Top 6: Slow Movies That Are Still Compelling

Posted in Top 6 at 4:59 am by Sam

In Episode 10, our Top 6 is about movies that are slow but still compelling — movies that take their time to build characters and atmosphere. We think many times the word “slow” is used as a synonym for dull or boring, and certainly that is often an apt description, but we want to make a case for movies that work without speeding from one plot point to another.

What are your favorite slow movies?

As always, we recommend listening to the episode before reading further.

  1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
  3. Ikiru (1952)
  4. The Godfather (1972)
  5. Heat (1995)
  6. Raging Bull (1980)
  1. Tokyo Story (1953)
  2. The Black Stallion (1979)
  3. Once Upon a Time In the West (1968)
  4. Solyaris (1972)
  5. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
  6. Winged Migration (2001)


  1. Grishny (156) said,

    December 5, 2006 at 10:32 am

    One of my favorite slow movies, and I heard you mention it at one point, is Never Cry Wolf. I first saw it on the Disney channel when I was ten or eleven, and was captivated by it.

    The whole caribou stampede scene kind of shocked me at the time, though. I think that might have been my first experience with on-screen nudity. What I really remember about the movie though, is how well it evoked a mood of quiet, brooding melancholy by the end. The movie just sort of ends there, and leaves me feeling wistful. I don’t know exactly how to describe it.

    It’s a good movie for building moods through scenery and music, with very little or no dialog. In one scene I can recall where there IS a lot of dialog, it’s used in juxtaposition with the otherwise quiet and contemplative attitude of movie to highlight the brusque, harsh callousness of an antagonist. A scene where the main character flees from real or imagined pursuers (I was never really sure) has no words, and little or no music– just the sound of his footsteps and breathing getting faster and faster as he starts to panic. But it worked perfectly to build my suspense.

  2. siochembio (82) said,

    December 5, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    One of my all time favorite movies is “Diary of a Country Priest” and it is VERY slow moving but amazingly compelling. There’s no big action sequence at all, and most of the movie, you’re inside the young priest’s head. You get so involved in what he’s thinking and trying to figure out his life that the drama comes from what could seem to be small events. Those small events take on huge consequences.

    One of the best films I’ve ever seen.

  3. Aaron (35) said,

    December 5, 2006 at 5:21 pm

    When I first saw this list, the first thing that came to my mind was The Twilight Zone television series, even though it isn’t actually a movie. It’s just that, usually, I tend to have a low tolerance for slow movies, even sometimes when I shouldn’t, but The Twilight Zone sticks out for me because I love a lot of it, even though objectively looking at it it’s as slow as molasses.

    To note, though, I did enjoy the two movies (Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather) on this list that I’ve seen, however.

  4. Sam (405) said,

    December 5, 2006 at 7:02 pm

    I think when a movie works, you don’t tend to think of it as “slow.” When it’s pointed out that a movie is paced slowly, you might then agree, but “slow” is only ever the first adjective that comes to mind if it wasn’t working for you in the first place, and then the word is applied as a criticism.

    So it’s not surprising that you say you have a low tolerance for slow movies, then turn around and rattle off three exceptions off the top of your head. I would bet there are more.

    Part of the reason we did chose this particular Top 6 list was to throw a monkeywrench into the “slow = boring” perception. Of course, what some people call “slow but compelling,” others will call “slow and tedious,” and I picked a couple of titles for my list that notoriously try people’s patience. But the distinction is there.

    It’s only ever a problem when it gets back to the studios. They get the message that “slow = boring” from viewers who only ever use the word “slow” when a movie truly *is* boring, and so as a result, studios crank out movies that are so fast-paced as to be incoherent. And, thus, the complaints roll in that such-and-such movie moves too fast for us to get to know and care about the characters.

    I’m loving the feedback on this thread so far. Thanks to all of you who have posted with your favorite slow titles. It’s gratifying to know that we’re on a similar wavelength. Grishny, you’re so right about Never Cry Wolf. It’s a particular strength of the director, I guess, Carol Ballard. His most recent film, “Duma,” was tragically overlooked and never really got a decent theatrical release. But it’s on DVD — Netflix has it — and I highly recommend it.

  5. siochembio (82) said,

    December 6, 2006 at 12:46 am

    Thought of another one - “Barry Lyndon.” I call it fascinating; my mother calls it the most excruciatingly boring two hours of her life.

  6. Stephen (221) said,

    December 6, 2006 at 1:04 am

    Barry Lyndon is excellent. Honestly, it seems a shame I missed Kubrick on my list, now. One could also make a great case for 2001 — but I think I’ve included it on a few lists (at least one, anyway) and I try not to constantly repeat. Though I think Shawshank shows up every week, along with “Singin’ in the Rain.”

