular film, but it’s executed well and interesting enough to be memorable.
Four entrepreneurs accidentally invent a time travel machine, which ends up ruining their lives. Primer is a must-see film for fans of time travel. It’s short (77-minute runtime) but insanely dense—the kind of movie you have to watch multiple times to really understand what actually happened, and even then you may not fully get it.
Using a magical universal remote, a workaholic finds himself able to skip ahead or rewind back to various points in his life. Don’t be turned away by the fact that this is an Adam Sandler movie. In one of his best performances ever, Sandler effectively carries this funny-but-heart-wrenching story on his back.
10. Groundhog Day
A weatherman finds himself in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over again with seemingly no way out of it. This hilarious comedy is also deep if you want it to be, acting as a lesson in what really brings happiness and self-improvement. If you’re a fan of Bill Murray and haven’t seen this yet, what have you been doing?!
11. About Time
A man who can travel through time decides to use his power to woo the girl of his dreams, but things aren’t as easy as they seem. With Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams taking the lead, this romantic comedy ends up being much better than it has any right to be—with an incredibly moving ending that’s completely earned.
12. Time Lapse
When three friends discover a machine that can take photos 24 hours in the future, things take a dark turn as each photo reveals more than they could’ve anticipated. Smart writing makes up for the mediocre performances. If you go into this indie film without much in the way of expectations, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Do not watch trailers for Timecrimes! They will spoil the plot for you, and plot is much of the draw for this film.
A man accidentally travels back in time one hour, unleashing a series of disastrous events. More to the tune of mystery than action, Timecrimes is a flawless example of a “what actually happened?” narrative that asks you to puzzle things together as events unfold before you. It’s in Spanish, by the way.
When a man is unknowingly tasked to kill his future self, things go awry. I’ve always seen Looper as a kind of poor man’s Inception, trying to capture the same awe and feel of that film without quite managing it. But Looper isn’t a bad film at all. It’s certainly worth a watch if you need to kill two hours and enjoy action crime dramas.
A teenage boy accidentally goes back in time thirty years and needs to find his way home. Do I need to say more? Back to the Future is a classic, and if you haven’t seen it yet then you owe it to yourself to bring it to the forefront of your watchlist. Look past the cheesiness and you’ll see an engaging story beneath it all.
A man discovers he has the ability to change the present by traveling back into the mind of his younger self, but around every corner lay unintended consequences. The Butterfly Effect is an effective thriller. Despite what you may think of Ashton Kutcher, he delivers a solid performance in this gripping film about regret and control.
A strange energy-providing device causes a couple to be stuck in a time loop while being forced to defend the device against a group intent on stealing it. This low-budget film is nothing more than a popcorn flick, but it’s a fun ride as long as you don’t think too deeply about it—especially the unexpected ending.
18. Donnie Darko
A high schooler begins to see visions of a man in a deranged bunny suit who convinces him to do all sorts of unsavory deeds to prevent the oncoming end of the world. Donnie Darko is a strange film—to put it lightly—and the time travel elements aren’t as overt as in the other films on this list. But if you’re itching for a unique filmgoing experience, it doesn’t get much weirder than Donnie Darko.
A man with a genetic anomaly that causes him to time travel can’t control when or where he travels to, and thus struggles to keep his marriage alive. Based on the novel by the same name, The Time Traveler’s Wife fails to capture much of the magic that made the book work. That said, for all its flaws, this movie isn’t half bad if you’re in the mood for a romantic drama that’s surprisingly moving.
During a retirement party, an aging professor reveals that he’s been alive longer than his colleagues can imagine. The Man From Earth is best described as a “play caught on camera,” and delivers an engaging mystery built on the foundation of an interesting thought experiment. Not many dialogue-only films are this riveting, which is why you should definitely give this one a watch.