Meant to do this last time! Perhaps it’s actually best to start here:
Top 20 Real-Time Films by Rotten Tomatoes Score (using audience score as tiebreak)
- 12 Angry Men 100%
- Dr. Strangelove 100%
- Fail-Safe 100%*
- Rope 97%
- Gravity 97%
- High Noon 96%
- Cleo From 5 to 7 96%
- The Exterminating Angel 95%
- Before Sunset 95%
- Last Year at Marienbad 95%
- Run Lola Run 93%
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night 93%
- Fantastic Voyage 93%
- Birdman 91%
- United 93 91%
- My Dinner With Andre 90%
- Russian Ark 89%
- Locke 89%
- Vanya on 42nd Street 88%
- Slacker 85%
*Fail-Safe (1964) has no RT score. Fail-Safe (2000), the televised remake, has an RT score of 100. This list does not include TV; because most of the remake’s reviewers remarked that the original was at least as good (or better), a projected score of 100 doesn’t seem out of bounds.
And now here’s the rest of my piece that ran in Sound on Sight for the record:
British filmmaker John Byrum is responsible for the first (and in some ways only) real-time period film. Inserts (1975), set in the early 1930s, is about a Boy Wonder movie director (called Boy Wonder, played by Richard Dreyfuss fresh from American Graffiti (1973) and Jaws (1975)) now washed up before the age of 30, resigned to making porn because of Hollywood’s conversion to sound. Not only is Inserts scrupulously real-time (with the exception of the opening credits sequence, which offers glimpses of the stag film we’re about to see made) and period, but it’s rather long for such a film, just shy of two hours. To tell the entire story would be spoiling the fun, but the Boy Wonder deals with recalcitrant actresses, the problem of his own potency, career problems, death, sex, after-death and after-sex…and in the end, as the Boy Wonder wonders what he’ll have for lunch, we’re reminded that two hours haven’t even passed. If he can do this much in a morning, perhaps he’ll have that career again after all.
A few months later, hot on the heels of the Oscar-winning, Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Columbia released Neil Simon’s Murder by Death(1976), a similarly star-studded vehicle that attempted to satirize the murder mystery genre, right down to its iconic detectives: Peter Sellers plays a Charlie Chan knockoff, David Niven and Maggie Smith echo the couple from the Thin Man films, James Coco is a watered-down Hercule Poirot, and Peter Falk is Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, depending which egg he hard-boils. Alec Guinness, Eileen Brennan, and Truman Capote (!) also pop up. Murder by Death could be said to satirize not only Agatha Christie but the then-current all-star-cast disaster films that were, as J. Hoberman memorably described them, Old Hollywood’s last gasp at relevance: unlike the typically hardy survivors (as stars and characters) of films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Earthquake (1974), stars in Murder by Death get bumped off one by one, like “ten little Indians” in one reviewer’s phrase. So what’s to complain about? Everyone looks like they’re slumming while waiting for Broadway or better Hollywood scripts. Some of the jokes land, while others give the impression that the star had better things to do. If it retains a degree of watchability, that’s partly because of the scrupulous real-time.
By the time Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory decided to make a conversation, that is, a movie, about their lives, their choices, New York in the 1970s, and the possibility that life isn’t actually what we perceive it as (!!!), My Dinner With Andre (1981) could hardly have felt more original. Louis Malle had been on the fringes of the French New Wave filmmakers, yet by the end of the 1970s, Malle’s career was flourishing beyond any of theirs…which is one reason Shawn assumed that Malle’s phone call was a prank, when he offered his services out of the clear blue sky (he’d read the script through a friend). As director, Malle steered the two actor/characters to a restaurant, trimmed Shawn and Gregory’s three-hour conversation down by about an hour, and edited the footage so as to seem like real-time. If real-time had already well-lampooned the dinner party, now it provided something much closer to the fullness of a great, long-rangin chat with an old friend. Asked to name a film without clichés many years later, Roger Ebert thought ofMy Dinner With Andre; it should be retitled My Dinner With Cachet for all the people who’ve since made reference to it. My Dinner was ahead of its time in so many ways, including being among the first to put the sixties in its proper, heart-rending place; Andre tells Wallace, “You see, I think it’s quite possible that the nineteen-sixties represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished.”
