While those epic films that span years and explore entire lives of characters can be fantastic, there’s a certain skill to movies that can effectively tell a story over the course of a single day.
Many films have tried this storytelling method, setting the entire events of a movie within the timeline of 24 hours or less. Though it’s an interesting and bold take, not all attempts are successful. When done wrong, it can seem like the director didn’t have enough time to flesh the story out, or that you’re watching the longest, most boring day ever. But when done well, the films can pull you into the story as if you’re experiencing it along with the characters.
So which is the best film to use this storytelling technique? To make things fair, we must only consider films that strictly remain within the 24-hour limit, without the cheats of flashbacks, prologues or epilogues. From small drama to thrilling action thrillers and everything in between, these are the 15 Best Movies That Take Place In One Day!
15. The Breakfast Club
John Hughes was the reigning king of ’80s teen comedies, and for many fans this film stands as the undisputed crowning gem of his filmography. Even more impressive is just how much Hughes was able to squeeze out of the simple concept of a day in detention.
The film begins with five students from very different statuses within the high school social class being forced to spend their Saturday together in detention. You have the popular girl, the jock, the rebel, the nerd, and the outsider, none of whom would usually interact at all. But over the course of a day being trapped together, they slowly discover they have more in common than they ever knew.
It’s a near-perfect teen movie that deals with the typical teen problems of parents, sex and popularity in an authentic and respectful way. More than any other film it established Hughes as the definitive cinematic voice of a generation.
Kevin Smith is certainly one of the most important figures in independent filmmaking. While his recent efforts aren’t as widely embraced, Smith came on the scene as a writer-director with one of most influential indies of all time.
Shot on the ultra-low budget of $27,575 and filmed at the actual store where Smith worked, this is essentially a raunchy home movie populated by many of Smith’s friends. The film follows two store clerks as they reluctantly make their way through another regular and miserable work day. What elevated the film from its mundane concept and cheap production was Smith’s creative and authentic dialogue, filled with hilariously crude humor.
The small little film became cult phenomenon over the years and introduced the world to the characters of Jay and Silent Bob, who would appear in much of Smith’s work. It has also acted as inspiration for filmmakers who have the passion, if not the money, to have their voices heard.
13. Training Day
While keeping a compelling day-long story going in just one setting has its own difficulties, there are a whole new set of challenges that come with trying to tell a complex, action-based tale over the course of just one day. But thanks to some stellar directing, a tight script, and some terrific performances, Training Day certainly met the challenge.
The movie follows a young rookie detective (Ethan Hawke) who is teamed up with a veteran of the force (Denzel Washington) for a day-long training exercise. Slowly, the rookie begins to see that his brutal, unorthodox mentor may be leaning towards the other side of the law.
Director Antoine Fuqua uses the restricted timeline of the story to great effect making this seem like the longest day in this young cop’s life. Whenever you catch yourself thinking he can at least survive one day with this man, the danger increases yet again.
The fact that Gravity being a space survival tale all set during one-day isn’t the most impressive thing about it is a testament to Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful work as a director.
After being bombarded by space debris, two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) struggle to survive alone in space and find their way back home. Cuarón’s bold plans to film the whole movie as if it were one continuous shot was so ahead of its time that they actually had to invent certain technology to achieve the shots.
The result is one of the tensest, most heart-pounding cinematic adventures to come out in the last decade. You really feel like you’re on this impossible journey along with the actors. It’s a perfect example of how much entertainment and filmmaking brilliance can come out of these isolated stories.
11. Escape From New York
John Carpenter made a career out of bringing big adventure to films of small scope. Though this film is considerably larger in scope than Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter manages to infuse it with the same rapid-fire pace.
Set in a future in which New York City has become a massive prison complex, the military hires a former war hero turned outlaw, Snake Plissken, to rescues the President, who has gone missing inside the city. Snake is given little help and only 22 hours to make his way through a city of killers.
The film is a fun, gritty ’80s actioner as only Carpenter could pull off, with Kurt Russell bringing to life an iconic antihero in the form of Snake. It’s no wonder Hollywood has had such a hard time remaking it. It’s hard to improve on the coolness of the original.
10. The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three
While not every type of film can work well on the day-long structure, thrillers seem to work best as the restricted time makes for an extremely tense atmosphere. Such is the case with this highly entertaining ’70s heist film.
Walter Matthau stars as Transit Authority officer whose day is turned upside down when four armed men hijack a New York subway train and demand $1,000,000 in exchange for the lives of the passengers. Matthau is fantastic as the grumpy hero while Robert Shaw is chilling as the leader of the hijackers.
The film was remade in 2009 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the main roles, but it failed to capture the strange, unique sense of humor of the original. It’s a real crackerjack thriller with one of the most pleasing ending shots of all time.
9. Before Sunrise
There seems to be a whole genre of films that are just about people talking about life in general. When done poorly it can be extremely pretentious and excruciating to sit through. When done right, it can feel like you’re eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. Before Sunrise certainly fits into the latter category.
The simple story follows a young American man (Ethan Hawke) and a young French woman (Julie Delpy) who meet on a train and spend the day together in Vienna before going their separate ways. What starts as a innocent flirtation develops into a touching romance that has the characters and the audience wondering if these two are actually meant to be together forever.
