This story was originally published in 2016 and has been updated to include Avengers: Endgame.
There’s something to be said for movies that get in and out in under 90 minutes, but there’s also a distinct pleasure in watching those movies whose run times sprawl out beyond three hours. Some of them inflate the familiar three-act structure to epic proportions, while others use their expanded lengths to stretch out and wander into unexpected places. We wouldn’t necessarily suggest marathoning these films back-to-back, but watching them one at a time is an experience worth clearing your schedule for.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
You may cringe with the outdated attitudes toward race in this epic romance, which, adjusted for inflation, still has the biggest box office intake of all time, but boy, does the story still hold up. Come for the Technicolor journey through the antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and stay for the tempestuous relationship between bull-headed Scarlett O’Hara (the magnificent Vivien Leigh) and dashing rogue Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). And remember that Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American actor to win an Oscar, and think how far — or not so far — we’ve come*.
Spartacus is a bunch of movies at once: a rousing sword-and-sandals epic, a civil-rights analogy, and the least Kubrick-y movie Kubrick ever made. Watching it is the cinematic equivalent of eating oysters and snails.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Spencer Tracy leads an all-star cast in this dramatization of the post-war trials of Nazi judges for crimes against humanity. In 186 minutes, it’s a gripping exploration of how seemingly good people can convince themselves to do the work of totalitarian regimes.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Sure, your butt might hurt after sitting through all of David Lean’s 216-minute widescreen epic. But the trick is not minding that it hurts.
The sets! The stars! The story! Everything about the 192-minute Cleopatra is larger than life — including the budget, which was the highest ever for a film at the time. The movie itself has a mixed reputation — the three-hour version was heavily cut for time, and fans say the longer versions are much better — but it’s worth watching as a time capsule of the scale and scope of classical Hollywood cinema before it disappeared forever.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
One of the classic American comedies, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is also a long, long, long, long movie — particularly for a comedy; it’s 197-minute-long Criterion version is a doozy. But it’s worth it to see the full vision of Stanley Kramer, which encompassed the many ways in which we can be driven mad in pursuit of a large sum of money. Your favorite ensemble comedy probably owes an unseemly debt to this film: See it and appreciate both even more.
Andrei Rublev (1966)
Andrei Tarkovsky is arguably the patron saint of long films, and at 205 minutes, Andrei Rublev — his reflection on medieval Russia and the role of the Christian artist — is his longest film. Tarkovsky is the director’s director, and while Andrei Rublev might not sound like the most accessible iTunes rental for your average Friday night, it might just make you smarter.
The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Not only is The Godfather: Part II the rare sequel that’s better than the original, it also holds the distinction of being longer, as well. (A less-prestigious feat, sure.) Francis Ford Coppola makes the extra run time count: Part II is only 25 minutes longer than the first installment, but it expands the scope considerably, detailing the criminal rise of Vito Corleone and the spiritual fall of his son. Plus, it features cinema’s least-happy kiss.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
While Stanley Kubrick was never shy about letting his movies breathe, Barry Lyndon has the honor of being his longest work: At 203 minutes, it’s longer than both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut. But like all Kubrick movies, it’s sumptuous and virtuosic, and the added length allows Kubrick to sink even deeper into the detail and totality of vision that characterize his work. The story of an Irish adventurer’s social rise in the 18th century, Barry Lyndon doesn’t have the wide appeal of Dr. Strangelove or A Clockwork Orange, but for the patient viewer, its rewards are just as rich.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War masterpiece boasts landmark performances from three of Hollywood’s most notable performers of the last half-century — Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep — as well as the final role of John Cazale, who had one of the most unfortunately abbreviated acting careers we’ve ever seen. At 183 minutes and with a level of intensity that, on a scale of one-to-ten, ranks somewhere in the triple digits, the movie is not what you’d call easygoing, but you’ll certainly end up with a new appreciation for the possibilities of roulette, not to mention the toll of ’Nam.
An adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which you possibly read in high school, Roman Polanski’s film is dedicated to his late wife Sharon Tate — who was murdered by the Manson Family — which makes it a predictably heavy affair*. It’s also a beautiful one, and, at 186 minutes, is one of the few movies based on Victorian literature that truly feels novelistic.
In the long list of films that probably couldn’t get made today, Reds — a big-budget epic about the love lives of communist intellectuals — is way up there. Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton play the titular socialists and Jack Nicholson shows up to play Eugene O’Neill (offering an unintentional preview of Something’s Gotta Give). Beatty, who also directed the film, is in the swan song of his hotness here.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
You know a movie’s long when even the short version tops three hours. Ingmar Bergman’s epic about two siblings in the early 20th century comprises 312 minutes in its original, four-part TV version; the abridged film comes in at 188 minutes. Both are highlights of the Swedish master, but it’s worth seeking out the complete item. After all, if you think about it like a TV series, 312 minutes is a bargain — that’s like one episode of Game of Thrones.
An epic biopic in the youth-to-death mode, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is still one of the best entries in the genre that’s today easily dismissed as “Oscar bait.” Ben Kingsley’s performance rightly made him a star, and there’s real power in the film’s depiction of the nonviolence movement.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Years before Bonfire of the Vanities flopped, Hollywood had a much better time adapting Tom Wolfe, turning his nonfiction book about the Mercury program into a clear-eyed piece of Americana. As the test pilots who became the faces of the Space Race, Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, and Scott Glenn are perfectly laconic heroes, and the flying scenes are out of this world.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Length: It doesn’t make it easy. Sergio Leone’s gangster opus spanned 229 minutes in its original European cut — the director initially wanted to release it in two three-hour parts — then got reduced to 139 minutes by its American distributors with the predictable effects of arbitrarily disemboweling 90 minutes of a film. The reduced release flopped; the original is one of the spaghetti-western auteur’s masterworks, an epic of the American dream.
