Back to the Ranking - Best Time Travel Films

Newbie director Rian Johnson flapped his directorial butterfly wings and is showing us his latest vision of time travel with his upcoming film "Looper," flooding over theaters this weekend like a pacific tsunami; it has been certified so fresh that you won't be able to afford Rotten Tomatoes in the grocery store anymore. To celebrate I dug up some tasty time-travel morsels to sprinkle over your salad instead.

The earliest mention of time travel in literature is disputed; the oldest forms of travelling forward in time are usually more about Einstein's special theory of relativity, where the time in one place moves faster than in another (More 'Rip Van Winkle' than 'Can I meet myself in the past'). For example, the Hindu Mahabharata mentions the story of Kakudmi, (700 BC - 300 AD), who goes to heaven and meets Brahma; when he returns, 108 ages of man have passed. In the Japanese Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), there is the story of Urashima Taro (720 AD) who goes to an undersea palace for three days, and 300 years have passed on the surface.

Traveling backwards in time did not appear until much later in 1733, in Samuel Madden's "Memoirs of the Twentieth Century;" where an angel with a flux capacitor comes back with a bunch of WikiLeaks from 1997 and 1998.

Movies have also had multiple opportunities to bend the fourth dimension. Below are the top 30 movies from a list I compiled of time travel films, sorted according to their score on Rotten Tomatoes. Hope this takes you back... to the time you watched each one of them; or maybe you can go back and watch them for the first time (Please read to the theme song to Quantum Leap).

No. Title Director Year RT%
1 The Terminator James Cameron 1984 100%
2 Terminator 2: Judgment Day James Cameron 1991 98%
3 Back to the Future Robert Zemeckis 1985 97%
4 Time Bandits Terry Gilliam 1981 95%
5 Superman Donner / Barry 1978 95%
6 Star Trek J.J. Abrams 2009 95%
7 Safety Not Guaranteed Colin Trevorrow 2012 93%
8 Midnight in Paris Woody Allen 2011 93%
9 Looper Rian Johnson 2012 92%
10 Harry Potter 3: Prisoner of Azkaban Alfonso Cuaron 2004 91%
11 Planet of the Apes Franklin J. Schaffner 1968 89%
12 Peggy Sue Got Married Francis Ford Coppola 1986 88%
13 12 Monkeys Terry Gilliam 1995 88%
14 Donnie Darko Richard Kelly 2001 85%
15 Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home Director Director 1986 84%
16 Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure Stephen Herek 1989 82%
17 Flight of the Navigator Randal Kleiser 1986 78%
18 Back to the Future 3 Robert Zemeckis 1990 73%
19 Primer Shane Carruth 2003 72%
20 Frequency Toby Emmerich 2000 70%
21 Austin Powers Jay Roach 1997 70%
22 Hot Tub Time Machine Steve Pink 2010 64%
23 Back to the Future 2 Robert Zemeckis 1989 64%
24 Déjà Vu Tony Scott 2006 55%
25 The Philadelphia Experiment Stewart Raffill 1984 50%
26 Kate and Leopold James Mangold 2001 50%
27 Timecop Peter Hyams 1994 44%
28 The Jacket John Maybury 2005 44%
29 The Time Traveler's Wife Robert Schwentke 2009 37%
30 The Butterfly Effect Bress / Gruber 2004 33%


"When you're riding in a time machine way far into the future, don't stick your elbow out the window, or it'll turn into a fossil" Jack Handy

The Master - What You Should Like About It Even If You Didn't Like It

I am very disappointed in you, "The Master." I invested so much emotionally in you; while you didn't deliver, we will always have some great memories. You promised me the world but left me like a teenager abandoned by her boyfriend when she gets pregnant, but when her beautiful baby is born she realizes that it wasn't all for naught. Do you feel the same way? Let me help you feel better about paying for that ticket.