  7. ThePhan (128) said,

    December 6, 2006 at 1:49 am

    Probably my current favorite slow movie - Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunrise. Nothing actually happens in this movie after the first ten minutes. They meet each other, make this wild plan to spend a day in the city together, and then wander around talking about philosophy and views about life. The same sort of thing happens in Linklater’s film Waking Life, although to a MUCH greater extent. There really is virtually no plot in that movie. I love both of them, though. (Note that I have not yet seen Before Sunset, although I’ve rented it from Hollywood Video about four times.)

    As I try and think of other movies, though, I have trouble distinguishing in my head the difference between slow movies and fast movies, and now I’m not even sure I’ve got the right idea. Slow movies mostly just mean nothing happens, or perhaps that the plot unfolds at a pace which leaves long sections in the middle where nothing’s going on? Because I can think of LOTS of movies I liked that do that. Most character study movies, actually, or movies that stretch out over long periods of time. Does the movie necessarily have to *feel* slow?

    If the above is the qualification, I would include movies such as Driving Miss Daisy and Lost In Translation, both of which I liked.

    Harumph. I overanalyze everything and make it more difficult than it really is.

  8. Grishny (156) said,

    December 6, 2006 at 10:50 am

    Has anybody seen The Straight Story, from David Lynch? I enjoyed it, yet unlike many of the movies on the list this week, I think this one definitely feels like a slow movie. A movie about a old man who travels hundreds of miles across the Midwest– on a lawnmower– couldn’t help but feel slow.

    This movie also has some great mood-setting music, and lots of beautiful scenery, two ways in which its like Never Cry Wolf. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like it.

    Unlike NCW, the main character interacts with a lot of different people. And each place he travels to and through has it’s own unique flavor and characters. On one hand, it all looks the same on the surface, but it doesn’t take much digging to see that each little town has it’s own little oddities that make it unique. Nothing really happens in this movie, but far from being bored by it, I felt like I did get inside Alvin Straight’s head and was able to explore the themes of the movie from his point of view.

  9. wintermute (157) said,

    December 6, 2006 at 10:52 am

    Slow good movies, for me, might include:

    12 Angry Men
    Donnie Brasco
    Enemy Mine
    Little Voice
    The Lord of the Rings
    The Manchurian Candidate (1962 - I’ve not seen the remake)
    Schindler’s List
    Silent Running

  10. Stephen (221) said,

    December 7, 2006 at 12:19 am

    You think 12 Angry Men is slow? I guess maybe it starts out that way, but my memory of the last 30 minutes or so is one of the most tense and dramatic climaxes in movie history.

    The Manchurian Candidate (the remake is surprisingly not terrible, but nothing as good as the original) I also don’t find very slow. It’s pretty much a thriller in my mind, just paced more like a conventional drama.

    Interesting pick on LOTR, too. I know there are a lot of battle sequences in it, but in my mind most of its best parts are the in-between sequences, especially the entire opening act in the extended cut of Fellowship.

  11. Stephen (221) said,

    December 7, 2006 at 12:19 am

    Oh, and I’ve seen The Straight Story. It was a little too slow for me, but it’s definitely my favorite film by David Lynch.

    One of these days we’ll have to talk about Lynch on the podcast…

  12. wintermute (157) said,

    December 7, 2006 at 10:25 am

    Well, as has been said before, 12 Angry Men doesn’t seem slow at the time, but looking back on it, I think it does. Barring the last 15-30 minutes, as you say. Possibly the fact that there’s no actual action contributes.

    As for The Manchurian Candidate, you may well be right. It’s not so much that it’s objectively slow (it’s probably one of the fasted-paced movies on my list), but it feels slower than I’d expect a movie of that genre to.

    As for LotR, it seems to sum up that old maxim that war is long periods of waiting, interspersed with moments of sheer terror. Yes, there is plenty of action, and significant chunks of the trilogy are very rapidly paced, but I think that overall, the pacing is driven more by the slow, inexorable march of Sam and Frodo towards Mordor, than by any great clashing of armies.

  13. Ferrick (140) said,

    December 8, 2006 at 6:32 pm

    I wonder if long is sometimes equated to slow. I love “The Great Escape” but can’t decide if it is slow or just long.

    I can think of lots of movies that I thought were (too) long but I can’t say it is because they were slow.

    But is that how it is often viewed?

  14. joem18b (231) said,

    April 30, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    Haven’t listened to episode 10 yet, but in case this movie wasn’t mentioned:

    Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire)

  15. cdrth (1) said,

    January 21, 2012 at 12:39 am

    is there any other movie like that??? may not be romantic though??

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