Aristotle talks in Poetics about what have come to be regarded as the classical unities, a set of rules that govern how plays should be staged and executed. One of these is the unity of time, which states that a story should represent a period no longer than 24 hours. Many people have written many smart things about the unity of time, and I won’t begin to dig into it here except to point out that, cinematically, there’s something special about movies that take place over a 24-hour period (or something shorter). They can feel tighter and more focused, unwilling to let the story wander all over the place. There’s even an entire sub-genre of teen films that revolve around epic nights of partying and sexual exploration. I started cobbling together a Seriously Random List about the topic and even threw it open to Twitter and Facebook, so if you contributed there, you might see a movie you mentioned listed below. Your reward: warm self-satisfaction.
Anyway, to get the ball rolling, here are ten movies that take place over a period of no more than 24 hours. Some span the day, some go overnight, and some unfold in real time. They aren’t ranked because this isn’t a determination of greatness, merely examples of movies excelling at the form. Also, for the sake of freshness, I left off Go and Nick of Time, since those are the first two anyone thinks of, and Phone Booth, because it is terrible. Dig it:
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
John Hughes loved to set his teen comedies in pretty strict timelines, and The Breakfast Club and most of Sixteen Candles followed suit. But Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains the most fun of the group, and will stand in for the others.
Technically a better movie than Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater’s sequel to his ode to young love finds his characters older and wiser but no less enamored of their search for true happiness. The story unfolds in mostly real time over an hour and a half one afternoon, and it packs some truly heartrending scenes. It’s also got one of the best ending moments in modern romantic film.
Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee actually gets two on this list, first with Do the Right Thing, a fantastically made look at racial tension in a block of Bed-Stuy on a hot summer afternoon. Do not be alarmed by Rosie Perez’s crumping in the opening credits.
Dazed and Confused
Another one for Richard Linklater: Dazed and Confused, one of the best teen flicks and Texas movies of all time, is also a prime example of how to tell a story that packs a ton of great characters and interesting story into a narrative that only runs from the end of the school day through the following dawn. Responsible for Matthew McConaughey but also Adam Goldberg and Parker Posey, so it’s a wash.
Glengarry Glen Ross
Endlessly parodied, eminently quotable, and the best thing David Mamet’s ever written, Glengarry Glen Ross is a trim and paranoid look at the brutal world of real-estate sales seen through the eyes of the poor schmucks making the phone calls and house visits.
This is the film that pushed Ethan Hawke back into the limelight and also let Denzel Washington off the leash like never before. Inspiration for one of the best “Chappelle’s Show” sketches ever.
Arguably the best action film of the past 30 years, and certainly one of the best ever made.
Run Lola Run
Definitely one of the most popular German imports in recent memory, and a fantastic reworking of the concept of multiple lives/chances to get things right. Watching it will make you tired.
Wet Hot American Summer
Sure, the day trip into town seems to play out over days, but the real story’s set on the last day of summer camp, so it counts. It’s one of the best comedies of the decade, to boot.
Spike Lee’s c.v. isn’t spotless (Miracle at St. Anna was a bad idea all around), but 25th Hour is easily one of his best. Edward Norton is fantastic as a criminal enjoying his last night of freedom before being sent away, and Philip Seymour Hoffman has a great supporting role, too. Another tightly made story with a moving ending.
What are your favorites?