The hype for "The Master" reached himalayan heights once the box office tally for the first weekend came in, breaking the record for the highest per theater limited opening of all time, grossing roughly $740,000 in 5 theaters. Most critics and bloggers have splattered their undying love and admiration for this film all over the internet; it currently enjoys a whopping 86% on rotten tomatoes. Yet the audience only gave it a 66%. Much has been said about the flaws and the flatness of the story, its real or imagined references to Scientology, and the incredible stroke-inducing performances by Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but most impressively by a drunk-on-paint-thinner Joaquin Phoenix back from fake retirement.

While I did not enjoy the film as a whole (in terms of the magical aftertaste you get when you witness a masterpiece) this is not a movie review. I will point out why this is still a film worth watching. It took me an entire week to write this post because I wanted it to sink in and gnaw at me in my dreams before going on a murderous rant about why I didn't like it. And dream about it I did. The movie has some remarkable elements, like beautiful pieces of a complicated jigsaw puzzle that, when finished, fails to promote a feeling of pride in its completion.

Let's start with production value. Paul Thomas Anderson lovingly filmed his baby in 65mm film (also called Super Panavision 70) which I discussed in a previous post on the documentary "Samsara." (Please try as hard as you can to watch it in 70mm.) That documentary aside, this is the first mainstream Hollywood feature film to be shot entirely in that format in 18 years, since Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of "Hamlet." And due to the large size of the camera, the cost of film development, and the overall trends of shooting digital, this may very well be the last film to be nominated for (or maybe even win) the Best Picture Oscar to be shot in this format, a tradition started with "West Side Story" and "Lawrence of Arabia."
"The Master" discussion with producer/writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson on September 16, 2012, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater

This film wouldn't be as haunting without the eye-watering production design by P.T. Anderson/Terrence Malick veterans, David Crank and Jack Fisk. The feeling that you get when watching this film is that you're siting in your suburban living room looking out of the window in the 1950's; you can smell the pies steaming and the babies booming. The decor and locations are tremendously effective in making you forget that you live in 2012. Those high-belt pants raised over the belly button and floppy blousy shirts that costume designer Mark Bridges outfits Joaquin Phoenix with are no less impressive than any costumes used in 19th century french period films; a sure Oscar nod right there.

The seemingly new director of photography, Mihai Malaimare Jr. has obviously clinched a nomination for best cinematography. He got his start on a recent slate of unsuccessful Francis Ford Coppola films ("Tetro," "Twixt," and "Youth Without Youth") which is actually a good thing, because after that practice, this will be the first time anyone remembers him; a champion achievement. One thing is for sure: the images of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix riding a motorcycle across the flat desert will become some of the most iconic images in cinema history.

Chiaroscuro in Film

Chiaroscuro is a smarty-pants word you learned in high school, that describes a lighting arrangement that filmmakers use to highlight a light subject in a dark background to increase the dramatic tension in a scene. Films with dark scenes such as "Sin City," "There Will Be Blood," and "The Dark Knight" frequently employ this concept to trick your brain into feeling more emotion (and you do). A big word for a simple concept; an Italian word that literally translates into 'light-dark,' it's a technique painters first used in the 15th century to make an object pop-up from a flat painting, by imagining a light source from a side of the painting. The gradual darkening of a shoulder, for example, would suggest that the person is three-dimensional in a two-dimensional canvas. Below is a 3 minute primer on the technique:


Once painters in the Renaissance perfected their 3D, they started using contrast lighting to create dramatic effect. For example in The Night Watch by Rembrandt, you can see that the lighting is used unsparingly to bring attention to the characters that he wants you to look at:

The Dutch masters of the 17th century perfected this mood. If you look at scenes in the home office in "The Godfather," you will see the same lighting as the one used in those paintings. Coppola and his cinematographer Gordon Willis used the same dramatic palette on purpose.
This translation from painting to film started in black and white films with 1920s German expressionist films such as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," and later used in American Film Noir detective films, reaching a new peak with "Citizen Kane". Later, as movies gained color, they had to go back to basics to recreate the technique. Jack Cardiff, the master Technicolor cinematographer, in an interview for his biographical documentary "Cameraman," mentioned he would study European art to train himself to create the haunting atmospheres in his award winning films such as "The Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus."

