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Nine Extremely Long, Extremely Good Movies

From ‘The Right Stuff’ to ‘Hoop Dreams,’ these aren’t just time-wasters, but movies that use their extended running times as weapons

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“No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough,” wrote Roger Ebert, who was, of course, wrong: There are plenty of worthy films that could stand to lose a scene or two, and some terrible ones that could be even more masochistically enjoyable with an extended running time. Attention span and stamina are as subjective and individualistic as anything else, of course, but there’s something to be said for the kind of badge-of-honor viewership that comes with sitting through something like the seven-and-a-half-hour crawl of Hungarian master Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994), especially when, late last year, The Irishman’s 210-minute sprawl proved divisive. The following list of excellent three-hours-plus movies is not intended simply as a time-killer for stir-crazy cinephiles, but as a way to compare and contrast the ways that movies made in different eras, countries, and genres use duration as a technique and a weapon—as a way to deaden our senses, and then to heighten them all over again.

Giant (1956)

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

The title of George Stevens’s Oscar winner is an understatement: This Texas-set melodrama unravels over 201 minutes, moseying along as majestically as any Western ever made. The pairing of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as a wealthy rancher and the socialite who becomes his wife was as starry as it got in 1956, but the movie belongs to James Dean, who shows up early on as a horny handyman in Hudson’s employ with designs on the boss’s wife—may the best man win. The contrast between Hudson’s stolid, genteel acting style and Dean’s more electric approach gives Giant the energy it needs to propel its massive, decades-spanning narrative, which enfolds themes of big business and social change into the vertices of its central love triangle. The sheer scale of Stevens’s film, with its towering oil derricks and endless horizon lines, was enough to earn the director an Academy Award; the film’s shadow falls over countless successors, including and especially There Will Be Blood, which was partially shot in a few of the same locations.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

Social-distancing cinema par excellence, Chantal Akerman’s minimalist classic takes place in its titular heroine’s eponymous apartment. For most of its nearly-three-and-a-half-hour running time, we watch actress Delphine Seyrig—once a glamorous art-house starlet, then entering middle age—embody Jeanne Dielman as she moves, slowly and in real time, through a series of drab domestic rituals. We become so familiar with Jeanne’s daily routine that, as the movie goes on, even minor variations in what she does register as dramatic events, and major diversions feel like earthquakes (in a way, Jeanne Dielman is a disaster film, a countdown to an inevitable, eruptive event; there’s even an IndieWire video essay framing it as an action movie). If you can accept that risking boredom through repetition is a valid dramatic strategy—i.e., a way of lulling the audience into a false sense of security—then Akerman’s film gleams with a hard, chill brilliance. Its ostensible emptiness lets our mind wander right up until it doesn’t. What happens after that will linger in your memory forever.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon is a fleet, freewheeling literary picaresque; for his film adaptation, Stanley Kubrick slowed the story’s pace down to a stately parade-float crawl. The droning, circular melody of Handel’s “Sarabande” serves as Barry Lyndon’s theme song and also a statement of artistic purpose, a shapely, beautiful piece of music that idles in place, resolving itself slowly in increments. Post–2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s strategy was to impose time on his audience as a heavy, palpable, and even oppressive presence; here, the sense of torpor simultaneously helps to call attention to the painterly beauty of the images—widescreen compositions evoking the light and coloring of 18th century paintings—and the grim, fatalistic determinism of the narrative, in which Ryan O’Neal’s wannabe-aristocratic antihero rises above his station only to be brought low by fate and vanity.

The Right Stuff (1983)

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book about the military pilots who served as de facto guinea pigs for America’s space program spans 15 years and features close to a dozen main characters—a combination of elements that justify its length. Like its source material, The Right Stuff is lively and journalistic, juxtaposing several different kinds of alpha-male machismo from laconic cowboys to nerdy tech-heads. Its attention to detail means that every stage of the entwined scientific and bureaucratic process behind the formation of NASA (as well as its subsequent accomplishments) is well-documented. Where 2001: A Space Odyssey depicted astronauts (and mankind) as being at the mercy of some higher, alien intelligence, The Right Stuff finds its characters imposing their will on the unknown, culminating in a climactic set piece depicting John Glenn (Ed Harris) in orbit during which time seems, exhilaratingly, to stand still.

