"May you live in interesting times" might sound like a curse in our current moment, but here we are, stuck at home, limiting the spread of a pandemic to save the lives of our fellow citizens. It is a good and just sacrifice, but...it's awfully boring in practice, especially with no sports to distract us. Movies, however, are waiting to whisk us out of our doldrums, and since it's looking like this lockdown could last for more than a month or two, you're probably going to get tired of the usual streaming options. That's why this is the perfect time to give yourself over to those three-hour-plus epics you know you're supposed to watch, but who has the time? Guess what? You do. Now more than ever. And we're not talking about "The Godfather" or "Titanic". We know you've seen those. Here are 25 long hauls begging for your suddenly abundant spare time!
You know many critics and cinephiles consider David Lean’s epic one of the greatest films ever made, but have you ever carved four hours out of your day to actually sit down and watch it? Perhaps you were waiting to see it projected in 70mm on the big screen. Even if you’re fortunate enough to live in a city with a theater equipped for this type of exhibition, you’re likely to be waiting a long while for the next screening. So now’s the time! Stream it on the biggest TV in your home, and let Lean’s widescreen compositions, Robert Bolt’s wittily incisive screenplay and Peter O’Toole’s deep blue eyes envelop you. This film contains an embarrassment of pleasures.
Remember when America’s can-do swagger was backed up by selfless action from people with unique expertise? Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism masterpiece about the early days of the United States space program centers on the Mercury Seven astronauts (played by an assortment of character actors and soon-to-be stars) and the fading glory of test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard). It’s an inspiring, often raucously funny movie that zips through its 193-minute runtime with Mach 3 velocity. You’ll savor every second.
Skip the 188-minute theatrical cut, and dive into the 312-minute television version of Ingmar Bergman’s semi-autobiographical tale of two young siblings who, following the sudden death of their father, retreat to the refuge of their fertile imaginations as a means of enduring a difficult upbringing. Unlike the majority of Bergman’s films, “Fanny and Alexander” exudes a warmth that occasionally teeters on the brink of overt sentimentality. The length may be daunting, but this is by far his most accessible work and one that will leave you feeling surprisingly upbeat about human nature.
James Dean’s final film is a Texas-sized epic about love, oil, intolerance and much, much more in the Lone Star State. George Stevens’ adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel stars Rock Hudson as a wealthy rancher who falls in love with a Maryland socialite (Elizabeth Taylor), and brings her back home to share in his fortune. Dean plays a poor handyman who envies Hudson’s wealth and finally dwarfs it when he discovers a deep reservoir of crude on his land. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood classic with dazzling star turns, extravagant production design and a heart as outsized as its setting.
An absolute gem. Edward Yang’s expansive family drama documents the triumphs and heartbreaks experienced by three generations of the Taipei-dwelling Jian family. Wu Nien-jen is hugely sympathetic as an unconditionally loving father who’s profoundly unhappy with his work. Every member of the family is going through something that may feel minor in the grand scheme of the universe but is intensely distressing to them – in other words, it’s life as we all experience it. Jonathan Yang, as the photography-obsessed youngest member of the family, is the scene-stealing champ of the film.
Clocking in at 431 minutes, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Soviet-financed adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel is as intimidating as its notoriously lengthy source material. The four-part epic was recently restored and released by The Criterion Collection, and it is apparently a revelation. Modern critics have hailed it as an exciting, visually audacious accomplishment that keeps the viewer riveted for the entirety of its considerable runtime. Shot over the course of six years with thousands of Russian soldiers participating in its massive battle scenes, this is large-scale filmmaking that could never happen today.
Sergio Leone’s swan song is a departure from the mythic sweep of his spaghetti Westerns. Though it certainly delivers as a grand entertainment, the film’s non-linear structure gives it a narrative and thematic complexity that offers us a tantalizing glimpse of how Leone’s sensibility might’ve evolved had we not lost him too soon at the age of 60. It’s a sumptuously shot and designed film with a magnificent score from Leone’s longtime musical companion, Ennio Morricone. If “The Irishman” got you craving more Robert De Niro/Joe Pesci gangland collaborations, this will sate you and then some. The rest of the cast — Elizabeth McGovern, James Woods, Tuesday Weld, Burt Young and Treat Williams — is superb as well.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s mesmerizing meditation on the rigors of artistic creation and the nature of faith demands the viewer’s full, undivided attention. Every minute detail of this medieval Russian epic is vital to understanding the whole — to the extent that a single viewing will probably leave you grasping for meaning. You won’t, however, feel unfulfilled. “Andrei Rublev” is an invigorating piece of technical filmmaking imbued with a passion that doesn’t always come through in Tarkovsky’s work. It’s the perfect starting point for those looking to explore the Russian master’s films.
