An important note of distinction: director’s cuts, miniseries, films released in multiple parts theatrically (or on television) were not considered here. That leaves many, many excellent films off the list, but it also makes room for some lesser-known ones. I’d really prefer to not argue about different versions with different running times and discuss the films at hand. Ya dig?
I’m making an honorable mention here because I know a lot of movie fans think watching Gone with the Win equates to eating your vegetables. You anticipate it’s going to be an overly long, dated, boring film, but you have to see it at some point because it’s… Gone with the Wind. So let me just say: this film is long, certainly, but it is far from boring. I’ve always been stunned by how quickly it moves.
Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece about a group of samurai hired to protect a small village, remains as important and vital a film as, well, any other film ever made. Its final, extended, perfect battle sequence proves that captivating action isn’t at the mercy of big explosions, deafening sound effects and dizzying camera work. An environment of unease, directorial restraint and passionate acting is all it takes. A very fast and very essential 207 minutes.
What struck me most about Giant during my first viewing was the aging process of James Dean. The film spans many decades and, naturally, the characters involved get older as time goes on. When the film was over, I was saddened wondering if that is what Dean would have looked like had he lived to old age. But during the film I was wholly engrossed with the story at hand. Giant is a sprawling epic featuring the best that Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and director George Stevens had to offer.
My sentiments for Lawrence of Arabia nearly mirror those I mentioned for Gone with the Wind. Lawrence of Arabia is a huge movie of massive impact; to not have seen it feels like an error in the life of a cinephile. Having seen it, you will feel a sense of triumph and know damn well that your time was not misspent. Cleary put, this is a perfect film. All 216 minutes of it.
Andrei Tarkovsky knew how to craft a compellingly long film. Many of the movies in his brief but vital filmography clocked in at well over two hours, with his grand epic, Andrei Rublev, the longest among them. The film is a massive retelling of the life of the 15th century Russian painter and, unlike a few other films on this list, may seriously strain your patience. No matter, the lasting result is a beautiful work of utter importance.
The second installment of The Godfather saga just feels huge. The generational story lines, the scope, the production value, Lee fucking Strasberg – this is a large film of substantial weight. I’ve always found the age-old argument of which film is better, Part I or Part II, to be completely fruitless. Both are exquisite for shared and varied reasons. And both, despite lengthy running times, remain endlessly rewatchable.
Jeanne Dielman is as patience testing as films come. The movie is about a single mother who goes about her daily routine for three days straight. And on the surface, that’s pretty much it. At one point, we witness Jeanne cook a meatloaf meal… in real time. But once you reach the film’s conclusion, you come to understand the slow, tedious mastery of writer/director Chantal Akerman’s deceit. This one rocks me to the core.
It’s a shame that Sergio Leone’s final film is still clouded by its disaster of a release. When it screened at Cannes at 229 minutes long, it was immediately and unanimously hailed as a masterpiece. But the U.S. distributor was nervous, so they chopped nearly 100 minutes out of it (without Leone’s consent) and delivered an incoherent mess of a film to American audiences. Thankfully, the error has been reversed indefinitely, and the original, longer version is now easily available to see. Which, of course, you should certainly do.
Believe me, I don’t recommend a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust lightly. The very inclusion of it on this list (or my list of the best documentaries ever made) may intimidate you. But also trust that Shoah is worth it. I’ve seen it twice, both times watching a little more than two hours a night for four consecutive nights, and I genuinely felt my time was well spent. Shoah isn’t an easy film to take, both in content and endurance, but director Claude Lanzmann did something really special here, and it deserves to be seen.
Malcolm X is the shortest film on this list. Not in technical running time, but in watchability. Because Spike Lee split it into three unofficial segments, the film breezes by at an alarming speed, and never grows dull. It isn’t my favorite Spike Lee joint, but it is certainly the finest film he has ever made.
Béla Tarr is a guy who likes to take his time. His films are purposefully paced testaments of… what? World order. Community strife. Domestic turmoil. In fact, taking one paragraph to describe Tarr’s work will prove to be an exercise in futility. His films are broad, but they’re actually narrowly focused (a compliment). They’re slow, but transcendental. Maddening, but important. Sátántangó spends seven and a half hours showing us how a failing farm slowly ruins a Hungarian village. I’m not sure, as critic Susan Sontag put it, that I could watch it once a year for the rest of my life, but I’m certainly glad I’ve seen it. Which, granted, isn’t the only reason to watch this film. Plenty more reasons await your time, given your willingness to discover them.