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Lovesong, dir. So Yong Kim (2017)
Lovesong, dir. So Yong Kim (2017)

Ten brilliant feature films that are shorter than 85 minutes

In an age where blockbusters regularly sprawl over two hours, here are ten classic movies that you could watch B2B in a day – because life is short

Brevity is the soul of wit. Even though Jonah Hill spent four years writing Mid90s, the nostalgic coming-of-age film (which is out in the UK on April 12) clocks it at an efficient 85 minutes – including credits. This is the same Jonah Hill whose acting gigs include The Wolf of Wall Street (180 minutes), Funny People (146 minutes) and The Sitter (OK, it’s only 81 minutes, but it feels a lot longer). However, at no point does Mid90s come across as rushed or threadbare. Instead, Hill distils a small, intimate story to its essence: a 13-year-old striving to impress a gang of intimidating skateboarders. Some simple maths: Mid90s and Cold War could be double-billed in the three hours it takes to endure the upcoming Avengers movie.

Bizarrely, the length of a film is often a misguided code for respectability. On the prestige side, it’s rare for a Best Picture nominee to be under two hours; for blockbusters, a mid90s-esque running time is the kiss of death. Look at Venom, a 112-minute movie that doesn’t want you to know that its drawn-out closing credits kick it at the 92-minute mark. Moreover, Marvel somehow spun it as a positive that Avengers: Endgame will be three hours long. (That’s not a typo – people are excited for a 182-minute superhero movie that’s going to end in an advert for the next movie anyway.) 

Of course, sometimes slow-burners like Toni ErdmannSmoking/Not Smoking or Kings of the Road demand their lengthy running time. Many of my favourite films in recent months (BurningSuspiriaThe Wild Pear Tree) are the kind where you try not to drink too much water before it starts. But life is short, we’re all going to die, and time is our most precious commodity. So here’s a celebration of movies that, like Mid90s, are all 85 minutes or under.

BEFORE SUNSET (RICHARD LINKLATER, 2004)

Length: 80 minutes

Nine years after the romance of Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse is now an author whose latest book, This Time, details his one-night-stand with Julie Delpy’s Céline. But whereas This Time is a novel, Before Sunset is a novella: the sequel practically unfolds in real time, capturing the pair’s flirtatious reunion as if it’s a sports event.

Without giving anything away, the ending, cited by many Before fans as the trilogy’s high point, is all the more magical for its ambiguity: the final line, spoken at the 76-minute mark, is when moviegoers are conditioned to expect a third act to follow. Instead, the viewer, already invested in the duo’s relationship, is left with a perfect cliffhanger: a Bandersnatch choose-your-adventure conclusion that unravels in your imagination.

CLAIRE’S CAMERA (HONG SANG-SOO, 2018)

Length: 69 minutes

Isabelle Huppert had a productive trip to Cannes in 2016. Along with supporting Elle, the French actor shot an entire movie with Hong Sang-soo on the outskirts of the film festival. Named after Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, the Korean auteur’s sly comedy details a love triangle between a male director (as usual with Sang-soo, there’s an obvious stand-in) and two women who also inhabit the film industry. And if you’re up on arthouse gossip, you’ll recognise the significance in the casting of Kim Min-hee.

At one point, Huppert wields a camera and suggests that art can change how we process personal events. “If I take a photo,” she says, “you become a different person.” Is she speaking for Sang-soo? Either way, it’ll delight anyone who enjoyed Huppert and Sang-soo’s previous collaboration in 2012’s In Another Country.

THE FOREST FOR THE TREES (MAREN ADE, 2003)

Length: 81 minutes

Melanie, a prototype for the title character of Ade’s 162-minute Toni Erdmann, is a well-meaning teacher who desperately wants a friend. She misreads social cues, is bullied by her pupils, and spends her evenings at home, alone, wondering what she’s done wrong. If you knew Melanie in real life, you’d probably hate her. But as viewers, we’re on the anxious loner’s side, and we desperately want her to succeed – or to at least make one measly friend.

Ade was at film school when she wrote and directed The Forest for the Trees. Which is staggering, really. For Toni Erdmann fans, it’s a must-see: you will spot an early preoccupation with awkward parties and sexist workplace politics.

FRUITVALE STATION (RYAN COOGLER, 2013)

Length: 85 minutes

With the box-office success of Creed and Black Panther, it’s easy to forget that Coogler’s first feature was only six years ago and cost less than a million dollars to make. In Fruitvale Station, the first of three collaborations between Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, the writer-director pays tribute to Oscar Grant, a black teen who was shot dead by a white policeman in 2009. The film recreates the last 24 hours of Oscar’s life; it begins with real cameraphone footage, and concludes with the tragic event.

In the role of Oscar, Jordan brings warmth and humanity, as do Diaz and Octavia Spencer in their supporting roles. At the time, Coogler said he wanted to raise awareness for Oscar’s story, and he undoubtedly did. Incidentally, the policeman responsible for Oscar’s death only served 292 days in prison for killing an innocent black man.