Which brings us to the most amazing use of chiaroscuro in pretty much the history of the world. For his 1975 film "Barry Lyndon," Stanley Kubrick had to go to knocking on NASA's door to find a lens wide enough to shoot scenes lit only with candlelight; this is such a dimly lit shot that it had never been accomplished before. He retrofitted a Mitchell BNC camera with a special Zeiss lens developed for space photography to shoot these now legendary scenes. The lens has an aperture of f/.7, still better than most lenses used in film today. See these incredible scenes here:

Chiaroscuro is probably one of the most translated techniques across different forms of art. Not only is it used metaphorically in literature and music; Tim Burton's upcoming "Frankenweenie" will see its latest transmutation to stop-motion animated films. The processing power of video game consoles in rendering light has also allowed best-selling games such as "Bioshock" and "Mass Effect 2" to become more serious, by heavily relying on chiaroscuro to promote the deep emotional involvement of the player in the story. We don't know what new, holographic-laser-beam forms of art will come up in the future, but I can bet that the one thing connecting all these artists through the centuries will be the desire to express emotion through the simple contrast between darkness and light.

Cloud Atlas - Mission Unfilmable

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word that describes a quality of audacity, derived from the Hebrew word ḥuṣpâ, meaning "insolence". This word comes to mind when I think of the effort that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have undertaken to adapt a book such as "Cloud Atlas" for the big screen. In a comprehensive article in the New Yorker (an achievement in itself), Aleksandar Hermon chronicles the daunting task of putting this monster screenplay together in a way that would be faithful to author David Mitchell's concentric vision of interconnectedness and rebirth across the centuries and continents. The article was all the more surprising because the Wachowskis are notoriously press-shy, but they have given Harmon unprecedented access. 

This is a $100 million independent film; the most expensive indie ever made, according to IndieWire. No one who read the book understood how this could ever be accomplished, so the directors had to find financing for it themselves. Did your mind blow up after seeing the extended 5 minute trailer? That was put together because they had a hard time selling distribution rights. Even David Mitchell told Hermon that when he was writing this book, he considered it to be unfilmable. 

Book review website The Millions placed Cloud Atlas in 3rd place for the best books of the new millenium, and in my opinion it should be in 1st place. This is a book like no other, one of the best books I've read, written like one of those collapsible cups where each of the six stories folds into the next one chonologically, and then dizzyingly unfolds at the ending of the novel, which actually takes place in the middle of the book. The problem with turning this novel into a movie is that each of the stories interrupt the previous story and you find out that the character in the new story is reading or watching the previous story in a book / letter / film / egg-shaped iPhone, and the ending of each interrupted story is at the other end of the book.  Whew! Natalie Portman was reading this book on the set of "V for Vendetta;" she was the one that recommended it to the directors, Lana (then Larry) and Andy Wachowski.

Early reviews are mostly positive but still mixed; most people consider it a great "experiment" in filmmaking, which could sadly place it in the same bucket as "The Tree of Life" in the eyes of the easily-bored public. What gives me confidence that this might be a great film is that according to Hermon, when the movie was screened to Hollywood big-shots, they unanimously burst in applause in the screening room. This has to be this year's unmissable event, the one film that you absolutely have to see, starting October 26.

In non-eponymous news, and since the movie has not come out, last week I visited this summer's rooftop sculpture at The Met, "Cloud City." Highly recommended if you are in New York City until November 4th, 2012; you can walk inside and try to process incredible views of Central Park from 20 feet in the air:
"Artist Tomás Saraceno (born in Tucumán, Argentina, in 1973) has created a constellation of large, interconnected modules constructed with transparent and reflective materials for the Museum's Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden. Visitors may enter and walk through these habitat-like, modular structures grouped in a nonlinear configuration."

