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Ranking The 20 Greatest, Most Celebrated Long Takes

Ranking The 20 Greatest, Most Celebrated Long Takes

This weekend, “The Raid 2” opens, in all its chop-socky glory, in limited release and will expand in the weeks to come. Continuing on from the original “The Raid,” though by all accounts (ours included) creating fight scenes even more fluid and flabbergasting than its predecessor (which was pretty much all one fight scene), it employs many takes of above-average length to give an extra edge of realism and dynamism to the old ultra-violence. This approach characterized Gareth Evans‘ shooting style last time out too and still feels like a refreshing counterpoint to the hyper-kinetic Michael Bay school of editing, which often feels like it’s hiding as much as it’s showing. 

But if the use of long takes in action sequences is still a relatively novel phenomenon, the cinematic history of the extended take in general is much longer and we thought we’d take this opportunity to choose our favorites. This turned out to be a timely endeavor, because as you may know, recently a debate has kicked off in the (God forgive me) blogosphere about whether or not critics and film commentators should talk and write more about the form and craftsmanship aspects of filmmaking than they (we) currently do. 

Sparked off by a well-written, interesting and articulate post by Matt Zoller Seitz over on RogerEbert.com with which we disagree so violently we may have dislocated something, the debate actually has some bearing on this feature: it is, after all, about a group of films that are sharing column space based on formal rather than thematic or narrative similarity. And yet, for us, that’s exactly the paradox that hovers round the fringe of this list: contrary to the kind of analysis after which Seitz seems to hanker (echoing Andrew Sarris, among others), our own impulses are always toward the description of the effect of a particular technique on one’s understanding of the story or mood, rather than on the technique itself. So where Seitz states “Films… are made by filmmakers. Write about the filmmaking” we’d have to counter with “yes, but films are made for viewers. Write for the viewer.” How much do any of us, as viewers, want to know how the sausage is made, and how much do we just want to know, in the most literate and insightful way possible, that it’s going to taste delicious?

Yes, we digress, but this was all on our minds when we assembled our list of long takes, because as much as we dislike the fetishization of form over content, in that debate, the long take may well be ground zero, as it’s one instance of formal experimentation that is often so ostentatious that even the casual viewer, or the most determinedly story-oriented critic, can and does pick up on it. Those cases may make for impressive moments, but ultimately, they can also break a film’s spell and so, while we’ve of necessity included a few, mostly we’re heavily weighing our picks toward extended takes that have a definite narrative purpose outside of “look at me! I haven’t used a cut in minutes!” Why? Because even here, in a feature about a formal convention, we’d rather talk about story than style. We’re incorrigible. 

20. “Panic Room” (Fincher, 2002) DP: Darius Khondji, Conrad Hall
So let’s start by totally breaking the augment-the-storytelling rule with this almost insultingly show-offy, CG establishing shot floats impossibly through banisters, coffee pot handles, into and out of keyholes and then through the ceiling. The technical virtuosity here is inarguable, and warranted it a spot on this list alone, but we’d argue it’s also an example of putting form before content to a detrimental degree. The house feels porous, the geography malleable, when it should be confining and contained, and the claustrophobia of the premise is undercut by the sense, established early, that there is someone else already in the house—the inquisitive, omnipotent camera. 

19. “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000) Director: Bela Tarr DP: Patrick de Ranter

