The tendency in movie runtimes seems to be trending toward length, and even if the data doesn’t really bear this out, recent, superlong installments in big box office franchises like Marvel and James Bond (the movies being watched the most, that is) at least mean the bloat feels real. For some reason these wildly popular series feel the need to justify their existence by lashing us to our seats for well over two hours when many of us might have happily paid the same price for a flick that would give us the hope of ever getting home to see our dogs again.
Still, a movie’s quality isn’t determined by its length. For every movie that goes on way longer than it needs to, there’s another that feels compressed by its relatively shorter length. Some stories are just as effective when they take their time — either because they have so much to say and do that nothing feels wasted, or because we’re allowed to luxuriate in a compelling world with interesting characters. As Roger Ebert once said, no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.
So here are some truly great movies, all of which run at least two and a half hours (most of them, much longer) and all of which also justify their runtimes by generally make every second worth the sit.
Running time: 4 hours and 2 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: Historically, even most stage versions of Hamlet (Shakespeare’s longest work) are truncated; there are entire scenes even devoted fans of the Bard have likely never seen performed. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation doesn’t take any such shortcuts — the rare instance (and the only filmed version) of the play presented in its entirety. There are compensations for your time, though: Branagh eschews Hamlet’s traditional gloominess for gorgeous, bright visual spectacle; he also presents an impressive cast (with himself at the lead) that includes Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, and Derek Jacobi. There are even appearances by several very unexpected performers in bit parts (Billy Crystal, for example, is shockingly good as the First Gravedigger). And, unlike a live performance, you can stop this one for snacks whenever you want.
Malcolm X (1992)
Running time: 3 hours and 20 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: There’s an awful lot to tell when it comes to the life Malcolm X, even given his untimely murder — his story crosses continents and political eras, bringing various disparate elements of the Civil Rights Movement into its orbit. It’s hard to imagine any sort of comprehensive biopic not taking up a lot of time. There are standard beats to these types of movies, but Spike Lee is one of the most accomplished and significant directors in modern history, and so manages to sidestep the obvious choices and sameness that often plagues the “important biopic.” Likewise, Denzel Washington’s performance is uncanny and essential.
Running time: 3 hours and 2 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: So much springs from Akira Kurosawas’s Seven Samurai: it was remade in Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven, and thus became the template for a certain type of “team is assembled/goes on mission” style of movie. It’s been a tremendous inspiration to George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, and even Zack Snyder. The coming together of a band of misfits and outsiders, theretofore virtually unheard of in Japanese filmmaking, is also an element that’s frequently referenced. Samurai’s length (it’s the longest film of Kurosawa’s career) is justified by its performances, as well as by writer/director Kurosawa himself: he’s best known in the west for his samurai movies, but his filmography encompasses quiet, meditative character dramas as well, and so he brings sharp characterization alongside the action.
Running time: 3 hours and 14 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: Say what you will about the (occasionally) clunky characterization and dialogue, James Cameron makes tremendous use of the lengthy running time here: by the time the iceberg appears onscreen, more than an hour in, Cameron and company have provided us a thorough tour of the ship without our even realising it: we’ve poked out heads into the bridge, the engine rooms, parlors, staterooms of every class and decks on nearly every level — even gotten a thoroughly sweaty look at the cars in cargo. When the ship meets its destiny during the real-time sequence that takes up most of the rest of the movie, we’re nearly as familiar with it as we would be had we been onboard — which makes the action easier to follow, and the tragedy hit harder.
A Touch of Zen (1971)
Running time: 3 hours
Why it’s worth your time: The well from which nearly all modern wuxia filmmaking (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) springs, A Touch of Zen is a gorgeous widescreen-style epic: it’s worth watching for the cinematography alone, but the fight choreography is equally thrilling. It’s the story of a noblewoman-turned-fugitive who goes looking for refuge in a remote village and winds up using stories of the location’s rumoured hauntings as a weapon against her pursuers. The movie has big ideas on its mind, as well: Yang, the fugitive, struggles with issues of social order versus corruption, as well as with notions of traditional womanhood that defy her role as a warrior.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Running time: 3 hours and 22 minutes (in the “Roadshow” version)
Why it’s worth your time: First of all: there are a couple of versions of Stanley Kramer’s zany road movie — the cut you’ll find most readily is the shorter 2 hour and 43 minute one, but viewers with exceptionally strong bladders might opt for the premiere-length 3 hour and 22 minute version (The Criterion Collection has it). Neither feels nearly so long, and that’s to the credit of the film’s light touch. Lead by Spencer Tracy and a huge cast of ‘60s-era stars, it’s about several different groups of motorists who get wind of $US350,000 ($477,925) in cash buried in a park at the other end of the state, and set off on a race for the money. What makes it work as more than a setup for slapstick driving antics is the incredibly smart decision to have these beloved stars play universally terrible people who only get worse as various setbacks they encounter on the road serve to feed their greed; that shading adds some delicious schadenfreude to the silliness.
