The 10 best movies set in a single location

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Disappointing though it may be for the people who make a living building them, history has shown that many movies don’t need any more than one set to deliver greatness.

Single-location films have been a part of cinema for as long as the moving image has existed, and there are a number of reasons why filmmakers have decided they only need a solitary backdrop to tell a worthwhile story.

It could be a call made in the name of cost-effectiveness, an opportunity to place the focus on story or character, or the simple desire to experiment and see if they’ve got what it takes to drag the maximum out of the bare minimum.

Whatever the reasons, it can’t be argued that the following ten features are among the very best to have ever thrown caution to the wind, risked the ire of set-builders everywhere, and decreed that one location was more than enough to tell their tale.

The 10 best films set in a single location:

10. Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001)

Richard Linklater has carved out an eclectically unique career as a well-known mainstream filmmaker who favours experimentation, with Tape indicative of his approach to pushing the boundaries of convention.

Unfolding across 86 minutes from inside the confines of a single motel room, three high school friends reunite after a decade apart to reminisce on the past, with Tape gradually peeling back the layers to reveal the dark and troubling truth the characters have been carrying.

Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman are on searing form, with Linklater’s intentionally lo-fi aesthetic aiding the immersion and authenticity of a modernised chamber piece that becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch as the trio’s cards are laid on the table.

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9. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

A middle-class suburban dinner party doesn’t carry inherent cinematic potential, which only serves to make writer and director James Ward Byrkit’s mesmerising surrealist sci-fi all the more remarkable.

That banality is key to everything that follows, though, with Coherence casually unfolding on the same night as a passing comet. Shot in the filmmaker’s actual house and heavily improvised by the cast, there’s a naturalism that always feels ill-at-ease with the mind-bending effects to follow.

The group spots a doppelganger of the house they’re in, with paradoxes quickly becoming commonplace as Coherence ratchets up the tension in a fashion that’s equal parts bewildering and engrossing. It was a hell of a calling card, not to mention an instant cult classic.

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8. Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010)

The easiest way to get the best out of Ryan Reynolds is to cast him in a role completely unlike the ones that made him a star, with the unrelentingly claustrophobic Buried as the finest example.

It’s far and away the best performance of the actor’s entire career, although it doesn’t come as recommended viewing for anyone who experiences even the slightest hint of claustrophobia.

Rodrigo Cortés crafts an incredibly stylish movie for one that takes place entirely inside a coffin, with Reynolds present in every frame as his civilian contractor Paul Conroy awakens to discover that he’s trapped with a lighter, a pen, and a phone to try and extricate himself from a suffocating predicament.

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7. My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981)

Co-written by and starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory as ever-so-slightly fictional versions of themselves, the New York-set dramedy is a masterclass in how less can often be more in cinema.

The duo sit down over a munch and simply shoot the shit, trading stories and anecdotes for over 100 minutes. My Dinner with Andre is quite literally a film about two guys talking, but with the personable performances and conversational insights, it becomes experimentally audacious.

Malle’s direction and the razor-sharp script penned by the two leads ensure the pacing never slows and the momentum never lulls, making My Dinner with Andre a surprisingly exhilarating exercise in minimalism where not even a single word of dialogue is wasted.

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6. Panic Room (David Fincher, 1967)

David Fincher has always been a director to embrace a challenge, with Panic Room marking his fourth consecutive film to deliberately subvert expectations by giving him the opportunity to craft a taut, nail-biting thriller that takes place inside an apartment.

After Seven toying with the serial killer thriller by having the murderer turn themselves in midway through and The Game seeing how many twists it could pack into its runtime to blur the lines between fact and fiction, and Fight Club being unironically embraced by the very demographic it was mocking, it was almost inevitable that Fincher would pass his next self-inflicted task with flying colours.

Ably assisted by a formidable Jodie Foster in the lead, Fincher uses the limitations of his location to his advantage with some dizzying camerawork and pulse-pounding set pieces, all without having to leave the vicinity of its solitary locale.

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5. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)

Luis Buñuel wasn’t one for playing by the tried-and-trusted rules of cinema, with his madcap surrealist masterpiece trapping its cast of characters in a single room for the duration.

Edmundo and Lucía Nóbile invited 18 guests over for a dinner party, only for the attendees to discover the following morning that it’s physically impossible for them to leave. Naturally, chaos and avant-garde antics ensue as Buñuel opens the door to exploring class, wealth, and social status through his unique lens.

The Exterminating Angel might thrive on its pitch-black comedy, but there’s also an element of horror on display, creating an unusual sense of disturbing hilarity that plagues the viewer just as much as it does the characters.

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4. Brink of Life (Ingmar Bergman, 1958)

Stripping back cinema to its essence, Ingmar Bergman digs deep into the human experience in a slow-burning character study that doesn’t need any more locations than a maternity ward to get its points across.

Ingrid Thulin, Eva Dahlbeck, and Bibi Andersson star as a woman who recently suffered a miscarriage, an enthusiastic expectant mother, and an unprepared teenager respectively, with the trio on such towering form they shared the ‘Best Actress’ award at the 1958 edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

Placing more emphasis on socially conscious thematic and narrative developments than the existentialism regularly prevalent in his work, Brink of Life packs a powerful emotional punch while continuing to burn the candle of hopeful optimism, a difficult balancing act to pull off.

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3. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

‘New German Cinema’ founding figure Rainer Werner Fassbinder adapted his own play, and the end result was a striking work of cinematic art that might well be the influential filmmaker’s masterpiece.

Taking place in the home of the titular fashion designer, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant unfolds in four acts and an epilogue, with each using the aesthetic of Margit Carstensen’s lead to illustrate her current state of mind as the interpersonal dynamics between the film’s central trio constantly shift.

The love triangle between the three women at the centre of the story leads to a constant game of one-upmanship that runs the emotional gamut from confidence and intimacy to toxicity and devastation while constantly returning to its overarching theme of how everyone is longing for connection in their own way.

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2. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

No stranger to experimenting with the form to set his films in single locations, Rear Window marked the creative and artistic apex of Alfred Hitchcock narrowing the focus of his work to increase its scope and grandeur.

Using one of the largest and most intricately detailed sets ever constructed at the time, the extravagant backdrop was pivotal to the ‘Master of Suspense’ turning the screws on the boredom, loneliness, suspicion, and paranoia of James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound L.B. Jeffries.

The apartment complex becomes a character in itself, with Hitchcock holding off on answering the many questions posed by Rear Window until the final act, in a masterclass of precision-engineered audience and character manipulation from one of the best to ever do it.

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1. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

All Sidney Lumet needed to put together one of American cinema’s greatest-ever movies was a strong script and an ensemble cast firing on all cylinders. He got it and then some, which is why none of the many spiritual successors to 12 Angry Men have come close to bettering it.

A dozen jurors need to come to a unanimous agreement to decide the outcome of a murder trial, and that’s about it in terms of story. There’s only one dissenter in the beginning who protests the innocence of the defendants, and even he’s not entirely convinced.

Only two of the titular 12 even get names, but every single one of them is a richly drawn and well-rounded character. Tensions arise, prejudices are confronted, evidence is doubted, and biases are acknowledged, with the debate setting the stage for a timeless great that uses its lack of bells and whistles to the greatest advantage.

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