Whereas many of us were required to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and the “Jesus of Nazareth” NBC miniseries in Sunday school, William Wyler’s more visually spectacular and entertaining “Ben-Hur” tends to be the odd Biblical epic out. This 222-minute tale of a Jewish prince (Charlton Heston) challenging the Roman Empire certainly doesn’t jump out of the blocks at a full sprint, and its most thrilling sequences, particularly the chariot race, are best appreciated on a towering theater screen. But after a slow start, it becomes plenty involving in its own right, and, if nothing else, a vivid reminder of how they used to make ‘em.
The first hour of Spike Lee’s masterful biopic is a boisterous, beautifully shot recreation of the thriving nightclub scenes in 1940s Boston and Harlem. There’s a full-on musical number, loads of explosively funny trash talking and a terrifyingly seductive performance from Delroy Lindo as the numbers runner who tutors a young “Detroit Red” in the art of the hustle. This is the hook that draws you in. Then, as Malcolm receives enlightenment from the Nation of Islam and finds his voice as a leader, it’s Denzel’s show. It’s a brisk 202 minutes that’ll leave you shaken and fired up.
Now that you’re shut in your home and the Academy has just given a foreign film with subtitles the Best Picture Oscar, you are officially out of excuses! It’s high time you finally settled in to watch Akira Kurosawa’s hugely entertaining/influential movie about a group of rōnin hired to protect a small village from a plundering horde of bandits. It just might be the fastest 207 minutes you’ve ever experienced, and you’ll finally know the power and the glory of Toshiro Mifune’s roguish Kikuchiyo. Enjoy.
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulously staged take on William Makepeace Thackeray’s picaresque novel may strike you as overly mannered, but once you get on the film’s deliberate, painterly wavelength, you’ll find yourself utterly intoxicated by the filmmaker’s precise compositions. Kubrick had Zeiss modify 50mm lenses used during the Apollo moon landings so he and cinematographer John Alcott could shoot interiors via candlelight (to accurately approximate the look and feel of the 18th century). Ryan O’Neal is perfectly cast as a vapid schemer who proves entirely unreliable as the narrator of his life’s story.
Abdell Kechiche’s emotional epic charts the sexual awakening of a teenaged girl (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who falls hard for a beguiling blue-haired art student (Léa Seydoux). It’s an overpowering, erotically charged depiction of first love — a portrait of longing, consummation and the madness that comes with it. The leads are exceptional (despite the reportedly caustic behavior of their director on set), imbuing the familiar relationship arc with a depth of feeling that stays with you long after the film’s conclusion.
Technically five minutes short of the three-hour threshold in its most recent iteration, D.W. Griffith’s silent landmark can, like many silent epics, feel a bit like homework. It’s not. Though it peaks early with its opening Babylon segment, which features some of the most extraordinary sets ever constructed in the history of the medium, every single shot is charged with the sense of discovery. The final chapter, “The Mother and the Law," is a pioneering piece of crosscutting without which it’s hard to imagine the films of Hitchcock, Ford, Clouzot and so on.
Michael Cimino’s late Western is far more notorious than seen, which is unfortunate because despite its challenging moments (particularly the Harvard graduation sequence that’s way more about atmosphere than moving the story forward), it has an unusual sprawl and pace that seeks to replicate the tempo of the time depicted in the film. You definitely have to give Cimino time to reel you in, but you may be surprised to find yourself utterly fascinated by his fierce attention to era-specific detail and custom — even in the graduation sequence!
Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film remains the gold standard for big-screen renditions of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and produced tragedy, but Kenneth Branagh’s 70mm staging is the only movie to feature the unabridged text, (Shakespeare’s plays are typically trimmed to keep the runtimes down.) At four hours and two minutes, Branagh’s undertaking occasionally drags; it’s also tripped up at times by its stunt casting of Americans who struggle with the pentameter (Jack Lemmon is, sadly, particularly poor in this regard). But the main cast is in excellent form; Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Kate Winslet and Michael Maloney bring the Shakespearian thunder with all due force. The highs are well worth the lulls.
