A lot can happen in 24 hours—and filmmakers know this.
That’s why there are so many movies out there that take place in a single day. When an unfolding story is constrained to a mere 24 hours, it can give the movie a tangible sense of time that raises the stakes and elevates dramatic tension.
Putting together a satisfying tale that spans such a short time can be tough. Not only for the screenwriter, but also for those involved in principal photography. But when it’s done right? It can be excellent.
Here are some of the best movies that take place in just one day, and they involve everything from confessions of love to bringing down a terrorist heist to racial riots that affect an entire city.
8. Die Hard
John McClane’s trip to Los Angeles to see his estranged wife and children didn’t go the way he thought it would. He lands at LAX and is driven to his wife’s office building, only to get into an argument with his wife—and that’s when the terrorists show up.
Die Hard is a movie that takes you on the longest night of John McClane’s life as he dodges the German terrorists, knocks them off one by one, and does it all before Christmas morning sunrise.
Few movies are as boldly entertaining as Die Hard, with Bruce Willis’s performance matched only by Alan Rickman’s villainous Hans Gruber.
7. Palm Springs
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Palm Springs is a fresh take on the “living the same day over and over” premise. It’s a romantic comedy time loop movie.
Nyles wakes up every day stuck at a wedding in Palm Springs. He’s been there for so long that he’s given up on trying to escape the time loop, and has decided to drink himself through eternity. That is, until one day Sarah accidentally gets stuck inside the time loop with him.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are charming in their roles, with one trying to come to terms with eternity and the other simply accepting that he will never live to see another day.
The picture is funny, heartfelt, and darkly romantic, all without losing the sense that escape must be possible somehow.
6. 12 Angry Men
Sydney Lumet’s classic courtroom drama, which never actually features a courtroom, is a tense and thought-provoking affair.
As the jury sit down to deliberate on a case, many of them immediately agree that the defendant is guilty and are willing to send him down without proper review.
However, Henry Fonda’s character disagrees with their rash decision and prompts a full investigation into the evidence. Over the course of the film, he works to convince the rest of the jury that it isn’t as open-and-shut as they think.
The picture is a masterpiece and the cinematography is exquisite as the twelve jurors sit in one room and decide a young man’s fate.
5. Before Sunset
Nine years after the ambiguous ending of Before Sunrise, we finally got our answer to whether or not Jesse and Celine met up in Vienna again.
Many things have changed for Jesse and Celine since we last met them; however, what didn’t change is their obvious chemistry. As they walk through Paris, both of them know that they didn’t enjoy a youthful moment of lust—it was something profoundly more.
The sequel is a more accomplished movie about the pitfalls of adulthood and the decisions that come with responsibility. Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, and Julie Delpy’s screenplay is better than the first in every way as they’ve grown into adults.
4. Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day is Bill Murray and Harold Ramis’ story of a vain, narcissistic, and egocentric weatherman who gets stuck living the same day over and over. It has become a timeless classic.
For no overt reason whatsoever, Bill Murray’s Phil Connors wakes up every morning covering the Groundhog Day celebrations in Pennsylvania; and what the film does impeccably is look at the various stages of despair that Phil goes through in the process.
Despite the production being a borderline disaster—which ruined Ramis and Murray’s friendship until Murray visited a dying Ramis on his deathbed years later—Groundhog Day is cinematic perfection. It’s funny, frustrating, and without equal in its delivery.
3. Dog Day Afternoon
Another Sydney Lumet movie that’s set in one day, Dog Day Afternoon stars Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik, a man who decides to rob a bank to pay for his lover’s gender reassignment surgery.
The robbery goes wrong very early on, so Sonny and his associate decide to keep the customers and staff as hostages. What’s even better is that all of this is based on a true story.
The tension in the film is gripping, and Al Pacino gives one of his finest performances as Sonny. The picture would go on to win Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and was nominated for a further five, including Pacino for Best Actor.
2. Dr. Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick’s end-of-the-world comedy is one of the best movies ever made. The story revolves around a mad General who initiates a full-scale attack on the Soviet Union without prior command.
As the President and his cabinet scramble to find out what happened—and put a stop to the bomber planes before it’s too late—they speak with the Soviet Union’s leader, Premier Kissov, and realize that the mad General’s actions have set off the Soviet’s doomsday device.
Peter Sellers plays three different characters in this movie, which garnered an Academy Award nomination for his work. Stanley Kubrick also picked up Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
1. Do the Right Thing
Do the Right Thing is Spike Lee’s magnum opus. Thirty-two years after he made it, the picture feels as relevant today as it did back in 1989, showing the racial tensions of a New York City block and how it all slowly builds to a catastrophic ending.
It follows multiple characters who live on the block, although the main character is Mookie, a pizza delivery boy who’s just trying to provide for his young son.
Spike Lee’s leading performance as Mookie is topped only by his direction and script, which stand as a monument to the racial divide in the United States. Do the Right Thing is a powerful and profound picture, which descends from comedy into tragedy.