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.
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)