The American filmmaker perhaps most closely associated with the end of the 1960s was the director of Nashville (1975), Robert Altman, though his characters were more likely to worry about the diminishment of the American Dream. By 1984, Altman’s career was itself severely diminished; he was considered an old relic, the guy who’d perfected the ensemble film (also as in M*A*S*H, 1970) and not much more. What a perfect choice, then, for him to direct the one-man, one-act, one-location play Secret Honor (1984), which imagines Richard Nixon in twilight, working through America’s ghosts and his own. Exiled to his boudoir, Nixon has made the unfortunate choice of lining his inner sanctum with portraits of figures like Jack Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, for whom he can’t resist jumping out from behind his desk and excoriating. In the end, this very real-time film is something of a minor triumph, one that didn’t make major money, but did make a minor star out of Philip Baker Hall, who plays Nixon to a creepy tee. Speaking of Roger Ebert, he wrote, “A strange thing happened to me as I watched this film. I knew it was fiction. I didn’t approach it in the spirit of learning the ‘truth about Nixon.’ But as a movie, it created a deeper truth, an artistic truth, and after Secret Honor was over, you know what? I had a deeper sympathy for Richard Nixon than I have ever had before.”
Think “oddball,” “one-off,” “category-less,” and yet “Hollywood-brand-exploitation,” and you’ll eventually get yourself a Clue (1985), Paramount’s adaptation of the board game into something like a diet soda version Murder by Death (which was already a diet soda version of Agatha Christie), starring then-B-list comedy talent Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeleine Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Michael McKean. Had it been directed by Mel Brooks or Christopher Guest, this might have had a timeless zaniness, but in the hands of the unremarkable Jonathan Lynn, we never know if we’re meant to be laughing or cringing, and we wind up mostly worrying. The film seems to be relying on you not having seen Murder by Death, particularly in its tone-deaf appropriation of un-urgent real-time. On the other hand, this film might get eventually cited by history books written in an interactive future, because of screenwriter John Landis’ idea of filming three separate endings. Did this film-based-on-a-game presage the era of real-time video games with various endings? Well, probably not, but if your kids love the game Clue, you can do worse than to get them this.
Much ink has already been spilled about the first Miramax-Sundance generation, the late-80s, early-90s film movement which gave us, among many others, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Michael Moore, Robert Rodriguez, Ang Lee, and Quentin Tarantino. In retrospect, it seems odd that only one film from that period would have bothered with the real-time aesthetic, but only one did, and real-time was (as it usually is) crucial to the story it wanted to tell. The film was called Slacker (1991), and it was like Robert Altman played in a minor key: the movie is naught but scenes between disparate characters in Austin, Texas, each vignette joined to the next one by some clever bit of business involving character or camera movement, as though Forrest Gump’s feather was landing and floating next door every five minutes or so. Like My Dinner With Andre andSecret Honor (but unlike most real-time films before), Slacker all but dispenses with the three-act formula and stakes all its chips on the often-profound words of its characters, giving it a refreshing feeling even today. Slacker’s director, Richard Linklater, would continue to experiment with abbreviated time in his next film, the tremendous, multi-star-making Dazed and Confused (1993), which takes place in a single night. After dealing with real-time almost by necessity for his breakthrough, one might have thought Linklater was done with the conceit; turns out, one would have been wrong.
30 years after Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and Fantastic Voyage, Hollywood decided it could try to milk the real-time idea as though for the first time (assuming no one noticed Murder by Death or Clue, which was a reasonable assumption, based on their box office), and so it released Nick of Time (1995), a somewhat ludicrous story about Christopher Walken forcing Johnny Depp to kill a gubernatorial candidate (or they’ll kill his daughter). It’s not just that half of these sorts of conversations were done better two years before by In the Line of Fire (1993); in that film, at least the antagonist was typically on the phone. Here, Walken is constantly popping up to check on Depp, making you wonder why he doesn’t simply pull the trigger himself. The film might have saved itself by being perfectly real-time, but it isn’t, quite; the many train-station clocks give it away as cheating by at least five minutes. At this point, the film is only worth renting for die-hard Walken fans and people who want to remember that Depp used to sometimes play normal people – let’s face it, not an insignificant constituency.
