Challenging, thought-provoking and infinitely fascinating are all words you can associate with great nonlinear films as this selection, which includes Memento, Citizen Kane and The Sweet Hereafter, proves.
Renowned director Andrei Tarkovsky once called filmmaking the art of “sculpting in time”, poetically capturing the temporal malleability of cinema. Unlike everyday life, film can traverse or manipulate time as it wishes, but not all films do so successfully. A good nonlinear narrative must ensure that it does not lose the audience while justifying its structure. At its best, a nonlinear film demands the viewer to piece the story together and, in doing so, gain a richer understanding of it. Here are ten films, some classics and some personal favorites, which epitomize the strengths of a nonlinear film narrative.
Babel (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2006)
When Iñárritu made Babel, he was no stranger to nonlinear storytelling. His earlier films Amores Perros and 21 Grams, the first two films of his Death Trilogy, are also nonlinear narratives that intertwine multiple storylines connected by a single event. In Babel, that unifying event is a gunshot that sends ripples around the world. This film strikes me as the strongest of the Death Trilogy not only because Iñárritu uses the nonlinear structure with intent and restraint (the contribution of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga must not be dismissed), but also because the film reflects the tender and quiet moments of grief. In a world built upon fragments, as the title Babel suggests, the film finds the sorrow that haunts us regardless of time and space.
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
Perhaps the least complex but most relatable film on this list, Blue Valentine juxtaposes the sweetness of two lovers dating with the animosity of their marriage collapsing years later. Derek Cianfrance does an excellent job transitioning between these emotions and blending them into a single experience. The two lovers, played impeccably well by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, singing and dancing blissfully had me smiling, but the imminent pain is always simmering underneath. More importantly, Cianfrance suggests that there is no clear incident that marks the downturn of their relationship. When the man asks the woman how he should change, she replies in tears, “I don’t know.” Some may consider that an unsatisfactory answer, but therein lies the agony. The honest answer is not always satisfactory.
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
I often feel that people are overly inclined to criticize Citizen Kane simply because it was once crowned the greatest film ever. Although I agree that it does not deserve that title (frankly, does any film deserve it?), Citizen Kane should still be appreciated for its strengths, particularly its nonlinear structure. Unlike most nonlinear films, Citizen Kane is not primarily concerned with the nature of memory or time. Instead, it addresses what constitutes a person’s life. The film’s flashbacks are merely fragments of Kane’s life story. Those who knew Kane can continue their flashbacks, but they will never fully understand him. The discovery of what “Rosebud” is reinforces the fact that Kane’s life is beyond everyone’s grasp, in turn lamenting that our lives are just as enigmatic to those around us.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Eternal Sunshine, is known for his unique mind. Sometimes, it leads to unfathomable experiences that polarize audiences (think of films such as Synecdoche, New York), but that is not the case with Eternal Sunshine. Kaufman’s creative prowess and Gondry’s heartfelt direction are indispensable parts of the film. We begin at the low point of the protagonist Joel’s life and see his memories in reverse, gradually finding the joy that had been forgotten amidst the quarrels. There is also the chronological storyline outside of Joel’s mind, wherein supporting characters are equally burdened by the past. Do not be thrown off by the philosophical and narrative complexities. Eternal Sunshine is a bittersweet exploration of romance and memory, one that moves the heart as much as it challenges the mind.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
It is difficult to watch a nonlinear film concerning memory and not think of Hiroshima Mon Amour. Alain Resnais’ astounding work simply follows two people in conversation, interwoven with flashbacks into the unnamed female’s past. The flashbacks bring her memories to life, but they also question what she actually remembers. Through revisiting the tragedies of love and war, Resnais conveys the painful inevitability of forgetting. Look at the lauded opening sequence as an example. When the female lead visits a museum in Hiroshima, we see through her eyes, as though collectively remembering the horrors of the atomic bomb. But the man says, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” He is right. We see the past and yet the past eludes us. This struggle between remembering and forgetting is what defines the film’s well-earned legacy.
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Before Christopher Nolan became the superstar director he is today, he needed a film to seize the attention of Hollywood. That film was Memento, a skillfully and intelligently crafted thriller that owes much of its tension to its nonlinear structure. By going back in time episodically, Nolan puts the audience in Leonard’s shoes, a man unable to form new memories. Just like Leonard, we are oblivious to what happened before a particular moment. However, that is not the only manipulation of time involved. Nolan intersperses this reverse narrative with a chronological one in black and white. The convergence of the storylines produces a shocking revelation that shakes the notion of memory to its core. Few films manage to thrill and provoke thought simultaneously, showing why Memento promised a fascinating director on the rise.
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
I should make a disclaimer: I am not too fond of Pulp Fiction. I find its dark humor and nonlinear structure entertaining but hollow. Some would argue that the film is not trying to be anything more, but I would counter-argue that it should not have limited itself. That said, the film’s enduring impact aesthetically and culturally makes it impossible for me to keep it off this list. Although many films similarly feature an abundance of characters and juggling of time, the energy and wryness of Pulp Fiction is unparalleled till this day. Moreover, the film’s postmodern qualities have cemented its status within academia. All these unique characteristics are what give Tarantino films their unquestionably distinctive mark.
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
In constructing this list, I found that the nature of memory is a recurring theme in nonlinear films. What distinguishes Rashomon is that it pushes the fallibility of memory to its extreme, crafting one of the earliest films involving an unreliable narrator. Rashomon is the tale of four contradictory accounts of the same crime. Furthermore, three of these flashbacks are nested in a flashback to the trial of the crime. The question of who to trust pervades the film, but the more profound question that Kurosawa asks is why the truth evades us. Building upon that, Rashomon incisively examines the implications of morality and human impulses. By the end, knowing the truth matters less to us than knowing why people perceive the truth differently.
Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998)
If you think that all nonlinear films are built upon flashbacks and reverse chronology, then Run Lola Run will surprise you. Envision this scenario: Lola’s boyfriend needs 100,000 Deutschmarks within 20 minutes or else he dies. What does Lola do? The film shows three possible solutions, each one maintaining the energy and thrills of the one preceding it. The classic debate of free will vs determinism is at the film’s core, asking the audience to contemplate how much Lola actually controls. Indeed, I would have liked for the commentary to be more layered, but perhaps I am unjustly comparing it to the countless films on a similar subject. Unlike those philosophical works, Run Lola Run has no time to be pensive. It must keep on running and it excels in that regard.
The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)
No matter how I phrase my thoughts, words seem incomparable to the emotional depth of this film. In a sense, The Sweet Hereafter is rather simple. It recounts a school bus accident in a small town and a lawyer’s attempt to fight for the grieving parents. It intercuts among three timelines to build towards the inevitable accident, capture the present loss, and show the lawyer’s personal troubles a few years later. However, this summary does not do the film justice. The Sweet Hereafter is a heartbreaking and nuanced reflection on the universality of broken lives, led by the poetic direction of Atom Egoyan and the powerful Ian Holm as the lawyer. If one is seeking a grim but rewarding experience, The Sweet Hereafter can provide that and much more.
Written & Compiled by Ron Ma
Over to you: what are your fave nonlinear films?