The tedium is the point of Chantal Ackerman’s experiential masterpiece that immerses the viewer in the mundane life of a widowed homemaker (Delphine Seyrig). You may not think you want to watch a 221-minute movie about a woman performing ordinary tasks and chores, but as the film wears on, Ackerman gradually drives home a deep, disquieting truth about the machine-like lives women are often forced to live.
Visually, “1900” is as mind-blowingly beautiful as any collaboration between director Bernardo Bertolucci and his genius cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. It’s worth giving yourself over to this four-hour historical epic for the carefully crafted images alone. As for the story, let’s just say that the narrative about the friendship between a wealthy landowner (Robert De Niro) and a peasant (Gérard Depardieu) is far more fascinating in theory than practice. The superb supporting cast — including Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, Alida Valli and Sterling Hayden) — provide most of the highlights.
“Beyond what we can touch with our own hand, we have no obligations.” Luchino Visconti’s stirring drama about the dying days of Italian aristocracy zeroes in on the dusty, dilapidated household of Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster), a wealthy man who cannot stop what’s coming and gradually makes his peace with this. The 205-minute version that won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1963 was slashed down to 161 minutes and poorly dubbed by 20th Century Fox. Twenty years later, Visconti’s preferred 185-minute cut surfaced, and that is the only version worth watching.
Most of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries are available on Kanopy, and they’re all worthy of your time, but this deep-tissue examination of life in a Chicago housing project might be his finest work. At 200 minutes, it’s not an easy sit. Wiseman’s observational style allows his subjects the freedom to tell their own story through their everyday behavior. The cumulative effect is a stunning condemnation of segregated, financially disadvantaged living. Wiseman won’t come out and say it, but it’s clear that these people are stuck in poverty by design.
Marcel Carné’s decadent romance stars Arletty as a courtesan who is pursued by four suitors hailing from wildly different backgrounds. The film was surreptitiously made during the Nazi occupation of France like a real-life version of Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” and is considered by many to be the greatest French film of all time. It’s certainly the most daring. François Truffaut said he would “give up all my films to have directed ‘Children of Paradise’,” in case you needed further provocation to finally check out this classic.
Stanley Kramer’s deliciously mean-spirited, all-star comedy is hilarious in spite of its epic scale. Automobiles are destroyed on a whim; an airplane nearly crashes on a runway (Carl Reiner once told me he literally touched the plane as it buzzed the tower); a filling station is leveled. None of this is particularly funny, but the sheer chutzpah of the film, exemplified by its 205-minute runtime, somehow wins you over.
The greatest theatrical work of the second half of the 20th century was adapted with tremendous sensitivity by Mike Nichols for HBO, where the two-part play is currently available in one-hour episodes or two three-hour presentations. The latter is the closest you’ll get to the theatrical productions, which are separated as “Millenium Approaches” and “Perestroika." They’re best experienced on stage over the course of two evenings, but viewing them together in one sitting on HBO is powerful in its own right. Now that Roy Cohn’s protégé is running the country into ruin, Tony Kushner’s play has acquired an unexpectedly absurd (and frustrating) dimension.
You can opt to view Jacques Rivette’s 12-hour magnum opus in three-hour chunks, or, if you want to do the late, great New Wave filmmaker proud, you can steel yourself for one daring sit on Fandor (available via Amazon Prime) and try to make sense of the wild, Pynchon-esque narrative all at once. Or you could watch Rivette’s far more accessible “Celine and Julie Go Boating," which runs a scant 192 minutes. But in these dark, shelter-at-home days, you’ve got to go for it.
And when you’re done with 12 hours of conspiracy-minded madness, the only way to top it is to strap in for all 15 hours of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s Weimar Republic classic, “Berlin Alexanderplatz." The film, about, roughly, an ex-con who finds himself implicated in the murder of a prostitute, was released theatrically in the U.S., but, for obvious reasons, never screened in one sitting. That’s not an issue for those of us sudden shut-ins! Take the “Berlin Alexanderplatz” challenge. Fifteen hours, butt-to-couch, a pot of coffee at the ready. This is a time of extreme cinema heroes.
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