Our list of the best time travel movies ever made has all the heavy hitters.
The idea of being able to freely move through history is one of the most popular subjects for science fiction in any medium, so it is no surprise that there are tons of time travel movies out there. However, not all time travel movies are made equal and we took the time to rank the very best of them.
Some of these movies involve a grim future dystopia that must be escaped, while others are goofy comedies, and still others are trippy, complex paradoxes that will leave you struggling to understand what just happened. But what they all have in common is that they are the best time travel stories ever featured in movies.
10. Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Hot Tub Time Machine is unquestionably the most wackiest of these time travel movies, but you could probably tell that from the title. This raunchy comedy is the type of time travel story that is not particularly interested in the actual mechanics or science behind the concept, but is really interested in indulging in some 1980s nostalgia and putting Crispin Glover through the ringer.
Fortunately, it all works to a tee. Hot Tub Time Machine follows John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson as three lifelong friends who have drifted apart and into depression. The trio (plus Cusack nephew Clark Duke) visit a rundown ski resort that was the site of fond youthful adventures, get really drunk in a hot tub, and well, it’s in the title.
9. Primer (2004)
Filmmaker Shane Carruth’s debut feature film Primer is often considered a high-water mark for hard sci-fi (and time travel) movies, and rightfully so. The story of two engineers (director Carruth and David Sullivan) who accidentally discover a way to create causal time loops while freelancing on a different project is so complex that fans have made elaborate diagrams just to keep the timeline straight.
Among cerebral science fiction films, Primer stands tall, even if you have to watch it a couple of times to really get it (even with teaching aids). This low-budget, stripped-down movie is not one for the casual viewer, but it is truly one of the great time travel movies.
8. About Time (2013)
Time travel movies come in all shapes, sizes, and genres, so it was inevitable that there would eventually be a romantic comedy. About Time was written and directed by one of the masters of rom-coms, Richard Wright (of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral), and manages to imbue actual emotional stakes and humanity into the tale of a man who must learn to (literally) not dwell on the past.
Domnhall Gleeson leads a cast that includes Rachel McAdams, Margot Robbie, and Bill Nighy, portraying a man who discovers that the men in his family have the unexplained ability to travel into past moments of their lives. It’s a curious and warm story, in which time travel is more a metaphor than a science.
7. Donnie Darko (2001)
The Richard Kelly cult movie Donnie Darko is not always thought of as a time travel movie, primarily because it is just so weird. The film stars a young Jake Gyllenhaal as the title character, a troubled teen who has visions of a bizarre humanoid rabbit named Frank who tells him the world will end in precisely 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. And that’s just the beginning of the movie.
The film features an incredible cast including Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, a young Seth Rogen, and Patrick Swayze in an incredibly against type. Combine that with an insanely great soundtrack of 1980s alternative bangers, and you’ve got a masterpiece.
6. Timecrimes (2007)
Much like Primer, Timecrimes is the kind of movie that leaves you wondering what exactly happened here. This Spanish film stars Karra Elejalde as Hector, an ordinary man who accidentally stumbles into a time loop that results in multiple versions of himself running around. Even more terrifyingly, a man with bloody bandages wrapped around his face seems to be intent on murdering him.
Timecrimes is a tense, taut thriller of a time travel movie that makes the most of the inevitability of casualty and the consequences of not paying attention to what the scientist (played by Nacho Vigalondo, who also wrote and directed) who invented the time machine tells you to do.
5. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys is not so much a remake of the classic French short sci-fi film La Jetée as a mind-boggling expansion of it. Bruce Willis stars as a man living in a wretched dystopian future in which humans have been driven underground by a weaponized viral plague and animals have retaken the Earth. In exchange for a reduced prison sentence, Willis is sent back in time not to stop the virus, but to find a way to develop a cure in the present so those in power can stay that way.
12 Monkeys boasts some of Gilliam’s most demented visuals, a manic, Academy Award-nominated performance by Brad Pitt, and, most strangely of all, a strange kind of love story. Like all time travel movies, it is clear by the end of the story that none of this could ever be changed, but has all always been happening.
4. Looper (2012)
Bruce Willis must have a thing for time travel movies, because he is back on the list for Rian Johnson’s Looper, a twisty crime thriller in which he and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play different versions of the same curt, stoic hitman.
In this world, time travel is primarily used for the crime syndicates of the future to dispose of bodies; the assassins who shoot the luckless time travelers like sitting ducks are ironically doomed to someday “close the loop” and kill their future selves. That’s the situation that Willis and Gordon-Levitt find themselves in and the magnificent tension between the two as men literally fighting themselves is what drives this remarkable film.
3. Groundhog Day (1993)
It is entirely reasonable to say that Groundhog Day is not just one of the greatest time travel movies of all time, but legendary actor Bill Murray’s finest achievement. This Harold Ramis movie about a jerk of a TV weatherman who becomes trapped in a single endless repeat of the titular holiday is not just a hilarious comedy, but a deeply moving look into the capacity of a human to change.
The brilliance of Groundhog Day is not just Ramis and Murray performing at their career best, but a once-in-a-lifetime combination of a fantastic story, amazing comedic timing and editing, and a killer cast that includes Andie McDowell, Chris Elliott, and a young Michael Shannon. While the movie never explains exactly what is happening to Murray’s character or why, it is entirely clear how experiencing the same thing over and over can change a person.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The first Terminator movie is what put both director James Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger on the map, a brutal, stripped-down story about a killer robot and the woman it went back in time to kill before she can give birth to the future savior of mankind. But Terminator 2: Judgement Day exceeds the first movie in every way possible, from the groundbreaking special effects, incredibly staged action, and a glimpse at an iconically terrifying future.
Schwarzenegger returns as the reprogrammed T-800, now dedicated to protecting John Connor (Edward Furlong) from the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick) in essentially an inversion of the plot of the first movie. But where the first movie was lean and mean in its storytelling, Terminator 2 expands on the natures of humanity and machine and how thin the line between the two can be. Every movie Cameron has ever made has broadened the horizons of filmmaking, but it is likely that none of them will ever be superior to T2.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
You know it had to come down to this. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s original Back to the Future not only kicked off a critically acclaimed, incredibly commercially successful (yes, even the cowboy one) trilogy of films, it basically defined the idea of time travel movies in the public’s eye.
In part, this must be due to the deceptive simplicity of the story: luckless teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) goes back to 1955 in a DeLorean turned into a time machine by his best friend, disgraced scientist Emmett “Doc” Brown. After accidentally interfering in his parents’ (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson) meet-cute and putting his very existence in danger, Marty manages to become the coolest kid in town, all while trying to avoid the advances of his mother.
Back to the Future is a slyly subversive movie, skewering the rosy views of the past that nostalgia inevitably brings, while showing us layers of humanity in the people we would least suspect it: our parents. Time travel has rarely been so articulately explained in movies, and never so hilariously and poignantly.
- GFR Score calculated using averages of audience and critical reactions across multiple platforms.