Most critics simultaneously look forward to and dread awards season. We get to see slightly higher quality films, and the studios begin to act a lot nicer towards us -- no more horror remakes that are not screened for the press. But on the downside, a lot of prestige pictures can get tiring. The worst part of all is the extreme length that most films get away with this time of year. Quite a few films this year get close to the three-hour mark, and most of them run longer than two hours. If you look at the history of the Oscar winners, length has always been an important factor. But this does not have to be the case; many award-worthy films have used their time wisely and succinctly.
1. Duck Soup (1933)
Judd Apatow, please take note. While I enjoyed Knocked Up and Superbad as much as anyone, it just won't do to continue making comedies over two hours long. I found many great comedies that run less than 80 minutes, including several from Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, and even one each from Jerry Lewis (The Bellboy) and Woody Allen (Zelig). But this Marx Brothers classic tops my list for its uncanny speed and anarchy. It's like watching a crazy lawnmower ripping all over the yard, but at the end of the run, everything falls exactly into place.
2. Following (1998)
Before he became the king of summer blockbusters (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) and before he made one of my favorite movies (Memento), Christopher Nolan scraped together this equally impressive crime thriller in black-and-white, running just 69 minutes. It jumbles the three acts together over a fractured timeline but very cleverly leaves clues that tie them all back together. Jeremy Theobald plays a man who enjoys following people, but gets himself into deep and unexpected trouble. See also Shane Carruth's exceptional, low-budget time travel head-scratcher Primer (2004).
3. Detour (1945) 4. Mother and Son (1997)
It goes without saying that most of the "B" pictures of this era have abbreviated running times; Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour is often considered the best of the best, given how much it manages to pack into its compact frame, and how much intensity radiates back out. Tom Neal plays a down-on-his-luck piano player hitchhiking across the country. When he has the chance to take over another man's identity (and wallet and car), a nasty femme fatale (Ann Savage) calls him on it. See also any of Val Lewton's great horror films from the same era.
While some of this year's prestigious imports run long (La Vie en Rose, Lust, Caution, etc.) a surprising number of foreign language films from the 1930s to the present have learned ways to cut corners. I found more than a dozen of note, but my favorite is probably this astonishing, painterly portrait of a grown son and his ailing mother, carefully crafted by Russian master Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark). It sounds dreary, but it's more about the beautiful passing of moments than it is about pain or loss.
4. Mother and Son (1997)
5. Pickpocket (1959)
I couldn't get away without mentioning Robert Bresson. His work is often considered austere and difficult. But it's reassuring to know that he often clocked in at an easygoing 80 minutes or less, notably with this "pocket"-sized Dostoyevskian portrait of a petty thief (Martin LaSalle), who intellectually justifies his crimes. Bresson spends hair-raising minutes showing the intricate details of the deed itself. It's also worth it to seek out the director's amazing The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), which runs just 65 minutes.
6. Lessons of Darkness (1992) 7. Dumbo (1941)
Critics and Oscar voters usually have to sit through a huge number of documentaries at the end of the year, so the shorter, the better. This masterpiece from Werner Herzog, filmed in a hellish, flaming, post-war Kuwait, runs less than an hour, but it feels like something bigger.
Ratatouille runs nearly two full hours, but this classic from Disney's golden age did it better in only 64 minutes. Easily one of the best two or three animated features ever made, it has everything: surrealism, heartbreak, songs and dancing and comedy; it also skirts the edge of political correctness. It's the first and last time Disney would be so daring and/or careless.
7. Dumbo (1941)