As a trope in science fiction, time travel allows for virtually any possibility and therefore, it’s the most abused plot gimmick ever. Luckily for us, a few diamonds have turned up in the rough. There are thousands of great time travel stories in science fiction, including comic books and television, but only a smattering of films qualify for this high honor. The great time travel film is not necessarily a scientific one, a logically consistent one, or even a time travel type for morons. They are the ones that succeed in presenting a brand new view of our times, or confessing profound truths about human nature.
Donnie Darko: Cult classic, but more about the effects of time travel than the actual adventure itself.
Back to the Future: Time travel for the masses. Fun 80’s romp, but screws with the order of cause and effect for the sake of narrative impact. Nuh-uh.
On to the Real McCoys!
Time Bandits: A young boy’s absolutely wicked and fiendish romp through time with 6 dwarves who stole a map from the Supreme Being. Probably hasn’t aged well over time, so current viewers, beware!
The Terminator: A standard time travel yarn turned Arnold into one of scifi’s greatest villains. Somewhat overshadowed by a superior sequel, this original demonstrated the Grandfather paradox quite well.
12 Monkeys: Possibly Gilliam’s finest – a dystopian future on top of an ecological nightmare wrapped around time travel. A genre film that’s actually about love, death, and the immutability of fate.
Primer: This low-budget entry is absolutely brilliant in the intellectual application that effectively turns the machine into a modern day Pandora’s Box.
Timecrimes: Severely underrated film that deliciously exploits the standard time travel loop paradox.
Looper: Great film, but cheats a bit by switching between two types of time travel – one that allows for multiple timelines, and a single timeline.
Not quite film
Steins; Gate: An entertaining anime series that turned into a thriller, almost as if it was written for time travel enthusiasts.
Don’t mention the following (even though they involve jumping in time):
Groundhog Day: Absolutely brilliant in every other sense of the word — but it’s not legitimately time travel. More of a karmic reset button that must be paid before it can be pushed.
Source Code: Somewhat overbaked use of Phlebotinum.
Run Lola Run: Excellent attempt at reset or do-overs after Groundhog Day perfected the formula.
Peggy Sue got Married: Sentimental entry in the romantic category and a subtle paean to fatalism.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Funny but hardly memorable, and clearly inferior romp to the Time Bandits.