An ennealogy of beautifully brief films perfect for minute-minding cinephiles
There’s something to a 99-minute runtime.
It’s not just the snappy way the number rolls off the tongue, but how that runtime feels like an instinctual cinematic demarcator. Any shorter, and you’ll find films that take brevity almost all too entirely to heart, running the risk of leaving their audiences not entirely sated by their story. Any longer and you plunge into a runtime abyss—one where stories can be as long as they please, but might leave you wistfully longing for more succinct tales. 99 minutes, right in between, feels like an artistic statement in itself: Here’s our world; enjoy it while it lasts.
In honor of our site’s 9th Anniversary, below are films that I feel use their 99-minute runtimes to the best of their abilities. This is a “Top 9” list, but there’s no real ranking and the selection is (mostly) arbitrary. There are many, many 99-minute films worth writing about, with nine others included after the main reviews. Trust me, it was unexpectedly very difficult to narrow this article down to the films below. Ultimately, these are nine films that I feel haven’t been written about in a while, and it’s time to get some more eyes on them.
While they all may be short, each of these nine films makes a tremendous impact that lasts far beyond the brief time we spend with them.
Available on HBOMax.
“There are no answers. Only choices.”
Doctor and scientist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is brought to the distant planet Solaris to investigate the sudden radio silence of an exploratory commercial surveying team. The planet itself is a vibrant, spectral being that reacts to external stimuli in wholly unexpected ways, and has the ability to resurrect dead loved ones—including Chris’ wife, Rheya (Natasha McElhone). Chris is then locked in fierce debate with fellow crew members Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis) on whether to return to Earth with their “visitors” in tow, while also attempting to correct the mistakes of his past which led to Rheya’s demise. Our Rheya replicants, however, reject Chris’s moves at reconciliation; rather, she reckons with her existence as either a “real” Rheya or just a manifestation of Chris’s memories of her.
While it may have once seemed heretical to consider remaking a film like Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 original (both adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel), Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 variant is no less ambitious or emotionally effective. Where Tarkovsky’s film bears the auteur’s signature languid pacing and poetic asides, Soderbergh’s Solaris is stark, near-mute, mining silences and a scant runtime for as much impact as possible. Soderbergh also leans into inspirations like 2001: A Space Odyssey, allowing room for awe-inspiring visuals of the titular planet and an otherworldly, symphonic soundscape by regular collaborator Cliff Martinez that makes Solaris feel like the final 10 minutes of Kubrick’s film extended to feature-length. The inspired casting of Clooney, Davies, Davis, and McElhone creates a much more emotionally involved set of character dynamics compared to the effective yet rote philosopher-physicists of the original. Davis in particular shines as the sole crew member completely alienated by the resurrections Solaris provides—yet remains mum about who visits her and why.
It’s one aspect of unknowable human nature that drives the many pondering questions fueling Soderbergh’s film. Soderbergh encourages his audience to invest themselves in the emotional gaps that these questions provoke; the result is a film that, much like the planet itself, rewards viewers for however much they’re willing to surrender to its spell.
While still unavailable on Blu-ray in the U.S., an HD scan of the film has thankfully appeared on HBOMax, which will hopefully tide new and returning viewers over until a rumored 4K scan of the film is released.
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
Available for Rent on Vudu, Amazon Prime, and other outlets.
Set in 1965, this prequel follows the Zander family as they earn a barebones living conning gullible marks into contacting their loved ones beyond the grave. When they add the newly-released Ouija board to their repertoire, however, little Doris (Lulu Wilson) manages to actually make contact with the dead. Mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is thrilled her family’s gift has returned to their line, while older sister Lina (Annelise Basso) is fittingly skeptical of Doris’s spooky gifts. Turning to her Catholic school principal Father Tom (Henry Thomas), Lina uncovers the dark secrets lurking within the walls of her home, which seek to use the Ouija board—and Doris herself—for their own sinister ends.
