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Top 10 Best Nonlinear Films

By Ally Sinyard · March 22, 2011

First and foremost, I think it’s important for me to specify what I mean by “best nonlinear films.” I do NOT mean the Top 10 best films (and screenplays) that are nonlinear. I mean the Top 10 best uses of a nonlinear structure. So, my top spot will be the film that I feel uses a nonlinear structure most effectively and successfully (emphasis on the “my”).

In my research, I’ve found a variety of reasons that screenwriters and directors adopt the nonlinear structure. Some use it to help our understanding of the story, for example, the use of flashbacks to help the audience put together a particular character’s backstory. Others use it for decoration, and the film would scarcely be different if the events were told in chronological order. This grates on me… really grates. I also found a lot of films masquerading as nonlinear. City of God, which I absolutely LOVE, is classified on Wikipedia as nonlinear, which is completely laughable.

If every film that is book-ended by a present moment, with the rest of the film as one chronological linear flashback, was considered nonlinear, this task would have been glacial and probably futile. A true nonlinear film should be more than just a classic cut-and-paste bookend. So the films on this list all take intelligent, interesting approaches with nonlinear structure in a way that improves the film because of it. If a writer can create an amazing story, and then make it even better by mixing up the narrative, then that’s a writer to admire. Obviously, I’m not saying that nonlinear films are the best things since sliced – and generously buttered – bread; but I think we should appreciate extra complexities that improve the movie going experience.

10. Memento (2000)

Many people believe that Memento is ground breaking because it’s told in reverse chronological order, which, at the time, I agree was different and exciting. But to be perfectly honest, I think it’s just a bit gratuitous. It’s certainly an interesting experiment in how information is revealed to an audience; however, if you’ve watched the other “reverse-chron” film on my list (Irréversible), you cannot help but regard its use in Memento as a bit idle. Marjorie Baumgarten puts it well: "In forward progression, the narrative would garner little interest, thus making the reverse storytelling a filmmaker's conceit.” Still, I’m not a total grumpus. Memento is by no means a fail. I really enjoy films that experiment with structure and the like, and it cannot be denied that Memento is iconic. It’s just that the other film (Irréversible) uses reverse structuring in a completely different and superior way.

9. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (2003)

Tarantino is all about nonlinear storytelling. Unfortunately, as his films are often criticized for being superficial and “cool,” his use of nonlinear structures is also in danger of being tarred with the same brush. I must admit, I hadn’t seen Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 in about a year, and I had completely forgotten that when the films are put together as complete whole (which was originally supposed to be the case – one film only), they are told nonlinearly. In my opinion, if I know a film’s story from start to finish, and this understanding and appreciation is in no way affected by the nonlinear structure, then the nonlinear structure is not wholly necessary to the film. However, I don’t think this use of structure is there for the hell of it. It does allow for some nice little revelations. For example, the opening of Vol. 2 takes us to the chapel before the massacre, and we finally learn Bill’s reasons for ordering it. This adds an unexpected, emotional depth to the story that would not have affected the audience in the same way if we were told this from the start.

8. Annie Hall (1977)

Annie Hall demonstrates the fleetingness of love. One minute, you’re blissfully happy in your relationship; the next, you cannot remember the last time you were blissfully happy ever. The film jumps around, showing Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie’s (Diane Keaton) relationship at different points as well as looking into their histories before they met: their childhoods, for example. It’s also quite cute the way that one will often join the other in these flashbacks like outsiders looking in. It’s a very playful film that takes advantage of different tools, including moments of Alvy breaking the forth wall and removing himself from the action to stop and look at the situation. This might be controversial, but the film’s little sister [(500) Days of Summer] that is also on this list, uses a similar idea and structure with greater more playful effect. Annie Hall is a very enjoyable film, executing fantastic ideas with regards to cinematic devices, but I don’t think the structure alone can support it. Understand that by no means am I saying (500) Days of Summer is a superior film to Annie Hall. Not at all. It just uses nonlinear structure in a superior way.

7. Citizen Kane (1941)

I don’t like to be cliché and use films that are on hundreds of other lists, but there’s a reason that this film is always on so many “best ofs” and “top 10s.” It’s quite an intense film, and the nonlinear structure really demands the audience’s concentration, but paying attention is worth it. Having to do a little work to sort out what’s going on exactly engages an audience and creates a sense of achievement at the film allowing them to add it up. No longer are the viewers simply passive observers; they are intimately connected. The flashbacks and use of “interviews,” running alongside the story of a reporter searching for the meaning of “rosebud,” work well to add reality to this film à clef, similarly to in I’m Not There (Please don’t shoot me for comparing the two!) As well as the cinematography and soundtrack, the use of structure was regarded as innovative. Being “innovative” is a great achievement for filmmakers, as it means that your film will be shown to film students 60 or 600 years after it was made: Welles’ longing for immortality is cemented!

6. I’m Not There (2007)

I’m Not Thereis not for everyone. It’s a bit of work to follow, but the work itself involves the audience. We shouldn’t just be observers; film is there to involve us, to connect the dots, to make us think. And I think it’s a great film (and I’m not even a Dylan fan). I found myself totally buying that Marcus Carl Franklin, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Richard Gere, and even Cate Blanchett are all Bob Dylan. We move through time and “Dylans” wildly, and for me it definitely required a second screening as my knowledge of Dylan’s life was close to nil. The film completely obliterates our understanding of time, and we’re already being asked to put our faith and minds in the hands of Todd Haynes. The jittery, unpredictable, and wild nature of the film reflects Dylan’s character, and we feel as if we’re being violently dragged through it. The confusion and trippy quality is no doubt deliberate. Many critics were unimpressed, calling it pretentious and, in Luke Davies’ words, “a beautiful failure of a film,” but I say they’ve missed the point. The movie is very honest; Dylan is himself both brilliant and tragic. The chaotic yet stunning I’m Not There is the perfect way to represent him.

5. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Once Upon a Time in Americais the story of young Jewish hoods in Manhattan in the 1920s, 30s, and 60s, and this is given to us in the form of flashbacks. It follows David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and his gang that rise to prominence. I was shocked to read that the shorter, American cut version moved the events into chronological order. Ouch! Sure, it’s the same story, but the structure affects our understanding and involvement. Roger Ebert was particularly critical of this American mash-up, calling it a “travesty.” The bookends of the film are Noodles in the 1930s, in an opium den, shortly after his friends’ deaths. Many have thus interpreted the events in between as an opium-induced dream, and Leone did not deny this reading as a possibility. Our understanding of the relationships between the characters is also greatly affected by this use of structure, and without it, the emotion would be absolutely drained. Not everybody likes films that push the four hour limit, and I agree you’d be wishing you had those hours back if you saw the American cut. But this Once Upon a Time… was meant to be a nonlinear experience. So see it that way. It’s a classic.

4. (500) Days of Summer (2009)

A lot of people are going to hate this choice. “How could you place that film above Citizen Kane? Are you mad, woman?!” Maybe… but recently I wrote an essay on the structure of (500) Days of Summer, and it’s actually a lot more clever and complex than you would think. As we’re moved back and forward through time, we get the sense that this is a completely nonlinear story. On the surface, it does seem like a modern take of Annie Hall; another demonstration of the fleetingness of love and juxtaposing scenes of humour and tragedy for laughs. However, when I sat down and worked it all out, I realized that the events are in fact told linearly. Between Day 1 and Day 500, the story progresses in linear fashion except for only nine interruptions of the forty-seven scenes. All of these interruptions are significant and not simply a random device used to create an interesting structure. Any changes in time take the form of flash-forwards, up until the two juxtaposed scenes in the cinema (the turning point for the relationship and the film.) The story then continues in a linear fashion and the flash-forwards become flashbacks. From this moment on, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is now literally looking back at the relationship to try and figure out what went wrong. Confusing? Not really. Its construction is actually quite striking and… intricately simple.

3. Pulp Fiction (1994)

When you’re a film student being taught about nonlinear structure, this is the film they’ll show you. In three years Pulp Fiction has been forced upon me three separate occasions, and I actually… started to get bored. However, the structure always kept me intrigued (as well as Samuel L. Jackson, of course! “Mmm-mmmm. That is a tasty burger.”) Tarantino’s structure takes the form of three storylines, each led by Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), and Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) respectively. The film is also bookended by the scene at the diner. However, for the entire diner scene to play out, there’s a whole wealth of information that we need to understand, and that’s where the middle comes in. The structure also gives us the opportunity to understand events from a different angle (P.O.V.), such as repetition of the Jules’ “shepherd” speech. This also adds to the whole self-reflexive postmodern thing its got going on. Overall, it just makes you aware that what you are seeing is a postmodern, cinematic spectacle that has both style and substance and ticks all the right boxes.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

A great example of one of those films that you watch for the first time and think “Ooooh, that’s gooood” and then you watch it again, and all you can do is watch the credits roll in a stunned silence. I’m not even going to try and delve into the goings on of this film, but it’s basically a time loop. Joel (Jim Carrey) has his memories of ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased, and we’re shown this alongside them meeting for the second time alongside him (possibly) having his memories of her erased once before. If you haven’t seen the film before, I apologize for the fact that this basically makes no sense. And I’m scared that I’ll fall into a swirling mental vortex if I try to work out the details any better. I know… it’s a deliberate mindfuck, but it’s the very fact of this messed-up nonlinear structure that makes this movie so memorable.  Like Annie Hall and [500] Days of Summer, it explores love and especially memory, but it’s by no means a rom-com where you can just passively go through the formulaic motions. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind demands your full attention if you’re to enjoy the memorable, unique ride it offers. It’s more than a film; it’s an experience. Live it.

1. Irréversible (2002)

This film ruined Memento for me. It also scarred me for life with that scene, but it’s not my intention to play the spoiler as it doesn’t really matter in the discussion of structure. If you watch this film in chronological order, it is in no way the same. The full effect of Irréversible comes from watching the events unfold in reverse order. It’s about a million times more tragic, if that’s possible. Of course, it’s a terribly difficult film to watch, and I struggled through the second screening, but that is in no way to say that it’s not a good movie. Far from it. It’s a fantastic film with a power so intensely engaging that I literally couldn’t bear it, all coming directly from the story being told in reverse order. The very last images are also pretty spectacular. Roger Ebert made a very thought-provoking point about how the structure affects our moral judgments. By showing the act of revenge first, he said that it forces us to consider the implications of it before we see the rape. You wouldn’t think the same way if you saw it chronologically and – SPOILER ALERT! – you’d have noticed that the wrong man has his face caved in. That’s what makes the second screening important and, again, another new experience. This is just one of the many fascinating ways that the structure challenges you as an audience. Irréversible is deeply disturbing but, like Eternal Sunshine, a breathtaking experience for the moviegoer, and in the end, that’s why we go to the movies.