"Clerks" dir. Kevin Smith (1994)
"Clerks" is minimalism at its best, with the movie featuring nothing but two jaded youths who deal with the annoying customers at the stores in which they "work" and discuss topics like movies. They're hardly the most complex or original characters, but fortunately for us, Smith doesn't try to present them as anything other than exactly what they are -- a couple of buffoons just trying to get through the work day. Shot in black and white, "Clerks" is genuinely stripped down to the thinnest of story and character layers, instead opting to flaunt an attitude that hardly gets depicted enough on the big screen. With that, Dante and Randal's day feels almost as absurd as the goings-on of the characters on "Seinfeld," whose constant interactions and discussions amount to a great big ball of nothing -- and we couldn't ask for anything more.
"Before Sunrise" dir. Richard Linklater (1995)
There may be no better example of a one-night plot than the first film in Richard Linklater's trilogy. "Before Sunrise" helped popularize the idea of a low-concept story in which two people simply pour their hearts out over the course of a single night. The story follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), both of them discussing their hopes and concerns about life and love after they find themselves together in Vienna (a sure-fire setting for romance). What's so engrossing about this story, however, is how relatable the film's central characters are in everything they talk about, without ever becoming mundane. Added to that is the romantic element involving the saddening notion that these two people may never see each other again, which Linklater aptly uses to heighten the meaningfulness of their budding connection and justify their complete openness with one another that so few of us get the opportunity to experience, ensuring that this one single night is well worth the time of anyone who watches it.
"Funny Games" dir. Michael Haneke (1998)
Haneke's movies often have a tragic element to them, but this one definitely takes the cake. In "Funny Games," two sociopathic youths hold an innocent family hostage and torture them just for fun. You may denounce this movie for its violent nature, but the film's immense power in fact comes from the violence that is merely suggested, allowing for the audience to paint their own picture. The villain's direct addresses to the camera further manipulate the viewer into trying to guess what's going to happen next, with a sadistic promise of a happy ending that seems less and less likely as the story progresses. Bonus points go to Haneke for making an American version of the film years later while still keeping the frightening mark it has left on all those who've dared to watch it.
"Run Lola Run" dir. Tom Tykwer (1998)
This German caper may have the shortest time setting of any movie before or since. Taking place over the course of merely twenty minutes, "Run Lola Run" features the titular character running to find a bag filled with money that her boyfriend was supposed to give to his murderous boss -- until the bag gets lost, leaving Lola with only twenty minutes to find it and get it back to her boyfriend before he robs a supermarket to get the money. You may ask yourself how this plot could possibly occur over the course of such a short time, and the answer to that lies in the film's crafty narrative, which places Lola in three different scenarios that begin the same way but entail very different developments and outcomes, with each person she encounters on her journey being affected in one way or another, intensifying the pressure and upping the stakes each time our red-headed heroin goes on her crucial run.
"Irreversible" dir. Gaspar Noe (2002)
Harrowing is hardly a strong enough word to describe this harshly violent French crime thriller starring Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. That doesn't stop it, though, from being one of the most impactful cinematic experiences in recent film history. Setting the story in reverse chronological order, "Irreversible" begins to show the events surrounding the brutal rape of a beautiful woman and the vengeance that is being sought for it. With its stark cinematography and its general air of fear and despair, the film brings new meaning to the term avant-garde cinema, incorporating some of the cinematic techniques and themes that were often taken for granted in their time. But the fact that such a movie is not for the faint of heart should not deter the fact that not only was it ahead of its time, but it will very likely get much better with age, with its principal themes becoming more and more relevant as the years go on.