A Lot Can Happen in One Day: 10 Great “24 Hour” Movies

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We love our commenters, who are smart and sweet and supportive, always. (Almost.) So big ups to “Jax” for making this writer’s life a little easier by writing, in response to the inclusion of American Grafitti and Dazed and Confused on our “10 Great Summer Nostalgia” movies list: “Speaking of 24-hour movies, has Flavorwire done post on best 24-hour movies? Or movies set within specific time limits?” We hadn’t, Jax. But we have now.

Come to find out, there’s actually a wealth of really terrific movies set over one long day or one long night (or both). Even when setting some ground rules just for the process of thinning the herd (for example: nothing with flashbacks outside of that time frame — which eliminated Reservoir Dogs, Halloween and 25th Hour, amongst others), we still left out some awfully good stuff: A Single Man, The Breakfast Club, The Paper, Training Day, Adventures in Babysitting (don’t judge), Collateral, Friday, Rope, Duel, the Die Hard movies, etc. We’re not saying these films are necessarily better than those; these are just the ten that struck our fancy today. Check ‘em out after the jump.

Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee’s third film is one of the few truly great films of the 1980s, an intelligent, nuanced, matter-of-fact examination of race relations in America and, simultaneously, a vibrant, funny, energetic slice of New York life. Set over one day — the hottest day of the summer — on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the heart of Brooklyn, Lee’s narrative luxuriates in its collapsed time frame and crowded cast of memorable characters, meandering through what seems a barely-connected series of moments and vignettes before landing at the devastating culmination of a day’s worth of tension and misunderstanding.

Clerks.

Kevin Smith has pinpointed Do the Right Thing as the primary influence on his low-budget debut feature, the tale of a convenience store clerk who commiserates with his best friend, the video store clerk next door, over the course of a long and eventful day — one on which, irony of ironies, he wasn’t even supposed to work. Based on Smith’s own experiences working in the corner store and video shop in which it was shot, the meager production (with a price tag of around 27 grand) was financed by a combination of maxed-out credit cards, refunded school fees, a chunk of flood insurance, and the sale of part of Smith’s prized comic book collection. It’s a flawed movie — the performances are wildly uneven and the look of the film is, charitably speaking, less than dazzling — but what it lacks in production value and professionalism, it makes up for with real wit and intelligent writing; Smith’s dialogue is remarkable, a fast-paced mixture of conversational rhythms, pop culture references, high-minded wordplay, and low comedy.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Writer/director John Hughes was fond of the collapsed time-frame movie: his other credits included The Breakfast Club, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and, um, Baby’s Day Out. This 1986 comedy was one of his best; starring Matthew Broderick as Shermer High’s most ingenious big man on campus, who fakes an illness to take a day off with his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck). Make no mistake, it’s a full day — they visit the Sears Tower, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Board of Trade, and Wrigley Field (“If Ferris Bueller’s Day Off fails on every other level,” Roger Ebert wrote, “at least it works as a travelogue”). But they also squeeze in the opportunity to learn a little bit about each other, and about themselves. That sounds cornier than the movie is; it’s a fast-paced, funny, and imminently quotable picture.

Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero’s low-budget miracle — shot in rural Pennsylvania on a $114,000 budget with an industrial film crew — tells the story of zombie apocalypse on a very small scale: over the course of one night, in a single farmhouse of survivors. Shot in a flat, straight-forward fashion in newsreel-style black and white, Romero relied less on gore (though there’s plenty of that) than on tension and the clashing of personalities — a frequent tool of filmmakers working within a confined timeframe, where arguments and power struggles can unfold in something akin to real time. The results are simple but staggeringly effective; in The Village Voice‘s original 1969 review, Richard McGuiness called Night of the Living Dead “crude, derivative, and one of the best horror films ever produced.”

Quick Change

The single most underrated film of Bill Murray’s career is this uproarious 1990 comedy, which Murray not only fronts, but co-directed with screenwriter Howard Franklin (adapting Jay Cronley’s book). Murray stars as Grimm, a New York City planner who pulls off a daring and brilliant bank robbery (dressed as a clown — “the crying on the inside kind, I guess”), gets away scot-free with his accomplices (Geena Davis and Randy Quaid), only to hit the real speed bump: trying to get to the airport. A lighter (but just barely!) take on the “New York City as hell on earth” subgenre (seen in films as diverse as The French Connection, Little Murders, Klute, Born to Win, Taxi Driver, and our next three entries), in which our trio of heroes encounter muggers, unhelpful city employees, a linguistically challenged cabbie (Monk’s Tony Shalhoub), and an anal-retentive bus driver (“You’re like Ralph Kramden’s evil twin!” Murray tells him), Quick Change is a true forgotten gem; one of these days it will get rediscovered and recognized as the comic treasure that it is.

