Setting a ticking clock on a narrative is a risky gamble. It can either be ingenious, echoing the pervading urgency of the plot and forcing characters to arc under severe constraints. It can also be mishandled terribly, packing in far too much story and winding up a convoluted, improbable mess. 2001’s Training Day is often considered one of the better films set within the course of a day, however its flaws have become only more obvious over the years. For a film meant to be nail-biting and intense, its over two-hour runtime betrays its own conceit. As a result, its third act is top heavy with improbability and plot holes.
It was a major box office success, nonetheless, and as a result screenwriter David Ayer spent the better part of the decade trying to recreate whatever magic into which he had tapped. This resulted in major flops including Harsh Times and Street Kings.
But every genre has toyed with the 24 hour scenario. Perhaps it was most successfully applied to the action genre with the original Die Hard trilogy, each of which had Bruce Willis racing against time to stop a violent terrorist attack.
To qualify as what from herein will be referred to as a 24-hour film, the plot must be integral to the clock. Some films, like 12 Angry Men, just happen to occur in that time frame (there’s no time limit on jury deliberation, after all). Here’s just a small sampling of some of the better films that set the clock.
By 2007, Judd Apatow had not just established himself as a significant voice in the world of comedy, but also as a powerhouse producer. Given the number of careers his films have helped launch, it’s easy to forget he’s a director at all, but more a talent wrangler in the vein of Lorne Michaels. Seth Rogen was one of his earliest finds, and the stoner icon quickly went from improving in front of the camera to writing and directing behind.
His first successful script finds lifelong friends Michael Cera and Jonah Hill desperately trying to procure alcohol for a party – a night they feel will be their last chance to romance their crushes. From the opening scene, it becomes apparent that the two are not only on their final few days of high school, but also their friendship.
Superbad is often hilarious, with the two leads taking individual sidetracks. A telling scene – a party with grown ups suffering from permanent adolescence – mirrors just how their friendship is cracking. The final shot, with Cera and Hill losing sight of each other on an escalator, displays Rogen’s rarely-touched upon ability to be more than just a marijuana enthusiast, but rather a sentimentalist at heart.
Director Michael Mann‘s career post-Heat has been largely hit and miss, filled with tepid though beautiful attempts like Blackhat, interesting flops like Public Enemies, and Oscar-nominated works like The Insider. Collateral falls somewhere closer to the latter.
The film, following hitman Tom Cruise after he kidnaps cabbie Jamie Foxx for a night of assassinations, was the brainchild of screenwriter Stuart Beattie in 1989. Beattie developed the idea with Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell for a low-budget HBO project. After the network passed, the screenplay floated around for another decade or so before landing in Mann’s lap.
Mann’s loving, lingering shots of L.A. mirror those of Heat, and Cruise has never been better. Throughout the evening, the cracks in his icy coolness slowly rise to the surface up until a tense showdown with Foxx aboard a subway train.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s ensemble drama, set over the course of a day in Los Angeles with Biblical implications, is easily the filmmaker’s most divisive. Some write it off as pretentious, overlong, and ultimately flat, others consider it a masterpiece.
No matter your feelings, one can’t deny the bold decision to treat what normally would be low-key with the same sort of operatic fanfare usually reserved for Oscar-bait period pieces. The cast is stellar and in spite of its runtime, Anderson manages to keep the tension palpable through an intensively intrusive score by Jon Brion and a series of ambitious long takes.
Has there been a narrative better suited to a 24 hour film than DOA? A man shambles into a police station to report a murder: His own. Edmond O’Brien stars as an accountant out and about town for a night of womanizing in San Francisco, only to learn upon waking he’s been lethally poisoned. But O’Brien doesn’t go without a fight, investigating his own murder to bring justice to his murderer.
Interestingly, due to a filing error, DOA is one of a few films you can easily (and legally) find for free online. As of press date, 22 different companies offer a DVD or VHS version. Theoretically, you could release a copy and not have to fear that pesky FBI warning.
11. Into the Night
Director John Landis was still neck-deep in a negligent homicide trial for the helicopter crash that killed Vic Morrow on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie when he directed this shaggy dog love story. Like many films of its kind, Night finds Jeff Goldblum as a white collar worker unsatisfied with his life. He’s terminally bored. While considering going to Las Vegas for a tryst with a prostitute, he runs into Michelle Pfieffer. Soon, the two are on the run from Iranian jewel smugglers, diamond smugglers, and a devilishly fun David Bowie as a hitman. This is close to a cheat for the list, as the film takes over a slightly longer time period than required. However, given that Goldblum’s character suffers insomnia so severe his complaints about ennui and malaise drive a would-be hitman to take his own life, it can be overlooked.
Part of the joy of Into the Night – and most any Landis film – are the number of cameos from friends and other filmmakers he manages to fit into minor roles. Here, he managed to cast musician Carl Perkins in his sole acting role. Aside from Perkins and Bowie, the cast includes David Cronenberg, Don Seigel, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Henson and countless others.
10. Assault on Precinct 13
The legendary John Carpenter‘s second film, essentially a modern day remake of Rio Bravo, is set mostly in a nearly closed police precinct, holding just a few prisoners awaiting transfer, an overworked cop, and his staff. When a father rushes in, panicked and incoherent, a night of nonstop assault begins. The father just shot down a high profile gang member in revenge for killing his daughter, and the gang will stop at nothing to get to him.