IDA (PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI, 2013)

Length: 85 minutes

Did you love Cold War (89 minutes)? Well, Ida, from the same director, is another jazz-infused, black-and-white drama, framed in boxy Academy ratio. The title character is an 18-year-old orphan wandering through Poland, in 1962, in search of her parents’ graves. Here, the stripped-down storytelling adds a directness: Ida is hellbent on uncovering some family secrets, and each revelation lands with dramatic resonance.

By the 80-minute mark, the emotional punches are as impactful as you’d expect from the auteur behind My Summer of Love (86 minutes), Last Resort (73 minutes) and The Woman in the Fifth (85 minutes). So much so, Paul Schrader cited Ida for why he framed First Reformed in 4:3, and Alfonso Cuarón consulted Pawlikowski for shooting Roma in monochrome. Neither were under 85 minutes, though.

THE LIVING END (GREGG ARAKI, 1992)

Length: 81 minutes

As anarchic, murderous, sex-filled road trips go, The Living End is hard to top. On one hand, it’s if Thelma and Louise had gay male protagonists, a more provocative plot, and a shorter running time. But Araki’s critical breakthrough is also a blistering, nihilistic comedy that lives up to its characters’ catchphrase: “Fuck everything.”

When a film journalist, Jon (Craig Gilmore), and a stranger, Luke (Mike Dytri), both discover that they’re HIV-positive, they team up and hit the road. Together, they’re motivated by a fear of time running out, a shared alienation in a homophobic world, and a lust for living like they’re in a movie. Oh, and also because they kill a cop and it’s convenient to go on the run. The tagline on the poster sums up the appeal: “AN IRRESPONSIBLE MOVIE FROM GREGG ARAKI”.

LOVESONG (SO YONG KIM, 2017)

Length: 84 minutes

Korean filmmaker So Yong Kim’s fifth feature is and isn’t a bisexual love story. The two leads, Mindy (Jena Malone) and Sarah (Riley Keogh), are best friends on the verge of having a few benefits. But Mindy is engaged to Dean (played by superstar director Cary Joji Fukunaga) and a wayward kiss between the two women leads to them drifting apart.

The film’s short running time parallels the low-key heartbreak: Mindy and Sarah separate without an over-the-top incident, and their pain lingers internally, not externally. The bittersweet quality is underlined by music from Jóhan Jóhansson and shots of people being sad in natural surroundings – it could alternatively have been named after The Cure’s “A Forest”.

PRIMER (SHANE CARRUTH, 2004)

Length: 77 minutes

It’s handy that Primer is short for two reasons: you need to watch the sci-fi thriller three times to vaguely understand what’s going on, and if it was any longer your head might explode. The Rubik’s cube plot revolves around a group of tech geeks who discover time travel and get tangled in their own web of double-crossing. Moreover, nothing is dumbed down. Quite the opposite: the viewer is left in a deliberate state of confusion about the “who”, “what” and, of course, “when” of each scene.

Even though Carruth has only helmed two barely-seen features, Primer and Upstream Colour, they’re the kind of head-scratchers that encourage multiple viewings, excessive analysis, and fan theories – six years on from his last directorial gig, his subreddit still receives regular traction.

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (NOAH BAUMBACH, 2005)

Length: 81 minutes

The oft-quoted rule of screenwriting is to start scenes late and get out early. Baumbach, to his credit, is a director who loves showing his characters walk in and out of doors (rewatch Frances Ha, and you will spot this). Still, The Squid and the Whale is an HBO series-worth of drama compacted into a single movie. How? It’s all thanks to the sharp, overlapping dialogue, and Jesse Eisenberg spitting out one-liners at a Busta Rhymes tempo.

That said, the hastiness also stems from fraught family dynamics that frequently cut the conversation short: everyone is a verbal jab away from storming out of the room. You sense that if the film was more than 90 minutes, it would end in murder.

WENDY AND LUCY (KELLY REICHARDT, 2008)

Length: 80 minutes

Reichardt, it must be said, attracts loyalty from her collaborators. Here, the lead roles are by two of her most recurring actors: Michelle Williams as Wendy, and Reichardt’s pet dog as Lucy. Living out of her car, Wendy can barely afford to take care of herself or – more tragically – her canine companion. To make things worse, Wendy is caught shoplifting dog food and is subsequently arrested. Once released, she needs to track down Lucy, while also battling poverty, loneliness and other hellish everyday obstacles

Like Old Joy (76 minutes) and Certain Women (OK, a bit more than 76 minutes), Wendy and Lucy is adapted from a short story – and Reichardt stays true to the movie’s minimalistic narrative. There’s barely any dialogue, and, after the inciting incident, the barking quietens down for obvious reasons. Still, as heart-wrenching and beautiful as it is, you wouldn’t want more than 80 minutes of it.