Monday, January 13, 2014

Top 10 Movies That Take Place in Real Time

There’s something so thrilling about watching a story unfold in real time. If done right, filmmakers can use time not as a source of manipulation, but as a vehicle for organic suspense. Many of the films below are tense sensations, others chose a more conversational approach to their story, but all of them unfolded in real time to great effect.

Note: Yes, most “real time” films do cheat a little here and there, but the 10 below come as close as possible to keeping it real.

10. Nick of Time (1995)

This movie is so much fun. Johnny Depp playing an actual, normal, everyday guy. Christopher Walken doing his best Christopher Walken impression. The simplicity of the you-kill-the-Governor-or-we’ll-kill-your-daughter plot. Charles S. Dutton with one leg. Like I said, a lot of fun.

9. Russian Ark (2002)

Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is one of the very few films that literally takes place in real time, as it consists of just one 96-minute long shot. As a ghost gracefully strolls through Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, we’re privy to centuries worth of insights to the city. As technically impressive as films get.

8. The Set-Up (1949)

A boxing manager makes a deal with a local gangster that the manager’s fighter, Stoker, will take a dive in his next fight. Problem is, the manager is so certain that Stoker will lose the fight anyway, that he doesn’t bother to tell him about the fix. Oops. One of the all time great boxing films.

7. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

I’m not sure how you find the humor in a terminally ill man being denied healthcare over the course of a few disastrous hours, but damn if Romanian director Cristi Puiu didn’t do just that. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a pitch black comedy about an old guy who can’t catch a break, and I love every minute of it.

6. Rope (1948)

In the opening scene of Rope, two friends strangle a classmate to death for the hell of it. They hide the body in a large chest, then proceed to have a dinner party in their apartment, chest in plan sight. This tight, technically proficient film is Alfred Hitchcock at his most playfully devilish.

5. Run Lola Run (1998)

Run Lola Run is a fun cheat because it takes place in real time, three times over. At the start of the film, Lola’s boyfriend tells her that if she doesn’t get a shitload of cash together in 20 minutes, he’s dead. Instead of stretching the drama out, director Tom Tykwer presents three separate 20-minutes scenarios of Lola trying to save her boyfriend’s life. Lovingly inventive and impossibly thrilling, Run Lola Run is original filmmaking at its finest.

4. Tape (2001)

Three actors, one motel room, infinite speculation. Vince (Ethan Hawke) and Jon (Robert Sean Leonard) are old high school pals catching up after years apart. But once the small talk ceases, Vince reveals his devious plan of making Jon “admit” that he sexually assaulted Vince’s high school girlfriend, Amy (Uma Thurman), several years ago. Jon has no idea what Vince is talking about, and neither does Amy. Or does she? One of Richard Linklater’s very best experiments.

3. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

A young woman strolls around Paris, passing time until she can call her doctor who will either confirm or deny her cancer diagnosis. During her 90 minutes of contemplation, Cléo runs into friends, converses with strangers, and attempts to come to terms with her possibly fleeting morality. A bittersweet slice of French New Wave.

2. Before Sunset (2004)

Spending just 80 consecutive minutes with two people who’ve been apart for nine years is one damn bold way to establish love between people. But thanks to a fluid script, precise direction, and impeccable acting, Before Sunset is one of the best love stories of our time. The film is only one part of the story, yet it feels uniquely complete.

1. United 93 (2006)

Admittedly, Paul Greengrass’ 9/11 masterpiece is a bit of a cheat here, but, essentially, once United 93 is in the air, the ordeal plays out in real, horrific time. Greengrass feverishly crosscuts the confusion in the air with the panic on the ground, creating one of the most suspenseful films I’ve ever seen. Then he does something incredibly smart – he stays with the plane for its final 20 minutes of flight. From the empowered surge, to the bitter end, never has the real time narrative device been used to such effective results.

Five Worthy Cheats
“Real time” films that weren’t considered for my list, but ones you should definitely check out
His Girl Friday (1940)
High Noon (1952)
12 Angry Men (1957)
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Gravity (2013)


Update: Jan. 19, 2014
It appears this post has gone viral with some help from reddit, so I wanted to clear up some discussion on that site about the exclusion of High Noon from my main list. I didn’t include that film in my Top 10 because it technically isn’t a real time movie. The film is 85 minutes long but takes place over roughly 100 minutes.

I often take my list concepts a little too literally, but had I included High Noon on the main list, it would rank second, directly behind United 93. Thanks for checking out the list everyone! -Alex



60 comments:

  1. I'm now thinking about movies in "real time"... isn't Phone Booth one as well? I can't seem to recall any jumps to the past or anything.. I'd list it as one of the good ones, I was very surprised by it and I've seen it once and still remember it vividly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, Phone Booth counts! I actually quite enjoy that film, but for me, it doesn't top any of the films I've listed. Farrell is pretty damn solid in that flick.

      Delete
    2. I should check that one out again.

      Delete
    3. I disagree. Colin Farrell is terrible. And that movie is an interesting concept, but executed poorly and predictably.