Leave it to filmmakers outside Hollywood to make the final two vital real-time films of the 20th century – both films with “run” in the title. The first, Running Time (1997) (how could that title have gone unused all these years?), warmly earns a place in the single-shot sub-set; it does look a lot like a single shot, though the DVD commentary reveals there were 30 edits. Writer-director Josh Becker described the film as Hitchcock’s Rope “but on location.” Bruce Campbell, he of all the great Sam Raimi films, plays a convict getting out of prison and right back into trouble with a friend who’s engineering a prison heist. Black-and-white and sometimes cheesy, Running Time nevertheless has a dynamic energy that only a single-shot, real-time movie can provide. Low-budget horror fans are accustomed to Bruce Campbell saving the movie, as he does here. But can he save himself?
The better and better-remembered real-time “run” film is Tom Tykwer’s Lola Rennt (1998), released in America as Run Lola Run, a smash-splash-crash of one German woman’s dash to save her boyfriend…told three times in three different 25-minute sequences. The “race-against-the-clock” film is here cubed and told in metaphysical triplicate, forcing us to question our own biases about filmic urgency and the convention (in cinema, and outside it) that the third time’s the charm. Run Lola Run is pure, thought-provoking, near-feminist kinetic energy, but is it really a real-time film? After all, it’s one short story told three times – sort of. Perhaps real-time films are at their best when they break new form as they follow old ones, and by that standard, Run Lola Run is a dazzling dose of real-time, real-world adrenaline.
THE DIGITAL ERA: REAL-TIME FILMS FROM 2000 TO TODAY
40 years before, in 1960, lighter cameras enabled a cinéma vérité-flavored revolution in street realism. By 2000, new digital cameras suggested a whole new set of promises, including telling stories that would have been unimaginable within minimum budgets for features even ten years before. In 2000, film purists warned that digital still didn’t look as good as celluloid, but that didn’t stop at least three innovative filmmakers from boldly going where no filmmaker had gone before. Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000) was the first star-supported (Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgard, Holly Hunter, among many others) single-shot project since Rope, underlining that earlier film’s timelessness. If Run Lola Run could do one story three times, then Timecode would do three or four stories one time: the movie is four separate ninety-minute shots shown all at the same time, each in one quadrant of the screen. Where do you look? Sometimes, that’s up to you; at least one-third of the time, two cameras focus on one “scene,” drawing your attention to two characters in dialogue who aren’t bound by cinema’s usual shot/reverse-shot convention. Timecode still feels like a worthy experiment, a film that had to be made at least once, but one does regret its cheap look and expensive milieu (the characters are Hollywood types complaining about adultery, running around chic Sunset Boulevard), which seem to have inadvertently diminished chances for such a film ever to be made again.
The far more accomplished Rope of the early 21st century is Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), a vertiginous triumph of the human spirit – and unlike any film you’ve ever seen. Technically, there’s a threadbare plot about our unseen protagonist who tries to recover a memory, or perhaps a dream, and wanders through a museum, where he sees apparent spirits who can’t see him, except for one who interacts with him and the other spirits…but who are we kidding, this film is really about its single shot, its one take through all of Russian culture as represented in and through the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg. We see dancers, actors, dinner guests, bourgeois, proletariat, and all manner of artist-performers as the camera (the POV of our protagonist), with all the confidence of Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980) traipses through the apparently never-ending opulent hallways of the city-sized palace. Like Gravity or The Artist (2011), this is an experimental film you can recommend to your non-experimental friends, because the breathless audacity of the staging never quite fails to astonish. Rope had to cut no more than every 10 minutes; Timecode had fades to black on each of the four views; in Russian Ark, the how-the-heck-are-they-doing-that? goes on for 99 damn minutes. Probably no film has come closer to the I-can’t-breathe-yet-I-can’t-stop-smiling feeling of Cirque du Soleil – including Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (2012).