Running time: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: Old-school Hollywood musicals get an Indian makeover with this big budget, high-profile epic that blends historical romance with the tropes of the sports movie. It’s consistently delightful, with an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink vibe that ensures that it never, ever gets dull, even at such an extended runtime. It’s got silly comedy and over-the-top-villains, and enough meat to the story to hold things together. The A. R. Rahman soundtrack is just the icing.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: This documentary, about two Black teenagers (William Gates and Arthur Agee) recruited for a predominantly white high school’s basketball program, is every bit as fascinating and relevant today as it was back in 1994, in ways both inspiring and depressing. Their stories of their lives, told over the course of six years, are fascinating and engaging, though they speak to much larger issues: these teenagers see success in professional basketball as their only way out and up in the America they inhabit — that vanishingly small chance of success still representing their best hopes. Through Gates and Agee, documentarian Steve James explores daily life beyond media depictions of “the ghetto” as merely a place for white people to avoid, as well as the grift that’s at the heart of anyone promising the American dream.
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: It might have come across as a gimmick, but Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Before Sunrise) is far too good, and consistent a filmmaker to fall into that trap. By design, this coming-of-age story was produced over the course of 12 years, filming year by year in order to capture the growth and changes in the lead characters, particularly the titular boy-to-man, Mason Evans Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane. It won overwhelming praise for its extraordinary sense of realism and emotional power, with great performances all around.
The Leopard (1963)
Running time: 2 hours and 41 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: The Leopard is absolutely gorgeous, no question. Probably one of the most beautifully directed and photographed films in history — which still wouldn’t be enough to justify its length if it wasn’t also dramatically compelling. But that it is, and it’s also challenging: it’s a portrait of an oppressive way of life among the extraordinarily wealthy Sicilian aristocracy of the 19th century as they have their last big fling, whether they knew it or not. Built on the backs of the poor and working class, their lifestyle deserves to die out (if only), and witness to it all is Burt Lancaster’s Don Fabrizio Corbera, a generally good man of his time whose gaze turns the display of excess into something almost funereal. Director Luchino Visconti was a Marxist who had no love for the aristocracy, so the fact that he’s willing to present a sympathetic portrait of a social class on the verge of extinction (in that time and place, anyway) provides enough tension to keep you glued to the couch.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: It’s perhaps not saying a lot to describe Anatomy of a Murder as a particularly realistic courtroom drama among films and shows of that notoriously fabulist genre. Still, it’s important that director Otto Preminger and company went out of their way to create something with an air of believability that also happened to become one of the most sexually frank movies of its time — only the clinical nature of terms like “climax” and “spermatogenesis” got the movie (barely) off the hook with the censors. The performances here carry the film, but it’s also a story of moral ambiguity from top to bottom, with James Stewart defending a murderer who may or may not have been justified, involving witnesses who may or may not be credible, and using techniques that might possibly be morally defensible but which certainly skirt the law and legal ethics.