      Delete
    4. I agree I think Phone Booth passes as a real time movie

      Delete
    5. To clarify my stance on the film: I think it is a bold concept (as are most all real time flicks), but I think the movie itself is just okay. I give credit to Farrell for at least trying. He's not, for lack of a better term, phoning in his performance.

      Delete
    6. Colin Farrell saved an otherwise typically bad Joel Schumaker joint from being a complete waste of time. Schumaker is one of the worst hacks of all time.

      Delete
    7. I appreciate Veronica Guerin and A Time to Kill.

      Delete
  2. That is a great list. I've seen some of these films in your list. The ones in my DVR queue are Russian Ark and Cleo from 5 to 7 which are in my 2014 watchlist. Nick of Time is so underrated. It makes me forget that Johnny Depp used to play normal people.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man. I think you'll appreciate Russian Ark and Cleo a lot. So glad to hear you're a Nick of Time fan. Depp as a normal guy is often so cool.

      Delete
  3. Glad you put Tape on here. Such an underrated gem that features one of Hawke's best performances, as well as a scene-shattering appearance from Thurman as well. However, I'm even happier that you threw Before Sunset on there as well, as it stands my favorite of the three. Which is really saying something! Nice list, bud!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Dan! So glad to hear you're a Tape fan. More people really need to see that movie. Sunset is probably still my favorite of the three as well, but wow... Midnight really floored me.

      Delete
  4. I realy want to watch Russian Ark. Sounds kinda brilliant.

    My favourites would be Before Sunset (pretty sure the first real-time film I ever saw), My Dinner with Andre (my brain kinda exploded after this one), 12 Angry Men, Run Lola Run, Rope and Tape. I can't exactly put my head around Gravity being in real time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's such an achievement. Really groovy shit.

      Interestingly enough, about 3 hours pass in Gravity... roughly the same amount of time in 12 Angry Men and My Dinner with Andre.

      Delete
    2. I remember "Run Lola Run" and "Nick of Time" being marketed on a time table (and United 93) but hadn't really thought of all of these. I need a flashback real time evening to watch some more of these. Nice job! Oh, and Depp doing normal? This and 21 Jump Street--I think that's all for him.

      Delete
    3. Thanks! A crop of solid flicks right there. As for Depp... yep, I think that's about all. Ha.

      Delete
  5. I may have put Mike Figgis' Time Code on here. It's basically a gimmick that doesn't hold up well to a second viewing, but I think it's worth it for the unique approach. Russian Ark was such a stunning film to see on the big screen. No arguments for Run Lola Run and Before Sunset, plus the stunning Cleo from 5 to 7. Cool list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Time Code is definitely a bold concept, but I agree that it doesn't hold up. Still, it would probably be in my Top 15, for its inventiveness alone.

      Delete
  6. Five or six to look forward to. I love Rope and 12 Angry Men. I just saw Angry Men as a play in Pasadena. High Noon is great, I've got the theme in my head right now. Except for a couple of scenes shown from different perspective, Snake Eyes fits fits the criteria as well I think.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Snake Eyes rocks. Not exactly in real time, but neither are a lot of the ones on my list, I suppose. I know it's generally considered one of De Palma's lesser efforts, but I seriously love that film.

      Delete
  7. I love some of these more obscure pics of yours on here. Russian Ark, Cleo, Mr. Lazarescu - very interesting choices but I love it. I recently watched My Girl Friday and only after reading this did it hit me that indeed it did take place in real time (more or less anyway). I don't think I would have said it until thinking back on it just now. The one I'm not familiar with though is The Set-Up. I've never heard of that one before (or if I have I obviously don't remember) but I'll have to look more into it based on your description. Sounds very intriguing indeed. Thanks for the rec!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you like the list my friend! Oh man, The Set-Up is fantastic. That's legit real time right there - following this poor bastard of a boxer around as most everyone in his life tries to screw him over. Very tense, very audacious. A great film.

      Delete
  8. I'd have to say Run Lola Run is my favourite on your list. High Noon would have to be my all time favourite though :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Two solid films right there. Cooper is simply perfection in High Noon.

      Delete
  9. This is a great list. I've only seen three of your top ten, but I'm up for the rest. The Death...seems very, very interesting. Have to check that one out!

    Did you ever see Running Time with Bruce Campbell? I'm sure it's not great... but it's real time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man! Haven't seen Running Time but it sounds pretty courageous. I'll have to check it out soon. Have you seen it?

      Delete
    2. No... not yet? I dig Bruce, but his flicks tend to be slightly underwhelming, ya know?

      Not that I'm too picky or anything...

      Delete
    3. Yeah I agree... they're not always for me. It does sound interesting though, but I wonder if it's style over substance.

      Delete
  10. Great list. Nick of Time is the movie I thought of when I saw the subject. Glad it made the cut. Run Lola is just phenomenal. 12 Angry Men is simply one of the best movies ever made, but I never actually think of it as being in real time. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man! 12 Angry Men actually isn't in real time, but it does a solid job of masking itself as real time (like the other 4 films in that cheat section). Run Lola Run is definitely phenomenal. What an achievement.

