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Movies with perfect pace


They may or may not be great movies - but they know how to deliver...

Films with perfect pace

Movies with perfect pace aren’t those that move quickly or slowly - they’re the ones that move at the right speed for the story being told and the style being used to tell them. There are lots of movies that I love which fail the pace test, including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Superman (1978), Dawn Of The Dead (1979), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Taxi Driver (1976).

Consider in this list - and those aforementioned that didn’t make it to the finals - that pace is not the only thing a film needs to offer, and that it can still be a terrible film even if it is well-paced. So this is not a collection of ‘best’ movies - it’s a collection of movies with great…


Psycho (1960)

The road cop in 'Psycho' (1960)

What contrasts. What innovation. Hitch’s adaptation of Robert Bloch’s gory, Ed Gein-inspired shocker knows exactly when to speed you uncomfortably to an uncomfortable place, and when to dwell there and examine the debris of Norman Bates’ Oedipally-damaged psyche. The pace of Psycho has relatively little to do with the shocking despatching of the movie’s central character only thirty minutes in, but instead seeks to capitalise on every single opportunity for suspense. We speed rapidly past Janet Leigh’s opening larceny, only to dwell painfully on her long drawn-out encounter with a motorcycle cop when she attempts to change her incriminating getaway vehicle for a used car. The stifling pace of Anthony Perkins’ under-stimulated motorway existence contrasts sharply with the frenetic, mad sexual energy of his murder of Marion in a grimy motel shower. This time round, Hitchcock is truly inspired. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and won’t return to this level of mastery of pace until the far more deeply-flawed Frenzy (1971).

Alien (1979)

John Hurt with Ridley Scott and Tom Skeritt on the set of Alien (1979) in 1978

It’s tempting to include James Cameron’s Aliens (1985) in this entry, since it follows the same motif in terms of pace and editing, albeit to very different effect. But in truth, Ridley Scott battled hard against studio interference for a ‘slow and building’ pace to this seminal 1970s SF horror movie, and if Cameron capitalised very effectively on the motif, it’s still the achievement of Scott and screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett. The movie opens slow, with establishing shots of the Nostromo’s exterior and interior, and picks up little pace as we are introduced to the dull domesticity and languor of an astronaut’s life. By the final twenty minutes of the movie, Alien has picked up a fuel-injected pace that wraps its fingers round the viewer’s neck and won’t let go until the bitter end. Ridley Scott has often credited The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the only horror movie he let himself be inspired by for Alien - but Tobe Hooper’s theory doesn’t hold a candle to Scott’s execution.

Fargo (1995)

Frances macDormand in Fargo (1995)

For all its Oscar-studded glory, Fargo is not my favourite Coen brothers film. I’d take the goofy satire of The Big Lebowski or even the under-rated comedic performances in The Ladykillers over this sedate tale of snow-bound kidnapping any day of the week - in spite of Frances MacDormand’s award-winning and highly entertaining turn as the country cop with city-sized conspiracies to take down. That said, Fargo knows its story, style and material better than any other output from the Coens. As the Dude would say, it’s a " f***ing Swiss watch” of a movie.

All The President’s Men (1976)

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in 'All The President's Men' (1976)

AtPM is a positive infoburst of obscure and difficult-to-understand data being shot at the viewer like limitless rounds from an Uzi. There’s so much information to get through in Alan J. Pakula’s 1970s Watergate masterpiece that there were only two possible approaches prior to the advent of high-quality long-form TV drama: cut Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s source material to the absolute bone or take a deep breath and make a grown-up movie that trusts the intelligence of its viewer. All The President’s Men is a grown-up movie. It’s a Red Berets’ assault course of a film, which lets the audience catch its breath just long enough to have a hope of not passing out from exhaustion - and no longer. And the quality of the writing and the performances means it’s just too fascinating and entertaining to give up on.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)

Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)

The conclusion to Sergio Leone’s Fistful Of Dollars trilogy proves that the race doesn’t always go to the swift. This is a long movie that seems to drag its heels without ever actually letting the viewer lose tension and interest. It’s a picaresque ‘road movie’ that straddles the space between Chaucer and modern cinema, as three very anti-heroes cross the new West - and a great deal of suffering, both their own and others - to seek the new American dream of striking it rich on one lucky day. As Tuco says, ‘When you have to shoot, shoot’; and Leone’s iconic masterpiece knows exactly when to shoot and when to holster its weapon. An influential masterclass in timing, pace and rhythm.

Star Wars (1977)

Darth Vader threatens Princess Leia in 'Star Wars' (1977)

George Lucas’s game-changing SF fantasy adventure sits at this place in the list for a reason, since it borrows a great deal from Sergio Leone as well as the 1930s breakneck Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers cinematic serials. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is a better movie, but none of the (to date) six Star Wars movies can boast the impeccable sense of timing and pace of this original and against-the-grain fantasy outing. It never drags, never stops, and never strangles the viewer with plot development or character backstory. And let’s give the latterly-maligned directorial talent of George Lucas major credit for that achievement.

Mad Max 2 (1982)

Mel Gibson in 'Mad Max 2' (1982)

Again, George Miller’s infinitely superior post-apocalyptic sequel is situated at this point in the list with good reason, since it blends the timing and sense of fun of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with the breakneck urgency and retro screen-wipes of Star Wars. And in standing on the shoulders of giants, it perfects their work: this tale of a burnt-out, battle-hardened post-nuclear warrior trying to reconnect with humanity (in the form of the fragile souls besieged by petrol-hungry bullies in the Australian outback) may be the most perfectly-paced film I have ever seen.

Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim (2013)

Guillermo Del Toro’s record with pacing is, in my opinion, and against a great deal of fan-opinion, extremely spotty. Why the Mexican director gets Pacific Rim so right in terms of pacing, not only in comparison to his previous work but also to the overblown and ADD-raddled output of Hollywood in the last few years, may remain a mystery. But this tale of giant robots fighting trans-dimensional sea-monsters never bores, never drags, and gives a very talented and popular cast exactly the right amount of individual screen-time to transform an absurd and frankly adolescent SF premise into a movie that’s genuinely fun and compulsive. Along with the previous Mad Max 2, it probably owes more to Star Wars in terms of pacing than any other film of the last thirty or so years.

The Thing (2011)

The Thing (2011)

Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s prequel to John Carpenter’s remake doesn’t necessarily improve on the 1982 movie in all respects. It isn’t much scarier, or better able to develop suspense. But as a huge John Carpenter fan, I have to admit that the man occasionally ‘took his time’ by comparison - perhaps never more so than in the very laconic Assault On Precinct 13 (1976). Carpenter’s a Californian by adoption, a beach bum at heart, and never in a terrible hurry. By contrast, this extremely well thought-out tale of a doomed Norwegian Antarctic base battling shape-shifting alien incursion gets the pace absolutely perfect. Like most modern American horror movies, it’s charged with delivering its payload in the rom-com zone of ninety minutes, to pack in extra screenings - and it knows exactly how to make the most of that prescribed screen time.

Honourable mentions:

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

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#1 Guillermo del Toro is Mexican MauricioC 2014-03-03 05:51
Guillermo del Toro is Mexican not Spanish... otherwise, great list!
#2 RE: Movies with perfect pace Dissension 2014-03-03 21:52
Doh! Okay, I'd better correct that. Thanks.


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