After Hours

Martin Scorsese’s darkly comic vision of lower Manhattan as a waking nightmare is one of his less-discussed works, but it’s a brilliantly jittery concoction. Bored word processor Paul (Griffin Dunne) meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) at a coffee shop and ends up making a late-night trip to her apartment in SoHo. Tracking how that simple, sexually hopeful excursion leads to Paul’s assault in a punk club and his pursuit by a group of neighborhood vigilantes is one of After Hours’ many pleasures; it is a far-out comedy (pushed even further by Michael Ballhaus’s relentless camerawork and Howard Shore’s disturbing score), but there’s an peculiar yet undeniable logic to the constant procession of oddball events.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about Tony Scott’s over-caffeinated 2009 remake. We’re talking about Joseph Sargent’s lean, mean 1974 original, starring a pre-Jaws Robert Shaw as the head of a band of subway hijackers, and the great Walter Matthau (in the best of his interesting stretch of semi-serious mid-’70s crime movies turns) as the transit cop who tries to stop him. Shaw and his men — whose color-coded pseudonyms (“Mr. Green,” “Mr. Blue,” etc.) were snatched by a certain ‘70s-obsessed filmmaker — take over a subway car and hold its passengers for a million-dollar ransom, which must be delivered in an hour; director Sargent squeezes that ticking clock like a vice, his tight-fisted action sequences thrillingly underscored by the trilling horns of David Shire’s inimitable score. This is the real Pelham; accept no substitutes.

Dog Day Afternoon

Al Pacino and John Cazale star in Sidney Lumet’s searing 1975 drama, which tells the true story of a Brooklyn bank robbery that goes way off the rails. Sonny (Pacino) and Sal (Cazale) blow it basically from the moment they walk in the door, when their getaway man loses his nerve and leaves; from there, the siege quickly turns into a circus, with media and onlookers cheering and jeering Sonny’s every move. Lumet’s matter-of-fact direction allows for humanity and humor while maintaining a sweaty intensity; Pacino has seldom been better. “The picture is one of the most satisfying of all the movies starring New York City,” Pauline Kael wrote, “because the director, Sidney Lumet, and the screenwriter, Frank Pierson, having established that Sonny’s grandstanding gets the street crowd on his side against the cops, and that even the tellers are on his side, lets us move into the dark, confused areas of Sonny’s frustrations and don’t explain everything to us. They trust us to feel without being told how to feel.”

Before Sunrise/Before Sunset

Director Richard Linklater clearly enjoys the 24-hour movie — his filmography is littered with them (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Tape, SubUrbia). But his best efforts at the form — and his best films to date, overall — are 1995’s Before Sunrise and its 2004 follow-up, Before Sunset. The first film introduces us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American student, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a young French woman, who meet on a train, strike up a conversation, and have a connection. Jesse propositions her, but it’s not a normal proposition: He is getting off in Vienna, has a flight in the morning, and has no money for a hotel, so he plans to just spend the night wandering the city. He asks her to come along. She does. So does Linklater’s camera, which catches their delicate dance of conversation — sometimes confession, sometimes accusation, sometimes foreplay (and sometimes all three). The film ends on a bittersweet note, refusing to go past the end of their night together, as they part ways at the train station and make vague plans to meet again.

Before Sunset catches up with them nine years later, when they meet at a bookstore where Jesse is giving a reading of his novel (clearly inspired by the events of the first film). Once again, there is a clock — Jesse’s plane for America leaves that afternoon, so they spend an hour or so wandering around Paris, catching up, and trying to decide what exactly they can and cannot say (and what they’re saying when they say nothing). The resultant picture is funny and charming and lovely and wonderful, much as its predecessor was, but it is also deeper, sadder, more moving, and more truthful, sometimes blindsiding you with its candor and genuine emotion.

As we mentioned in the introduction, there are plenty more of these one-long-day and one-long-night movies; what are your favorites?