Back in the United States, another filmmaker was determined to combine a more conventional drama with real-time with video technology, and in Stephen Belber’s play he found the perfect source material, right down to the title, Tape (2001), that would excuse the shoddy look of the piece. If you just revisited Dead Poets Society (1989) after the tragic passing of Robin Williams, you may find the first moments of Richard Linklater’s Tape a little awkward, as the two non-Williams leads from that film, upon reuniting, hug, Ethan Hawke saying “It’s great to be alive!” while horseplay-reanimating Robert Sean Leonard with fake “clear!” paddles. Actually, Tape is also great if you hated Dead Poets Society for being over-cloying, because Tape is the story of how neither Hawke (now as Vince) and Leonard (John) were as perfect in high school as they may have seemed. Vince accuses John of raping his then-girlfriend, who eventually shows up, played by (Hawke’s then-real-life wife) Uma Thurman, offering a perspective that surprises both men. As with Slacker, the words hold up, and even the bad video quality, along with the real-time, give us a vibe that we have stumbled upon a surveillance video (despite traditional cuts and perspective changes) that probably shouldn’t have been made public. It’s an underrated gem in the Linklater canon, now also interesting for what it may tell us about Linklater’s mindset going into 2002.
Why would that matter? Well, because 2002 is when Linklater embarked upon the 12-year journey that became Boyhood, a remediation on cinematic time unlike any before or since. If Alfred Hitchcock wanted to trap us in time, if Andy Warhol wanted to see time go by…well, Linklater would raise the stakes even further. The audacity of planning Boyhood (and keeping it secret) boggles the mind. Linklater had revisited his characters from 1995’s Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), when he cast them in one of his Slacker-like shorts in the all-rotoscope-animation Waking Life (2001), and perhaps it was then that he also considered what it might be like to revisit those characters in a more extended form. The eventual result was Before Sunset (2004), the only one of the three Before films to take place strictly in real-time, Linklater well applying what he’d only tinkered with in Tape. Nine years after a one-night stand became a love connection, Jesse and Celine re-meet to decide what they were and are to each other. Is Before Sunset the second film in one of cinema’s greatest trilogies, or the second feature in cinema’s greatest ongoing love story? God, let’s hope for the second.
There must be a few curmudgeons complaining about the first world problems of Jesse and Celine trying to resolve their separate worlds, but come on. Early on, Jesse mentions that his book shows “if you’re a romantic or a cynic” but the rest of Before Sunset shows how you can be so amazingly both. Jesse and Celine manage to communicate both through the hard work of apparently effortless conversation. Before Sunset may be a sequel, but it’s no knock-off, no less-than; this is where Jesse and Celine come to terms with love, loss, and the possibility of going more years of never seeing each other again. It probably helps that the whole thing is shot in the magic hour, the soft yellow light illuminating the tender, young, vulnerable hearts of our not-as-young-as-they-were hero and heroine. This is one 80-minute film that you wish were twice as long. The only slight real-time asterisk is that Jesse flashes back to memories of Celine (actually moments from the first film) – but this is kept to a bare minimum of flash-cuts while we hear overlaps of present-day Jesse’s voice. And for further clues to Linklater’s Boyhood planning at the time, note Jesse the novelist discussing his next central character, “It’s obvious to him that time is a lie, and it’s all happening all the time, and inside every moment is another moment, you know, happening simultaneously.”