Likely the best sequel to most improve on the film that preceded it, Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil also functions as a scare-per-minute standalone feature that’s perfect for a dark and stormy night. While making his mark with his debut film Absentia and the Blumhouse-financed Oculus, Flanagan’s first franchise outing introduced horror audiences to his trademark approach that blends unrivaled empathy, deep emotional stakes, and being terrified out of your mind. While quickly establishing a thick atmosphere of dread, much of Origin of Evil is devoted to the emotional foundations of the Zander family. Still mourning the loss of a father and husband, Doris’s sudden gift lends the possibility of connecting with the person they all miss the most—one that quickly reaps financial and emotional rewards for all but Lina. Lina, played wonderfully by fellow Flanagan Player Basso, bears all the scars of growing up far too fast–and struggles deeply with the possibility that the scam she’s helped perpetuate for years may just have its own basis in reality. Thomas and Reaser also have wonderful chemistry together as two wounded souls who tease out the possibility of finding solace in one another, though this plot left as one that will, unfortunately, go unexplored.
There are fleeting scenes of true human connection amidst scares that range from the slow burn to sudden shockers, and these heartfelt moments are no less impactful than their terrifying counterparts. The last third of the film, however, is a near real-time barnburner of a horror finale, one whose urgency sneaks up on you like clammy, disembodied fingers brushing the back of your neck, ready to strike. Ouija: Origin of Evil is a film that’s rightfully far outlived the film that it followed and whose reputation has only grown as Flanagan continues his unbroken streak of modern horror classics.
The Imposter (2012)
Available on Tubi, Peacock, and IMDBTV.
In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Nearly four years later, he’s seemingly found…in Southern Spain. Flown halfway around the world to be reunited with his family, multiple family members feel like something’s off with Nicholas and his story of kidnapping and torture. Nicholas’s reappearance, however, is merely the beginning of a disturbing, beyond-belief saga whose revelations continue to this day.
Bart Layton’s debut documentary is a riveting true-crime tale that effortlessly blends interview footage and cinematic recreations, often nesting one within the other over the course of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it runtime. It’s a fitting approach for a true story that feels more like a Hollywood thriller than anything else, with the myriad twists and turns becoming as much a part of the documentary’s format as it is part of the plot. Like Psycho on steroids, Layton’s perspective (and our allegiances) shift accordingly with whoever is the main character of the moment, with a twist in the tale giving the opportunity for another interviewee to tell their side of the story: Nicholas’s family members, law enforcement both domestic and abroad investigating the disappearance, and the person who claimed to be Nicholas himself. What’s more, many of these individuals go on to play themselves in Layton’s stylish and gripping re-enactments, playing with truth and identity much like Abbas Kiarostami’s equally playful docu-drama Close-Up.
It takes great care to talk about The Imposter without giving away many of its surprises. While most of its answers are an easy Google search away, the thrill and ultimate poignancy of Layton’s documentary relies on The Imposter’s execution. It’s a film that ultimately explores not just shocking twists, but why anyone—from grieving family members to captive audiences—would invest themselves in the possibility of a twist on the horizon in the wake of unimaginable tragedy.
Available for Rent on Amazon Prime, AppleTV, and other outlets.
After slaying three prominent assassins (Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Donnie Yen) who all targeted the King (Chen Daoming), a Nameless Warrior (Jet Li) recounts how he managed to slay each killer in combat. With each tale, Nameless earns the privilege of getting closer to the King—but the King quickly realizes that Nameless has been hiding the real truth of the events leading up to their meeting. With the fate of reuniting the seven Kingdoms of China in the balance, the pair picks apart their variations of the truth, as well as their individual notions of sacrifice and heroism.
Zhang Yimou’s first wuxia film, part of a thematic trilogy with House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, is a swift-moving sensual delight that relishes intricate compositions of solo colors to illustrate variations on truth and meaning. Broken up into five movements of Black, Red/Yellow, Blue, Green, and White, each section of Hero effortlessly communicates a shift in perspective and intention, keying viewers into the variations of each narrative and urging them to ask what has pivoted in the tale and why.
As controlled as his grip may be over the color palette in the world of Hero, the motion of Yimou’s frame is always dictated by the volatile ebb and flow of natural forces. Swirling gusts that cause yellow leaves to bloom in plumes of fiery earth, the blues of a mirror-still lake broken by dips of toes or swords, the scorching reds of sand broken by arrows or calligraphy pens—there is a true passion for how humans live in frenzied blind harmony with the Earth. This effect both externalizes the characters’s inner drive to conquer one another and makes their efforts seem minuscule, almost vain in comparison.
