There are plenty of movies that use some gimmick to make themselves more appealing. Sometimes, those gimmicks are incredibly effective. Other times, though, they feel like gimmicks, and undermine the stories they're trying to tell. One of the best movie gimmicks is setting move over a fixed period. Some of these movies feature overhyped actors. The best of those are movies set on one night.
Movies set on a single night often get pretty wild. Sometimes, they're sprawling character pieces featuring beautiful ensembles. Other times, they feel more like strange journeys into the unknown. After all, things get weirder at night, in part because most normal people are asleep. For those who aren't, though, there are plenty of movies to watch while you're up.
Director Richard Linklater has always had a knack for using time to his advantage. Although Dazed and Confused starts in the daylight, the meat of the movie happens at night. The film, which follows a group of high school and middle school students at the end of the school year, is filled with laid back warmth.
It's the kind of movie that you can fall headfirst into. Almost nothing happens in terms of plot but Dazed and Confused isn't about the plot. It's about the vibes and the energy, and the way the movie makes you feel. It's about life, brother.
American Graffiti did for the early 1960s was Dazed and Confused did for the 1970s. It's hard to consider one movie without the other, especially since they seem to be so directly related to one another.
In the case of American Graffiti, the movie is set on the last night of summer vacation, and things are a little more plot-heavy than in Dazed and Confused. Even so, the movie is mostly about the young people at its center, and it works because it reminds all of us what it was like to be young — even if that time was long ago.
At its core, Collateral is really just the story of one taxi driver's wild night in Los Angeles. Just as taxi driver Vincent is getting ready to call it a night, a hitman stops him and tells him he'll pay $600 if Vincent takes him to five separate locations. At each location, the hitman performs a hit, and Vincent becomes less and less sure he'll survive the night.
It's a simple premise executed to perfection. Tom Cruise is remarkable as an uncaring, sociopathic hitman who will get his job done at any cost, and the movie is thrilling from its very first scene.
Good Time is a very simple movie that allows normal people to get in its way. It follows one dude's attempt to get his brother out of police custody following a failed bank robbery, but it's smart about how it chooses to tell that story.
An excellent central performance from Robert Pattinson anchors the flick. Good Time is a grimy, street-level film, but it's effective because it chooses to be brutally honest about all the ways the main character is kind of the worst. There's power in that kind of complete realism.
20th Century Fox
Die Hard may be the most famous example of a movie set entirely on a single night, but that shouldn't count against it. Following a New York City cop who gets caught in an L.A. skyscraper as criminals invade the building, the movie methodically showcases the ways he gets out of that situation.
It's a brilliant premise and one that the movie executes on tremendously. The action and dialogue in Die Hard are tremendous. It's telling that the film still serves as the template for most modern action films. Die Hard deserves to be a major influence on everything that came after it. It's that good.
Buena Vista Pictures
Few movies about New York really capture what it feels like to live and breathe the city, but 25th Hour does so beautifully. The movie follows a drug dealer as he prepares for a seven-year jail sentence. We see his last night of freedom, one he spends preparing his girlfriend for his absence and hanging out with his friends.
The movie was directed by Spike Lee, and it's also about what New York was like in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It's smart about how it handles its characters, and about how it deals with those attacks. Its honesty is what makes it so fun to watch.
These days, John Boyega is fighting aliens on a much grander scale than he once was. In Attack the Block, John stars as one of a group of teenagers who defend their block from alien invaders. While that premise could go wrong in about a million different ways, it doesn't, in part because it contains to a single night.
A clever script, a great cast, and smart direction add to the film. Attack the Block doesn't pretend to be too high-minded or serious, but it knows how to thrill within the genre it's working in. For most people, that's more than enough.
New Line Cinema
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle makes you laugh before you hear anything else about it. It's a movie about two friends who get stoned and become utterly bewitched by a commercial for White Castle. From there, their journey to find one takes them to far-flung places all over New Jersey.
Harold & Kumar is a definitive stoner comedy, and their journeys throughout the night are deeply episodic. That doesn't make them any less amusing, though, especially when you consider that they're doing all of this just to get to a White Castle, which is every stoner's Mecca.
Richard Linklater loves to mess with time. In Before Sunrise, which came out shortly after Dazed and Confused, the director again confines himself to the actions of a single night. In this film, we follow Jesse and Celine, two young people on a train who immediately fall for one another.
The two spend the movie walking around Vienna, exploring the city and having intimate and revealing conversations with one another. It's a movie about two people talking that is astounding at making those conversations revealing and entertaining. Before Sunrise is probably one of the best movies ever to take place in a single night.
