Since I started doing weekly Top 5 Lists, none of the posts have been as difficult to complete as this one. Beyond the top two choices, there are plenty of worthy contenders that could make the final three slots (or at least the honorable mentions). Sadly, none of the main films from this marathon will make this list, but that relates more to my past viewing than their quality (Navigator being the poor exception). The tricky part of picking a Top 5 for time travel is the wide variety of movies in this genre. There are comedies, melodramas, horror movies, and more straight-up sci-fi pictures. These picks relate more to my personal preferences (my apologies to melodramas) than an ultimate ranking of quality. Like any subjective list, my favorites are going to win out. Let's check out the picks!
Honorable Mentions: Timecrimes (2007), Primer (2004)
While preparing for this marathon and looking for lesser-known films, the choice people recommended the most was definitely Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes. This intriguing movie uses a circular structure where the hero's attempts to avoid disaster end up causing the problems. In similar fashion to Triangle but slightly better, it keeps a possibly confusing premise understandable while effectively cranking up the suspense. An even more unique approach comes from Shane Carruth's Primer, a baffling look at white-shirted guys building a time machine in a suburban garage. The plot becomes so chaotic near the end that it nearly lost me, but I love the originality on display throughout the movie.
5. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Time travel is a key part of several Star Trek films, so there were multiple good options from this series. My favorite is Star Trek IV, which sends the gang to San Francisco to recover a humpback whale. This is the essentially a comedy, and the humor from watching Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew struggle to understand the culture is nearly pitch-perfect. It's refreshing to see a different type of mission on Star Trek that doesn't involve space battles. Instead, they're forced to use their smarts to navigate our strange society and find the whales in time. Just missing this list were the action-packed Star Trek: First Contact (the best TNG movie) and the surprising 2009 reboot from J.J. Abrams.
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
Arguably the most influential movie on this list, Harold Ramis' highly entertaining comedy has become a pop-culture term that goes beyond the movie itself. Numerous sci-fi movies and TV series have used this structure, with Daybreak even taking the premise for the entire show. Bill Murray was born to play Phil Connors, the unfriendly and wise-cracking weatherman stuck in the same day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He brings just the right combination of silliness and eventual insanity to sell the part and make us connect with the guy. Andie McDowell is actually charming (a rare occurrence) as his love interest Rita, and the goofy townspeople add to the enjoyment of this easily re-watchable movie.
3. Twelve Monkeys (1996)
In my Top 5 Post-Apocalyptic Films list, La Jetee and 12 Monkeys shared the #2 spot. My removal of the former from this list isn't a knock on Chris Marker's wonderful short film. That's still a must-see and provides the key elements of Terry Gilliam's film. The more I think about it, however, 12 Monkeys deserves acclaim separate from its inspiration. The tricky story comes together well and places us with Bruce Willis' James Cole as he jumps between time periods. The doomsday scenario plays out surprisingly, and I love the idea that his attempts to change the past are just playing out what's already happened. It's a smart, entertaining movie that showcases Gilliam's skills without being overwhelmed by them.
2. Back to the Future (1985)
Few movies can top Back to the Future for pure entertainment from start to finish. There is some goofiness in the plot, but that only adds to the charm. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are perfectly cast as Marty and Doc Brown. The reason this film is far superior to its sequels is the simplicity of its story. Marty has to fix his mom and dad's relationship before the lightning storm that will get him back to the future. That's pretty much it. The connections between the present-day prologue and events in 1955 match up nearly perfectly, and there are plenty of fun moments throughout the movie.
1. The Terminator (1984)
Spawning three sequels, a TV series, and even a theme park attraction, James Cameron's original movie remains the best part of the Terminator franchise. The spare, lower-budget production is the only entry that's consistently frightening, and that feeling's heightened by Arnold Schwarzenegger's cold performance. Unlike the kind versions of future movies, he kills without remorse and is a brutal machine. In the words of the great Michael Biehn as Reese, "he will not stop until you are dead!" The time travel does generate a paradox (the machines essentially create John Connor by trying to kill his mom), but the premise works because it's not overly complex. There's one machine and one protector. Let the rumble begin!
There are too many worthy choices to fit within this brief list. Here are some other strong time travel movies that could have easily appeared on this list:
Army of Darkness
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Time After Time
The Time Machine
Next week, I'll start up The Year 1984 marathon and stick with that year of movies. The fun begins with Prince as he tries to make it big in Purple Rain.