Before Sunrise (1995)
When you look at a plot summary on paper, there is absolutely nothing to recommend Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. No details of any kind stand to elevate it out of the simmering mediocrity of the meet-cute rom-coms available in Costco-esque bulk via any cable provider or streaming service you select. Two people meet in Austria, they’re immediately interested in each other but unavailable, and what will come of their budding romance? Snore. But at some point you’ll get to the part where it says something about “set over 100 minutes and taking place in real time,” and you’ll realize you’re actually looking at something very unusual. Stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are subsumed by their characters as they fall in a sort of love, and the time they spend together … well, 100 minutes never means quite as much as it does when you’re about 25 and somebody new just caught your eye. It’s not a movie about a will-they-won’t-they love story; it’s a movie about how it feels to fall in (maybe-kinda) love, about how it feels to travel when you’re lost. It asks how you use the time you have.
Movies can get sloppy about time. Most films contain plot, and dialogue between characters, and some kind of dramatic arc of conflict, and a sense of setting. But they also take place over time, and that acknowledging that fact can get some filmmakers in trouble. You have seen movies where, e.g., two characters are going on a road trip together. There’s a scene where they leave their apartments, starting a conversation, maybe a brief scene of them traveling in the car, and then a hard cut to their exit at their destination but the conversation has picked up at the same place, with no reference to the time in between. Somehow these people just spent hours stuck in a little box together and didn’t speak at all? We’ve learned to largely ignore that casualness about hard temporal facts. But in the same way Scorsese makes movies about how villains are appealing, and Lynch makes movies about the creepy underbelly of regular life, and Kubrick makes movies about how life in certain intense circumstances can become dreamlike and surreal, Linklater makes movies about time. Could be picaresques of disconnected scenes that might be happening simultaneously (Waking Life, Slacker), could be the technical trick-shot of following a set of actors as a child actually grows up (Boyhood). He works in the medium of time itself, and Before Sunset is his most powerful early work in that medium. It’s a film about the kind of time travel we all do: into the future, one minute per minute.