Defining nonlinear structure in film is, at times, difficult. Films may use extensive flashbacks or flashforwards within a linear storyline, while nonlinear films often contain linear sequences. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941)—influenced structurally by The Power and the Glory (1933)—and Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) use a non-chronological flashback narrative that is often labeled nonlinear.
Silent and early era
Experimentation with nonlinear structure in film dates back to the silent film era, including D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927). Nonlinear film emerged from the French avant-garde in 1924 with René Clair’s “Entracte”, Dadaïst film and then in 1929 with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou (English: An Andalusian Dog). The surrealist film jumps into fantasy and juxtaposes images, granting the filmmakers an ability to create statements about the Church, art, and society that are left open to interpretation. Buñuel and Dalí's L'Âge d'Or (1930) (English: The Golden Age) also uses nonlinear concepts. The revolutionary Russian filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Alexander Dovzhenko also experimented with the possibilities of nonlinearity. Eisenstein's Strike (1925) and Dovzhenko's Earth (1930) hint at a nonlinear experience. English director Humphrey Jennings used a nonlinear approach in his World War II documentary Listen to Britain (1942).
Post-World War II
Jean-Luc Godard's works since 1959 were also important in the evolution of nonlinear film. Godard famously stated, "I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order". Godard's Week End (French: Le weekend) (1968), as well as Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls (1966), defy linear structure in exchange for a chronology of events that is seemingly random. Alain Resnais experimented with narrative and time in his films Hiroshima mon amour (1959), L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963). Federico Fellini defined his own nonlinear cinema with the films La Strada (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8½ (1963), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and Roma (1972), as did Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky with his modernist films The Mirror (1975) and Nostalghia (1983). Nicolas Roeg's films, including Performance (1968), Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and Bad Timing (1980) are characterized by a nonlinear approach. Other experimental nonlinear filmmakers include Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Greenaway, Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Raúl Ruiz, Carlos Saura, Alain Robbe-Grillet ....
In the United States, Robert Altman carried the nonlinear motif in his films, including McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Gosford Park (2001). Woody Allen embraced the experimental nature of nonlinear narrative in Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), and Stardust Memories (1980).
1990s and 2000s
In the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino influenced a tremendous increase in the popularity of nonlinear films with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Other important nonlinear films include Atom Egoyan's Exotica (1994), Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999), and Karen and Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001). David Lynch experimented with nonlinear narrative and surrealism in Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire (2006).
In the years leading into and the beginning of the 21st century, some filmmakers have returned to the use of nonlinear narrative repeatedly, including Steven Soderbergh in Schizopolis (1996), Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), Full Frontal (2002), Solaris (2002), and Che (2008); and Christopher Nolan in Following (1998), Memento (2000), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and Dunkirk (2017). Memento, with its fragmentation and reverse chronology, has been described as characteristic of moving towards postmodernism in contemporary cinema. Another example would be Terrence Malick's acclaimed The Tree of Life (2011). The element of reverse chronology was explored further in Gaspar Noé's 2002 film Irréversible. Noé's 2009 film Enter the Void also used an uncommon narrative structure as a man recalls his life through flashbacks at the time of his death, induced by the use of psychedelic drugs. Richard Linklater used nonlinear narrative in Slacker (1991), Waking Life (2001), and A Scanner Darkly (2006); Gus Van Sant in Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005), and Paranoid Park (2007). Alejandro González Iñárritu's film Babel is an example of fragmented narrative structure. Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai explored nonlinear storylines in the films Days of Being Wild (1991), Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2004). Fernando Meirelles in City of God and The Constant Gardener. All of Alejandro González Iñárritu's films to date (aside from Birdman) feature nonlinear narratives. Charlie Kaufman is also known for his fondness of nonlinear story-telling as applied in Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Takashi Shimizu's Japanese horror series, Ju-on, brought to America as The Grudge, is also nonlinear in its storytelling (the only exception being The Grudge 3). Director Martin Koolhoven has made more movies with a nonlinear narrative, but the most notorious one is probably his controversial western Brimstone, which premiered in the 2016 Venice Film Festival.