Yimou’s love for color is equally matched by his inclusion of diverse textures in each frame, breaking up his dominant color with dazzling choreography and action sequences. Each of the film’s major players (including regular Yimou collaborator Zhang Ziyi) have multiple stellar sequences to shine, with then-cutting-edge effects work allowing the characters to beautifully use the natural world to their advantage, whether it’s using aforementioned leaf torrents as camouflage or swirling a red sleeve to cast aside a volley of arrows.
Even before diving into the moving classical story of love and duty at its core, Hero cements itself as an unforgettable visual feast that forces viewers to search for their dropped jaws from sequence to sequence.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Available for Rent on Amazon Prime, AppleTV, and other outlets.
Nesting in a matryoshka doll structure of novelistic flashbacks, Wes Anderson’s finest film recounts the mysterious 1932 murder of a European countess (Tilda Swinton), the dashing concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who stands to inherit her most prized painting (until he’s framed for her death), and the novice lobby boy (Tony Revolori/F. Murray Abraham) who must break his imperiled employer out of prison and clear his name.
There isn’t much to say about The Grand Budapest Hotel that hasn’t been excellently said elsewhere, but it’s safe to say that my love for Anderson’s madcap, melancholic caper has grown exponentially since its 2014 debut. His signature fastidious whimsy is never polarizing but is instead crucial to tying the film’s zaniest and heartfelt moments into a beautifully cohesive whole. Each meticulous moment is knowingly impermanent, be it a quickly-devoured Courtesan au Chocolat, a majestic hotel degrading into ruin, democracy and nobility degrading into grim fascism, or love and friendship inevitably going to the grave. However, to lobby boy Zero, the nameless author recounting his tale (Jude Law/Tom Wilkinson), and to Anderson himself, no amount of memento mori can rob the world of its joy and beauty. Our protection against such ills lies in our ability to remember these moments for all they’re worth, and to pass them down in action and word to those who may enjoy them.
As such, every scene of Grand Budapest is filled with as much joy and wonder as there is detail and texture, with no moment spared to champion just how impactful a great story can be long after the tales and their tellers have departed us.
Waking Life (2001)
Available for Rent on Amazon Prime, AppleTV, and other outlets.
Half documentary, half dreamworld, Richard Linklater’s collage of rotoscoped conversations on the nature of reality is arguably the film on this list that’s lightest on actual plot. However, it manages to keep the audience’s imaginations soaring long after the film’s heavenly final frames.
Anchored by the wanderings of an unnamed man (Wiley Wiggins) locked into a permanent lucid dream state, Linklater flits between endlessly entertaining dialogues that never cease to make audience members feel like a captive third party in the conversation. These unpredictable sequences range from a jam session between musicians to two coffee shop patrons determined to feel the immediacy of a fleeting moment to a surprise hotel room reunion between Celine and Jesse years before Before Sunrise even had a sequel (let alone a trilogy).
Including these last two beings and the main character himself, none of the characters are actually given names throughout the runtime of the film. Rather, all these people exist as philosophical conjurings of half-remembered people; the rotoscoped animation gives these digitally shot moments an otherworldly, indescribable vibe, showcasing Linklater’s uncanny ability to evoke the extraordinary out of the everyday. he director himself appears in the film’s climactic sequence in a beautifully-rendered meditation on the nature of life and creation as a whole (“A journey from the ‘No’ to the ‘Yes’”), perfectly capping Waking Life’s journey of transcendental surrender.
Available on Shudder and Tubi.
After they barely survive a disastrous storm that cripples their boat, a group of friends comes across a deserted ocean liner. Jess (Melissa George) can’t help but shake the feeling she’s been on the ship before—but it’s a familiarity that quickly turns to terror as she and her friends are attacked by a marauding masked killer. Characters are picked off one by one until only Jess remains…which is when time suddenly loops back on itself, and Jess must prevent her friends from falling victim to their grisly fates.
With such sinister outings as Creep, Black Death, and Severance, Christopher Smith’s horror output isn’t as well-celebrated stateside as it should be, as it blends gasps, gore, and grisly gallows humor to memorable effect. His third feature is a mind-bending exploration of free will and consequence, anchored by a gripping and grueling performance in triplicate by Melissa George. Her increasingly unhinged grip on reality is always fascinating to watch as she learns how to anticipate certain cues, and even with the deliberately repetitive nature of the film, Smith and his team never fail to unearth surprising new twists in the story.
