Synchronize watches and strap in for the Letterboxd showdown poll: “24 Hours: Best Films Set on a Single Day.” All films included take place over a 24-hour period (except flashbacks), making time an ever-present and unavoidable additional character.

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Whether set on a single day in high school – where 24 hours can feel like a lifetime and every event carries a dramatic weight that feels like it could change the whole course of a life – or a heist, where time is as precious as the goods being stolen; the films where time is the aggressor carry heightened drama, urgency and every action can create an impact that highlights what a difference a day makes.


10 ‘Dazed and Confused’ (1993)


What could be a more dramatic, hormonal and emotionally-charged 24 hours than the last day of school? Dazed and Confused gives viewers a brutal peek at the heightened happenings at a U.S. high school. Hazings and hi-jinks abound, and the ensemble cast shows different versions of how the final day of school can play out in the movie.

The students of Lee High School, Austin Texas, class of 1976, could easily be voted ‘Most Likely To Succeed’, as many of the cast found great success in the following years. Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey and Milla Jovovich all make an appearance, and though viewers only have 24 hours to get to know them, the impression they leave is lasting.

9 ‘Before Sunset’ (2004)

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in 'Before Sunset'

Nine years after their magical meeting in 1995’s Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine cross paths in Paris. Before Sunset allows the audience to meet the characters again, in an informal but intimate way. Responding to the first film, this sequel feels like being let in on a behind-the-scenes moment, or the reunion episode of a reality show.

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The extended shots that follow the couple make the audience feel very much part of the conversation, as the couple unpack the previous film under the guise of discussing Jesse’s novel on the subject. Though the characters have changed with time, the audience still recognizes them. The beauty of the single-day device is at its best here, and viewers will wish for their time together to be longer.

8 ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon - 1975

Dog Day Afternoon tells the true story of a bank robbery gone horribly wrong. From losing a third of their heist party in the first moments, to only collecting a meager $1,100 from the robbery, Sonny and Sal can’t catch a break. But with mounting police pressure, a room full of hostages and a street of onlookers, time is of the essence.

Best Original Screenplay winner at the Academy Awards and winner of Best Editing at the British Academy Film Awards, both these elements work together to create an anxious atmosphere, with palpable tension and a need for immediacy of action.

7 ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)

Reservoir Dogs

Is time ever more sensitive than when someone is bleeding out on the floor and the cops could very possibly be about to burst through the door? Reservoir Dogs takes place on the day of a diamond heist – albeit the chapters of the day are cleverly revealed in a non-linear fashion.

Several of the characters are given context in flashbacks to establish their relationship to the heist. Despite these few diversions, the body of the story takes place in the warehouse after the heist, and the anxiety of not knowing if there is a rat in the troupe, who it could be, or if anyone will get out alive is the time-sensitive driving force of the film.

6 ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)

Dr Strangelove

The Cold War kept Americans in a state of unease for decades, and the ever-present possibility of nuclear annihilation bred longstanding anxiety. Such strong fear is the perfect fuel for satire – which is exactly the situation for Dr. Strangelove. A U.S. general launches an airborne attack on the USSR, and a group of useless politicians, military officials and scientists bumble and fumble to stymie the attack, and inevitable global destruction.

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Laying bare the foolish minds of the men at the helm, and the absolutely ridiculous reality that the world could be mere moments from disaster in the film makes for a deliciously dark comedy. Doubly terrifying and laughable, the fate of the world is in the hands of twisted and ill-equipped caricatures of men, and the time the world has to solve its problems is ticking away at an alarming rate.

5 ‘Before Sunrise’ (1995)

Before Sunrise 1995

Two strangers meet on a train in Vienna and decide to spend the day together, until they must inevitably part ways. Celine must continue to Paris on the morning train, and Jesse is scheduled to fly back to the US – their time together is finite from the moment they meet.

The awareness that they only have one day together lingers in the air, making the day feel other-worldly. The couple and the audience notice oddities, and every little thing carries a magical weight – it’s romantic, but in a weird way. Every moment feels important, and the eventual parting is heartbreaking, begging the question of whether the lovers will reunite. With 100% on the Tomatometer, Before Sunrise is well worth spending time with.

4 ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985)

The breakfast club sitting down in 'The Breakfast Club' (1985)
Image via Universal Pictures

Time moves so slowly in high school – especially in detention. Watching the clock is an elective subject all students begrudgingly enroll in at some point. But if the enforced captivity of a day in detention became an opportunity to share, be vulnerable, and learn about people instead of algebraic equations, that could be a potent and more enduring lesson.

Such is the story of The Breakfast Club. Five teenagers from different subcultures of the campus ecosystem spend a Saturday in detention. What seems at first like wasted time becomes a playground for sharing, connecting, and learning not to judge a book by its cover.

3 ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ (1986)

Alan Ruck, Mia Sara, and Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Image via Paramount Pictures

Life moves pretty fast, so Ferris Bueller is determined to make the most of every day. Casting off the oppressive shackles of another boring day in high school, Ferris takes his best friend and girlfriend on an adventure. An art museum, a fancy lunch, driving an immaculate Ferrari, and crashing a street parade are just a few items on the fantastical itinerary.

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He will have to make it home before his parents discover the ruse, so the greatest day anyone never spent in high school is on a deadline. The amount of awesome that Ferris can pack into one day of playing hooky is a teenage dream, and makes Ferris Bueller’s Day Off a 24-hour favorite for the ages.

2 ’12 Angry Men’ (1957)

12 men sit at a table and argue
Image via United Artists

Time is of the essence and a life is on the line in 12 Angry Men. The jurors in a murder case must come to a unanimous decision, beyond reasonable doubt and despite each man’s preconceptions, before leaving the deliberation room. It is up to one juror with reasonable doubts to convince the rest of the angry men in favor of his verdict.

The film is an emotional roller-coaster on a tight schedule, and speaks to the value of standing up for one’s beliefs – especially in the face of prejudice. The way the film is written and shot gradually shrinks the space between the men, in the time it takes to change 11 stubborn minds.

1 ‘Die Hard’ (1988)

John McClane holding a lighter while crawling through an air duct

A lot can happen in a couple of hours – security codes can be broken, terrorist’s plans can be foiled, a marriage can be saved and a clean, white singlet can become a completely different color. Such is the case in fan-favorite unconventional Christmas movie, Die Hard.

On Christmas Eve, as a group of thieves takes over the Nakatomi building to rob it of riches, viewers are treated to a solid reason never to attend a work Christmas party again unless Bruce Willis is invited. Set to creepy, minor-scale versions of Christmas classics and boasting a hefty body count, Die Hard presents a version of just how wrong a robbery, or a work ‘do, can go.

NEXT: The Best Heist Movies Of All Time, According To Letterboxd


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