Editor’s Note: Presented by iTunes. Watch this year’s contenders here.
Oscar season often finds us talking about movies in terms of characters, actors and plots; the actual images that make movies such a distinctive medium can get lost in the fray. Nevertheless, movies are nothing without the indelible images that make them so memorable. Here are some of the ones from this year’s nominees that really stand out.
“Blade Runner 2049” – Orange Desert
“Blade Runner 2049” spends much of its first hour establishing the icy, mechanical dystopia with the same template as Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie. Then Ryan Gosling’s K ventures deep into the desert of a ruined Las Vegas, and as the movie prepares to reveal Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard’s hideaway, the movie quiets down and enters the eerie landscape of a forgotten world. Cinematographer Roger Deakins turns up the orange hues of this dusty landscape to such a high contrast that K may as well be walking on Mars, gazing at a citrus horizon of nothingness in his open-ended quest for answers that may or may not exist.
The shot epitomizes director Denis Villeneuve’s ambition with this unconventional blockbuster, which draws from one of the most famous sci-fi reference points in modern history even as it dares to push it forward in new creative directions. K’s journey is at once familiar and alien, mimicking his paradoxical mindset, and the movie’s visual textures mark the rare case of a blockbuster reaching for high art. —EK
“Get Out” – The Sunken Place
In its first act, Jordan Peele’s first feature is already a fascinating tonal juggling act, one that melds racial satire with genuine chills in a brilliant combination of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and more sinister horror tropes. Then, in the dead of night, it catapults into a far more remarkable abstract place, one with haunting reverberations on many levels at once. As Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) visits the country home of the parents of the white woman he’s dating, he encounters her eerie psychotherapist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) after dark and she hypnotizes him.
The resulting sequence is a mesmerizing immersion into “The Sunken Place”: Chris collapses into another plane of awareness, drifting away into a black void within his own mind, where Missy can keep him locked away as long as she wants. The scene is a masterstroke of editing, performance, and sound design that apes Chris’ sense of disorientation and become a pivotal moment for the movie’s tonal shift into scarier territory. Peele has referred to The Sunken Place “this symbol for the marginalization of black people,” which would be an extraordinary concept even if it weren’t so brilliantly executed. But The Sunken Place is indeed horrifying — a menacing empty world where escape is impossible, and the observer can only watch the privileged outside world in frozen terror from afar. No matter its surreal dimension, the scene is also a shocking reality check for the age. -EK
“The Shape of Water” – Underwater Embrace
Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tale is a pure, unbridled dose of the filmmaker’s otherworldly aesthetic, a melding of gothic horror and magical realism that demonstrates an understanding of both traditions. They’re embodied by the movie’s two central characters, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and the unnamed elemental river god (Doug Jones) with whom she falls in love. The essence of that unlikely pairing is epitomized by the movie’s climactic image, which has been the single biggest selling point for the movie after months of marketing.
In reality, the couple dangle beneath the waves after a violent showdown, and their fates remain unclear. But the image has a lot more going on beyond the most literal, plot-based aspects. Elisa and her lover dangle in a deep blue void as it careening through time and space, finding catharsis in companionship even as they feel ostracized by the rest of the world. It’s a rich, painterly image at once haunting and life-affirming, and it gets at the essence of del Toro’s work as a whole. —EK
“Call Me by Your Name” – Final Shot
The final shot of Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” is a gut-punch in every sense of the term. The director and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom hold the camera on a medium close-up of Elio (Timothée Chalamet) for an uninterrupted take that lasts over four minutes. Elio stares directly into a fire and is reduced to tears, having just gotten off the phone with first love Oliver and learning that he’s getting married. The shot alone justifies Chalamet’s Oscar nomination for Best Actor. By utilizing a one take, Guadagnino allows Chalamet to react in real time to his heartbreak and the results are simply devastating. You can feel the pain inside him unfolding by the second.
Sony Pictures Classics
But the power of the show is also in its composition. Mukdeeprom expertly captures the burning flames reflecting off Elio’s face. He’s at once staring down the past as it burns down and looking into a warmer future, one where he’s already gone through the confusion of self-discovery. The shot keeps Elio in focus, but the out-of-focus background is just as important to its impact. Elio’s mother and their maid can be seen setting the table for dinner. As Elio hits his emotional breakthrough, the world simply moves as as normal behind him. The final shot might just be the best of this year’s Oscar nominees. —ZS
“The Florida Project” – Magic Kingdom
The great magic trick of “The Florida Project” is how Sean Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe envision their budget motel through the eyes of their six-year-old protagonist, Moonee. Other filmmakers tackling the same subject matter might have shot the motel to capture the grim reality of its destitution, but Baker directs “The Florida Project” as if you were actually seeing the world through Moonee’s rose-colored glasses. The motel is the only world Moonee knows, so for her it’s not a rundown place of squalor but a massive playhouse bursting with endless possibilities. No wonder Baker and Zabe turn the setting into a vibrant and massive landscape.