For multiple reasons, Shoah is probably the hardest film on this list to sit through. Claude Lanzmann’s acclaimed documentary consists of nine hours of interviews with those who survived, lived beside, or worked in Hitler’s death camps — an unsparing look at the human face of the Holocaust.
Recently rereleased by the Criterion Collection, Dekalog is the ten-part triumph of the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, best known for his Three Colors trilogy. As if those three films weren’t enough, Dekalog basically represents ten more masterworks, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. While they were originally made for television, the parts of Dekalog certainly feel cinematic in nature; whether you consider them TV or film, which is becoming an increasingly less-meaningful description, they are all unapologetically art.
Oliver Stone’s Nixon was also long enough to make this list, but the director’s thriller about the assassination of John F. Kennedy is, frankly, the film you will remember when you’re old and gray. This movie, which follows the dogged attempts of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) as he attempts to discover the conspiracy he’s convinced killed the president, is the reason why you know of the Warren Report, and at the time of its release spawned — or simply released from the shadows — an industry of rabid theory-mongering and distrust in government agencies that has a direct line to 9/11 conspiracy theorists and even the rise of Donald Trump. Debunked or not, it’s a must-watch.
There may be no more natural subject for the great filmmaker Spike Lee than Malcolm X, and there’s certainly no better muse than Denzel Washington; their meeting in Lee’s 202-minute adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is pure dynamite. Watch Malcolm X and you’ll be impressed that it only took Lee this long to cover the life of such a dynamic figure; Malcolm’s life certainly stymied plenty of writers, including such lions as James Baldwin, before Lee managed to wrangle it onscreen.
Short Cuts (1993)
This isn’t Robert Altman’s first anthology movie, but it might be his best. It’s an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short stories and poems, interweaving nine stories and 22 characters in Los Angeles, careening together through a series of accidents. Tim Robbins’s philandering motorcycle cop, Lyle Lovett’s angry baker, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s phone-sex operator are all disconnected from other people but connected to each other in a kind of longing for connection. You could spend hours more just trying to understand what it all means.
Schindler’s List (1993)
If you don’t cry watching Stephen Speilberg’s most personal and devastating movie, you may just be made of stone. The bold choice to shoot in black and white fits the somberness of the mission: To present, in unflinching terms, the devastation of the Holocaust, the brutality of the Nazi regime (as embodied in a terrifying Ralph Fiennes, in his first major role), and the work of one uneasy hero, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who built a factory employing Polish-Jews as a way to capitalize off the war and, in the process, saved over a thousand lives, keeping those workers on his payroll long after there was any monetary reason to do so. May that John Williams score haunt you in your sleep.
There are long movies, and then there’s Sátántangó, Bela Tarr’s legendary seven-hour adaptation of the novel of the same name by the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai. Unlike Fanny and Alexander, Best of Youth, or Dekalog, Sátántangó was always envisioned as one film, which should give you some idea of Tarr’s style: meditative, accumulative, uncompromising. Tarr matched the length of his film with the length of his takes, which often reach ten minutes without interruption. Sátántangó isn’t an easy sit, but Susan Sontag once said she’d be glad to watch it every year of her life.
What’s that, Mel Gibson and Laurence Olivier? You decided to cut Hamlet, the greatest drama in the English language, in order to make it “shorter,” “more cinematic,” and “not four hours long”? Kenneth Branagh has no time for your mess. When Kenneth Branagh films Hamlet, he’s going to film ALL OF IT. Not only that, he’s also going to shoot it in 70mm, fill the screen with an orgy of visual splendor, and bring in super-famous people like Robin Williams to play even the smallest parts. Whether you prefer this version to its predecessors … well, that is the question.
James Cameron’s epic disaster-romance about the doomed ocean liner was the biggest movie ever made for its day: Theaters were packed with teenage girls who’d come out to see it for the 17th time and the lavish spectacle, not to mention Jack and Rose’s steamy first love, was worth every penny. Two decades later, parts of the film may seem cheesy or overwrought (especially the soaring Celine Dion ballads), but goddamn it if you won’t be entertained and even shed a tear when the fiddler literally goes down with the ship.
Almost a companion piece to Altman’s Short Cuts, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 collection of interlocking stories in Los Angeles has an urgent longing; these are stories of people who are trying their best and failing, and begging for forgiveness. So much is packed into what, in the end, feels like so little time: Tom Cruise at his megalomaniacal best as a TV evangelist; a full collection of P.T. Anderson regulars — Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman — reaching out and breaking down with abandon; that amazing Aimee Mann soundtrack; an ending that has to be seen to be believed. Watch and prepare to be awed.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Okay, so maybe the third installation of Peter Jackson’s remarkable adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy is the longest because it has three more endings than necessary; it’s still well-deserving of being the first and only fantasy film to win Best Picture. The stakes are higher, the special effects more spectacular; you can really feel the fate of Middle Earth on the line as Frodo (Elijah Wood) battles a giant spider, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) leads a coalition of elves and dwarves and humans to defend Minas Tirith, and our breakfast-loving hobbits, trailed by Gollum, brave death to return the ring to Mount Doom. Gandalf would be so proud.
Best of Youth (2003)
Like Fanny and Alexander, Best of Youth was originally envisioned as a four-part miniseries, then received a shorter theatrical cut. Covering nearly 40 years in the life of a single family, the two-part, 366-minute version is one of the high points of expansive Italian cinema; if you’ve recently hoovered up the complete works of Elena Ferrante, this is just what the doctor ordered, though the doctor might not suggest tackling it all at once.
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