Short Films You Can Watch in an Hour or Less

In Film Misery’s 100th Podcast episode, Alex took me to task a little bit for something I said to Justin: I had criticised Jagoe for never having seen Miloš Forman’s three-hour Amadeus, even though he had watched every episode of Game of Thrones (twice-ish).  Alex quite rightly pointed out that for some people, who perhaps have a full-time job and two small children and a wife and a house and many other things to take care of, three-hour blocks of time are few and far between.  For those with so hectic a schedule, the discrete unit of a television episode can be a much more manageable entertainment option.

Now, I understand intellectually that a child is probably more important than a movie—well, most movies, anyway.  However, I do not have kids and have personally never met a child I ended up liking more than, say, Cries and Whispers, so my sympathy with this point of view can only go so far.  But even if you don’t have children, setting aside a chunk of time for a lengthy film can be a bit daunting; just listen to Justin and me talk about Andrei Rublev.

Which got me to thinking: there are plenty of movies out there that do not require a significant time investment and can be viewed in less time than it takes to watch a season finale of Game of Thrones.  Here is a fairly random selection of great ones:

shortSimon of the Desert

runtime: 42 minutes

Some say Belle de Jour, some say The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, some say The Exterminating Angel… but for my money, the very best Buñuel is his 1965 masterpiece Simon of the Desert.  A few years ago, I called it my favourite film dealing with religion, and so it remains.  It is also the quintessential Buñuel film: all of his pet obsessions—from Catholicism to blasphemy to classism to sexual fetishism—are here, distilled perfectly into a dense and rapturous 42 minutes.  And what an ending!

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short

The Red Balloon

runtime: 35 minutes

One of the simplest, most poetic, and most emotionally impactful short films ever made, Albert Larimosse’s The Red Balloon is also one of the best family films, period.  A family film, of course, is a film suitable and engaging for children that also appeals to adults.  Apart from its timeless story, The Red Balloon also serves as a beautiful travelogue of a Belleville that no longer exists; many of the buildings Larimosse used for locations were destroyed in the 1960s.

shortSherlock Jr

runtime: ~45 minutes; some versions vary by framerate

You may safely ignore critics who place The General atop Keaton’s filmography.  I won’t debate the greatness of that film, but Sherlock, Jr manages to meld hilarious sight-gags, amusing set-pieces, frenetic chase sequences, some nail-biting suspense, and a heady theme—all in less than an hour.  Indeed, this masterwork is among the most exhilarating and breathtaking contiguous forty-five minutes of cinema that exist.  Can you say the same thing about the average episode of Orange is the New Black?*

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shortZero for Conduct

runtime: 44 minutes (Criterion running time)

Jean Vigo is well-known for injecting poetry into even the most mundane of images (cf. his magical nine-minute profile of swimmer Jean Taris), but Zero for Conduct really takes the cake.  At a strict French boarding school, some precocious young children rise up and take the power back from their repressive teachers.  Now, that synopsis may bring to mind a certain violent Lindsay Anderson flick, but Vigo’s take is so surreally magical that the effect is smile-inducing instead.  The children in the film aren’t just pawns in an allegory; Vigo examines them with an emotional sensitivity that could only be lost on the most unenchantable of viewers.

shortThe Kid

runtime: 53 or 68 minutes, depending on which version you watch

The little tramp finds an orphaned baby and raises him to be his partner in petty crime—that is, until the mother and authorities get involved.  The first of Chaplin’s films to expertly combine emotional drama with his characteristic hilarity.  He would later perfect the mixture in such classics as Modern Times and especially City Lights, but The Kid still packs quite an emotional punch.

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shortDumbo

runtime: 64 minutes

Among the shortest of Disney’s features, Dumbo is also one of the most emotionally affecting.  I mean, we all remember the scene with Dumbo’s mother in jail, and her trunk slinking out from between the bars… Damn, is someone cutting onions in here?  Because a single, manly tear just rolled down my cheek…  Anyway, Dumbo also features a killer psychedelic passage and some truly great songs, with a shorter running time that a typical Game of Thrones finale (and less rape!)

shortThe Navigator

runtime: 59 minutes

Another Keaton classic.  Buster plays a sheltered millionaire who, through an unlikely series of events, finds himself stranded on a large ship with another sheltered millionaire, and the two must fend for themselves.  It has some detractors (looking at you, @leonardmaltin), but the film has sight-gags galore, the ship is one of Keaton’s grandest and most hilarious set pieces, and the theme of creeping technological modernity has a rival only in Chaplin’s Modern Times.