If Linklater was thinking in 2002 that he liked real-time, but wanted to stand out from the flood (and thus make Boyhood), we can say that more than any film, the TV show 24 should be credited with said flood. Beginning in 2001 shortly (and, it must be said, serendipitously) after the events of 9/11, 24 grabbed all the techniques of all the films in the previous paragraphs of this essay – and then some – and wed them near-seamlessly to the story of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the patriotic agent of “CTU” (Counter-Terrorism Unit), who, in 24 real-time one-hour episodes of trying to save Los Angeles, the President, his wife, his daughter, and his agency from moles, pretty much has the worst day of anyone’s life. Every season. No more need to film clocks at separate intervals, as Robert Wise had in The Set-Up; post-production could put the ticking digital clock in black at just the right moments. For any filmmakers who were ever criticized for over-use of split-screen (like Brian DePalma with Carrie, 1976), 24 was revenge – and cold comfort. Although this essay can’t possibly cover all the TV experiments in real-time, 24 was special, its influence felt far beyond the small screen. (Ever notice that spy-agent heroes without super-powers are a lot more humorless since 9/11? They just grimly get it done? For example, Jason Bourne, Jason Statham, Daniel Craig’s James Bond, Liam Neeson? Kiefer Sutherland gets credit for minting the type.) Thanks to 24’s ubiquity, the challenge to filmmakers was: what else can you do with real-time?
Many rose to the challenge. Despite internet blowhards who will never forgive him for Bat-nipples, Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2003) is a competently made thriller with just enough twists to keep you rooting for Colin Farrell – that’s not nothing. 11:14 is the Memento of real-time films, flashing back to the moment of 11:14…not bad, but not really real-time and not essential either. Though its first 15 minutes or so disqualifies it as true real-time, Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006) qualifies as almost an anti-24, the tense September 11th narrative married to a shaky-cam, edit-on-movement style that, in its refusal to glorify (or really condemn) any characters, becomes almost as populist as Lumet, Altman, or Malle at their best. If you hate Greengrass’s jumpy style, please don’t see Neveldine/Taylor’s Crank (2006), which qualifies as one of the best movies that wishes it was a video game. Statham’s doctor’s flight from Vegas to L.A. (taking about 15 film minutes) rules this out as true real-time, but it’s not the worst update of the High Noon-pioneered solve-this-in-an-hour-or-death thing. Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011), based on a splendid play called God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, never quite floats beyond its source material like its most obvious filmic referent, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), but it’s worth seeing for Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet’s performances, and the real-time helps with the sense of impending doom.
The 21st century has proven that real-time doesn’t have to mean quality. Real-time is used almost as a prop – and rarely scrupulously – in horror films like the Rec franchise (first one, 2007), Quarantine (2008), Exam (2009), and ATM (2012). One sign that real-time had become just another grab at gravitas was the emergence of half-hearted star vehicles like Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks (2006), starring Bruce Willis escorting Mos Def, and Jon Avnet’s 88 Minutes (2008), which threatens Al Pacino with 88 minutes to live and then flashes back way too often to be true real-time. Buried (2010), featuring Ryan Reynolds trying to get out of a coffin, would qualify as such a star vehicle if Reynolds qualified as a star. Or heck, perhaps we should say the sub-genre jumped the shark with the release of Real Time (2008) at Slamdance, about a hit man (Randy Quaid) who gives a compulsive gambler (Jay Baruchel) one hour to live. The film’s 75 minutes of Real Time may also represent how long the film stayed in multiplexes.
Real-time has been better this century when done by foreigners and married to other sorts of formal experimentation, particularly the single-shot film. Three years after Russian Ark, Korean filmmaker Song Il-Gon unveiled a similarly half-haunted film called The Magicians (2005), set in and around a bar in a wooded area where the three surviving members of the rock band Magician gather, as they do each year, for a memorial for their female guitarist Jae-eun. Anticipating Birdman, within the film’s single take, flashbacks before Jae-eun’s suicide and the circumstances leading up to it are handled with boldly theatrical techniques: music cues, lighting changes, and a character’s movement out of the bar or up a staircase takes us back into the past. The film isn’t perfect (or perfectly single-shot), but unlike in the case of Russian Ark, we have likable performers on something of a 90-minute high-wire, and the single-shot helps the film’s message that we can’t really run from who we are.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to live in Colombia in the midst of drug violence – okay, if you’ve ever wondered if you could see a film version – PVC-1 (2007) is for you. Spiros Stathoulopoulos directed and shot the single-shot film about an ordinary Colombian wife, who, winding up on the wrong side of FARC, gets an explosive device attached to her neck that her family can’t remove or deactivate. Boldly realistic and grimly disturbing, PVC-1 is a lot less shaky-cam than you might guess, thanks to the Glidecam Smooth Shooter Stathoulopoulos used. The film won various awards and was an official selection at Cannes. Not for the faint of heart, particularly not the ending.