Assault was written off by American critics upon release, but was instantly hailed as a new classic overseas. It holds up to this day as a terrific action thriller. The remake, while watchable, is nothing to celebrate. It does retain the basic siege story, but adds in a convoluted and unnecessary corrupt police angle. Favorably, though, it doesn’t let up on the original film’s unforgiving brutality.
9. Falling Down
The early 90s was plagued with racial tension following the Rodney King verdict. The nightly news resembled much of what the 24 hour news networks and Trump stump speeches. This was best displayed cinematically in Joel Schumacher‘s best film, which finds Michael Douglas going crazy after losing his job and wandering the streets of L.A. There’s no question the film’s politics are problematic today, but there’s plenty of fun to be had watching Douglas open fire at a fast food restaurant because his burger does not look as advertised, or firing a bazooka into a construction site to protest unnecessary road work.
8. After Hours
Martin Scorsese all but defined the up-all-night movie in this frenzied, bizarre trip through New York’s 80s underbelly. Griffin Dunne works a boring, nondescript office job until a chance encounter at a diner leads him through the hipster art world, run down bars, punk clubs, and witch hunts.
It’s one of the most neurotic field trips you’ll ever take. A bizarre journey balancing between screwball comedy and film noir. Originally, it was meant to end with Dunne crawling back to the safety of his mother’s womb to escape the hysteria of a Bright Lights, Big City era New York. Director Michael Powell suggested the finished ending, though the original’s surreality fits just as well.
7. A Single Man
In fashion designer Tom Ford‘s beautiful directorial debut, Colin Firth plays a gay professor in the late 60s still mourning the death of his lover. From the first scene, we know Firth intends to kill himself that evening. He wanders through his last day in almost lyrical fashion.
It’s not at all surprising that Ford would make a gorgeous-looking film, but what came as a shock to many was that it was as rich in substance as it was in style. Firth never pontificates, but rather simply lives.
6. Do The Right Thing
“I don’t need this $%^!,” a USA today critic said when Spike Lee‘s Do The Right Thing debuted at Cannes, “I live in New York…I don’t know what they’re thinking!” “It’s a great film,” interrupted Roger Ebert. “How can you say that?!? What’s going to happen when they release this?” Ebert smiled devilishly. “How long has it been since you saw a film you thought would cause people to do anything?”
Set over the course of the hottest day of the year in New York City, Do The Right Thing focuses on a single block in Harlem where an Italian pizza owner (Danny Aiello) clashes with a local black activist. Things come to a head in the evening, when a riot explodes, leading to the death of Radio Raheem by a cop. After Michael Brown’s death – suffocated by a police officer for selling cigarettes on the street – Lee released a remix of the Radio Raheem murder, further proving how relevant the film still is.
5. American Graffiti
Famed director George Lucas has only directed one great film. Before Star Wars nerds get up in arms, it bears mention that Lucas took a backseat to Empire Strikes Back, the only undeniably great film in the franchise. Countless coming-of-age dramas (including Superbad) have tried to replicate the lighting-in-a-bottle energy Lucas managed to capture in his nostalgia trip, few successfully.
Graffiti follows a group of high school graduates the last night before the summer ends. It’s charming, light entertainment – so much so that the one-two punch of the epilogue is as assaulting as it is heartbreaking.
4. Arsenic and Old Lace
Frank Capra’s delightful screwball comedy finds Cary Grant bringing his new bride to meet the relatives who raised him, only to learn that they casually poison lonely old men. As he tries to stay on top of the situation, further insanity ensues, including a brother who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt and a drunk plastic surgeon played by Peter Lorre, Grant starts becomes concerned about his own sanity.
It’s easy to read into the film (and play) as another in a long line of allegories for America’s bloody history (Grant’s murderous aunts’ ancestors arrived on the Mayflower), but it’s just too damn funny to pay attention. Look for Grant’s real name – Archibald Leach – on a tombstone he briefly sits atop.
3. Night of the Living Dead
There’s little more to be said about George A. Romero‘s seminal zombie film. It’s hailed as one of the best (and first) of its kind. It launched an entire subgenre that is mined to this day for rich, thematic allegory and gruesome, artful special effects.
Not only still terrifying by modern standards, perhaps more frightening is how politically relevant it remains. Dead was the first horror film to feature an African American lead, and didn’t let that fact go unsung in the film’s shocking final minutes.
2. 25th Hour
Spike Lee’s second contribution to this list was released in December of 2002 – one year and three months after the tragic events of September 11. While other filmmakers were still scrambling to digitally edit out those two phantom monoliths from the New York City skyline (and remove every copy of the 1976 version of King Kong, just for good measure), Lee dared to set the opening credits of Hour against the glowing lights of the site.
Edward Norton‘s last day before a seven year prison sentence is as painful an allegory for that tragic day as can be, open to numerous interpretations – political and otherwise – of lost and empty promises and lives left in ruin.
There’s no getting around discussing the infamous “F*ck you” monologue, which rivals Do The Right Thing‘s racial slurs directed to the camera as one of the most uncomfortably revealing moments in recent cinema. We’re left with the aftermath of it much like the country was after that fateful day.
1. Billy Liar
England’s answer to James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” director John Schlesinger’s blue collar drama opens with tracking shots of slums; a radio contest plays over the footage, the kind of last-ditch hope for the working class. We then settle in on Billy, a young daydreamer who wants nothing more than escape his dead-end existence and write for a comedian in London.
Billy spends his afternoon working as a clerk in a funeral parlour while daydreaming of running his own country, celebrity, and the love of a girl (he has three he’s currently lying to). Tom Courtenay’s performance as Billy is infectious.