Movies

The Cult of the 90-Minute Movie

The highest praise for a movie should not be that it’s “nice and short.”

Stills from Drive My Car, Spartacus, and Titanic with a stopwatch over them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sideshow and Janus Films, AaronAmat/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Paramount Pictures, and Universal Pictures.

If anything pops into your head about Drive My Car, which is up for four Oscars on Sunday, it’s likely the following two things: It’s a Japanese movie, and it’s three hours long. It’s the latter fact that stands out to me: Movie people seems to be quite excited about a film whose length would, under most circumstances, induce mass groaning.

This swell of admiration for a 179-minute movie interests me because it runs counter to a trend I’ve noticed bubbling up over the past few years: an obsession with short movies, and more specifically with the vaunted “90-minute movie.” What started out as an appreciation for shorter films as perhaps the undersung novellas of cinema’s vast collection of novels has grown into something more like a meme. The internet is stuffed with lists of 90-minute (or less) movies to watch. I’ve witnessed countless film fans sing the praises of the 90-minute movie on social media and podcasts. The trend may have reached its apotheosis last year, when Netflix elevated the length into its very own category—the service called it a “genre”—that sits on customers’ home screens alongside “Critically Acclaimed Movies” and “TV Shows Based on Books.”

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What’s so great about a 90-minute movie? Its advocates will tell you that a movie that clocks in at that length will by definition have all the fat trimmed away—all killer, no filler. Longer movies are wanky filmmaking indulgence that rarely justify their extended stays, and have no respect for the audience’s time. I would submit that there are plenty of bad, flabby 90-minute movies, or I am disparaging the devastatingly taut The Big Wedding (89 minutes) and The New Guy (88 minutes), to point to two of Netflix’s current selections? And it should go without saying that there are many great movies that are a lot longer than 90 minutes, but just so it doesn’t: Would we discard the Spartacuses or Titantics or even Wolf of Wall Streets of the world? What about Drive My Car? All are double the voguish 90-minute length, at three hours or more. Lest it seem like I’m comparing only great long movies to snappier dreck, note that when Vulture saw fit to rank the 33 best movies longer than 180 minutes, most of them were stone-cold classics. By the time the site got to No. 9 on its comparable list of “great” movies under 90 minutes, it had resorted to A Night at the Roxbury.

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That a movie’s length could be a meaningful measure of anything beyond how literally long it takes to watch it is nonsense, like judging a painting by how many square inches it takes up. Smarter people than me have already stated this more eloquently than I can: “Bad movies are always too long, but good movies are either too short, or just right,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1992, and it’s as true now as it was then.

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All the Best Picture nominees this year are longer than 90 minutes, some significantly so, meaning they hardly need me sticking up for them. Shorter movies are still comparatively rare, and sure, plenty of two-hour-plus films could be shorter. But my larger problem with the cult of the 90-minute movie may be more philosophical. Movies are one of life’s pleasures, so to approach them with the mindset they have 90 minutes to impress you or you’re out strikes me as far too transactional a way to live. Is that how you are with every experience, counting down the minutes until it’s over? If your favorite thing about a movie is the part where you get to get up and leave, I’ve got some great news for you: You can save even more time by not watching at all. As Julia Turner recently pointed out on Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast, some of the same people who will complain that a movie is “too long” will watch an entire season of a TV show in a weekend. People in the 90-minute-movie crowd are the film-snob grandchildren of the elderly people in that old joke who complain that a restaurant has terrible food, “and such small portions!”: There’s nihilism to the highest praise you have for a movie being that it was nice and short.

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I remember some of my best movie experiences as luxuriously languid: a hot summer day when you want to stay in the air conditioning as long as possible. The idea of wanting that to end, of having anything better to do than that, just doesn’t make sense to me. I happen to love a long movie—Jerry Maguire comes to mind at 139 minutes, and A League of Their Own at 128, and they both feel long, but in a good way. Sumptuous. Maybe I’m just lucky that I have the time to think and feel this way. But it’s kind of a sad reflection of the state of culture that some people would rather spend time researching 90-minute movies to watch, movies that will fill the time they have blocked off for entertainment and not a second more, than spend those minutes watching a slightly longer movie. You can optimize too much. Movies aren’t soylent, units of entertainment to be shoved into your face so you get the good-time nutrients without having to spend too much time thinking about it.

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As I scrolled through the “90-Minute Movie” category on Netflix, I noticed it doesn’t even stay true to its 90-minutes-or-less promise, nor do some of the people who are always crowing about the majesty of the 90-minute length. There are plenty of 93- and 94-minute movies in Netflix’s category, and at least one 98-minute one. Is it 90 minutes or less that’s the sweet spot, or is it the more nebulous under-100-minute range? All I know is that if anyone’s going to wax philosophical about the beautiful economy of a 90-minute film, I’m not going to allow them to include a film that’s a full 5 percent longer than that in their demented pantheon. And imagine what you’d have to cut? When Harry Met Sally… is 95 minutes long, and every last one of which should be acknowledged as glorious and essential. Come for those five minutes, and we’ll have a problem.

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