The films we designate as “Oscar bait” are often epics or costume dramas, sprawling historical tales, movies that tackle a large subject and feel important — which also usually means long. Comb through the Best Picture winners list and you can find plenty of three-hour films from all eras: The Deer Hunter (183 minutes), Ghandi (191 minutes), Schindler’s List (195 minutes). There was a run from 1995 to 1997 when all the winners broke the 160-minute mark. Last year’s winner, Argo, was only 130 minutes long, but it was below the 2012 Best Picture nominee average (138.2 minutes), and four out of the nine nominees (Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables, and Django Unchained) passed the two-and-a-half-hour mark. You get it: The Academy likes long movies.
But if you do not — or if you, like I do, get exhausted watching your fourth three-hour movie in a row — then the Oscar buzz surrounding Gravity is especially exciting. Its 91-minute running time is not the most important achievement of Gravity, but it’s not an afterthought, either. If the movie were longer, you might get bored watching Sandra Bullock talk to herself in space. There is no wasted shot in Cuarón’s direction (there couldn’t be, with all the technology required); everything is carefully planned to create maximum anxiety. It works. Gravity certainly feels longer than 91 minutes, but in the way that it is meant to (the “Oh God, I’m stuck in space, get me out” way). It was still just as important as something 80 minutes longer.
Admittedly, some movies need to be longer; you couldn’t fit Zero Dark Thirty’s astounding Osama bin Laden raid or, say, Gandhi’s entire life into 90 minutes. But we have come to equate long with Serious, and so many directors (and studios) go for padding rather than editing. Did we really need Quentin Tarantino’s Australian cameo in Django Unchained? Or all that Thénardier nonsense in the second half of Les Misérables? (It’s called an adaptation. Adapt!)
I am not under the illusion that Gravity will convince all studios to chop their movies in half, though even the summer blockbusters are getting out of hand. (149 minutes of The Lone Ranger? Seriously?) I am aware that we usually get one courtesy 90-minute nominee, and that it seldom wins. But as a time-limit enthusiast, I am still rooting for Gravity, which proves that epic movies do not need to go on forever and ever. Ninety-one minutes is great. Let’s aim for that.