While other time loop films like Timecrimes walk a similar path, Smith is keenly attuned to the Sisyphean cause and effect morality play at the core of wanting to change the past and getting stuck in an endless cycle. While many of the characters (including pre-fame Michael Dorman and Luke Hemsworth) are as disposable as you’d expect, George’s Jess contains moral multitudes, with each pass in the loop revealing more heartbreaking and horrifying secrets than the last. Obvious puns aside, the intricacies of Triangle bear increasing rewards with repeat viewings.
Available on Netflix.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is just trying to have a good time in college. Joining her older sister at a prestigious veterinary school, the young vegan struggles with brutal hazing, gruesome studies, and awkward experiments with first love and sexual identity. But Justine’s world upends when she realizes she doesn’t have just a taste, but a primal craving for raw meat—and that human meat tastes better than anything else on the menu.
A breakout debut like no other from Julia Ducournau, Raw is a gruesome and glorious celebration of adolescent liberation. Even before its well-telegraphed cannibalistic turning point, Ducournau and star Marillier boldly explore the rituals of coming of age in ways that don’t shy away from how viscerally exciting or skin-crawling they may be. Over the course of the film, Justine is flung headfirst into familiar, anxiety-inducing territory: debauched freshman parties, soul-crushing classes headed by terrifying teachers, and more.
As would follow in her latest film Titane, Ducournau has an incredible eye for color and detail, with a keen knowledge of when to use a wandering or still frame. Raw’s standout sequences are sensory overloads, notably including Justine’s first taste of human blood set to Jim William’s primally bombastic score. A single-take hazing party feels far too chaotic to be as exquisitely choreographed as it is.
But the more Justine’s horror at her inner desires gives way to her embrace, so too does she blossom into a headstrong and confident, if deadly, adult. That’s the loveliest thing about Ducournau’s film: Her use of cannibalism as a figurehead for anything else about ourselves we may find repulsive allows us to both confront and celebrate our worst desires.
Three Colors: Red (1994)
Available on the Criterion Channel and HBOMax.
OK, I know including the capper of a trilogy in a list of mostly standalone films is technically cheating. But as far as final installments go, Krystof Kieślowski’s third film his Three Colors trilogy–and tragically his last film, period–is an astonishing film in its own right.
Red is centered around the relationship between model Valentine (Irene Jacob) and reclusive judge Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who spark an unlikely friendship after Valentine accidentally injures Joseph’s pregnant dog. In helping care for the pet, Valentine uncovers Joseph’s habit of spying on his neighbors’ phone conversations–where he voyeuristically learns about their infidelities and dark secrets. This moral jumping-off point paves the way for both characters to open up to one another about secrets and moral dilemmas of their own, which worm their way across intersecting stories of various other seemingly unrelated individuals.
Three Colors is a series that brilliantly captures human behavior at its most tragic and comic, with Kieślowski lovingly documenting the foibles of his characters without judgment or dismissal. Each installment is named and modeled after a section of both the French Flag and Motto, with Blue’s story of grief symbolizing Liberty and White’s divorce comedy symbolizing Freedom. Red, symbolizing Fraternity, focuses on how blissfully unaware of how connected we are to others, and the beautiful butterfly effect we can have on the lives of total strangers. In an all-too-brief window of time, we see how Joseph and Valentine’s lives echo that of characters they almost never meet. As the pair reckon with their own moral failings and superiorities, events occurring in parallel also function as flashbacks; as such, the past never feels too far out of reach, and the future feels as wildly unpredictable as ever.
While I do advocate for Red as its own film, Kieślowski’s opus packs its most emotional wallop when seen after a marathon of Blue and White. So many moments finally pay off, and the fleeting interconnectivity of his stories pays off in one miraculous gesture that takes your breath away.
…and 9 additional contenders:
- The 400 Blows (1959)
- Suspiria (1977)
- Reservoir Dogs (1991)
- Suicide Club (2002)
- The Room (2003)
- Shaun of the Dead (2004)
- The Descent (2005)
- Martyrs (2008)
- ’71 (2014)