One-man movies tend to fall into two buckets: either they're utter genius in concept and execution, or the dullest experience in cinema.
Ever since the very first movie was made, filmmakers have been trying to find innovative ways to make great movies on tight budgets, which often means skimping on high-profile actors.
In some cases, it's taken even further by only featuring a single actor for the whole film. Whether for budgetary reasons or creative reasons, these films—when done well—offer uniquely great experiences.
Here are our picks for the best one-man movies that feature one main character for the entire length of their respective runtimes.
13. The Shallows (2016)
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Angelo Josue Lozano Corzo
Action, Drama, Horror (1h 26m)
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, this one-woman horror film stars Blake Lively as a surfer caught out in open waters. The tense survival flick follows Nancy Adams, who's stranded 180 meters from land and encircled by a Great White Shark. Not ideal!
Set on the beaches of Mexico, The Shallows is an immersive B-movie that hooks and reels us in without barely leaving the shoreline.
The Shallows also manages to dodge the usual shark attack tropes found in the likes of, say, the Sharknado film series. Instead, Blake Lively grips us with her strong, hyper-focused performance.
12. Buried (2010)
Directed by Rodrigo Cortés
Starring Ryan Reynolds, José Luis García-Pérez, Robert Paterson
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (1h 35m)
Blake Lively's husband and fellow Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds also has his own survival movie where he's the main (and only) attraction. Buried was enjoyed by critics and viewers alike for its bittersweet taste, filled with suspense and brilliant acting.
Rodrigo Cortés' English-language Spanish thriller buries us six feet underground, where a US truck driver wakes up and finds himself trapped in a wooden box deep in the sands of a desert.
Paul Conroy has nothing but the contents of his pockets to get himself out: a dying phone, a lighter, and a glow stick. This claustrophobic psychological drama will have you on your toes.
11. Grand Piano (2013)
Directed by Eugenio Mira
Starring Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé
Drama, Music, Mystery (1h 30m)
It's hard to transition between scenes when you're transitioning to... the very same scene. Or, at least, very similar scenes with the same man sitting on the same stage playing the same piano.
Elijah Wood is the stage-frightened concert pianist Tom Selznick in Eugenio Mira's inventive thriller Grand Piano. Through notes, texts, and John Cusack's voice in an earpiece, Tom is told to play a perfect rendition of the complex "La Cinquette"—or else he dies.
Grand Piano plays out in real time over the course of one nightmarish evening for Tom. We get a few composer and girlfriend cameos, but it's mainly just Elijah Wood reacting to Cusack's voice.
10. All Is Lost (2013)
Directed by J. C. Chandor
Starring Robert Redford
Action, Adventure, Drama (1h 46m)
All Is Lost stars Robert Redford as... well, we don't actually know the protagonist's name. Which makes sense, given that there aren't any other characters around to say it! Suffice it to say, our man is lost at sea and caught in all kinds of dramatic shenanigans.
Directed by J. C. Chandor, All Is Lost has a total of just 51 spoken words—and most of that is right at the beginning. It's a unique film in that it has almost no dialogue, but don't let that put you off!
The film's magic is its ability to hook and engage you with only what's happening on screen despite no talking. The title refers to E. W. Hornung's observation that "when courage is lost, all is lost."
9. Inside (2023)
Directed by Vasilis Katsoupis
Starring Willem Dafoe, Gene Bervoets, Eliza Stuyck
Drama, Thriller (1h 45m)
Not to be confused with Bo Burnham: Inside, Vasilis Katsoupis's movie Inside might be a survival story, but it surprisingly features zero battles with nature. It's just Willem Dafoe trapped in a penthouse.
Akin to Dan Gilroy's on-the-nose commentary about the art scene in Velvet Buzzsaw, Inside is a meditation on the nature of art, which Nemo believes "is for keeps."
This motto makes sense given that Nemo is an art thief—one who journey's into the center of madness while trying to escape a luxurious botched heist.
8. Life of Pi (2012)
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain
Adventure, Drama, Fantasy (2h 7m)
Based on Yann Martel's 2001 novel, Life of Pi takes place out at sea. A stunning achievement in cinematography, Ang Lee's adventure drama is sweeping with colorful views and impressive special effects.
Join 16-year-old Pi Patel (played by Suraj Sharma) on his journey across the Pacific Ocean, with no one but a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company on his small boat.
