I organized this list in order of “Most Clearly Time Travel” to “Really? Are You Sure This is Time Travel?” because I believe there’s more than one mode of transportation through time...
Looper (film), Rian Johnson
If vampire movies are always about sex, and zombie movies are always about the economy, time travel movies are usually about fate. But my favourite ones are about time itself; how we try to dig in our heels and stop it from passing, but we never can. This one starts out as a gangster flick but turns into a deeply touching story about family and sacrifice.
La Jetée (film), Chris Marker
A series of photos, filmed with voiceover telling the story, so that both the plot and the medium seem to dabble in time travel: instead an actual film that moves, we get pictures that stay still, and that seems to say so much about how time feels.
Kindred (novel), Octavia Butler
Dana can’t stop time travelling, and she’s African-American, and she keeps being drawn back to the slavery-era US south. One of the first books to ever to use time travel to study the political divisions in our current moment, this book is terrifying and essential.
"The Late Philip J Frye" from Futurama (TV), Matt Groening
This episode of Futurama is one of the most poignant pieces of television ever made – I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. On his way to meet Leela, Fry goes for a ride in the Professor’s time machine. They’re supposed to only travel a single minute, but instead they go forward a billion years. Will Fry and Leela ever reunite, or were the few stupid moments they had together all they’ll ever get? Heartbreaking (I’m serious!).
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (film), Robert Stevenson
An old lady and some kids stop the Nazis by (spoiler) importing ancient soldiers across time, to do battle on the coast of England. One of the first things I ever saw that imprinted on me the wonders of storytelling; how a story could take me somewhere I’d never been, where I’d always wanted to go.
Arrival (film), Denis Villeneuve
An alien race visits; their language is non-linear and if you learn to speak it, you can see all the moments of your life at once. If you knew the person you’d love most in your whole life was destined to leave you, would you still make all the same choices? Beautiful and wrenching.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (film), Michel Gondry
Joel wants to erase his ex Clementine from his memories (so relatable) but to do so he has to visit all of their moments in reverse order, seeing them one final time. This movie uses a bizarre, surrealist device to create a story that is so true on the topic of how final it feels when love ends; this is a kind of witchcraft!
Watchmen (graphic novel), Alan Moore
Somehow this comic managed to invent a new tense: one where everything happens simultaneously. But if everything’s already happened, that also means that anything that’s lost still exists. “It isn’t gone, it’s still here. Let yourself see it.” Watchmen offers the most profound insights into what it means to be a timebound being, and it’s all uttered by a naked blue radioactive man.
A Visit from the Goon Squad (novel), Jennifer Egan
Friends who’ve borrowed this book from me always laugh at the chart I made on the back flap, in order to sort out the timeline. But I love this book enough to draw a zillion charts. As the characters struggle with being mortal, Egan uses every storytelling device in existence to play with time, and to expose its unforgiving self, so that the reader fights along with the characters, all of us together.
"The Beggar Maid" from Who Do You Think You Are (short story), Alice Munro
No one does chronology like Alice Munro. This story moves back and forth and back and forth in time, repeatedly undermining the noble intentions of all of the characters, showing how time makes fools of us all, how it reveals our weakness, our foibles, our humanity. You’ll laugh until you cry.
In the Mood for Love (film), Wong Kar-Wai
The director uses everything at his disposal – framing, shadows, costumes, and of course, that song – to show how the two protagonists’ lives seem to exist on an endless lonely loop, time balefully circling back on itself. Even though the movie ends with the sweetest and saddest of separations, we imagine the two neighbours are still and always meeting at that noodle stall, smiling at each other in the rain.
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim is published by Quercus
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