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While you wait for Tenet, watch these time-bending movies and shows

From HBO's Watchmen to Duncan Jones' Source Code, here's how you can scratch the time-travel itch until Christopher Nolan's blockbuster is available to watch.

David Priest Former editor
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who formerly covered home security for CNET.
David Priest
8 min read

Christopher Nolan, one of the greatest blockbuster directors of all time, has a new movie Tenet, which focuses largely on time bending. Tenet got an international release on Aug. 26 and heads to the US on Sept. 3. But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, your mileage regarding whether movie theaters are open and safe to go to will vary.

Is this some monstrous marshmallow test being conducted by the film gods? Who's to say? I do know it makes the denied gratification of the auctioned off 2015 Wu-Tang album feel like small potatoes by comparison.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures

We might not get Tenet for another week (or more, if last-minute delays keep up), but that doesn't mean you can't scratch that time-bending itch you've been feeling since the trailers dropped. Here are 15 terrific time-bending movies and TV shows worth seeing for the first time or revisiting in lieu of Tenet's big debut (light spoilers to follow). 

For movies that aren't available on Netflix or their exclusive distributor (such as Palm Springs on Hulu), we've included links to Amazon, where you can rent or buy.

The time-loop subgenre

The time-loop story, in which characters get locked into a repeating day (or thereabouts) and must figure out how to escape it, has practically become its own genre by 2020. Even after decades of these movies and TV shows, though, writers are still finding ways to make them feel fresh. Here are the best ones to watch over and over and over and … well, you get the idea.


Palm Springs is just a few weeks old, and it's very on the nose about its time-loop influences (lead Andy Samberg mentions he's caught in "one of those infinite time loops you might've heard about" midway through). Although the movie doesn't boast the story-telling creativity or thematic depth of some of the other entries on this list, it does provide some genuinely good laughs and a solid supporting role for the inimitable JK Simmons.

Columbia Pictures

This Bill Murray and Harold Ramis classic birthed a whole genre, and for good reason. Groundhog Day's characters are compelling, Murray's depressive performance is flawless and the sincere ending lands well -- and this is coming from someone who generally hates moralistic endings. If you haven't seen this movie, do yourself a favor and watch it. You'll never hear "Then put your little hand in mine, there ain't no hill or mountain we can't climb" the same way again.


A clever mini-series take on the time-loop format, Natasha Lyonne's Russian Doll stands out for its sharp wit and surprisingly deep themes like mental illness and childhood trauma. Lyonne is tragically funny in the lead role, and you can tell by the way she dominates the screen that no one else could've told this story.


A super low budget sci-fi thriller from Spain, Timecrimes doesn't share the time-travel mechanisms of other movies in the time-loop subgenre, but I'm including it because it follows a character reliving a short period of time over and over. It becomes more interesting when he encounters other iterations of himself, re-experiencing the day, and changing how he and the audience understand all the strange occurrences that have come before (yes, it's a little confusing).

Summit Entertainment

Stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga joined sci-fi director Duncan Jones (fresh off the quietly brilliant Moon) for this time travel thriller in which a man tries to stop a terrorist attack (and anticipate the next) by reliving the eight minutes prior to the train bombing over and over. In short, Source Code a super fun, well-cast thrill ride that keeps you riveted from start to finish.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Another great sci-fi flick, this Tom Cruise vehicle sees a futuristic soldier accidentally get thrown into a time loop during an alien invasion, and he not only must relive the same battle over and over, but also try to figure out how to win the larger war. Edge of Tomorrow is a great summer movie for a year of unreleased summer films.

Universal Pictures

If you're more for fun horror flicks than summer blockbusters, Happy Death Day and its sequel offer a fun genre remix where the protagonist gets the satisfaction of delivering perfect comebacks to unsuspecting sorority girls and also must investigate her own murder, which happens repeatedly. It ends up being smarter than it sounds, in large part because of the main character's development and lead actress Jessica Rothe's capable performance.

The time travel subgenre

OK, time-loop movies start to feel a little repetitive after a while -- and more repetition isn't always the best prescription when you're stuck in quarantine. Luckily, more straightforward time-travel movies and shows are plentiful, and often give fun doses of nostalgia to boot.

Janus Films

Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys often gets love as a time-travel classic, but I'm actually partial to the much sillier Time Bandits, in which an 11-year-old boy goes gallivanting through the millennia with a crew of bumbling dwarves. They make stops to meet Napoleon, Agamemnon and passengers on the Titanic -- all played by a wonderful cast including John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall and the late, great Ian Holm. 

It's a strange, wonderful film -- and one of the few on this list that offers compelling watching for a slightly younger audience (though kids brought up on Disney might find it too weird for their taste).