In reality, you could choose any one of the films from Richard Linklater’s brilliant trilogy, which pops in on these two character every decade or so, but the first film is a great place to start.
8. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Another gem from the mind of John Hughes, except this time he uses the day-long method to show just how much fun can be had in the span of a few hours.
With Matthew Broderick in the titular role, Ferris Bueller is a charming, extremely likable high schooler who decides that there are much better things to be doing with his day than spending it in a classroom. So Ferris, along with his friend Cameron and girlfriend Sloane, plays hooky. They make the most of their day off with trips to museums, driving sports cars and crashing parades.
It’s a light-hearted teen comedy anchored by a star-making turn from Broderick. There are few other films that are so endlessly rewatchable and can still leave a big smile on your face every time.
Even with Michael Mann’s legendary history of amazing action films, it was still impressive what he was able to do with Collateral, a thriller set mostly in a taxi cab.
The films stars Jamie Foxx as an unassuming cab driver who after a long night, picks up the passenger from hell. That passenger is Vincent, played by Tom Cruise; a hitman who forces Foxx’s cabby to drive him around Los Angeles as he picks off people on his hit list.
Mann is able to do so much with the tight setting, using the opportunity to show some of the darker aspects of L.A.’s nightlife. Foxx is solid as the every-man and Cruise is so effective as the coldblooded killer. It’s a shame he doesn’t play the villain more often. The whole thing adds up to one of the most engrossing thrillers in recent memory.
6. 12 Angry Men
This list has shown several times that the day-long story seems to lend itself to the single-setting films, which takes a very skilled director to pull off. One of the best directors of all time, Sidney Lumet, manages to build one of the most riveting dramas almost entirely set inside a small room.
The story involves a group of jurors deliberating what seems like an open-and-shut murder case, except one juror is not convinced the accused is guilty. So begins a long frustrated debate in which a group of men with different perspective, morals and ideals attempt to decide the fate of a young man.
The acting is superb across the board, but Lumet is the star of the show. As the film moves along, he begins using tighter and tighter shots to convey a more claustrophobic feel that lends to the feeling of frustration. It’s film directing at its finest.
5. Dazed And Confused
Richard Linklater seems to have a talent at the day-long storytelling as this is his second film on the list. Instead of a touching story of budding romance, Dazed & Confused is just an immensely fun ode to hanging out.
With little real plot to describe, the film simply follows various groups of friends as they celebrate the end of school and the beginning of summer all set to an awesome ‘70s soundtrack. The film is packed with the young faces of future superstars like Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey– in a role tailor made for him.
While Linklater might not have any profound message he’s trying to get across with this film, he expertly and authentically captures the feeling of these sort of days in high school that we’ve all experienced no matter what era we belong to. Quite possibly the greatest hangout movie ever made.
4. Do The Right Thing
Spike Lee is a filmmaker who has been able to successful jump between various genre’s in his career, but his best films seem to come from his passionate and unique perspective of race in America. No film is a better representation of that vision than Do the Right Thing.
Set on a scorching summer day in a small neighborhood in Brooklyn, the film centers around the growing tension between a group of African Americans in the neighborhood and the Italian Americans who run the local pizza joint. What starts out as innocent disagreements begins to boil under the heat until they reach dangerous levels.
3. Dog Day Afternoon
Heist films fit very well into the day-long structure as their fast-paced nature is most effective on short timelines. While a slick, clever heist can make for an entertaining film, Dog Day Afternoon is particularly memorable for how messy the crime ends up being.
Another classic from Sidney Lumet, and based on real-life events, the film tells the story of a man who plans a bank robbery in order to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. However, thanks to the inexperience of the thieves, it soon turn into a hostage situation and a media frenzy.
The film is more evidence of Lumet’s substantial talents, and features one of Al Pacino’s best performances as the would-be mastermind of the heist who finds himself in way over his head. It’s a stressful, funny, and somewhat sad look at a heist that started wrong and got worse.
2. High Noon
In the era of the Westerns, directors would often use the setting to tell sweeping epics. However, High Noon wisely scales back the scope to tell a more intimate Western rarely been seen in Hollywood.
Said to be a criticism of the Hollywood blacklisting movement, it tells the story of a small town marshal whose life is threatened as a newly released outlaw makes his way to town seeking revenge. In a town full of friends and colleagues, the marshal finds himself suddenly left alone as they all turn their backs on him.
The film is told in real time, which greatly adds to the anxious feeling as the marshal tries in vein to drum up any support. Gary Cooper is ideally cast as the lone figure of justice and bravery. This was a new type of Western that proved they could tell more complex stories than white hat versus black hat.
1. Die Hard
Die Hard remains one of the most imitated concepts in film history and for good reason. The simple story a one man trapped in a location overrun by armed baddies is just the perfect set up for a great action film.
Bruce Willis stars as John McClane, a New York cop visiting L.A. to spend Christmas with his estranged family. Sadly, his holiday plans go awry after a group of armed men storm his wife’s office Christmas party, leaving McClane outnumbered, barefooted, and the only one to save the day.
There are many reasons this film has become the classic it is today. Director John McTiernan manages to stage exciting action scenes in the small location. McClane is a much more vulnerable hero than usually seen in action films. And Alan Rickman elevates the whole thing with one of the greatest villain performances of all time. It’s arguably the greatest action film ever made.
Did you know that all these movies take place in just one day? Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
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