La Casa Muda (The Silent House, 2010) is a Uruguayan horror film that was also supposedly filmed in one shot, though creeping darkness provided plenty of chances for the edits that must have been necessary, considering La Casa Muda was made with a low-budget Canon EOS that can only film 15 minutes at a time. One timeless aspect of La Casa Muda is its plot: a father and adult daughter plan to spend a night in a…haunted house…before repairing it for sale. It’s authentically scary, and its scary authenticity was enough for Uruguay to submit it for their country’s official Oscar consideration (it didn’t make the shortlist). The low cost and short shooting schedule (four days) make this a rather impressive achievement, somewhat like The Blair Witch Project (1999) with less navel-gazing. The idea was picked up seemingly within minutes by Universal Pictures, who paid a one-time fee for the story and produced a real-time English-language version, Silent House (2011) starring Elizabeth Olsen, before the Uruguayans could even get their American video deals completed. If real-time and even single-shot films are now basically part of the horror aesthetic (as found-footage films seem to have become), then real-time films could be said to have culturally triumphed…by their descent into cultural mediocrity.
Enter the brilliant Mexican filmmakers who became internationally famous at the turn of the century with Amores Perros (2000) and Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), namely Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Iñárritu, and their oft-used director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki. Cuarón and Lubezki labored for almost seven years on what became Gravity (2013), and considering all the complicated effects, you’d like to think that real-time was the furthest thing from their minds. However, not so unlike their horror brethren (and many have called Gravity a glorified horror film), Cuarón and Lubezki needed real-time to give Gravity, ahem, gravitas. If you’ve been living in space or something, Gravity is the story of a doctor, Ryan (Sandra Bullock), and her colleague Matt (George Clooney), who are fixing some part of a satellite, when a field of space debris cuts them off from their fellow astronauts and their shuttle. Cuarón had been playing with long takes for quite a while, but they’re so innovative here, so vital to the action, so 360-degree amazing when seen in 3-D IMAX, that America’s breath was taken away. (No, the whole film isn’t one take; it has about 200 cuts, or at least 1000 less than each of the last 10 winners of the Best Film Editing Oscar, an award it won.) The absolutely outstanding 88-minute film has been described as a game-changer and even the first personal blockbuster. You’d love to think that Hollywood filmmakers would try to emulate Cuarón, but they probably won’t, because you can’t think short-term when you want to achieve Gravity’s real-time pull.
No one’s accusing Emmanuel Lubezki or Alejandro Iñárritu of thinking short-term, and here they are with Birdman, a single-shot film that stands in many ways as the culmination of 66 years and 33 boldly innovative real-time films including 11 in the sub-set of single-shots. Not that Birdman really tries to be real real-time – instead it takes real-time as an excuse for surreal-time and what it calls, by the end, “super-realism.” What’s great about Birdman is its insistence on coming from the future, not only post-real-time-vogue but also post-superhero-vogue. What are we meant to do with all these actors who play superheroes, 20 years hence? What are we meant to do with real-time, if not this? Birdman certainly doesn’t have all the answers, but it gets credit for asking the right questions.
So where does real-time go from here? More horror? More 24? (Really, Fox?) More knock-offs? Instead, let’s hope that if we are careening toward the interactive, video-game-movie-hybrid future that some have predicted, creative artists will remember to dance with the ones that brung them…the vertiginous how-do-they-do-it? virtuosity of the best real-time films. If the relatively minor Rope can be remembered as a great example for half a century, our hopes for Gravity and its peers can remain as high as a satellite.