Sometimes, size does matter.
We’ve all been to a film that feels way too long, and by “we,” I mean anyone who has ever seen an “Avengers” movie. But as the late Roger Ebert wrote, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”
That sentiment is not new. Silent movies “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” both exceed three hours, while the 1924 drama “Greed” clocks in at nearly eight. And people paid to see them, despite the demands of their bladders. One of the most beloved films of all time (not by me) and still the adjusted-for-inflation box-office champion, “Gone With the Wind,” pushes four hours.
“Gone With the Wind” won a best picture Oscar, too, which is not surprising since the motion picture academy has tended to reward length, with “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Braveheart” and “Gandhi” among the best picture winners exceeding 180 minutes, the run time that I’m arbitrarily deciding constitutes “long.” Oscar voters are wrong about a lot of things, but they are right in thinking there can be something special about an epic, since more time means more room to explore nuances of character and story.
If Oscar voters can do it, you can, too. Given that we’re still mostly stuck at home, why not immerse yourself in the following gems? They’re all more than three hours, which means greats such as “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Nashville” just missed the cut.
The events don’t take place over a long time span — just the five years between Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) meeting John Reed (Warren Beatty) in 1915 and his death — but this romantic drama has the sweep of history, nevertheless. That’s because of the groundbreaking technique of weaving in talking-head interviews with salty, hilarious friends and enemies of the journalist couple, 66 years later. The tempestuous romance is given time to develop, and when it’s on the rocks, time for us to wish the lovers would figure out a way to be together. “Reds” has it all: the Russian Revolution, humor, music (Stephen Sondheim!), action and a cast of Oscar winners: Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton and Gene Hackman, plus Beatty and Keaton, who were in love for real when filming started but not by the time it finished.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This 228-minute adventure biopic sells out every time the Heights Theater screens it in glorious 70mm, because many scenes only work on a big screen. One, in which tiny men ride across a desert, far in the distance, would look like an orange blob on your iPhone. Scale and length go hand in hand with David Lean juxtaposing the intimate story of T.E. Lawrence against the vast canvas of Middle Eastern history. That contrast is summed up in what many consider the greatest movie edit of all time, which takes Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) from a future he dreams of to that very future in the flick of a match.
Red Riding trilogy (2010)
It’s often separated into three parts, but they were screened in one awe-inspiring sitting in the Twin Cities, and that’s still the way “Red Riding” works best. Andrew Garfield and a plum British cast (including a pre-”Downton Abbey” Michelle Dockery) play victims, goons and investigators involved in a series of murders that brutalized the Yorkshire region in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s riveting stuff, and it capitalizes on every bit of its, gulp, five hours to explore how the crimes work their way into the lives of the terrified people of northern England.
Time has not been kind to Oliver Stone’s crackpot theory about the assassination of our 35th president, but the filmmaking, which won Oscars for cinematography and editing, is thrilling, as is the collection of actors who play a rogue’s gallery of hustlers and conspiracy hangers-on. Stone needed all 188 minutes to work in multiple garish cameos: John Candy’s Southern wheeler-dealer, Kevin Bacon’s slithery prostitute and, most spectacularly, Donald Sutherland’s scintillating delivery of a paranoid monologue that almost makes you believe. The director’s cut contains 18 more minutes.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Philip Kaufman’s space-program epic wasn’t a hit, but it perfectly captures the atmosphere of reckless adventure described in Tom Wolfe’s book. There are multiple main characters, including Ed Harris as John Glenn and Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, and the 193-minute movie has the space to show what motivates each of them (it does not have time for their wives, although they’ve gotten their due in other projects). The mythic hugeness helps establish that, although there were divisive issues in this country during the 1960s, the space program was one area where we got it right.
Short Cuts (1993)
Director Robert Altman’s instinct was to race ahead, not linger, even in his longer movies such as “Nashville” and “Short Cuts.” Both earn their run time by telling many short stories: nine in “Short Cuts” by Raymond Carver, the sympathetic chronicler of West Coast ennui. The movie explores a variety of tragedies experienced by its huge list of characters and proclaims, finally, that they all share the same tragedy. (Not streaming, but available on demand.)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Remade as “The Magnificent Seven,” it’s a war movie and a character study in which seven men contract with a village to protect it against marauders. No. 17 on Sight & Sound’s list of the greatest movies ever made, Akira Kurosawa’s 207-minute epic picks up energy as it shifts from the everyday interactions of the villagers and the samurai to the huge, exciting battles. Like a lot of movies on this list, the amount of time “Seven Samurai” spends on its simple story asserts that tiny events can have a huge impact.