This week, I finally bore down and watched the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind, which clocks in at an imposing 233 minutes. Anticipating next week's post, I've prepared a list of long movies that are worth the investment. These aren't impressive one-timers like The Ten Commandments or Gandhi that I'll likely never watch again. Instead, they're memorable choices where the hours disappear before you know it. It rarely takes more than one sitting to get through them, even on repeat viewings. I know that any respectable film lover shouldn't worry about length, but I admit that it comes into play when choosing a film. There are movies that deserve their length, while others like The Postman are two-hour stories extended to attain a loftier status. A bad 90-minute movie is irritating, but an awful choice becomes much worse once it crosses the two-hour mark. Let's get to the picks before my rambling sends you scurrying for the exits!
Honorable Mention, The Seven Samurai (1954)
Length: 3 hours, 27 minutes (restored version)
Akira Kurosawa's directed several long films that are still remarkable (Ran is another great choice), and the key is the way he structures the plot. The Seven Samurai is deliberately paced, but it never feels slow because the material keeps adding new elements of the story. We're introduced to each of the samurai, discover the unfortunate plight of the villagers, and then get into the actual mission. It's a classic three-act structure that builds up wonderfully to the big confrontation at the end. It takes serious talent to keep viewers engaged for more than three hours, especially modern U.S. audiences. This film keeps you on the edge of your seat right until the final battles for the noble, possibly doomed warriors.
5. Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
Length: 10 hours, 26 minutes (DVD extended editions)
Although they're actually three separate movies, this is a trilogy the feels like one very long film. I know there are some vocal detractors ("three movies of people walking!"), but it really works for me. Peter Jackson's recent work has gone off the rails a bit, but he deserves credit (along with his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) for this grand adaptation. The casting is excellent across the board, especially Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, and Sean Bean as Boromir. This is a grand epic that still finds a way to make its characters the center point, even in the hell of a massive battle.
4. Malcolm X (1992)
Length: Three hours, 22 minutes
Spike Lee has never received enough credit for being a great filmmaker, and a prime example is Malcolm X. The controversy sometimes overwhelms his movies, which is really too bad. Denzel Washington gives the best performance of his career and makes us relate to every step of Malcolm's life. His progression from a street hustler in Detroit to a legendary activist succeeds because it follows each step along the way. Lee needs more than three hours to provide a complete picture of Malcolm that's effective to a variety of audiences. It's a crime that Lee wasn't recognized with a Best Director nomination at the Oscars. His confident directing sells every moment and keeps us engaged throughout the extended running time.
3. Heat (1995)
Length: Two hours, 50 minutes
The shortest film on this list, Heat maintains an epic feeling while exploring the inner lives of high-class criminals and the detectives that chase them. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have rarely been better and make both guys likable and interesting characters. Michael Mann was born to direct this film and presents Los Angeles beautifully, especially during the night scenes. The highlight is the big shootout in the busy city streets after the heist goes sour. These guys won't hesitate for a second to do anything when the "heat's around the corner".
2. The Godfather (1972)
Length: Two hours, 55 minutes
The obvious choice on the list, Francis Ford Coppola's gangster saga still manages to surprise 40 years (wow!) after its initial release. Marlon Brando takes an oddball approach to Vito Corleone and makes him a classic character. Watching Al Pacino morph from the innocent son outside the family and into a hardened killer is another highlight. There are far too many classic scenes and characters to mention in this short description. The Godfather is one of those movies that feels too brief even as it nears the three-hour mark.
1. Magnolia (1999)
Length: Three hours, eight minutes
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few directors who still hasn't missed. In fact, all his movies fall into either the really good or legendary categories. My favorite is Magnolia, a sprawling look at a group of characters struggling to deal with their past demons and creating a few new ones. Tom Cruise has the flashiest performance and shines as the nasty guy with serious issues with his father (Jason Robards). John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and many others are excellent in this ambitious story that never hits a wrong note. Anderson keeps the pace rolling along for more than three hours and crafts a stunning film that only grows stronger on repeated viewings. Supported perfectly by the songs of Aimee Mann, he takes plenty of chances (characters singing, raining frogs, and more), but it all works.
Next, week, I'll close the marathon and find out if I give a damn about Gone with the Wind.