Suddenly have time to spare? These are the best super-long movies to stream

Robert DeNiro, left, and Joe Pesci in a scene from “The Irishman.” Netflix

Many filmgoers have long turned up their noses at the long movie. Jabs were thrown as recently as this past Oscar season when Martin Scorsese’s masterful inward meditation, “The Irishman,” became a punchline for clocking in at nearly 3½ hours. For some viewers, it’s because of a vague stance that movies shouldn’t be that long. Others simply might not have the hours to invest in a sprawling cinematic world.

But now that you have been given (or cursed with) the gift of time, it’s long past time to appreciate the long movie. We’re not talking about something that veers slightly over two hours or so. These films – limited to those currently available on various streaming platforms, with apologies for the dearth of pre-1990s movies – stretch past the three-hour mark to craft their indelible narratives.

Here are some of the best streaming movies to sink into for a few hours. (And if these aren’t enough to fill your plate, daring viewers can go off script and support an art-house theater by watching “Sátántangó,” a seven-plus-hour opus about existence. We suggest you tackle these six comparably shorter films first, though.)

– “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991)

The oldest film on this list only saw the light of day again because of a restoration in 2009 by the World Cinema Project (an organization founded by Scorsese), but at nearly four hours, “A Brighter Summer Day” is one of the best coming-of-age sagas of any year.

It follows the story of a young teen, nicknamed Xiao Si’r (“Little Four”), who flunks a standardized test and must attend a night school populated by other boys who have splintered into roaming street gangs. The stoic Si’r (the acting debut of Chang Chen, who would later star in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) finds himself caught in the middle of often violent skirmishes while trying to appease his family.

Director Edward Yang – whose most notable (and last) film was 2000′s nearly three-hour “Yi Yi” – loosely based this epic on his own family’s story of fleeing mainland China in the mid-20th century. The film works best if you have some context of the sociopolitical situation of the era, but Yang can lure you in regardless with his exquisite eye for detail and mood.

Stream on the Criterion Channel or Kanopy.

– “An Elephant Sitting Still” (2018)

The outlook of “An Elephant Sitting Still” is possibly as bleak as a movie can get. The film tells the story of four residents of a go-nowhere, working-class town in China who are each working through a crushing malaise and some spiritual wounds. What eventually ties their stories together is the titular tale from a distant Chinese city, where an elephant in a circus has seemingly accepted the absurdity of life and remains statuesque all day long.

The film is most notable, however, for another reason. It was both the debut and final film of writer/director Hu Bo: Shortly after completing the movie, he committed suicide, allegedly over clashes with his producers, who wanted Hu to trim the film from 3 hours and 50 minutes.

It’s a shame that viewers will never get another film from Hu, as “Elephant” is such an assured and remarkable work. Despite the haze of despair that hangs over much of the movie, the ending provides one of the most triumphant cinematic notes of optimism.

Stream on the Criterion Channel or Kanopy.

– “Happy Hour” (2015)

Although streaming platforms have divided “Happy Hour” into three parts, all 5 hours and 17 minutes are meant to be absorbed in one sitting. And while director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film is the longest on this list, it’s perhaps the most carefully observed and nuanced work.

The tale gravitates around the friendship and bonds between four middle-class women in Japan. Almost two hours in, Jun, the friend who is the group’s unifying thread, reveals she’s been having an affair and is divorcing her husband. This revelation makes her friends Sakurako, Fumi and Akari take stock of their lives and the societal forces that bind them.

Sure, there are notes of melodrama throughout the film, but Hamaguchi delves into these events with such a tender touch and focus that you can’t help but get swept away by the beauty found in these reserved, intimate moments.

Stream on Amazon Prime Video or Kanopy.

– “The Irishman” (2019)

Even after decades of richly told stories, at age 77, Martin Scorsese isn’t done spinning his finest yarns. You may have already made up your mind about this 209-minute film, either skipping it for a different true-crime streaming offering or watching it in bits and pieces on your phone. But Scorsese’s Netflix debut, his most introspective work, deserved each and every one of its 10 Oscar nominations.

“The Irishman” is based on “I Heard You Paint Houses,” a book by former investigator Charles Brandt that tells the story of Frank Sheeran, an alleged mob hit man who claimed to have killed union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Even though that’s the guiding story, it’s only a loose frame for Scorsese to reflect on the mythologies he has helped create with the modern mob movie – and the ultimate emptiness of it all.

If Scorsese never made a movie again, this would serve as a fitting close to his distinguished career.

Stream on Netflix.

– “Magnolia” (1999)

Pose the question “What’s your favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film?” to a room of film buffs and watch the chaos ensue. The director of such modern classics as “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights” made what might be his most personal, messy and profound film in “Magnolia.”

Anderson assembled a who’s who of character actors including Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly and Julianne Moore (and even more great throwaway cameos from the likes of Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple) to tell slowly intertwining stories in Los Angeles of fate, longing and, well, frogs falling from the sky. There’s also a narratively poignant singalong. But somehow, amid all this, Tom Cruise still steals the show as a skeevy, broken pickup artist.

Asked a few years ago what was one thing, if he could go back, he would tell himself while making “Magnolia,” Anderson said he would “chill the f— out and cut twenty minutes” of the film’s 3 hours and 8 minutes. But for those who see this movie at the right time and moment in their lives, it’s not a single minute too long.

Stream on Netflix.

– “Malcolm X” (1992)

In Spike Lee’s prolific career, perhaps only “Do the Right Thing” has left a larger cultural footprint than his biopic of revolutionary civil rights leader Malcolm X, but none of his films has stretched longer than its nearly 3½-hour run time.

Based on 1965’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (which was co-written by X and “Roots” writer Alex Haley), the film chronicles – and dramatizes – the evolution of Malcolm from a petty criminal into a transformational activist. It should come as no surprise that having gained a supporting actor nomination for “Cry Freedom” and won an Oscar in that category for “Glory” a few years earlier, Denzel Washington garnered his first lead actor Oscar nomination with “Malcolm X.” His work in the role is still considered a career-defining performance.

The pairing of Lee and Washington was the right alchemy of two ascendant stars making a statement with a portrait of an outspoken and often misunderstood figure in American history.

Stream on Netflix.



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