Twenty years ago, Christopher Nolan turned an ending into a beginning and changed movie history (and dorm-room DVD collections) for good. Memento, the director’s audaciously structured breakout film, launched the filmmaker into a bankable talent and introduced the obsessions that still animate his work, all the way up to last year’s head-spinning Tenet — in particular, his fascination with the distortion and manipulation of linear time.
The film’s headfuck of a plot doesn’t just depict an amnesiac with short-term memory loss trying to track down his wife’s murderer. It forces us to live his mental state of disorientation by structuring the storyline in reverse: Every scene ends where a previous scene began, and every answer arrives before we’ve understood the question.
When Memento arrived in theaters two decades ago, after months of word-of-mouth buzz on the festival circuit that somehow scared off distributors who thought the film was too complex for popular appeal, critics hailed the vision and originality of its backwards structure. But while it’s true Memento introduced reverse chronology to mainstream U.S. audiences, it wasn’t the first great film to use such a structure. Nolan built on the work of filmmakers like Czech director Oldřich Lipský, whose Happy End played with reverse structure before Nolan was born, and Jane Campion, whose 1986 Two Friends employed a similar structure.
Strangely, Memento was part of a flurry of reverse-chronological flicks in the late 1990s and early aughts, a turn-of-the-century boom that included Lee Chang-dong’s great Peppermint Candy and even Coldplay’s “The Scientist” video. Perhaps the success of mid-1990s non-linear puzzles like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects emboldened studios to embrace non-conventional narrative devices. Or maybe there was just something in the water. Meanwhile, by the mid-2000s, reverse chronology was increasingly deployed by romantic dramas, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and P.S. I Love You, as a way to freshen the genre and explore relationships and memory.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve watched so many reverse-chronological movies that my brain is now functioning backwards. This is intended as a guide to movies where the end comes first and the beginning last. I’m not looking at any old non-linear narrative — Rashomon, Little Women, what-have-you — but instead movies where the plot actually unfolds in reverse, a technique that’s much rarer and more difficult to accomplish successfully.
A few quick caveats: First, I’m limiting this guide to feature-length films only — not TV episodes or short films. Second, I’m focusing on movies that are mostly or entirely structured in reverse-chronological order, though I’ve made a few exceptions for highly significant films where only a portion of the plot is shown in reverse. Lastly, I considered ordering this list in backwards order, then decided… nah.
The Three-Sided Mirror (1927)
More than 40 years before Nolan was born, French filmmaker Jean Epstein, a celebrated innovator of the French Impressionist movement, was playing with reverse chronology in this 40-minute experimental silent film. The Three-Sided Mirror merges past and present in a triptych narrative in which three women separately reflect on their love affairs with the same man. The film’s flashback structure, kinetic editing and violent automobile sequence were all somewhat radical for the day. That said, there’s only one brief sequence in which events occur in reverse near the beginning of the film, when we first meet Pearl, one of the three women. (Like much of the plot, it’s a bit confusing to follow, given the scarce intertitles.) But considering The Three-Sided Mirror is generally regarded as the first film to experiment with reverse chronology, it’s worth including.
Streaming options: Ninety-four years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine accessing this cinematic curiosity at home in the year 2021. Fortunately, the film and some other Epstein treasures are available to stream for free via HENRI, the Cinémathèque française’s streaming platform.
Happy End (1967)
In the perverse, backwards-moving world of Happy End, babies shrink and reenter the womb, horses gallop in reverse and virginities are restored. This outlandish and devilishly inventive Czechoslovak comedy is unlike any other reverse-chronological film I’ve seen. The story begins with a doomed butcher’s execution and ends with his infanthood, but the plot isn’t just structured in reverse; rather, every individual scene genuinely unfolds in reverse, right down to the dialogue (every answer is followed by a question), the action (instead of being thrown from a window, a man’s body floats up from the pavement), and even the food (characters expel whole cookies from their mouths bite by bite).
