The Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll is held every 10 years, and aims to determine a Top 100 list of films based on approximately 1600 movie critics and academics. Every 10 years, there are naturally some films that rise up the list, some that fall down, and others that either appear suddenly or find themselves cut. Part of Citizen Kane’s reputation came from the fact it topped the list for 50 years, though Vertigo replaced it in 2012, and then Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles took the top spot in 2022.
Given Citizen Kane and Vertigo hover around two hours in length, and Jeanne Dielman exceeds three hours, you might be forgiven for assuming the polled critics prefer longer films. In reality, films of all lengths are considered for the poll, with a few short films cracking the list, and numerous feature films under 90 minutes appearing there too. The following are some of the best under-90-minute films on the Sight & Sound poll, for any curious film buffs who may be strapped for time.
10 ‘Modern Times’ (1936)
Charlie Chaplin’s greatest film – or at least one of them – might have to be Modern Times. It was his last silent film, though with some limited dialogue here and there, it’s arguably not 100% silent… but ultimately, its story about technology changing the world can be seen as a comment on the advent of sound changing cinema.
Like many Chaplin films, it’s got a simple but engaging story, and features plenty of timeless humor that’s also well-balanced with heartfelt emotional content. Another Chaplin classic, City Lights, is also featured on the Sight & Sound Top 100 from 2022, and coincidentally, both clock in at just under an hour and a half, at 87 minutes each.
9 ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948)
Character-focused dramas rarely get simpler and more hard-hitting than Bicycle Thieves, perhaps the definitive film from the Italian Neorealism movement. It follows a father struggling to provide for his family in post-WW2 Italy, and finds his job in jeopardy after his bicycle is stolen, which sets him and his young son on a quest to find who took the bike and recover it.
Its simplicity might make it sound dull, but it’s anything but, succeeding because of how natural the performances are and how perfectly explored the film’s universal emotions are. It also doesn’t run the risk of drawing out its straightforward premise, clocking in at just 89 minutes long.
8 ‘Persona’ (1966)
Surprisingly, only one Ingmar Bergman movie makes its way onto the Sight & Sound Top 100 list: 1966’s Persona. It’s also notable for being one of Bergman’s shorter films, as it’s only 83 minutes long, making it stand out against epic-length films like Fanny and Alexander and Scenes from a Marriage (both of which also have even longer miniseries edits).
It’s a twisty – and maybe also twisted – psychological thriller that centers on two women: a nurse and an actress. The former is asked to care for the latter, but their meeting changes each woman’s life forever, given their personalities soon begin to merge, or so it appears. It’s a strange film, but one that’s hard to forget, and it achieves a great deal within its short runtime.
7 ‘The General’ (1926)
Alongside Chaplin, Buster Keaton is easily one of the most well-known filmmakers/actors of the silent era. He was behind some of early cinema’s greatest and most important films, though when it comes to deciding which of his films is his best, few can measure up to The General when it comes to inventiveness and entertainment value.
It’s a real mix of genres overall, encompassing action, comedy, and romance, and even plays out during the U.S. Civil War. Keaton plays a young man who needs to rescue the love of his life and his train from the film’s villains, with much of this 67-minute-long movie playing out like an extended chase scene, filled with physical comedy and impressive stuntwork.
6 ‘La Jetée’ (1962)
Among the most essential short films of all time would have to be 1962’s La Jetée, which still feels unique and revolutionary 60 years on from its release. It’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie that takes place after a third devastating World War, and involves traveling back into the past to relive memories in the hope that it may answer questions about the future.
Time travel ends up being involved, making it all much more complex than many full-length feature films, despite La Jetée only being 28 minutes long. It’s also notable for its presentation, which is a series of still images, making it feel like a particularly cinematic (and gripping) slideshow presentation for most of its short duration.
5 ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929)
Man with a Movie Camera is a groundbreaking documentary film, even though what it aims to cover sounds very simple on paper. For its 68-minute-long runtime, it covers urban life throughout the Soviet Union in the 1920s, with no real narrative to speak of, and certainly no specific characters or subjects focused on.
Despite that, it’s very engrossing, because the visuals are immensely creative and all the editing is rather ingenious. It holds a reputation for being one of the most well-regarded Russian films of all time – documentary or otherwise – and certainly earns said reputation, holding up as a great film almost a century on from it being made.
4 ‘Rashomon’ (1950)
Akira Kurosawa made many great movies throughout his long career, with two ending up on the most recent Sight & Sound poll. Funnily enough, one of those movies – Seven Samurai – is his longest, while the other one – Rashomon – ranks among his shortest feature films.
At just 88 minutes, Rashomon doesn’t waste much time, and indeed, tells one story from multiple perspectives to demonstrate how complex memory can be, and how unreliable eyewitnesses sometimes are. It helped put Kurosawa and Japanese cinema in general on the world map way back in the early 1950s, and so it easily earns a spot on a list of the Top 100 movies of all time.
3 ‘The Gleaners & I’ (2000)
Agnès Varda made numerous feature films throughout her decades-long career, though may well be more well-known for her documentaries. The Gleaners & I is one such documentary, and follows Varda as she interviews a variety of gleaners: people who gather produce left behind by harvesters.
Thanks to Varda’s style and warm personality, it ends up being an endearing and entertaining documentary, even if it might not sound like much on paper. It’s a testament to how just about any subject can be used for the central subject of a documentary, if the documentarian is skilled enough to make it interesting for viewers.
2 ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ (1943)
Meshes of the Afternoon is the shortest film on Sight and Sound’s most recent list, as it clocks in at only 14 minutes long. It’s an exploration of dreams and possibly alternate realities/timelines, with it following a single woman’s strange recurring visions, offering viewers little indication of exactly what the film is intended to be about.
But that’s not the point, because it’s one of those experimental movies where the viewer’s expected to find their own meaning in what they see play out on-screen. Such an approach might feel lazy or boring on the filmmaker’s part if their film was both obscure and boring, but thankfully, Meshes of the Afternoon is anything but boring, with immense style and memorably haunting images making it one surreal trip worth taking. Additionally, the brief runtime also helps make it more easily rewatchable.
1 ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988)
Spirited Away is likely the most well-known Hayao Miyazaki film on the Sight and Sound list, but there’s another, shorter film by the great director that makes its way into the top 100: My Neighbor Totoro. It follows two young girls who go to live in the countryside with their father, and subsequently befriend strange spirits in a nearby forest.
It’s a charming animated movie, and one that’s likely to appeal in equal amounts to viewers young and old. It runs for just 86 minutes, which is a perfect length for a narratively simple but visually complex movie like this one.
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