There are some directors for whom long takes are not so much a tool in their arsenal as a way of life, and not-for-everyone Hungarian maestro Bela Tarr can definitely be counted among those. Indeed the 145-min Harmonies’ is a series of just 39 languid shots (the average film has 5000-ish cuts), but this particular scene does stand out for its complex staging and for its creepy absence of dialogue as the invading thugs lay waste to a hospital with almost lobotomized violence. And then the weird reverie culminates in an oddly beautiful tableau as they come across an old man, naked as a martyr, and shame, one of the themes of the film, overcomes them. 
18. “Atonement” (2007) Director: Joe Wright DP: Seamus McGarvey
Another instance of a long take that is rather self-conscious in its placement in the middle of film that otherwise doesn’t employ this same style, this epic shot from “Atonement” may be atypical, but the complexity of its choreography alone, as well as its ambition (to capture the chaos and hope and tragedy of Dunkirk) can’t be faulted. But there’s also something artificial about it, almost theatrical (though the stage is vast) that gives it a heightened, hyperreal feeling—every moment is so packed with incident and detail that, like a couple of other instances on this list, it’s a shot that could almost stand alone outside of the film which it ostensibly serves.
17. “Hard Boiled” (1992) Director: John Woo DP: Wang Wing-Hang
With “The Raid” movies and the films of Tony Jaa, among others, gaining recognition for their graceful, often long-take approach to action, we should remember that there was a time when the word “balletic” was reserved as a descriptor for action scenes from the original ballet master, John Woo. “Hard Boiled,” his last Hong Kong film before decamping to Hollywood (to diminishing returns, we’d say), is one of his best not only gifting us that iconic image of Chow Yun-Fat with a baby in one arm and a shotgun in the other, but also this bravura 2m40s shootout (which includes a 20 sec elevator conversation during which the crew reset the entire set).
16. “The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953) Director: Max Ophüls  DP: Christian Matras
An avowed influence on Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, and pretty much any other filmmaker who’s ever moved their camera, Ophüls’ more famous, and longer, long take is the opening to “La Ronde,” but this one just feels more special to us. Here, combining movement with mise-en-scene and framing, the shot serves the story absolutely by introducing a character and a milieu so succinctly. But then, this whole list could be dedicated to Ophuls, whose style even caused James Mason to write a poem: 
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he’d never smile again.

15. “Paths of Glory” (1957) Director: Stanley Kubrick DP: Georg Kraus
This early example from Kubrick is not his longest shot nor his most complex, but it does brilliantly illustrate how longer takes can be used to bolster storytelling, rather than remove you from it. The camera glides effortlessly as the general, oozing condescension, delivers his “morale-boosting” words to grateful, doomed troops, until we butt-edit up against a close up of the shellshocked, silent man who is not reading from the same script, and the hypocrisy is abruptly laid bare. (Course, we could easily have included the opening from “A Clockwork Orange” or the shots following Danny on his tricycle in “The Shining” or any of several sedate takes in ‘2001‘ etc.) 
14. “The Secret In Their Eyes” (2009) Director: Juan José Campanella DP: Felix Monti
Another prime example of a long take (it clocks in at 5 mins) that is totally justified on a story level, this is an absolutely bravura sequence from the terrifically entertaining 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner. Established by a wide “helicopter” shot of a packed football stadium, we fly in to close up on our heroes in the stands, swim in and out of the crowd as they embark on their impossible search, before it morphs into an extended chase during which the subject is found, then lost, then found again, before ending up in a panting heap on the middle of the football pitch, mid-game. Completely breathless, exciting filmmaking that is so immersive you lose yourself within it.
13. “Snake Eyes” (1998) Director: Brian de Palma DP: Stephen H Burum
Throw a dart at a de Palma movie and chances are you’ll end up in the middle of a long take—the director’s filmography is lousy with them, and the occasionally dubious quality of the surrounding films (naw, we love him really, here’s our retrospective) means that sometimes not for the best of reasons, they do stand out. And there’s none that exemplifies that paradox (interesting shot; subpar movie) more than this 12-minute sequence from terminally silly Nic Cage thriller “Snake Eyes,” (which, yes, has concealed cuts hidden in whip pans and what not, but the effect is still pretty seamless). Except maybe the beginning of “Bonfire of the Vanities” but we drank to forget that film.