Yes, it’s disorienting (ever watch a beheading in reverse?). Yes, it’s a bizarre stylistic gambit, but what elevates Happy End to absurdist comic genius is the voiceover narration. The main character, Bedřich, spiritedly narrates his life story as though it were proceeding in linear fashion, leading to an unending flood of dark cognitive dissonance. Bedřich’s execution? Now it’s a joyful birth. A funeral scene in which a coffin is lifted out of the ground? “We receive a message that our father-in-law is going to be born,” Bedřich happily informs us. A drowning man being dragged into — not out of — the ocean as beachgoers applaud? “I decided to drown him in public,” Bedřich explains.
Is this a gimmick? Sure, but so is every movie on this list, and Happy End crams more surrealist brilliance and disorienting sight gags into just 70 minutes than most movies manage in two hours. Lipský was way ahead of his time; he’s received more attention for Lemonade Joe, a Western satire that predated Blazing Saddles by a whole decade, yet Happy End remains lost in undeserved obscurity. I love this odd little film, and can’t understand why it isn’t a cult classic. For anyone interested in reverse chronology, this is the place to start — or, uh, end.
Streaming options: If you dig hard enough, you can find a subtitled stream on a site called Eastern European Movies (you’ll have to pay $5 for one-day access). You can also find the film on YouTube, seemingly in its entirety, but without English subtitles.
This rather stuffy adaptation of Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal concerns three unhappy London literary types caught in a love triangle. The film explores the seven-year trajectory of a surreptitious love affair between Emma (Patricia Hodge) and Jerry (Jeremy Irons), while an unrecognizably young Ben Kingsley gets a whole lot of screen time as Emma’s embittered husband, who also happens to be Jerry’s best friend (drama!). The extramarital premise is reminiscent of 1978’s similarly themed Same Time, Next Year, but the twist is that the love affair is shown in reverse, beginning after the pair’s dissolution, so there’s a sense of fatalism to the whole thing: As we watch Emma and Jerry embrace, we know exactly how this whole mess ends.
Trouble is, the screenplay has a tendency of overcompensating for this structure with self-consciously explanatory dialogue, and David Jones’ direction is too dull to liven up material that seems meant for the stage. (The film has major based-on-a-play energy.) Surely the structure seemed more cutting-edge back in 1983 (Roger Ebert’s rave review mentions a screening where “people in the audience actually resisted the backward time frame”). But I found the film too dreary to recommend.
Streaming options: The film is a bit lost — it’s never been released on DVD, much less streaming platforms. But if you’re truly determined to see it, some kind soul has uploaded a VHS rip to Vimeo.
Two Friends (1986)
This little-known film, made for Australian television in 1986, is historically significant for several reasons. For one, it marked the directorial debut of Campion, who would shoot to prominence with the 1993 Holly Hunter vehicle The Piano. And it’s the only reverse-chronological film I’ve seen that centers around a platonic friendship rather than a troubled romance.
Feminist and frank in its depiction of girlhood camaraderie, Two Friends spans about a year in the lives of Louise and Kelly, two middle-class schoolgirls whose close friendship unravels as the latter drifts toward drugs and vagrancy. Unfortunately, the script isn’t too engaging, and it’s not clear whether the reverse structure serves the narrative or obstructs it; early scenes, set after the friendship has been ruptured, lack emotional resonance because the viewer doesn’t have context for their prior dynamic. Later scenes, in which the girls are shown taking exams and bonding over plans to attend an elite prep school, bring a youthful tenderness to the film that’s heightened by Campion’s use of hand coloring and stop-motion animation.
Streaming options: Two Friends is available to rent ($4.99) or buy ($12.99) on a site called Milestone Films.
‘The Betrayal’ (1997 Seinfeld Episode)
I said I wasn’t including any television episodes, but I lied. I’m making one exception, because (1) it’s Seinfeld; and (2) it’s a crucial artifact in The Great Reverse Chronology Boom of the Late 1990s. This delightfully weird Seinfeld episode lampoons the narrative technique, from its Harold Pinter-referencing title (a minor character is even named “Pinter”) to its saving the opening credits and slap-bass theme for the end. “The Betrayal” opens with a convoluted plot full of mysteries — Why are Jerry and Elaine at a wedding in India? What’s going on between Kramer and FDR??? — that are only explained as the episode speeds backwards in time toward each setup.