James Bond Film Rights Contract (1961)

To celebrate James Bond’s diamond jubilee as the quintessential big screen secret agent, Vanity Fair posted a great article with a slideshow, which includes an interesting tidbit of film history: a letter that started the $5 billion dollar franchise. Harry Saltzman, in partnership with Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, paid Ian Fleming $50,000 for the movie rights in 1961; United Artists agreed to a budget of $1 million dollars for "Dr. No," the first Bond film. They paid £500 for the first screenplay to Wolf Mankowitz (a vulgar GB£7,000 or US$11,000 in today's currency, roughly) who subsequently pulled his name off the credits because he thought the story was beneath him. Do you think this contract would be approved by entertainment lawyers today?

*  *  *  *  *

Dear Cubby,
            This sets forth the arrangements between us for our joint venture, namely:-
1.         (a) I am negotiating to acquire all the motion picture and television rights, or options thereon, of all the James Bond stories by Ian Fleming, (except Casino Royale) including future stories and also the exclusive right to use the James Bond character either in connection with motion pictures based on the Ian Fleming stories or on other stories which I may have written for motion picture purposes (all of the said rights are hereinafter sometimes called “the James Bond subjects”).
(b) I have written an outline of a story entitled “Streets of Gold” and own the copyright therein, and we have commissioned Wolf Mankowitz to write an expanded Screenplay thereof for £500 (Five Hundred Pounds).
2.         You and I have mutually agreed that we shall equally share all the above rights and subjects and we shall equally share the cost of acquiring the James Bond subjects and the said payment to Wolf Mankowitz and also any pre-production expenses and any profits from the exploitation of the rights and subjects and any motion pictures based thereon PROVIDED:-
(i) that if by the 1st of September next we have not been able to make arrangements for the production of a motion picture of “Streets of Gold” you may thereafter advise me that you are no longer interested in this particular subject and thereupon I shall return to you any advances you may have made in respect of this subject (which at this date I anticipate will only be £250, being half of the payment to be made to Wolf Mankowitz) and upon such refund to you your interest in this subject will cease
(ii) with regard to the James Bond subjects, you may at any time prior to our having made a commitment to produce a motion picture based on any of them, give me notice that you are no longer interested in these subjects and I shall within sixty days thereafter repay to you the amount you may have expanded towards the purchase of the rights and any other expenditures in connection with the promotion or production of motion pictures based thereon, and upon such repayment being made all your rights in the James Bond subjects shall cease
3.         It is possible that the rights in the James Bond subjects may be acquired by a company nominated by me, in which event in order to give effect to the foregoing arrangements between us, I shall procure that 50% of the shares of that company shall be transferred to you or as you may direct and you will have equal representation with me on the Board. Similar arrangements may be made in respect of “Streets of Gold”.
4.         Will you please confirm your agreement to the foregoing by signing the carbon copy of this letter at the foot thereof under the words “I agree with the above” and returning it to me.

Yours sincerely,
Harry Saltzman

I agree the above
Albert R. Broccoli

My Top 30 Movies of all Time

Everyone! Your attention please... I guess I should have started out with this post. These are just a matter of personal opinion as of September 13, 2012, and I might have to change some stuff around after a few of the fall movies come out. It will always be in a constant state of flow; but I haven't changed much in the order of these films in over a decade.

1 Casablanca USA 1942 Michael Curtis
2 Léon: The Professional France/USA 1994 Luc Besson
3 The Shawshank Redemption USA 1994 Frank Darabont
4 The English Patient USA 1996 Anthony Minghella
5 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind USA 2004 Michel Gondry
6 Star Wars USA 1977 George Lucas
7 Close Encounters of the Third Kind USA 1977 Steven Spielberg
8 Inception USA 2010 Christopher Nolan
9 Pulp Fiction USA 1994 Quentin Tarantino
10 The Godfather: Part II USA 1974 Francis Ford Coppola
11 2001:A Space Odyssey U.K. 1968 Stanley Kubrick
12 The Graduate USA 1967 Mike Nichols
13 8 1/2 Italy 1963 Federico Fellini
14 Fanny och Alexander Sweden 1982 Ingmar Bergman
15 Jules et Jim France 1962 François Truffaut
16 The Silence of the Lambs USA 1991 Jonathan Demme
17 The Fifth Element France 1997 Luc Besson
18 Cidade de Deus Brazil 2002 Fernando Meirelles
19 The Thin Red Line Canada/USA 1998 Terrence Malick
20 The NeverEnding Story Germany 1984 Wolfgang Petersen
21 Blade Runner USA 1982 Ridley Scott
22 Raiders of the Lost Ark USA 1981 Steven Spielberg
23 Wings of Desire Germany 1987 Wim Wenders
24 Before Sunset USA 2004 Richard Linklater
25 North by Northwest USA 1959 Alfred Hitchcock
26 The Matrix USA 1999 The Wachowskis
27 Lawrence of Arabia USA 1962 David Lean
28 Heat USA 1995 Michael Mann
29 Citizen Kane USA 1941 Orson Welles
30 Breakfast at Tiffany's USA 1961 Blake Edwards

