Movies do a great job at condensing a long period of time down into one easily digestible 90-120 minute experience. It’s part of the reason why biopics can tell the story of one person’s entire life, and why epic movies can span decades in order to show how things have changed throughout history.
On the other end of things, though, are the films that take an entirely opposite approach by showing events occurring in real time. Naturally, the majority of these aren’t filmed in real-time, but they all give the experience of watching a series of events play out with no jumping forward or backward in time. As such, when a real-time film’s well-made and the story’s engaging, it can make for a truly engrossing viewing experience.
Updated on December 21st, 2022, by Hannah Saab:
Movies in real-time continue to be somewhat of a rarity in cinema. The few that employ this narrative technique don’t always do it right. This is why those films that manage to effectively use this approach deserve attention from cinephiles (and casual viewers) who enjoy this narrative style.
‘High Noon’ (1952)
Available to stream on Starz.
High Noon is one of the best westerns of all time, and tells the story of a marshal who tries to gain the support of the townspeople he protects when he learns a criminal he once jailed is on his way to the town via a train, seeking revenge. Unfortunately, as time goes on, fewer and fewer people seem willing to help the marshal, leading to a tense and exciting final showdown.
Part of what makes High Noon so great is the way time is used. It’s almost entirely done in real-time, taking place from just after 10:30 in the morning to about 12:15 pm. As a viewer, you can sense the tension building and truly feel the pressure the main character’s under. With its 71st anniversary in 2023, it stands as one of the oldest movies told in real-time, and remains one of the very best.
‘Before Sunset’ (2004)
Available to stream on The Roku Channel.
The second film in Richard Linklater‘s celebrated Before trilogy, Before Sunset is the only one of the three that takes place completely in real-time. The first film plays out from one afternoon to the next morning, whilst the third mostly takes place from an afternoon to midnight the same day.
Before Sunset involves the two main characters reuniting after nine years by chance, and the entire premise of the film is that they only have about an hour-and-a-half to spend together before one of them has a plane to catch. It ensures every second feel precious, and is designed to make audiences wish the two characters could spend more time together in the same manner those two characters wish they could spend more time together.
Available to rent on Apple iTunes.
Alfred Hitchcock was always an innovative filmmaker, with and his ambition is on full display in 1948’s Rope. The film shows a party playing out in real-time, with the two young men hosting the party having murdered a friend right before it starts, hiding the body under a table to prove to themselves they can get away with a perfect crime.
Hitchcock was limited by the technology of the day, as directors could only film ten minutes of footage at a time. He did his best to make ten takes look like one unbroken one, and by 1948 standards, he did a great job. It makes for a gleefully suspenseful, always tense watch, as viewers wait for someone to inevitably find the body.
Available to rent on Apple iTunes.
Admittedly, Sam Mendes‘ war film 1917 is almost entirely done in real-time, but not 100%. It follows two soldiers sent on a dangerous mission through No Man’s Land to deliver a message that will stop a charge from happening. At about the halfway point, one character is knocked out, and the film resumes when he regains consciousness, some hours later.
Perhaps to get the full real-time experience, you’d need to watch the movie in two halves, and take a break when the character falls unconscious? Either way, though, it still functions as a real-time movie, with the rest of the film showing the tense, daunting journey in unflinching detail and without cutting away.
‘Cleo from 5 to 7’ (1962)
Available to stream on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel and Kanopy.
True to its title, Cleo from 5 to 7 follows a young singer named Cleo from 5:00 pm to about 7:00 pm, as she wanders the streets of Paris. Throughout, she meets various acquaintances while anxiously awaiting some results from her doctor, which may or may not confirm she has cancer.
It might sound bleak, but it’s not a fully dramatic affair, adding in a little comedy to keep things from being too downbeat. It’s a charming and beautifully made movie, and remains compelling even while it intentionally meanders without telling a strictly defined narrative.
‘The Guilty’ (2018)
Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
Remade in 2021 as a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the original The Guilty is a Danish thriller about a police officer working in an emergency services dispatch center. What initially seems like a relatively normal day of receiving emergency calls becomes more complex, as the police officer begins to uncover a dramatic series of events, all happening at the other end of the telephone.
It’s a claustrophobic and effectively minimalist movie, as it takes place entirely in one room, and all in real-time. It’s an interesting perspective for a crime-thriller-type movie to use, and the experience of watching the film is expectedly intense and enthralling.
’12 Angry Men’ (1957)
Available to stream on Hoopla and Kanopy.
12 Angry Men is an undeniable classic, holding up over 60 years later as arguably one of the greatest movies of all time. It shows a jury discussing the verdict of a murder trial in real-time, involving one jury member believing the accused to be not guilty, and attempting to convince the other 11 that the case isn’t as clear-cut as they initially thought.
The way the discussions play out without skipping a single minute ensures the film does a great job at making the viewer feel as though they’re inside the jury room with the 12 angry men themselves. It makes the passionate dialogue and intense emotions hit even harder, and it’s that visceral experience that has ensured 12 Angry Men remains a great and compelling film, regardless of how old it is.
‘Free Fire’ (2017)
Available to stream on Showtime, Hoopla and Kanopy.
Free Fire is an underrated action/crime/comedy film that involves an exchange between arms dealers in an abandoned warehouse going horribly wrong. Due to all the mistrust amongst the film’s shady characters, everything goes south very fast and very violently, with most of the film being a real-time shootout/argument between the various characters as they continue to die, one by one.
It’s a pretty simple premise, but it’s handled well, and in the end, Free Fire is a pretty good watch overall. It’s like one long feature-length Mexican standoff, so it’s easy to recommend for fans of darkly comedic crime movies who don’t mind a bit of graphic violence.
Available to stream on Showtime and Kanopy.
Victoria stands out among the various films that aim to look like they’re filmed in one take, as it genuinely was shot in one take. As such, it naturally has a storyline that plays out in real-time, and depicts a young woman meeting a group of young men who end up roping her into robbing a bank with them.
From the characters’ meeting, to the robbery itself, to the aftermath and fallout, everything is in real-time, and similarly, the cast and crew were all making it in real-time, too. A few technical hiccups and some odd pacing can be fairly easily forgiven, because the ambition of Victoria is so impressive, and that it comes together into an even fairly compelling 135-minute movie is worth celebrating. For being filmed and told in real-time, it earns its place as an essential real-time movie.
‘Run Lola Run’ (1998)
Available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Paramont+ Showtime.
Director Tom Tykwer‘s award-winning experimental thriller, Run Lola Run, has a deceptively simple premise. It follows the experiences of the titular character, who finds herself in a messy situation with her boyfriend – she has to get 100,000 Deutschmarks to save his life within 20 minutes.
Within its 80-minute runtime, the frantic, stressful and often mind-bending movie subverts and completely breaks the rules of filmmaking. The fact that it happens in real-time only makes it easier for viewers to get lost in the chaos that Lola navigates as the situation continues to escalate and become weirder with each passing second.