It’s not the most coherent plot, but who cares? While reverse-chronological films often tend to be suffocatingly serious, Seinfeld reveals the comic possibilities of the gimmick, exploiting it for goofy sight gags (Kramer eating an oversized lollipop that keeps getting bigger and bigger as we jump back in time) and clever punchlines (George complaining that his stomach is unsettled, then a cut to him ordering clams an hour prior). There’s a lot of joke potential when you’re willing to jump back minutes instead of whole months or years.
Streaming options: Hulu
Peppermint Candy (2000)
Lee Chang-dong’s sprawling 2000 film, frequently regarded as a landmark of the Korean New Wave movement, is one of the finest films ever to use a reverse-chronological structure. Peppermint Candy uses it not as an easy gimmick or deliberately confounding plot device, but instead as an inquiry into the slow-motion dissipation of hope in one man’s soul. With each sequence, the main character grows a little happier and less corrupted.
We first meet the film’s troubled protagonist, Kim Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu), on the final day of his life; we watch him behaving erratically at a student reunion before placing himself in the path of an oncoming train. From there, the film rewinds backwards through notable events in Yong-ho’s life that led him to this moment of despair, culminating in an unexpected feat of symmetry. This unraveling-in-reverse coincides with 20 years’ worth of modern Korean history, conveying, for instance, how the character’s experiences as a cop during the 1980s student demonstrations helped brutalize his spirit. The unusual structure means that we witness key episodes in Yong-ho’s life — a traumatic military experience, a collapsing marriage — with a tragic awareness of the broken, violent man who emerged on the other (chronologically speaking) side.
Streaming options: YouTube rental
Most reverse-chronological films require a lopsided distribution of knowledge between audience and protagonist. When the movie begins, the character holds all the knowledge — we know nothing about how they got into this mess — but by the film’s end, we know far more about the character’s fate than they do.
With Memento, Nolan ingeniously subverts this trope by devising a protagonist, Leonard (Guy Pearce), who is as perpetually disoriented and uncertain about what’s just happened as the audience is. Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia as the result of a traumatic attack that killed his wife. He can remember life before the injury, but can’t form new memories; it’s as though his brain resets every 15 minutes.
The film’s vengeance narrative — in which Leonard relies upon a system of notes and Polaroids to hunt his wife’s killer — unfolds in reverse, tracking backwards from a shooting to the clues that led there, with the effect of simulating Leonard’s confusion at the start of each encounter. Meanwhile, an interlacing narrative, in which Leonard is in a motel room, narrating his backstory and that of a fellow amnesiac named Sammy, does proceed chronologically and delivers much of the film’s emotional weight. It’s a testament to Nolan’s talent that this nutso structure never crumbles.
The filmmaker used a number of uncommon cinematography techniques — anamorphic lenses, a near-complete lack of establishing shots — to accentuate the sense of disorientation created by the narrative. But unlike other films on this list, Memento inches backwards toward a twist that transforms our understanding of the story’s beginning (well… ending) and provokes existential questions about the nature of fate and memory: Do our actions still have meaning even if we can’t remember them? And yet most who saw Memento would find it impossible to forget.
Streaming options: Prime, Tubi, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play
“Irréversible is a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.” That’s Roger Ebert reviewing Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible in 2003. Having found the French filmmaker’s Enter the Void excruciating enough when I attended a screening in college — two friends left after the first hour, while I regretfully remained for all three — I’d long put off watching the 2002 film that established Noé as enfant terrible of the New French Extremity. But you can’t write about reverse-chronological films without writing about Irréversible. The film commits to the bit so aggressively that the end credits play at the start of the movie. Besides, it was the first reverse-chronological film to take direct influence from Memento: Noé has admitted he pitched the movie in reverse to capitalize on Nolan’s success, and Irréversible similarly begins with a decontextualized act of revenge.
