December 14, 2013 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Longer isn't necessarily better for prestige films

Amy Adams and Christian Bale star in 'American Hustle,' which runs two hours and 18 minutes. (Francois Duhamel / Sony - Columbia Pictures)

There are many things to admire about “Gravity,” the lost-in-space box office smash and awards contender that hit theaters in October.

There are the mind-blowing visuals and the sense of deep space that never ends. There is Sandra Bullock’s performance, both steely and vulnerable as an astronaut who has lost her craft and anything resembling a comfort zone. And there are the thrills as she fights to survive against all odds.

And from a plain business standpoint, there’s this: The movie, which cost $100 million to make, has so far earned more than $615 million around the world.

But right now here’s what I’m appreciating about “Gravity”: brevity.

The film runs a tight 91 minutes long. Over the course of two days recently, I sat through 10 upcoming awards-contending films. And let me tell you, bigger is not necessarily better.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” lasts two hours and 45 minutes. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” clocks in at two hours 41 minutes. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is two hours 19 minutes; “August: Osage County” runs two hours 10 minutes; “American Hustle” is two hours 18 minutes.

In comparison, movies like “Her” (two hours) and “Saving Mr. Banks” (two hours five minutes) come off as downright breezy.

Now the reality is that a very good film can last two-and-a-half hours and fly by, and a very bad film can make 75 minutes seem like an eternity. My favorite film of the year is the controversial French import “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” It lasted just about three hours, and when it was over, I wanted to watch another hour and a half.

In truth, some of the films mentioned above are downright exquisite and in no need of any downsizing. But too often at this time of year — when “Important” films are being released to battle for Oscars and such — otherwise talented directors lose control of their material.

Points are made and remade. Scenes that serve the same purpose are repeated. Speeches are drawn out far too long. Lingering shots outstay their welcome. The curse of bloat overthrows precision and a film becomes too weighty for its own good. That which is supposed to be epic starts to seem endless.

Obviously I’ll be reviewing all these very different films individually. Some are among the year’s best. Some aren’t. A few are seriously undercut by a lack of tightening. And it’s both sad and exhausting when you see a potentially fine film weighted down by its own excesses.

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