Feel free to disagree in the comments section.

Samsara - Flow, Birth, and Rebirth in 70mm

Thank you Ron Fricke, for making this gorgeous cathedral of meditation that nobody will see. This is the first movie in over a decade to shoot entirely in 70mm film. But without a single word of dialogue, in the modern babbleopolis of iPhone chatter, the likelihood that this film breaks even is low. Sadly, out of the six people in the theater, two of them strolled out after 20 minutes. But I'm guessing that's not why this film was made. I old-man-ly shushed them out after they stood up.

This movie is an incredible exercise in... well, exercise. They had to lug the Super Panavision 70 camera to 25 different countries, from sulphur mines in Java and to deserts in Namibia, from the Grand Canyon to the Chinese slaughterhouse. By the end of the movie, you will be exhausted by the sheer logistical complexity of putting this together. They must have shed a few pounds.

If you want to disconnect for an hour and a half - unplug from the world and watch eternity flow before your eyes, without concern for linearity or story- yeah I thought you wouldn't. "Samsara" took everything everyone hated about "The Tree of Life" and expanded on it; it should be showing on an endless loop in the MoMa. For what it's worth, I loved it. It was disturbing and peaceful and made me enjoy my luck in the universe. The music was beautiful and involving. I wish the masses could enjoy watching this instead of Bravo. Oh well.

Side by Side - Digital Killed the Celluloid Star

You can skip film school. In his 2012 behind-the-scenes documentary “Side by Side,” director Christopher Kenneally and actor-turned-wookie Keanu Reeves surf through the history of filmmaking and the transition from shooting movies with the saintly chemical process of 35mm film with silver halide, to recent heretical advancements in digital photography. Through fireside chats with directors and cinematographers with the highest of Hollywood pedigrees, we peep into their confined editing bays and learn about the technical aspects of filmmaking, the benefits of digital, and the reasons (real and emotional) of why losing film is a "bad" thing. It walks industry outsiders through the technical aspects of the whole production process from shooting, editing, color correction, special effects, and distribution. Cinematography porn for camera geeks.

There are chortle-inducing anecdotes that illustrate both sides of the argument in terms of the ways movie-making is changing; such as Soderbergh shooting "Che" with digital cameras which made longer, more efficient shots in the infernal Mexican jungle possible (35mm cameras can only shoot 10 minutes at a time); or Robert Downey Jr. getting literally pissed off, because with a digital camera you don’t need a break and actors don't get as much downtime. He would leave jugs of his piss all over the set in protest. It explores the anger-inducing democratization of filmmaking, as everyone with a cheap digital camera can now win an award, to the chagrin of some stuffy old movie makers.

We get the sense that we are heading into a world where the convergence of quality between film and digital is just over the horizon. However, some rightly complain that with digital you can’t achieve the same dynamic range as with film. (To understand what this means, you can set your iPhone camera to shoot photos in HDR, which allows you to capture a higher dynamic range of light, to let you capture more color with the sun at your back). As in the case of resolution doubling in digital cameras every couple of years, it’s not hard to imagine that the dynamic range in digital will catch up to film soon.

