10 Best Movies That Take Place In Real Time, Ranked

A movie set in real-time takes viewers on an authentic journey where events unfold as they are happening with no time jumps. If a movie is two hours long, the story will take place during that two-hour period simultaneously as viewers watch. Real-time movies are unique in that it makes audiences believe they are part of the action.

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With real-time movies, every second matters more and the stakes overall are much higher. Since movies usually unfold over significant periods of time such as days, weeks, and even years, these kinds of movies offer viewers a greater film-going experience – an enjoyable realistic story they can actively “participate” in.

10 16 Blocks

Bruce Willis with gun walking with Mos Def in 16 Blocks

Inspired by the film The Gauntlet, Bruce Willis plays a past-his-prime cop who must transport a witness to court on time. However, the witness (Mos Def) is about to testify against a bunch of dirty cops, so they pull out all the stops in an attempt to prevent him from doing so.

Currently, 16 Blocks is acclaimed director Richard Donner’s final film. In the film, the real-time format is effectively used to ramp up the stakes and give the movie a great “ticking clock.” However, while Bruce Willis and Mos Def deliver great performances and have fantastic chemistry together, the film did not fare well commercially or critically.

9 Phone Booth

Colin Farrell in Phone Booth

Phone Booth’s unique premise takes place largely in the title location. Colin Farrell’s Stu answers the wrong call and finds himself at the mercy of a sniper played by Kiefer Sutherland who will shoot him if he exits the booth. The action takes place within the film’s 81-minute runtime and is a gripping and tension-filled thriller.

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Directed by Joel Schumacher, Phone Booth’s real-time aspect elevates the suspense and makes viewers feel they’re in the phone booth with the protagonist, experiencing it all. The film was released to great reviews, with praise for Kiefer Sutherland’s chilling vocal performance.


8 Nick Of Time

Johnny Depp looking past camera with Christopher Walken behind him in Nick Of Time

Nick of Time is a rare acting turn from Johnny Depp that finds him playing a mild-mannered accountant instead of his usually outlandish characters covered in makeup or garish costumes. Depp’s Gene has a horrible dilemma: he must assassinate a politician or else his daughter will be killed.

What adds to Nick of Time’s tension is the fact that it occurs in real-time and the audience can literally feel the weight of the film’s “ticking clock” and the pressure Gene is under. Co-starring Christopher Walken, Nick Of Time fared poorly critically and commercially but has since gained a small cult following among 90s thriller enthusiasts.

7 Timecode

Four quadrants featuring Holly Hunter, Saffron Burrow, Stellan Skarsgard, Salma Hayek in Timecode

Timecode takes the real-time format to new levels of cinematic experimentation. The film’s story is presented in split-screen, with each perspective taking up a quarter of the screen. Each storyline revolves around members of the Hollywood community in a production office and the tumultuous ups and downs of preparing to shoot a film.

Directed by Mike Figgis, and featuring a cast that includes Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Stellan Skarsgård, and Kyle MacLachlan, Timecode was filmed in four continuous 93 minutes takes. Some critics felt the technique was innovative while others felt it was pretentious, but the film as a whole was considered entertaining and made all the more intriguing by the real-time method employed.

6 Tape

Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke looking past camera in Tape

Richard Linklater’s Tape is one of his lesser-known films but perhaps one of his most powerful and innovative. Shot on a home video camcorder, Tape takes place solely in a motel room and features just three characters played by Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman. They play friends reunited and together hash out old, dark wounds.

Because of the single location and real-time format, Tape resembles a play. With the help of the grainy camcorder footage, the audience gets to witness a raw and sometimes unnerving psychological drama that might leave them uncomfortable but with a lasting impression.

5 Rope

Brandon & Philip in Rope

Inspired by the Leopold & Loeb murder case, Alfred Hitchock’s Rope revolves around two friends who murder another friend just to see if they could get away with it. They then hold a dinner party in the same room they’re keeping the deceased body in an attempt to prove they can commit the perfect crime.

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Rope is unique not just because the action unfolds in real-time as if it were a play but also because the film is shot to appear as if it’s in one long continuous take. Recently, many films like Birdman have taken place supposedly in one take, proving Rope was ahead of its time. However, back then, the technique was a little less seamless and viewers could easily spot where each long take transitions into the next (usually every 10 minutes) to give the allusion the whole movie is one continuous shot.

4 Silent House

The real-time format makes Silent House a relentlessly terrifying experience. The film concerns Elizabeth Olsen’s Sarah who gets trapped in a family cabin she’s helping renovate and finds herself haunted by someone or something in the house.

Silent House’s real-time nature gives audiences a greater sense of Sarah’s point of view and makes them feel they’re in her shoes during this horrifying situation. Like Rope and Birdman, Silent House is presented in one continuous take that makes for a gripping and suspenseful experience.

3 United 93

Passengers talking amongst themselves in United 93

United 93 is the harrowing true story of how, on September 11th 2001, the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 overtook the plane’s hijackers and stopped the plane from crashing into the nation’s capitol. Unfortunately, none of the heroes survived but their actions saved many lives.

From the flight’s take-off, the action is portrayed in real-time which gives viewers a horrifically realistic fly-on-the-wall documentary experience. Director Paul Greengrass puts the audience in the middle of the terror, the chaos, and the tragedy, which hopefully will greater inform them about what happened that terrible day.

2 Fail-Safe

Henry Fonda as the President in Fail Safe

In Fail-Safe, an attack order is accidentally given for bombers to attack Russia which puts America in nuclear crisis mode, having to try and convince the Russians it was a mistake and forcing them to take drastic and tragic steps to prevent full-on nuclear war.

The chaos and tension of the situation the characters find themselves in is heightened by the real-time format, which puts viewers in the room with the decision-makers like the President (played by Henry Fonda) and his Generals who must make tough decisions. Fail-Safe is a terrifying film about the dangers of nuclear power, highlighted by its dramatic cinematography and often claustrophobic close-ups. To this day, it leaves viewers deeply affected.

1 High Noon

Gary Cooper in High Noon

Perhaps one of the finest westerns ever made is the often imitated High Noon, starring Gary Cooper. Set in real-time, Cooper’s Marshall Kane has a difficult choice to make: he can either leave town or await the arrival of a newly freed criminal bent on revenge.

To enhance the real-time format, the film features several cutaways to clocks to signify the countdown until when the villain will arrive – high noon. For his performance, Cooper won an Oscar and the film has gone down in history as one of the finest ever made.

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