Buoyed by kinetic, disorienting cinematography (scenes unfold in long, unbroken shots) and a grimy depiction of Parisian nightlife, Irréversible turns out to be as bleak and transgressive as its reputation suggests. The plot centers around the horrific rape of a woman named Alex, and the two men who seek to avenge her assault. But the film subverts the typical revenge narrative by forcing us to witness the brutal act of vengeance, horrified and bewildered, before witnessing the unspeakable crime that motivated it. From there, Noé rewinds back to the fury and commotion following the rape, the rape itself — a sequence so excruciating and lengthy that dozens of Cannes attendees walked out in disgust — and pre-attack moments of tenderness that we know will soon be shattered. (Of course, we wish we didn’t know this. How do you enjoy a sweet sex scene when you’ve already seen the future?)
Ebert argues that this structure redeems the film’s ugliness. “[T]he reverse chronology makes Irréversible a film that structurally argues against rape and violence,” he writes, “while ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff.” Maybe. It certainly poses a curious contrast with Quentin Tarantino’s own revenge fantasies. But that doesn’t make Noé’s abject nihilism and near-sadistic lack of restraint easier to take. Ultimately, this is an intricately woven film that seems like it would reward multiple viewings — but how could anyone want to watch this more than once?
Streaming options: Tubi, YouTube, iTunes, Apple TV+, Vudu, Prime
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Memento depicts a character handicapped by his inability to remember people; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind centers around two lovers who actively choose to erase each other from their memories. This deeply imaginative labyrinth of a film by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry has become an essential piece of the mid-2000s angsty-millennial starter pack. But in 2001, Kaufman nearly gave up on it. “There was a moment when suddenly people started talking about this movie Memento when I totally freaked out,” the writer admitted in 2004.
In reality, the two films are vastly different. Yet what they have in common — besides a fascination with the vagaries of human memory — is a split narrative in which a crucial chunk of the story unfolds in reverse. In Eternal Sunshine, that’s the story of Joel and Clementine’s relationship, which we observe in fragmented bursts within Joel’s (Jim Carrey) mind while he is undergoing the procedure to have Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased. We witness the fight that precipitated their breakup before Kaufman’s screenplay zooms backwards through their affair, culminating with their initial meeting at a Montauk beach.
What makes this more compelling than Betrayal is how the film’s funhouse surrealism warps and degrades these memories as they’re being zapped — and how a regretful Joel tries to squirrel Clementine away in hidden corners of his mind. While I’ve never found Eternal Sunshine as emotionally bracing as many of my fellow angsty millennials, I can’t deny its singularly inventive and mind-warping approach to reverse chronology.
Streaming options: YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Apple TV+, Vudu
Why are French filmmakers so attracted to reverse chronology? Between 2000 and 2004, Noé (Irréversible), Gondry (Eternal Sunshine) and even Jean-Luc Godard (with a short film titled De l’origine du XXIe siècle pour moi) all got in on the action. Then came 5×2 by the prolific French director François Ozon, another love story told in reverse — heavily indebted to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, though looser and racier in tone. The film begins with a youngish couple, Gilles and Marion, finalizing their divorce papers, then decamping to a hotel room, where things turn ugly fast. From there, Ozon moves backwards through notable moments in their relationship (an aggressively French conversation about infidelity, a difficult childbirth, a wedding night that takes a bizarre turn) before lingering on the pleasures of their initial flirtation at a vacation resort.
It’s not the most original premise, but the performances are compelling enough. The implicit question in 5×2 is “Where did it all go wrong?”, but there’s another here — Why is the man in this relationship such a scummy shithead? — which the film never satisfactorily answers. Nor does the structure of Ozon’s script provide enough motivation for his actions to generate much sympathy or context for the character, nor to explain the lengthy rape scene which, I should warn, this film contains. A better title for the movie was proposed by film critic Mike D’Angelo: “Prick Cowardly a Married I.”
Streaming options: Tubi, Prime