In this shot, Moonee and her friend are overcome by the beauty of their surroundings. The motel is a neon pink palace and Moonee is its rascal of a princess. The added bonus of the rainbow almost feels like Moonee’s imagination in full force, and it very well could be. Lots of movies are about childhood, but “The Florida Project” is one of the rare ones that actually see the world as one. —ZS
“Dunkirk” – The Beach
The strength of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” lies in its immersive storytelling. The director doubled downed on his love for practical effects and worked closely with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to create shots overflowing with palpable danger. One of the earliest examples in the film takes place when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) first arrives on Dunkirk beach. Nolan and Hoytema shoot Tommy’s introduction to the setting mostly in wide screen establishing shots, making it very clear the young solider has now become one of many hopeless bodies awaiting certain death. When German airplanes attack the coast line and drop bombs on the beach, Tommy drops to the floor and covers his head.
Nolan switches to a close up of Tommy’s head but keeps the wide screen format so the viewer can see one explosion after the next drawing closer and closer to him. Shots like these have a claustrophobic horror to them that really make “Dunkirk” such grueling experiential cinema; there is no where to run, quite literally in the shot, and the only thing to do is wait and hope you survive. —ZS
“Lady Bird” – Hotel Room
So much of Greta Gerwig’s Best Picture nominee is about the push-pull between the eponymous Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her equally complicated mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and while that’s a fraught relationship explored in a number of the film’s other, showier scenes — Lady Bird jumping out of the car for one, or their epic shouting match much later in the coming-of-age tale — Gerwig indicates early on just how complex their bond is within the confines of a single hotel room.
The pair are returning from a long-planned road trip to visit various colleges that Lady Bird may (or most decidedly may not) attend, all just a quickie drive from her hated Sacramento home, and Gerwig uses their final stay in a grubby hotel to show the pair as they literally grow apart while sleeping. First stuck to each other, Lady Bird and Marion naturally move apart as they slumber, eventually ending up as far from each other as possible.
That’s where we start in “Lady Bird,” a clever introduction to all the emotion that’s to come, delivered with the maximum of grace. —KE
“I, Tonya” – Makeup Before Olympics
Margot Robbie’s performance in Craig Gillespie’s flinty, funny, and often exceedingly foul-mouthed Tonya Harding biopic is one of the most riveting pieces of an already-riveting feature. It’s not just that Robbie was cast as Harding in a variety of ages — from teenagehood all the way up to present day — a challenge she gamely accepted (and accentuated with some smart choices in terms of both her hair and her speaking voice), but that the actress also adeptly handles a wide array of emotions and situations while staying laser-eyed on the heart of a complex character. As brash and brusque as Robbie’s Tonya can be (and, man, is she ever), “I, Tonya” also finds the space for a seeming inevitable breakdown that leads into a bravura turn from Robbie.
And it’s still, somehow, pure big-talking Tonya, even as Robbie stares into the camera and angrily, tearfully freshens her makeup before what will end up being one of her final skates. She’s as vulnerable as she ever was, but she’s also fixated on her own pain, her own other-ness, and as the blush gets pinker and the bangs get higher, Tonya (and Robbie) become something else entirely. It’s the kind of “oh, yes, there, that’s the Oscar moment” scene that any other film would have played for the trauma and the drama, but which “I, Tonya” fits inside its unique spin on a truth that’s stranger than fiction. —KE
“Baby Driver” – Baby and the Toy Car
A combination of codependence and coercion keeps Baby (Ansel Elgort) caught up in the criminal enterprises of Doc (Kevin Spacey) in Edgar Wright’s unabashedly fun car chase caper, but when the young getaway driver is behind the wheel, he suddenly becomes master of his own domain. While the actual chase scenes in Wright’s film are the most clearly thrilling — hell, the filmmaker and his star even make a well-timed walking chase scene feel fresh and fun — seeing Baby in a lower key helps the audience get to know him even better, while also making it clear that maybe he really is ready to bust out on his own. As Baby looms large over a toy model car — one being used to help plot another daring heist, of which he will assuredly excel — his driving dominance solidified in one image. —KE