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short

Night and Fog

runtime: 32 minutes

Alain Resnais’s meditation on the Holocaust marries images of the barren, abandoned Auschwitz death camp with newsreel footage of the atrocities of the Final Solution and narration detailing the rise of Naziism.  Pretty heavy stuff, I’ll admit, but unlike, say, The Sorrow and the Pity, Night and Fog makes its point in a brief 32 minutes.  But be warned: it’s a 32 minutes that will haunt you for the rest of your life.

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and…

I could go on and on, but if you don’t have the time to watch Amadeus, then I probably shouldn’t make this article any longer than it needs to be.

I’d now like to change course a bit.  In our current Golden Age of Television, viewers are accustomed to consuming discrete units of a work of art (‘episodes’) over time, to eventually (hopefully) produce an aggregate artistic experience.  Luckily, there have been films produced which are also meant to be viewed in individual chapters: some of these were actually made for television overseas, and released in US cinemas in serialised form.  So, if you only have a spare hour or so at a time, here are Great Movies You Can Watch in Multiple Instalments:

shortLes Vampires

runtime: 417 minutes (÷ 10 chapters)

Perhaps the original cinematic thriller.  Louis Feuillade’s silent serial influenced several cinematic heavyweights, Hitchcock, Lang, and Resnais among them.  The Vampires of the title are not the Dracula sort; it rather refers to an underground criminal squad roaming around Paris, and featuring the unforgettable, iconic character of Irma Vep.  Les Vampires is notable for being filmed on location in Paris at the height of WWI—the shots of vacant and derelict neighbourhoods are quite eerie.  This film is actually best when viewed in instalments; trying to watch multiple episodes at once becomes a bit of a chore.

shortHeimat

runtime: 940 minutes (÷ 11 chapters)

The episodes in Heimat run a bit longer than the other serialised flicks on this list, but it’s still worth the effort. Edgar Reitz’s epic chronicles roughly 63 years in the life of a fictional German town, through the eyes of one family.  As you might imagine from that brief synopsis, Heimat does at times become quite soapy, but I’m not altogether sure if that’s necessarily a bad thing.  (Of course, this is from someone who mildly adores the ridiculously sudsy Peyton Place, so do with that information what you wish.)  In any case, Reitz sidesteps many cliches of long-form historical epics, concentrating on how German history affects the day-to-day life of the villagers.  Not that this should influence me or anyone else, but Stanley Kubrick was reportedly quite fond of it, as well.

shortBerlin Alexanderplatz

runtime: 931 minutes (÷ 14 chapters)

A must for Fassbinder fans, and perhaps his greatest acheivement, Berlin Alexanderplatz follows an ex-con as he tries to go straight, but gets caught up in forces beyond his control.  Critics invented the term ‘epic’ specifically for art like this.

shortDekalog

runtime: 572 minutes (÷ 10 chapters)

Dekalog is a strange beast, because it is technically ten different films, each of which dramatises one of the ten commandments, AND one film.  A strange dichotomy, but, just enjoy the mystery.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  And, yes, Kubrick was also quite a fan Dekalog, even agreeing to write a brief forward to the publication of the film’s screenplay.  You may wish to wait a bit until Criterion releases their version later this year; I’ll leave you with Kubrick’s words:

I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work. But in this … Krzysztof Kieslowski and… Krzysztof Piesiewicz… have the very rare ability to dramatise their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.

shortSátántangó

runtime: 432 minutes (÷ 12 chapters)

The film that put Béla Tarr on all sorts of critical radars.  Full of Tarr’s traditional long takes and fluid camera, Sátántangó manages to keep its hypnotic hold on the viewer even over multiple instalments.  Now, I won’t lie: Sátántangó is best if you watch it in as few sittings as possible, but the impact is not incredibly negated watching it over time.

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There you go.  Now, the next time you tell me that you just don’t have time to watch as many movies anymore, I’ll know you’re full of shit!

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*The answer is, of course you can say this about Orange is the New Black; you’d just be wrong.

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