The Godfather, Part II
Running time: 3 hours and 22 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: Each film in this series is on the long side, but Part II is the longest by quite a bit. Perhaps unusually, it’s also the best, justifying all those extra minutes with a subplot as compelling as the film’s primary thread: while Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone continues the long descent that concludes with a fatal kiss, we visit the origin of the Corleone family in America through Robert De Niro’s portrayal of young Vito Corleone. There’s hardly a moment here that isn’t thoroughly compelling.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Running time: 2 hours and 43 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: Many, or most, films based on Jesus’ life present the story as a fait accompli leading to a bloody climax, simplifying the text in order to present only the most straightforward possible interpretation. What Martin Scorsese dared to do — the sin that got his movie protested, threatened, and banned — was to take Jesus seriously as a human being as well as an instrument of god. Scorsese’s crucifixion is less about inevitable torture than it is about choosing at every turn, against all obstacles, to do what’s right and necessary. The performances are brilliantly down-to-earth, and Scorsese creates (or recreates) a world that feels human and lived-in — with some help from the great Peter Gabriel score.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Running time: 3 hours and 20 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: It’s tempting to joke about those cascading faux-endings, but, in truth, this movie justifies its runtime — and that of the entire trilogy. It’s a crowning achievement in terms of spectacle and pure watchability, but also impressively emotional in the ways in which it brings various character arcs to often poignant conclusions. It didn’t win a (still unmatched) record number of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, for nothing. Honestly, when watching it I’ll always go for the extended version, which is an hour longer still, though that length is much easier to handle at home.
Scenes from a Marriage
Running time: 2 hours and 47 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: First of all, bear in mind that the running time listed above is for the short version. There’s a much longer cut that I’d recommend, generally (it’s the only one I’ve seen), but perhaps isn’t for everyone. Director Ingmar Bergman is joined by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson (two of the most impressive modern film actors) to create this fascinating portrait of a disintegrating marriage. It’s not a soap opera, and not movie of screaming fights and thrown ashtrays, but instead a story of two people who haven’t fallen out of love, precisely, but who definitely longer know how to live with each other. As beautiful as it is brutal, its realism and believability is such that it often feels like we’re peeking around a corner, seeing something that we ought not be seeing. Director and actors returned to these characters 30 years later for Saraband, a poignant epilogue and Bergman’s final film.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Running time: 3 hours and 1 minute
Why it’s worth your time: It probably requires at least a passing familiarity with the 20+ films that preceded it — I doubt that this would have nearly the power it does for someone who hadn’t seen a key handful of them — but there is power here, at least in terms of cinematic spectacle. For all of our sequel-obsessed movie culture, no one else has ever made it to this point, to be able to offer an effective summing up of a series that’s been so successful over so many films. The whole “time heist” bit allows clever way to revisit scenes from the past, while the climactic action set piece is one for the ages. The movie even manages to end, once the fighting’s done, on a several impressively emotional notes. It’s not a jumping-on point, really, but it’s a satisfying climax… even if as a conclusion. it’s really more of a pause.
Running time: 3 hours and 8 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: It’s been joked that Paul Thomas Anderson’s films aren’t long because the stories call for it, but because they need more editing. That’s unfair, particularly here, in a film that is certainly meandering by design: full of stories of love and loss intersecting, often by coincidence, the film’s core thesis has to do with the cycles of abuse that we’re locked into as children — but explores that idea in ways that are frequently funny and surprising. Like the Aimee Mann song sung by all the characters at the impressive, infamous, amphibious climax, it’s all about the hurt we’ll keep inflicting on ourselves if we refuse to wise up.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Running time: 2 hours and 56 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: Wildly kinetic, Da 5 Bloods doesn’t feel nearly as long as its actual runtime. Revisiting the Vietnam War film genre with an insistent focus on the (often ignored) experience of Black Americans, Spike Lee brings new relevance to the story of the period by drawing some stark and straight lines between then and now. Every actor here is incredible, including (and not surprisingly) Chadwick Boseman in one of his very last roles.
The Colour Purple (1985)
Running time: 2 hours and 33 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: It’s a problem, in one regard, that a coming-of-age story about Black women in rural Georgia was directed by a white man, but the result is, nonetheless, one of Steven Spielberg’s finest (and most underrated) works. It’s probably not his most polished film, but it is his most emotionally powerful, guided by Whoopi Goldberg’s incredibly weighty performance — her career has gone on to encompass almost every aspect of the entertainment industry, but, at the moment of this film’s making, she was simply one of our most promising young actors.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Running time: 3 hours and 47 minutes
Why it’s worth your time: It’s probably the most obvious choice for a list like this, but David Lean’s epic has retained its power for so many decades (and over so many minutes of screentime) for a reason: It is, in many ways, the platonic ideal of a Hollywood epic — the one by which all others are judged. But it’s also impressively complex, set during a period with continued relevancy, and starring a title character who skirts the line between philosophical hero and delusional megalomaniac. At nearly 60 years old, it’s still a transporting work.