12. “The Protector” (aka “Warrior King” aka “Tom Yum Goong“) (2005) Director: Prachya Pinkaew DP: Nattawut Kittikhun
“Where’s my ELEPHANT?” may still be our favorite recurring line of dialogue from any martial arts movie ever, but no list of this sort could fail to take note of the amazing staircase fight from this Tony Jaa movie. Playing out like a brightly lit, more humorous version of the original “The Raid” in miniature, in just under four minutes Jaa works his way up multiple flights of stairs dispatching anyone he meets in unmistakably non-stunt-double form. The vast landings and prevalence of bamboo dividers through which people can be thrown is obviously stagy, but when the results are this much fun, who cares?
11. “Gravity” (2013) Director: Alfonso Cuarón DP: Emmanuel Lubezki
The most recent entry on our list is also one of the longest: the 17-minute long sequence that starts the multi-Oscar-winner in such unforgettable style. With directors often employing longer takes as beginning or end shots (the rhythm of the film being less disturbed that way) this may go down as one of the most brilliant “establishing shot”s ever: I mean, how does one evoke a sense of geography where there is no geography? Lulling us into a sense of weightless safety before terrifyingly shattering that comfort, this stunning shot’s length has only one drawback: humans can’t actually go 17 minutes without breathing. The last 3m20s of that sequence is below:
10. “The Sacrifice” (1986) Director: Andrei Tarkovsky DP: Sven Nyqvist
There’s no list on earth that could do justice to Tarkovsky’s shotmaking (look at the burning barn in “Mirror” or the dream sequence in “Stalker” or the hypnotic driving scene in “Solaris” or all of “Andrei Rublev” etc etc). So we’re going to go with this scene from the Bergman-indebted (shot in Gotland by Bergman collaborator Nyqvist) “The Sacrifice,” Tarkovsky’s last film. This 6 min shot is actually his second longest (the first is at the beginning of this film), but famously required the rebuilding of the house after the camera stalled. We’re still not sure we understand how he manages to imbue what could be ridiculous, Benny-Hill-esque long-shot running-about with such tragic, aching mood, but then we could spend our lives trying to decipher Tarkovsky’s skill. And probably will. 
9. “Magnolia” (1999) Director: Paul Thomas Anderson DP: Robert Elswit
As clearly pointed out in this video deconstructing PTA’s steadicam use, there’s no film of his within which we couldn’t find an example of the long tracking shot. But we’re plumping for “Magnolia,” even over the two spectacular “Boogie Nights” examples because as terrific as they (and the lesser-known one from “Hard Eight“) are, they feel quite indebted to their influences, Scorsese in particular, and it’s really “Magnolia” that feels like it’s doing completely its own thing. The fluidity of this inquisitive, restless shot establishes character and location yes, but mostly acts an encapsulation of a film that’s all about labyrinthine relationships between people struggling to connect, but only ever passing by.
8. “Touch of Evil” (1958) Director: Orson Welles DP: Russell Metty
The literal ticking time bomb of Welles’ opener to his Charlton Heston-starrer is as good a reason as anyone’s ever discovered for an extended take, with added epic feel coming from the wild variance in scale from the close up of the bomb to the high angle crane shot that picks up Heston, then loses him then picks him up as his path interweaves with that of the doomed car. It’s an insanely complex shot that of course Welles makes look as effortless as falling off a log, though a sight more graceful, before it culminates in a kiss that is also an explosion. It’s an amazing, peerless symbiosis of form and content. 
7. “Weekend” (1967) Director: Jean-Luc Godard DP: Raoul Coutard
One of a series of perfectly self-contained moments that characterize Godard’s experimental black comedy thingummajig (in fact we’d suggest that the film is more comprehensible, and certainly more watchable if viewed as a collection of vignettes rather than a coherent feature, which it ain’t and don’t want to be), the 7-minute long traffic jam is probably the director’s most famous shot. Not especially complex in terms of camerawork (it is just one long sideways track) nonetheless as it follows the line of cars we get these terrific little voyeuristic glimpses of the lives of the occupants, sometimes comical, sometimes odd, and it’s all very Tati-esque and charming. Until the bodies and the tire tracks through the blood. 
6. “Oldboy” (2003) Director: Park Chan-Wook DP: Chung Chung-Hoon
And from one classic lateral track to a more modern version—Park’s awesomely violent original “Oldboy” just oozes style all over, but this corridor fight really felt like something we’d never seen before. Again, complex in its choreography and set design (and amazing lighting technique to make things comprehensible but also chiaruscuro-beautiful, like a Caravaggio) rather than its simple side-to-side camera movement, it’s 2m 40s-ish of sheer badassery that will forever remain simply one of the coolest things we’d ever seen in a cinema. 
5. “I Am Cuba” (1964) Director: Mikhail Kalatozov DP: Sergey Urusevsky
Without a doubt one of the most beautiful films ever shot, it’s astounding that “I Am Cuba” was so long neglected, following the negative reaction to its initial release in the Soviet Union and Cuba. It took valiant efforts of film conservationists such as Martin Scorsese to get it restored to its former glory, which is characterized by several mesmerizing long takes, notably one that ends up underwater in a hotel pool. But we’re choosing to showcase this shot, which one would have thought impossible with the technology of the time, in which a protest march turns into a funeral procession and we follow in and out of buildings, high above the streets. 