Clue is, as you might expect, based on the popular board game of the same name. While that sounds like a recipe for disaster, Clue works because it chooses to be a comedy instead of a drama. The film follows a dinner party where all the guests have been given codenames. When the host turns up murdered, the guests work together to figure out who did it.
Although it's technically a murder mystery, Clue works because it's frequently hilarious as well. The movie knows exactly which buttons to push, and just how referential it needs to be to the board game it's based on.
Fine Line Features
Night on Earth is presented as a series of distinct stories, each connected by the fact that they involve a cab ride. Each of these cab rides takes place in a different city around the world, and all of them take place at night.
As directed by Jim Jarmusch, the film is a fascinating look at what riding in a cab or driving one is like all over the planet. It's a movie about the similarities between people and the differences that drive them apart. It sounds like a movie about nothing, but that's part of what makes it work.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the story of two marriages that are cratering in on themselves. That story is told as a dinner party that slowly but surely dissolves into chaos. It's a movie that relies very heavily on its actors to sell all the emotions that cascade across these characters over the course of the evening.
The movie works, but only because it's willing to be brutally open and honest in a way most films just aren't. It's a brilliant movie, even if it's not always particularly subtle. It doesn't need to be though, because its taut, night-long story is so openly emotional.
Cloverfield is shot in the style of a found-footage documentary, but it's really a horror movie. Following a group of ordinary New Yorkers who are in Manhattan when some unknown creature attacks the city, the film is horrifying in part because of all the things it withholds.
We don't see the monster until very late in the film. Instead, we look at the damage it has caused, and the way it tears apart these peoples' lives. Cloverfield is not a particularly happy movie, but it's become a favorite — in part because it's willing to focus on such a small window of time.
Night of the Living Dead is a foundational zombie movie, and it still stands as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. The film follows several survivors of a zombie apocalypse who huddle inside a rural house to try and survive the night.
What makes the movie work is its ability to leverage a relatively contained space for a broader story. Night of the Living Dead doesn't concern itself with the world. It's focused on these people, and what they need to do to find their way to the dawn. Everything else is inconsequential by comparison.
After Hours is the story of one man's attempts to get back uptown from SoHo in New York City at night. The film, which was directed by Martin Scorsese, isn't driven by any central plot concerns. Instead, it's about one man's many run-ins with colorful characters in New York.
The film toes the line between black comedy and drama, but it works best as a character study of its central figure. As played by Griffin Dunne, there's a certain world-weariness to Paul, and his many attempts to get back to his home, even though he never left his native city.
Thrillers often work best when they're relatively contained, and that's exactly what Panic Room is. The movie follows a mother and daughter played by Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart as they lock themselves inside their panic room during a home invasion.
From there, the movie plays out in a brutal but thrilling fashion. David Fincher knows how to ratchet up the tension, and Panic Room gives him a chance to do that on a massive scale with actors who can handle anything he throws at them. That's why Panic Room feels appropriately claustrophobic, given that it largely takes place during one night.
Many of Edgar Wright's movies confine themselves to a relatively tight window of time, but The World's End centers almost all its action on a single, night-long pub crawl that turns into a battle for the fate of the world.
It's a strange, hilarious film that is both nonsensical and remarkably fun to watch. Edgar directs action like no other, and the way he uses this pub crawl as an excuse to put ordinary people in a crazy situation is note-perfect. It may not be the director's very best film, but it's one of the best rides you can have watching a movie.
Teen comedies often get quite a bit of mileage out of depicting the events of a single party. In fact, that's exactly what Can't Hardly Wait does, when an entire glass of graduated seniors gathers for a party just after they've been freed from high school.
Can't Hardly Wait conforms to many of the standard tropes of the high school movie, but it's also about the newfound freedom these kids have. They're thrust into adulthood, and now all of them must decide what that means for them. It's a clever premise that the movie knows how to execute on effectively.
Go is something of a cult classic, and that's in part because it tells its story from three different perspectives. Essentially, the movie is the story of a drug bust gone wrong, and it details the perspective of a variety of characters as the night's events unfold.
Each third of the movie is plenty entertaining on its own, but the real satisfaction comes when the storylines intersect, and we begin to realize how the events we've been witnessing are connected to one another. Go has an incredibly witty script, and it uses that script to significant effect to tell a twisty, compelling story.
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is about the strange bond you can form with someone throughout a single night. The film follows Nick and Norah as they search for Norah's friend and have run-ins with Nick's ex.
As it reaches its conclusion, though, it becomes clear that the movie is really about how connections form and dissolve between people. It's an intimate, romantic movie, and it's incredibly sweet. It's the kind of quiet movie that rarely gets made anymore. Young people should get the chance to fall in love on screen as much as possible. That's what being young is all about.