When the script is good and the director is resourceful, limitations can make the film even better.
The history of cinema, specially when it comes to independent films, has proven that a good filmmaker can do a lot with very little. If the script is good and the director is resourceful, limitations can make the film even better. However, if the idea is bad, a huge budget will only make it flashy, superficially impressive, yet ultimately empty and forgettable. Sometimes I watch the trailers of new big Hollywood movies only to get a little mad when I think about the money that is being wasted there, in just one showy movie that nobody will remember in a decade, instead of ten, twenty, or even more great low-budget films that have the potential of becoming classics. But then I think: Who cares? Brilliant directors have thrived before in the same situation, and there’s a big chance that many incredible ideas have emerged precisely from scarcity and limitations: just one room and one setting to develop a great story. The following films are unique cult classics that people will remember for a long time and prove this point.
Rope (1948), by Alfred Hitchcock
Whenever people talk about great one-single-room films, this is the movie they mention first. Among all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Rope stands out for maintaining the suspense throughout the entire film in just one take, without giving you space to breathe. Here, Hitchcock mixes the art of theater with his expertise as a film director to create a very, very tense masterpiece. One room, one take, one dinner party, and yes, one dead body hidden in the room as the murderers (poorly) pretend that nothing is going on.
12 Angry Men (1957), by Sidney Lumet
In this film, the characters want to leave the room. They have better things to do, more fun and entertaining things, and they don’t like each other very much. The day is too hot. They’re sweating and standing in front of a fan that doesn’t really help. But they can’t leave until a decision is made, a decision that every single one of them has to agree on: the guilt or the innocence of a young man on trial for murder. As the jury, they have a job to do, but all of them (except one) would prefer to be somewhere else. Unlike them, you’ll want to stay in that room to see what happens, unless you’re too claustrophobic to handle it.
Funny Games (1998), by Michael Haneke
This movie plays with us just like the cruel protagonists play and terrorize a family. Michael Haneke knew how to use the claustrophobia that a one-room film can create to intensify it even more by turning it into a home that gets invaded by two young men that enjoy torturing others physically, emotionally, and psychologically. There’s humor in this film, but it’s not the kind of humor you’ll enjoy.
The Exterminating Angel (1962), by Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel is another director that loves to toy with us. With The Exterminating Angel, he turns a sick joke into a fantastic movie. Through fiction and comedy, Buñuel analyzes human nature better than any scientific study. What happens when a group of people spend too much time together in one room? The characters of this film enter the house voluntarily and have a great time together until it’s time to leave. Then, one by one try to say goodbye, but multiple subtle and absurd reasons stop them from ever exiting the house. Nothing real is stopping them, no actual blocks or impediments, but they simply cannot leave, and with a quiet desperation they embrace their incomprehensible situation.
My Dinner with Andre (1981), by Louis Malle
This is my favorite film of all time. On the surface, this movie is about two men that haven’t seen each other in a long time, so they meet to have dinner and catch up. But in reality, this movie is an epic tale that makes you travel around the world and experience incredible, absurd, funny, sad, scary, and astounding stories. Andre’s eloquence makes it all possible, and just like his friend Wallace, we’re left half-disoriented and half-transformed. Each anecdote that Andre narrates during the dinner is based on his real life, but both actors, while using their real names, refuse to admit that they’re playing themselves.
One-room films aren’t easy to watch, and many directors take advantage of our fear of being locked in small spaces by making it even more tense with tight shots and close-ups. But these stories are so good that all of the tension will be entirely worth it, and you’ll have a new concept of open spaces once you finish watching them.
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