The most immediate changes are on the distribution front, as some movie studios have already given an ultimatum to theaters that they will only ship digital after 2013, bringing the cost of distribution from $1,500 per film reel (which will survive as emoticons) to around $150 per digital copy. This is where most interviewees agree that digital is better, because digital allows for less fuck-ups by the projectionist which could fudge the feed into the old projectors, make the screen brighter or frame the projection inappropriately. Also, Titanic played for so long that the film literally broke apart in the projector after a while, while digital copies don't age. Only the theater owners are upset because of the upfront cost of the digital conversion, although studios are financing conversions until the end of 2012. Ironically long-term storage will probably have to be in celluloid because digital storage (hard drives, DVDs, etc.) degrade quickly while celluloid can last over 100 years in abandoned underground mines.

When a caveman invented the wheel, there was someone in the tribe that went: “Oh well, that's the death of walking.” Listen, people are always going to be either afraid of change or motivated by nostalgia. In some cases, such as in the invention of high fructose corn syrup, credit default swaps, or reality tv, anti-changers are right. It’s true, when George Lucas shot “Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace” in the late 1990’s (the first blockbuster distributed digitally), the digital cameras available at the time were not ready for prime time. But it did open up the race to create a higher-resolution CCD that could power the vision of the director that had Pandora in mind. On the other end of the spectrum, Christopher Nolan and his cinematographer, a very angry Wally Pfister (who is now branching off to direct his own films, ending the trademark feel of Nolan-Pfister movies) have sworn that they will continue to shoot in film as long as the medium is still available. Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" became the first digital film to win the Academy Award for best cinematography. Do you remember the dynamic chases through the slums, the palpable bustle of the city in the chase scenes? He would not have been able to shoot that with a heavy film camera. Sure, we'll miss celluloid, the same way we will miss walking.

3D and IMAX for Dummies

From the moment "Avatar" came to the big screen and the red-and-blue cellophane gimmick graduated to the badass brain-melting experience it is today, movie geeks like you have been trying to figure out if the higher price of a 3D or IMAX ticket makes sense. After years of deliberation, general consensus is that it’s only worth it if the movie is originally shot in that format, and in the case of IMAX you have to watch it in a really really, REALLY big screen. Gargantuan. You get it.

After a dismal couple of years in film, 2012 is finally a great year to compare this summer's slate of 3D movies. regularly publishes useful articles which rate the 3D aspect of films. In their scoring system, “The Avengers” got a 27 (out of a possible 35), “The Amazing Spider-Man” got a 23, while “Prometheus” got a near perfect 33. What’s the difference? "Prometheus" was gorgeously shot by Ridley Scott in the new EPIC Red camera entirely in 3D while "Avengers" was belatedly converted to 3D in post-production. "Spider-Man" scored lower mainly because of the opinion of their reporter in terms of depth perception and the terrible headache the movie gave her. In my expert cinephile opinion, without the 3D "Spider-Man" could not have been so successful (too soon to reboot, blah blah blah).

Christopher Nolan shot a large part of "The Dark Knight Rises" with the bulky and complicated IMAX camera, for a total of 72 minutes (43% of the film), the most IMAX 15/70 ever used by a big budget film. A big factor in the case of IMAX movies is that it has to be shown in a real IMAX theater. Ever since Aziz Ansari exposed the horrific fraud perpetrated by fake IMAX theaters (or LieMAX), I have been warning everyone to make sure they only pay for movies that are shot in real IMAX cameras and shown in the really ginormous IMAX screen. You are basically watching only half of "The Dark Knight Rises" in a regular-sized screen. The only screen in Manhattan that is a real IMAX theater is the one all the way to the top of the AMC Loews in Lincoln Square. There was a really good article in July in the New York Times that discusses at length the differences in the images. Believe me, the trek to Lincoln Square is worth it. Thank me later. Buh-bye.

In summary, as we found out in “Basic Instinct”:
Sharon Stone: Do you have any coke? I just love coke with Jack Daniels.
Michael Douglas: I have a Pepsi in the fridge.
Sharon Stone: But it's not really the same thing. Now, is it?
(Now substitute Cocaine with Lincoln Square and Pepsi with the "LieMax" in any other AMC or Regal movie theater).

For your reference outside New York, LF Examiner lists all of the large-format IMAX screens around the world.