With the release of Locke, in which we spend 85 minutes with Tom Hardy and his dodgy Welsh accent driving in his car, and the action never straying away from inside the car, now seems a good time to countdown my personal top 10 of the best films that I have seen where the narrative takes place in one single setting.
Plenty of films use a concept such as being set in one small space as their selling point, but do very little with that originally compelling concept. However the films in this list are in my view are a combination of impressive technical achievements, a remarkable combination of great concept and execution or just proof that sometimes all you need is great storytelling.
I am sure there are great films that use this concept that I have not included due to not seeing them, any suggestions are most welcome.
10. Exam (Stuart Hazeldine, 2009)
Stuart Hazeldine’s Brit thriller in which eight talented candidates for a top job in a mysterious and powerful corporation face a final exam to get that job is low on budget but high on good ideas. The entire film taking place in one room with these eight contestants trying to figure out the mysteries behind their exam could have easily been a case of great concept but poor execution. However, though it is perhaps never edge of your seat stuff, it is an extremely well written and atmospheric little thriller with endless twists and turns that does engage from start to finish and (shock-horror) actually has a satisfying ending.
9. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)
Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel is regarded by some as the godfather of surrealist cinema, and The Exterminating Angel is of one of his most surreal. The story follows the bourgeois guests (a demographic constantly the subject of Buñuel fun poking) attending a lavish dinner party who all of a sudden for bizarre reasons find themselves physically and mentally unable to leave a room. What ensues is a series of arguments, fights and other bizarre moments involving animals as these wealthy individuals for the first time are faced with a situation where their wealth makes no difference. Though admittedly some scenes at the start and end may not take place in this room, the surreal concept and superb writing and acting demonstrates Buñuel’s talents as a pioneering and original filmmaker.
8. Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010)
Spending 90 minutes with Ryan Reynolds in a coffin buried somewhere in Iraq does not sound like my idea of fun, but yet Cortés’ film is a superbly written and genuinely gripping thriller. With only a lighter and his mobile phone to try and figure out why he has been buried alive, Paul Conroy (Reynolds) faces a race against time to try and find a way of getting saved from his death trap. Reynolds gives a suitably edgy performance and through Cortés direction and camerawork, as well as Chris Sparling’s tightly written script, Buried is a claustrophobic thriller that surprisingly grips from start to finish.
7. Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher, 2002)
Like with buried, the concept of spending 90 minutes with Colin Farrell in a phone booth talking to Keifer Sutherland’s sniper does not sound like a great concept, especially if it is directed by Joel Schumacher. However it does somehow work. New York publicist Stuart Shepard (Farrell) lives a life of deceiving all those around him, and then when picking up the receiver in a phone booth putting it down may mean the end of his life, as the sniper at the other end (Sutherland) feels he should atone for his sinful life. Farrell holds the screen well and Sutherland’s voice is genuinely sinister, the twists and turns never get too ridiculous and Phone Booth is a consistently absorbing and satisfying thriller. Though the opening and closing scenes do not take place inside the phone booth, it certainly deserves its inclusion in this list.
6. Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972)
One of several films in this chart based on plays, and though a great play does not automatically translate to great film, it certainly provides a solid foundation. Sleuth is one such film that takes place inside a house and is a master class in superb acting from Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, while Mankiewicz adds a cinematic feel to the narrative without ruining the superb original material. As these two men constantly try to outwit each other and tables constantly turn, Sleuth entertains and grips from start to finish. Kenneth Branagh tried admirably to update the story with modern technology in 2007, but unfortunately it was an admirable failure.
5. The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)
John Hughes’ brat pack classic story of five completely different students attending a Saturday detention is a funny and moving character study. Set entirely within the school, these seemingly completely different characters eventually open up to each other to reveal they have the same fears and faults that we all do.
4. Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, 2009)
Set during the first Lebanon war of 1982, Samuel Maoz’s thriller follows the four members of a tank crew on an apparently straight forward mission that turns into a hellish nightmare. Apart from showing the view that one crew member sees through his gunsight, the entire film takes place inside the tank in what are sweltering and claustrophobic conditions. It is a genuinely tense thriller from start to finish, with the tight camera work and cinematography adding to a feeling of at times unbearable authenticity.
3. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Master of cinema Alfred Hitchcock was never afraid to try new things, and his story of a wheel chair bound photographer (James Stewart) spying on neighbours through his rear window is an all time classic. Set pretty much entirely from the man’s room, he convinces his high society girlfriend and nurse to take part in what at first seems to be an outrageous conspiracy theory. Despite the high concepts, Rear Window is still a very human film and a truly spellbinding drama.
2. Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)
Hitchcock again, and this time adapting a play that is only set in one apartment. The story of two men who commit murder and then throw a dinner party around the chest of which the body is placed in which the victim’s family are invited to prove they have committed the perfect murder is an impressive technical achievement and enthralling thriller. A series of continuous ten minutes takes, the edits may be obvious to a modern audience and I am sure if the technology was around Hitchcock would have tried one single take, but just how much of a technical achievement Rope is should never be underestimated. The various camera work techniques add a cinematic feel, sometimes shots with several actors requiring extra attention to see all their various expressions, and the great acting and story make Rope an extremely watchable and engaging film from start to finish.
1. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
The story of a jury in a murder case where 11 are happy to say guilty without too much thought and one (Henry Fonda) who has reasonable doubt persuades them otherwise still stands as one of the best films ever made, and for good reason. Based on a teleplay, apart from the brief opening and closing scenes, the entire film takes place in the jury room. Based on a teleplay by Reginald Rose, and then adapted for the screen by him, it is an incredibly spellbinding and engaging thriller from start to finish. Had he had more of today’s technology at his disposal I am sure Lumet would have made this even more atmospheric and involving, but with what he had at the time Lumet manages to make 12 Angry Men a truly cinematic experience. Various camera work techniques and the visual sweat that drips from the foreheads of our jurors capture perfectly the sweltering heat and intensity of the time they spend together in this one room as the life of man is solely in their hands.