4. “The Player” (1992) Director: Robert Altman DP: Jean Lepine
Featuring Welles‘s “Touch of Evil” lower on this list than the Altman-directed long take that literally references it may seem a bit sacrilegious, but hey, we’re iconoclasts. And also, this shot is just an absolute blast, a witty inside-baseball look at the workings of a film studio in a film about filmmaking in which everyone works in the film industry and everyone only talks about films. It’s a little like Playlist Towers in that regard, only everyone’s better looking and it’s sunny. While the meta, look at me! nature of extremely long takes is sometimes an issue, this one is in service of an extremely meta film, so it gets a joyous pass. 
3. “The Passenger” (1975) Director: Michelangelo Antonioni DP: Luciano Tovoli
Many of these shots contain a “how did they do that?” element, which is often part of the problem, as regards something that distracts you from the story. But we’ll suggest that that distraction is part of the reason the penultimate shot of Antonioni’s enigmatic identity-swap drama works as well as it does. As the camera first follows Jack Nicholson around the hotel room, then ventures out through the bars to the courtyard outside, the discomfort of the “impossible” move is part of what is puzzling about the sequence and it sets up an uncanny sense of “things happening beyond our ken” which is perfect reflection of watching the business of the courtyard while an offscreen death is occurring. Still amazing, still unknowable.
2. “Goodfellas” (1990) Director: Martin Scorsese DP: Michael Ballhaus
Well. We could write a novel about this shot, and about all it represents and everything it has influenced since, but really it’s simply an example of as close to perfect a long-take shot as has ever existed in film. It tells us so much about the characters, and their relationship, it establishes so much of a world and a mood, and it does all that so stylishly and with such fluidity and dynamism that it should surely feel a million times rehearsed. And yet the real genius of this shot (and why it rides so high on this list, when “Raging Bull” has terrific examples too, as has late entry “The Wolf of Wall Street“) is that it feels natural—the complexity of the shot never, ever, detracts from its vitality. Compared to other, impressive but more stately long takes (some of which we’ve shouted out here), this is a peerless example of virtuoso filmmaking whose technical virtuosity feels like the last thing on its mind. 
1. “Children of Men” (2006) Director: Alfonso Cuarón DP: Emmanuel Lubezki
And here we are, breaking our one-entry-per-director guideline, not for Tarkovsky or Kubrick or PTA or Scorsese, but for Best Director Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón. But there’s no getting away from the flat-out amazingness of this scene, which famously required days to shoot, whole new rigs to be built and which at one point Cuarón was convinced they hadn’t got because of blood splatter on the camera lens. But as much as the technical heights it scales cannot be underestimated (“Gravity” after all, was hugely complex but somehow more controllable than this shot with all its variables of vehicles, characters, performance, timing etc), most impressive to us is the fact that this scene is one which, the first or second time out, we didn’t even register as a one-take wonder. So wrapped up were we in the story that the craft only ever worked on us in a completely subconscious manner (as opposed, for example, to the other fantastic, emotional long shot of Clive Owen walking through the ruined hospital with the baby, whose length and grace we actively noticed). This long take, that breaks so many long take “rules” (like how the truly shocking moment happens not at the end but in the middle) is for us simply the supreme example of masterful, accomplished filmmaking being put in service of sky-high dramatic stakes. 

Notable by their absence are a few no-brainer films that we excluded because they almost feel like they have a different agenda. So “Russian Ark” which is of course all one take, Hitchcock’s “Rope,” which is stitched together to give the impression of takes even longer than they actually were, Mike Figgis’ “Timecode,” with its real-time split-screen long takes and Michael Snow’s “Wavelength” which is an experiment in long takes, do not appear but are all instructive for devotees of this sort of thing.

And there are some that just missed the cut: the introduction of the ship and its inhabitants in Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” is a terrific example of establishing geography and character with wit and economy; Tarantino’s voyage around the teahouse in “Kill Bill Vol 1” is a fun ride; Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and “Last Days” both contain several very long takes (some might say tryingly so); as does Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers.” Hitchcock examples from “Frenzy” and “Young and Innocent,” the first-person intro of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” and the initial, journey-through-the-galaxy intro to “Contact” were all also considered, while long takes that are more static, such as those that characterize the work of Michael Haneke or Steve McQueen’s along with very long takes that are more about dialogue or monologues than action or camera hi jinks, such as in Linklater’s “Before”  trilogy or one-man-shows like “Bronson” we’re also saving for another day. 

But let us know the favorite one of yours that we missed, or how you feel about striking the balance between form and content in film criticism, below. 

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