Malcolm X once said, ‘People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.’ The same could be said of the few dark hours between sunset and sunrise.
A single night can contain infinite possibilities. At every point it seems that anything at all could crawl or leap out of the darkness before dawn dispels it, and there is something very beguiling about a narrative taking place within its boundaries. Movies are in a unique place to tell these self-contained stories — at least when compared to television — as their short-form nature lends itself perfectly to showing the effects of a few hours on a character or characters. By tightening the temporal belt, a heightened sense of reality can ensue, and much more can be explored than would at first seem apparent.
Visually too, the limitations and difficulties of capturing the deep shadows and obscured lines of night-time on camera are, in fact, a gift: if a cinematographer works well within those limitations and exploits rather than shying away from them the results can be spectacular.
So then, here are eight movies that explore what can happen in one night. The definition had to be relaxed now and then — there is the occasional sun-washed prologue or dawn-drenched ending to be found — but every one of the following stories examines the possibilities that being awake during the time that humanity should be asleep can bring.
A largely forgotten 90’s gem, history has been unfair to Doug Liman’s 1999 follow-up to Swingers. Blame Pulp Fiction; or rather blame the idea that every 90’s movie that dared to deal in split narratives should forever be consigned to its shadow. It follows a group of Gen-X-ers who experience a night of bad luck, mishaps, and disasters following a drug deal gone wrong. Told from three different perspectives, Go features Sarah Polley, Timothy Olyphant, Katie Holmes, William Fichtner, and Jay Mohr among others, and while the the echoes of Pulp Fiction can be heard, it really is its own beast. Taut, kinetic, and clever (though not quite as clever as it thinks it is) it should be experienced with a lack of prejudice, though not without an acknowledgement of debts owed.
7. Attack the Block
Who knew Joe Cornish had it in him? One half of English comedy duo Adam and Joe, his feature debut about an alien attack localised around a rough tower block estate in South London was a breath of fresh air in 2011, and it still feels like a shot of espresso today. At the time it almost felt like Cornish and Edgar Wright (who executive produced this and was in between Hot Fuzz and World’s End) were in the middle of launching a tag-team British genre invasion. Attack the Block takes lessons from the best and evokes John Carpenter — with palpable dread and tension seeping out of the screen — while mixing in its own brand of distinct humour. Worth seeing just for the excellent leading turn from John Boyega, aka Finn from the upcoming Star Wars, as the head of the teenage gang at the centre of the story who deal with the aliens in their own unique way.
6. 25th Hour
One of Spike Lee’s, and Edward Norton’s, finest movies. In 25th Hour, Norton’s protagonist has one night of freedom left before serving a seven-year jail sentence after being busted for drug dealing by the DEA. His girlfriend, two best friends, and father — played perfectly by Rosario Dawson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, and Brian Cox respectively — are those he must say goodbye to and face before dawn brings the end of his life as he knows it. But more than anything he must face himself and reckon with his past choices; the path that lead him to this; and whatever path there may be that leads out from the other side. It’s a reflective, elegiac movie that is never dull.
Superbad is a fucking hilarious movie. I could just leave it at that. It was hilarious almost a decade ago (holy shit it’s been almost a decade since Superbad!), and it’s still hilarious now. More than that, though, it’s arguably the pinnacle of the reign of Judd Apatow and his post-Frat-Pack cohort of actors. Propulsive, profane, and at the same time bittersweet with an undercurrent of actual human emotion; it nonetheless never lets the slight sentimentality stop, or even really slow, the tsunami of dick jokes - instead grounding them with a degree of humanity that makes every obsessive-penis-drawing and period-blood-on-trousers joke land that much better.
Do you like excellent, low-key, character-driven sci-fi? Then you should be watching Coherence as soon as you finish this article. In fact, don’t even wait that long. Go now. The first full-length feature by James Ward Byrkit, Coherence tracks the events of a middle-class dinner party and the strange events that unfold when a comet passes overhead. To reveal anymore wouldn’t be spoiler-y as such, but unnecessary; as while the genre conceit may be enough to draw you in, it won’t be the main reason the movie sticks with you. That’ll be the palpable atmosphere of dread, the sharply-drawn characters and excellent writing, and the fantastic gut-punch of a conclusion.
(Be wary with that trailer if you want to go into this film completely fresh - as, really, you should.)
Michael Mann takes digital filmmaking, embraces it, and makes it sing. Jamie Foxx plays Max, a cab driver who unwittingly takes a fare from Tom Cruise’s silver-haired contract killer, Vincent. Vincent has one night to take out five targets before flying out in the morning again. He pays Max handsomely at the outset to ferry him around; Max accepts, but of course later finds out what kind of person exactly he has in the back of his cab, and from then on he has to try to find a way out of an impossible situation. As in almost all Michael Mann films, there is an ever-present extra character: Los Angeles itself, and the way he and his cinematographer, Dion Beebe, shoot it — without being ashamed of the quirks of digital, but instead using them in their favour — is a thing to behold. I’m not the biggest fan of either Cruise or Foxx, but here they do more than acquit themselves; Max is a man worn down by circumstance and quiet delusion until something stirs within him during his encounter with Vincent, while Vincent himself is a coiled spring of death with a strange, off-centre philosophical streak. The conclusion is a slight letdown after all that has come before it, but not a deal breaker by any means. Bonus points go to Collateral for having Mark Ruffalo in probably his coolest, least recognisable role to date.
2. Die Hard
The perfect action movie; the perfect Christmas movie; the perfect one-night movie. Is there anything Die Hard can’t do? I won’t insult you by doing a plot synopsis. An iconic hero; an iconic villain; a script so lean and tight that I hope it’s being taught to aspiring screenwriters everywhere, Die Hard really is the whole package. I’ll just leave this here for anyone who loves this exchange as much as me:
‘Just like fuckin’ Saigon, hey, Slick?’
‘I was in junior high, dickhead.’
1. Before Sunrise
The greatest relationship ever depicted in cinema began here. It’s not the most dramatic, or the most operatic or high-stakes relationship seen on the big screen, but it doesn’t need to be, because it’s the closest one that’s ever come to being real. Jesse and Celene are real people that exist and have a life off-screen; we as the audience are just privy to one night of their suddenly and momentarily shared life. The fact that nine years later we meet them again in Before Sunset, and nine years after that we are reacquainted once more in Before Midnight adds tremendous weight to this idea of a fully formed pair of characters existing independently of their movie — but it’s already immediately apparent in Sunrise. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke have pulled off a cinematic miracle with the three movies thus far made in the series, inhabiting and presenting these two fully formed and flawed human beings and their interactions. Each movie is essentially perfect in every way, with its own distinct flavour; and the trilogy as a whole is an affirmation of cinema; but it is 1995’s Sunrise that shows best the possibilities of what one night can bring.
But then again Die Hard has a machine gun, ho-ho-ho, so maybe I’ll call it a tie.