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Waiting for Tenet: The Most Creative Meditations on Time in the History of Cinema

We know very little about Tenet, the much-awaited Christopher Nolan thriller. The English director clearly stated that “it’s not a time travel movie.” However, the manipulation of time is likely to play a major role in the unfolding of the events.

Probably, it’s gonna be something revolving around the T-symmetry, a physics concept that lends itself particularly well to Nolan’s nonlinear and multilayered storytelling style.

I’m dying of curiosity. Alas, the film release has just been delayed once again due to coronavirus. The distributors at Warner Bros are probably mulling over a few options: should we launch the film on HBO Max? Release it across the world at different dates? Or just postpone it everywhere for a few more months?

While waiting for some answers, I put together a Top 5 of movies that you can watch to kill the time (uh-oh) until Tenet hits the (small or big) screens. All five films creatively meditate on the flowing of time but their genres range from comedy to drama, from animation to documentary. Hopefully, there’s something for all kinds of cinema buffs.

After all, manipulating time is what filmmaking ultimately is about. As Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky said, “cinema is a mosaic made of time.”

1) Sci-Fi: La Jetée (1962)

Set in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of World War III, Chris Marker’s La Jetée tells the story of a man who is sent to different time periods to try saving humanity. Clocking in at just 28 minutes, the film is made of a series of black and white still photographs, voice-over narration and a haunting musical score.

In the words of The New York Times’ film critic A. O. Scott, “Every movie is a series of still images that our perception connects, La Jetée makes us conscious of this process.”

Thanks to its powerful images, poetic narration and clever time-travel mechanics, Chris Marker’s masterpiece is not just a mind-bending investigation into the nature of time but also one of the greatest sci-films ever—up there in the pantheon together with Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

2) Animation: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda and written by Satoko Okudera, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an inventive anime about time loops and coming of age. Once again, the former proves to be an effective device to tell a story about the latter.

There’s plenty of visual and narrative mastery to savor in this 2006 gem, just beware that a box of tissues might come in handy at the end.

3) Documentary: Chronos (1985)

Have you watched Koyaanisqatsi, the 1982 abstract film on technology and nature directed by Godfrey Reggio and graced with an aethereal score composed by Philip Glass? If not, give it a try as it’s still a notable accomplishment in large scale filmmaking. If yes, you may want to check out Chronos, a 1985 film realized by Koyaanisqatsi’s cinematographer Ron Fricke. The style is very similar (no voice-over or dialogues) but here the focus is on (mainly Western) history.

In some 40 minutes, its monumental time-lapses pack a (literally) breathtaking ride across civilizations and millennia.

4) Comedy: Palm Springs (2020)

Released by Hulu in July, Palm Springs by debutant director Max Barbakow is the cinematic surprise of this very weird summer.

Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles (Andy Samberg) are two strangers who find themselves trapped inside a time loop during a wedding in Palm Springs, California.

The Groundhog Day-esque premise switches on a high-voltage comedy about love, the daily grind and the lack (or not) of meaning of it all. Come for laughing, stay for a charming meditation on nihilism and time.

5) Drama: The Before trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013)

Pretty much like Christopher Nolan’s, also Richard Linklater’s cinema is obsessed with time (and dreams). Just in a very different way.

Whereas Nolan wrestles with time subjecting it to incredible distortions, Linklater leaves time alone showing the viewers that the less you touch it the more it becomes a wondrous, mysterious object.

For example, in his Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), the Texan filmmaker tells the story of a relationship as it unfolds over the years. The films were shot and set at nine-year intervals. Each of them spans over the course of just a few hours exploring three different stages of the relationship.

The cinematic time and the time of life brilliantly overlap creating not only a masterpiece of minimalistic design but also a very human, extremely moving portrait of love (so, beware, double the boxes of tissues you needed for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time).

“Time is kind of the building block of cinema,” says Linklater in a beautiful video essay realized by Sight & Sound. And his Before trilogy is a testament to this idea.

By Davide Banis
Credit header image: La Jetée via Pinterest