Six of the best movies about time: Looking forward, looking back

January is named for Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, changes and time. 

He is traditionally depicted as having two faces: one looks forward and the other looks back—a fine embodiment of this season when an old year ends and a new one begins.

With that month in mind, Lycoming Critic’s Corner presents movies that move both forward and backward—a trope Wikipedia calls the “time loop.”

In such tales, the protagonist keeps going back to live the same time period over and over. There are dozens of these—including, for instance, the horror flick “Happy Death Day,” the fantastical “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and even the Disney short “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas.”

Here are half a dozen others from this unique time-travel subgenre:

GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)

One of the earliest examples—and perhaps the most famous—this prototypical dramedy stars Bill Murray as a cynical newsman who, assigned to cover the titular event in Punxsutawney, finds himself living Feb. 2 over and over and over again. A critical and commercial hit, the film eventually became a sort of cinematic landmark, a classic “time-loop” tale that somehow manages laughter, romance and philosophy all at the same time.

Indeed, with its thoughtful plot—in which Murray’s Phil Connors learns to become a better person—“Groundhog Day” helped establish the beloved actor as a candidate for more serious roles.

Co-starring Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky and Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill’s older brother); watch also for cameos from Michael Shannon, as well as the film’s director, Harold Ramis (“Caddyshack,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Ghostbusters”).

101 min. Rated PG.

ABOUT TIME (2013)

Not strictly a time-loop tale—since it doesn’t have the exact same period recurring again and again—this is nonetheless the tender and charming story of a young man (played by Domnhall Gleeson) who learns that all the males in his family have the ability to travel back in time at will. 

The story focuses on Tim’s pursuit of a lovely lady (Rachel McAdams) and his relationship with his father (Bill Nighy); but despite the best of intentions, Gleeson’s Tim has mixed results when he tries to use his familial power to improve his own life and that of others he cares for.

With minor roles for Tom Hollander, Lindsay Duncan and then-rookie Margot Robbie, the entire cast is wonderful—highlighted by the ubiquitous Gleeson, who was on the brink of a five-year period in which he made no less than 16 movies (including “Brooklyn,” “Ex Machina,” “The Revenant,” “Unbroken,” “Peter Rabbit” and two Star Wars entries).

“About Time” was written and directed by Richard Curtis, whose impressive resume includes scripts for “Mr. Bean,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “War Horse” and “Yesterday.”

123 min. Rated R for language and sexuality.

RUN, LOLA, RUN (1998)

Cult-fave German film puts its intrepid title character through the same fast-moving odyssey three times as she attempts to help her boyfriend—who fears execution by his crime-boss after accidentally losing a huge cash-stash. Each time she reaches him with a potential solution—which may or may not end in disaster—the movie freezes to recall an earlier discussion of their love, then swiftly rewinds so Lola can try all over again. She has 20 minutes to do it each time, and man does this movie earn its title during those three attempts.

Directed by Tom Tykwer, “Lola” sustains a frenetic pace; it must have simply worn out its fleet-footed lead—flame-haired Franka Potente, who went on to greater fame in the first two Bourne movies. Meanwhile, the talented Tykwer employs red filters, cartoons, hand-held cameras, black-and-white footage, split screens and long twisty tracking shots—not to mention pell-mell editing and a throbbing, drum-heavy electronic score.

With its three lives, and the adjustments our heroine makes based on what she learned last time, the film feels like an arcade game come to life. Yet for all its gripping action, Tykwer keeps a firm hold on character and theme, engaging us in Lola’s relationship with Manni—especially the love that keeps driving her through each try.

High-octane, can’t-look-away moviemaking at its best.

80 min. Rated a somewhat puzzling R (no nudity, no F-bombs, only modest bloodshed).

SOURCE CODE (2011)

This propulsive sci-fi thriller stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man involved in a deliberate train wreck who later learns that he was placed there to find the bomb and prevent another attack.

When he fails to stop it the first time, he’s sent back again. 

And again. 

And again.

And each time, he has only eight minutes.

And each time, he takes more interest in a fetching fellow passenger (Michelle Monaghan).

Director Duncan Jones—who is David Bowie’s son, and who burst onto the cinematic scene with 2009’s dazzling “Moon”—gets top-tier work not only from his leads, but also from Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright in smaller roles.

Together, this quartet lifts “Source Code” well above your average actioner, making it a tale of compassion, courage, romance and some very tough decisions.

The film is hampered only by lousy CGI in the crash sequence and metaphysics that spin wildly out of control in the final scenes. In particular, I sure would like to know:

What the %@*#! happened to the real Sean Fentress?

93 min. Rated PG-13 for language and violence.

BEFORE I FALL (2017)

At first, this lesser-known entry seems committed to all the hackneyed tropes of teen films, particularly too-mature kids who are overly slick and snappy for their awkward age; but eventually, in forcing young Samantha (Zoey Deutch) to keep reliving an apparently innocuous school-day, “Fall” forces her and her BFF crew to confront their superficiality, pulling the girls down to earth and teaching them to respect those who get ignored or damaged because they don’t fit in.

On the fourth and final pass through Sam’s day, the film flirts with sentimental overkill—but that’s held in check by strong performances: Deutch, moving from suave delight to raw anger to guileless love; Halston Sage, giving a spark of vulnerability to her otherwise uber-cool ringleader; Logan Miller as the torch-carrier Sam has overlooked; and Jennifer Beals, stealing nearly all her scenes as Sam’s caring mother.

These vibrant relationships keep “Fall” on the rails in spite of its odd but predictable plot; thanks to them, the overused “carpe diem” theme takes on unwonted power. We don’t merely nod approval at the thought that we should treat others better and appreciate our blessings; we actually finish the film wanting to live that way.

99 min. Rated PG-13 for language and bad teen behavior.

EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

My favorite movie on the list—and perhaps the most successful, with $370 million in receipts and a solid 91% at Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a slam-bang sci-fi entry starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt as soldiers badly out-matched while fighting off aliens who have invaded Europe.

Cruise’s Maj. Cage, with no previous combat experience, is quickly killed, but then suddenly reawakens at the beginning of his deployment and has to live out his fight-to-the-death all over again. And again and again—resulting in the film’s famous tagline, “Live. Die. Repeat.” Which eventually became its preferred title!

Unlike other time-loop tales, “Edge” actually gives a reason why the day keeps repeating, which has to do with how the aliens experience time. Better yet, as Cage keeps reliving his combat, he learns more and more about fighting the aliens, so that he and Blunt—herself a military hero from a previous battle—actually seem to have a chance at winning; and the script—co-written by the talented Chris McQuarrie—keeps shortening each recurrence, so the movie moves at a breakneck pace. 

Director Doug Liman also helmed “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Bourne Identity,” along with the forthcoming sci-fi thriller “Chaos Walking,” starring Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland. Liman, Cruise and Blunt are confirmed for a sequel, “Live Die Repeat Repeat.”

I guess if you’ve already seen any titles on this list, you could always go back and watch them over again … right?

Smith is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central PA. His most recent book is “The Best Movies You Never Saw: 300 Under-the-Radar Titles That Were Overlooked, Unjustly Trashed—or Just Plain Terrific.” You can contact him at robbwhitefan@gmail.com.

Author

  • Smith is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central Pennsylvania. His fourth book, "The Best Movies You Never Saw," is due out this summer. More info is available at josephwsmithiii.com -- or robbwhitefan@gmail.com.

Joseph W. Smith III

Smith is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central Pennsylvania. His fourth book, "The Best Movies You Never Saw," is due out this summer. More info is available at josephwsmithiii.com -- or robbwhitefan@gmail.com.