JFK (1991)

Available to stream for $2.99 on Amazon Prime

One of the most frenetically edited studio movies ever made, JFK is a paradox, a movie of unstoppable velocity that seems to drag on forever. In 1991, Oliver Stone had two Best Director Oscars and America’s ear, and opted to drop this thermonuclear piece of agitprop into multiplexes, using the real-life story of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison’s investigation into the Kennedy assassination as a springboard to dramatize a series of grand, unifying conspiracy theories encompassing the event and its aftermath. The film’s historical assertions and claims to truth are ludicrous. What matters is less the substance of Stone’s argument—which loosely loops LBJ and Nixon into a cabal of king killers along with Cuban dissidents and Lee Harvey Oswald—than its endlessly run-on, shaggy-dog nature, the feeling that its inferences and insinuations could extend into infinity. Nearly every scene in this three-hour film is beautifully burnished and paced and rhythmed for maximum intensity—imagine Steven Spielberg directing an entire season of Drunk History—but the best part by far is the 10-minute monologue by Donald Sutherland’s fictitious, omniscient operative “X,” which takes Kevin Costner’s Garrison through the looking glass and deposits him (and us) on the other side, exhausted and elated.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Streaming on HBO Now

Originally conceived as a 30-minute short about one Chicago playground basketball court and its players, Steve James’s sports-doc masterpiece grew and evolved along with its subjects. Over the course of nearly three hours, James follows teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee as they’re recruited out of working-class neighborhoods to a chic (mostly white) high school, leveraging sky-high potential expectations against the ground-level realities represented by their families, socioeconomic background, and still-forming personalities. At once a rigorous exploration of the sports-educational industrial complex and an intimate piece of portraiture, Hoop Dreams was one of the only nonfiction films of the ’90s to cross over to the mainstream, catching the attention of NBA players and grossing more than 10 times its budget.

Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

Like Kill Bill, Gangs of Wasseypur was divided into two parts for theatrical release: five hours of multidirectional mafia intrigue in Jharkhand was deemed too much for one sitting. In broad narrative and thematic outline, director Anurag Kashyap was inspired by ensemble crime sagas like The Godfather, although the film’s hurtling, montage-driven style is closer to the Scorsese of Goodfellas. The film covers almost 60 years, starting with India’s independence in 1947 and Wasseypur’s development as a coal-mining town whose economic bounty is the source of tension between three formidable crime families. In Part 1, set against the backdrop of the 1970s, emerging mob boss Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpayee) swears he’ll have vengeance for the assassination of his father. In Part 2, his adult sons—divided like the Corleone boys into contenders, pretenders, and sacrificial black sheep—carry on the family legacy. Gigantically scaled and extravagantly shot and choreographed, Gangs of Wasseypur isn’t necessarily realistic—instead, it’s a glossy, gory soap opera that goes over the top early and often, mirroring, realizing, and satirizing the outsized, outrageous gangster-movie fantasies of its characters.

Nymphomaniac (2013)

Available to rent for $3.99 on iTunes

As a self-loathing sex addict recounting her dirty life and times, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe rumbles through Lars von Trier’s erotic comedy like a freight train—it’s a tour de force performance that would trample most movie ensembles into the ground. But Nymphomaniac has an amazingly eclectic cast of weirdos (Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier) and movie stars acting weird (Uma Thurman, Shia LaBeouf), and their stamina goes a long way toward keeping things sweaty, grotesque, and funny for more than four NC-17-rated hours. Somewhere in Joe’s tale of guilty lust and violent abasement and degradation, Von Trier is trying to say something about his own compulsive, self-annihilating artistry, a game he played with more finesse in The House That Jack Built. Nymphomaniac is a big, lurching monstrosity of a movie, stopping every 10 minutes to prod and provoke the audience. For some, that level of annoyance/audacity will be too much. For those sympathetic to the artistic philosophy of “go hard or go home,” however, Von Trier’s spacious, insatiable inventory of Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid to Ask will be something worth standing up and cheering for.

In Jackson Heights (2015)

Streaming on Kanopy

Of all the movies on this list, Frederick Wiseman’s characteristically epic documentary might be the hardest to watch, not because of any extremity in its content, but the bustling, everyday normalcy that is its subject. Shot on location in a crowded, multicultural enclave of Queens, the film is a chronicle of a summer observing a number of community initiatives and projects as they come together (and pull apart), patiently cataloging the action at school boards, religious institutions, and retirement homes until it adds up into a rich, pulsating human mosaic. The nonagenarian Wiseman’s reputation as a man who makes movies about institutions is very much on display in In Jackson Heights, but as bureaucracies and social systems are only ever made in the images of the people behind (or beneath) them, he’s also a great humanitarian—he has the experience, humor, ruthlessness, and patience to simply sit and watch as banal interactions escalate into the stuff of drama. In 2015, a year before a transformative national election, In Jackson Heights vision of New York City as a simmering, savory melting pot had a sort of ornery Utopianism—its New York resonated with an imperfection that was, somehow, perfect. Now, the scenes of sunny streets filled with people—walking, running, yelling, kissing, failing, dreaming—are improbably nostalgic, while also offering hope that the communities whose intricate maintenance we once took for granted can be more gratefully reclaimed in the future.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.