The fourth Star Trek movie's bright air and brisk pace make it stand out as one of the most enjoyable entries in the franchise's long history. Directed by Leonard Nimoy himself, the movie settles into a much lighter tone than previous (also excellent) entries like The Wrath of Khan. The Enterprise's crew finds themselves stranded in San Francisco in 1986, the year the movie was released, trying to capture a pair of whales to bring to the future. It's popcorn drama with a charismatic crew, and if you love Star Trek, it's one of the best incarnations of it you can find. Watch for free with ads on Amazon's IMDb TV. Also available on Paramount Plus.

Twentieth Century Fox

A personal favorite on this list, Days of Future Past is perhaps the best X-Men movie to be released -- a feat in a series that both jump-started modern superhero movies and produced the excellent X2 and Logan movies. 

In this one, Wolverine must travel back from a dystopian future to alter the course of humankind (and mutant-kind) by stopping the development of Sentinel technology. What makes this movie great is its impeccable cast (Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian MacGregor, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender -- the list goes on), a clever and character-driven story, and a fun dose of '70s nostalgia. It's a banger. Also available on Amazon.


In this underrated Stephen King adaptation, an English teacher, played by James Franco, endeavors to travel back in time and stop the assassination of JFK -- hence the title, 11.22.63. After arriving he becomes attached to the new life he creates, which complicates his central mission. The miniseries is a quick eight-episode arc, and it works well as a period-piece and sci-fi thriller.


HBO's 2019 expansion to the Watchmen mythos, which just got 26 Emmy nominations, was vital and inventive. Watchmen's showrunner Damon Lindelof has dipped far more than his toes into various sci-fi franchises over the years. He co-created Lost and HBO's excellent The Leftovers, and wrote blockbuster sci-fi movies like Prometheus and Star Trek: Into Darkness

Watchmen is better than all of those, establishing itself as one of the best TV shows in recent memory in its all-too-brief nine-episode run. But one episode in particular sends the main character spiraling back through the memories of a mysterious figure to experience his life as a Black police officer in New York during the early '40s. The episode uses color and camera trickery to add layers of surreality to the history, and creates one of the most engrossing 60 minutes of television of the past decade.

The mind-bending subgenre

Time-loops and time travel show up across plenty of movies and shows, but some stories implement these mechanisms as more than a convenient framing device: They use time to build thematic complexity, to keep viewers second-guessing their assumptions about causality. These are often the best -- and also the most complicated -- of time-related stories, and it appears Tenet is going to use time in an equally creative way. Here are some favorites.

20th Century Studios

When it comes to such mind-bending fare, Donnie Darko is one of the best. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the titular depressive teen as he spirals through high school mundanity following a near-death experience. What follows is a sometimes trippy, sometimes frightening, sometimes funny, always entertaining flick that'll keep you guessing about what's to come (and what's already passed) until the iconic end. Watch free with ads on Amazon's IMDb TV.

Rian Johnson is an interesting director who delivered a fantastic debut with Brick, a muddled second movie no one remembers, and one of the most divisive Star Wars movies ever (which is saying a lot). Along the way, he also dropped Looper, a fun bit of time-travel action starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as versions of the same man in a cat and mouse chase through … well, cornfields. 

The movie's not perfect, and focuses less on the time-travel mechanisms than many of the movies on this list, but it has a few moments of pure inspiration -- including watching a young man being tortured as his older self gains scars and begins to lose limbs years later. Oh, and the movie can be a little dark, if you didn't guess.


Speaking of Dark, the German TV show just dropped its third and final season on Netflix, and it stands as one of the best mind-bending time stories in recent memory. The disappearance of children plagues a small town, and time travel seems to be the best explanation. 

What follows is a steady multiplication of timelines, characters and motivations -- along with continual ruminations on determinism, humanity, Freud and God. It's a smart show, although characters seem ever-willing to make poorly informed decisions for the greater good of the plot -- but you won't even notice because of the snappy writing, constant revelations and an approach that treats your viewing paradigm like a whirligig on a windy day.

A few bonus flicks

OK, that's a lot of shows and movies. Maybe it's even enough to hold you over until Tenet really does arrive. Though, in this timeline, who knows when that might be? But if you need a few bonus recommendations, check out the fun Ethan Hawke thriller, Predestination; the grand-daddy of all nostalgic time-travel flicks, Back to the Future; the James Cameron classic, The Terminator; the Keanu Reeves  comedy with an imminent sequel, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure; Tarkovsky's philosophical Stalker; the much-beloved (by people other than me) Dr. Who; Avengers: Endgame, if you somehow didn't see it before now; and finally, Christopher Nolan's other time-bending movies, Interstellar and (though time is really only used as a story-telling trick in it) Memento.

Any I missed? Let me know in the comments.

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