      Delete
  11. Fantastic list. These real-time films hold a special place in my heart as Rope was one of the first times I realized "you could do that" with film. (I also like that you culled the more obvious choices from the herd in order to highlight some lesser-known flicks.)

    I particularly love Nick of Time, which I'm pretty sure inspired 24. The two share so many similarities, it's impossible that the creators of the show didn't take notes from it. Also Cleo from 5 to 7 and, two obvious ones, High Noon and Rope. I'll have to check out some of the others I haven't seen yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man, really glad you liked the list. Honestly, I think the first real time film I remember seeing was Nick of Time, which is why I love it so much. I'm sure it inspired 24 as well. Had to, right? Rope had a great impact on me as well. Great Hitch right there.

      Delete
  12. Can't beat United 93. Probably the scariest, tensest film I've ever seen.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hell yeah man, couldn't agree more. Terrifying.

      Delete
  13. Great list here man, I love Rope and Run Lola Run! I like the honorable mention of High Noon, that's a great western. I really want to watch The Set-Up, looks awesome. I just snagged a copy of Cleo From 5 to 7, really pumped to watch it as well. I recommend you watch Silver Lode, great western that takes place in real time, one of Marty Scorsese's favs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks buddy! The Set-Up is fantastic, and Cleo is such perfect New Wave. I hope you dig both of them.

      Silver Lode... I'm all over it. Thanks man!

      Delete
  14. Great list, although I can't think of any films that could also be added since there are not enough real time flicks. I love Rope, it's actually my favorite Hitchcock flick, so any time anyone mentions it I get excited. And Before Sunset is my third favorite movie of all time (THAT ENDING!). And fuck United 93. That movie ruined me. Will never watch it again.

    I need to track down The Death of Mr. Lazarescu .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Nick, and yeah, unfortunately, real time films are in very short supply. I love that Rope is your favorite Hitch. It's a great one for sure.

      United 93 is just goddamn devastating. I can't move after I watch that film.

      Delete
  15. This was a really interesting and unique post! Really enjoyed it :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it!

      Delete
  16. Nice picks. Thrilled to see The Set-Up, Before Midnight, Rope, Tape, United 93 and Run Lola Run on here. I still need to see the other 4 films, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks dude. Solid films right there. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Russian Ark.

      Delete
  17. Oh, "Nick of Time." I haven't thought about that movie in years. I rented it on VHS when I was home sick during school.

    I saw "The Set Up" for the first time last year and really enjoyed it. And "Cleo From 5 To 7".....I had that saved to my DVR and forgot to label it "Don't Erase" and then added more movies and one day....poof. "Cleo" was gone. I'm so stupid. I will still track it down.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think my Nick of Time story is the exact same. Ha. Loved that movie.

      Cleo is such a gem of a film. Hope you have a chance to watch it soon.

      Delete
  18. What about Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden? I know there are *some* flashback shots, but the majority of it is in real time. I think the same goes for Resevoir Dogs, both of which are fantastic in my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really like both of those films, but I didn't consider movies that rely on the flashback narrative. That would open this list up to way too many flicks. Everything from Edward Scissorhands to The Sandlot. DOA to The Bonfire of the Vanities.

      Delete
  19. "The Man From Earth" is another great movie that takes place in real time

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, great call there. That'd probably crack the Top 15. Sadly overlooked film.

      Delete
    2. Great film, expected this to be number one

      Delete
  20. Great list.
    But what about "Buried" with Ryan Reynolds? It was a great movie and I loved every second in the cinema watching this movie. :) What do you think?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Buried is one of those films that masks itself in real time, but actually isn't. The film is 95 minutes long but I believe roughly three hours pass in it.

      But still, I really enjoy that movie. Very well made.

      Delete
  21. Really a fantastic list. Did you consider including "Timecode" (2000) on the list? 4 long shots, all playing simultaneously.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey thanks Matt, really appreciate you stopping by and commenting. I initially had Timecode on the list, but upon rewatching it for this post, it just doesn't hold up for me. The gimmick creates a thrilling first viewing, but I was bored with it the second time around.

      It's definitely a real time film and definitely an impressive achievement, but I suppose I don't like it as much as some.

      Delete
  22. There is also a Bollywood Movie "Taxi No. 9211" .. which is also a really cool movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've never heard of that one. I'll look into it ASAP. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

      Delete
  23. Great list! I need to see Before Sunset soon.

    ReplyDelete
  24. You really should consider "Timecode" for addition to this list. Frankly, it's better than couple of the inclusions, mentioning no names, and a unique experiment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do agree that is an incredible experiment, one that should not be overlooked. But in terms of rewatchability, that one just doesn't hold up for me. Russian Ark is an experiment as well, but I can stand to watch it far more than Timecode, for whatever that's worth. I do appreciate your kind and intelligent comment though. Really.

      Delete