When an ocean liner capsizes, Pi is left without a family and must navigate his way back to safety. Winner of four Oscars (and nominated for eleven), Life of Pi is grand in every sense of the word.
7. Secret Honor (1984)
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring Philip Baker Hall
Biography, Comedy, Drama (1h 30m)
One-man shows are typically found in theaters rather than cinema. Indeed, there are hundreds of single-actor plays out there—from Fleabag to A Room of One's Own—but the majority don't get a big screen adaptation. Donald Freed's did, though!
In Secret Honor, Philip Baker Hall's depiction of Robert Nixon was all the more challenging because of the lack of actors around him.
Every word, expression, and mannerism had to be on the money as he paced around his study with a revolver in one hand and a whiskey in the other shortly after the Watergate scandal.
6. Moon (2009)
Directed by Duncan Jones
Starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 37m)
Sam (played by Sam Rockwell) is alone in space, circling the moon to mine Helium-3 fuel, and has no one to talk to except his computer named GERTY. Luckily, GERTY is nothing like the infamously evil artificial intelligence HAL from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In Moon, Sam is nearing the end of his three-year mission when an unconscious doppelganger shows up and puts a spanner in the works.
Duncan Jones's debut film is both funny and tragic at once, investigating the effects that extreme isolation can have.
Voiced by Kevin Spacey, you'll quickly forget that GERTY is a machine at all, and you'll find yourself sympathizing with both him and Sam.
5. Gravity (2013)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller (1h 31m)
If this list of one-man movies has taught us anything, it's that sea and space are the two most lonely places to be.
Alfonso Cuarón's sweeping space opera Gravity might boast George Clooney on its cast list, but he doesn't exactly last very long. It's primarily Sandra Bullock who holds us glued to the screen as she hurtles through space with no connection to Earth.
Lonely and hopeless, Dr. Ryan Stone can see only one way out—and we just pray she doesn't take it. The sheer scope and velocity of Gravity is enough to make you speechless, and it will blow you away with a central performance that's as astounding as its special effects.
4. Bronson (2008)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Tom Hardy, Kelly Adams, Luing Andrews
Action, Crime, Drama (1h 32m)
Despite a handful of supporting characters, Bronson mainly stars Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy alone. In fact, it even plays out like a one-man show, with vaudeville-style interludes cut between scenes, in which Hardy speaks directly to us from a stage.
Nicolas Winding Refn's crime biopic uses elements of the surreal to bring the infamous bare-knuckle boxer to life. Known as Britain's "most violent prisoner," Charles Bronson took multiple people hostage while incarcerated.
Bronson takes a theatrical look into the famous inmate's life—one that even Charles himself enjoyed watching!
3. Cast Away (2000)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Paul Sanchez
Adventure, Drama, Romance (2h 23m)
One of Tom Hanks's most defining roles—and there are plenty to choose from—involved him as a FedEx executive stranded on a desert island.
In Cast Away, Chuck Noland is on his way to Malaysia for business when his plane crashes and he wakes up surrounded by the Pacific Ocean.
But what seem to be the biggest obstacles at first—food, shelter, survival—are nothing compared to the hardships of isolation.
Growing mad with loneliness, Chuck draws a face out of blood on a volleyball that becomes his sole companion. "Wilson!"
2. Locke (2013)
Directed by Steven Knight
Starring Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson
Drama (1h 25m)
It seems Tom Hardy has a knack for holding our attention even when there's no one else around. Taking place entirely in one car on a journey from Birmingham to London, Locke derives all its dialogue from a series of 36 phone calls made during that ride.
Tom Hardy is Ivan Locke, the man behind the wheel who's juggling the demands of his wife, the nagging calls from his boss, and a one-night stand who's going into labor.
Although we hear the familiar voices of Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, and Tom Holland, director Steven Knight keeps the camera strictly locked to Ivan Locke's point-of-view.
1. 127 Hours (2010)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara
Biography, Drama (1h 34m)
You'd be hard-pressed to believe this as a true story if it weren't for the pictures at the end. 127 Hours is the one-man survival story to rule them all, starring James Franco as the unfortunate canyoneer Aron Ralston.
While hiking through Utah's Canyonlands National Park on a whim, Aron gets his arm pinned by a boulder. With no one else around and only a few supplies on him, Aron has one chance to get out alive: by sawing off his own arm with a dull pocket knife.
Danny Boyle's gritty and hallucinogenic adaptation of Ralston's memoirs is tense, to say the least! If you don't like blood, maybe sit this one out...