Continuing our look at the Best Of 2013, we’ve come down to definitely the smallest, most fleeting and ephemeral of cinematic elements: the single shot. In the living organism of a movie, a shot is perhaps just a single cell, but it doesn’t mean that on occasion one cell can’t take on an importance, weight and memorability totally disproportionate to its size. And in each of the cases we list here, it was a shot that at least some of us found irrevocably “sticky” — an image that, even during the film, had leapt out at us and caught us by surprise, and the one that lingered longest after the credits rolled. In some cases, it’s a shot of particular cinematographic beauty, but we tried to stay away from those that were only that, and instead focus on shots that invested the experience of watching whichever film it was with some deeper thematic significance and/or featured a cat looking at his own reflection.
Sometimes they sum up the film, sometimes they transform the film, and sometimes they simply settle into the mind’s eye like they’d always been there, but these are the ten shots that, out of all the hundreds of hours of footage we’ve all watched over the past year, we can’t and don’t want to shake.
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10. “Only God Forgives” – Ryan Gosling’s Hands (Nicolas Winding Refn & Larry Smith)
A closed fist, Nicolas Winding Refn told an “Only God Forgives” Q&A audience back in July, “is an extension of the erection, and when you open up it becomes very feminine. I wanted to make a movie where the hand has to be amputated. And Ryan has great hands.” Divisive as it may be, there is perhaps one thing that folks on both sides of the aisle can agree about when it comes to Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest: it looks fucking great. The measured pacing of the film is matched by its visual approach, that at times can resemble less a moving picture than a collection of still images. And among the many beautiful frames collected by Refn in “Only God Forgives” (indeed, there were a few that could have easily been chosen for this list) one of the most significant and symbolic, is simply of a pair of hands; their menacing promise of what’s to come, and the shameful history of where they’ve been. Ryan Gosling’s largely mute Julian carries on his shoulders not only the burden of having to avenge his pervert brother’s death, but a history of violence as both victim and perpetrator. It’s a vicious cycle he knows he can’t stop no matter his best intentions, or his appearances of settling down with a girl, and running a legitimate business instead of a front. And this moment, looking down on his hands, is something of a chilling reckoning, one where Julian understands that whatever comes next for himself, the cop on his tail and his seething mother, nothing will ever be the same, and these same hands hold that destiny. And the shot in full:
9.“The Grandmaster” – The Almost Kiss (Wong Kar-wai & Philippe Le Sourd)
“To fight is to kiss” is, according to Wong Kar-wai, a Chinese saying. “You have to get very close, you have to be confident, your whole body is pressed against your opponent. And there is this stillness—it’s easy to trick the audience when you are moving, dancing around. The most difficult part is the pose, it has to be flawless.” Not only does the fight/kiss correlation make sense of a lot of the homoerotic undertones to our favorite 80s action flicks, but it’s taken almost to its literal extreme in this one shot from Wong’s “The Grandmaster,” a film that, though its moments don’t string together into a whole worthy of them, is undeniably beautiful and thrilling at certain points. One of those points is defintiely the fight between Tony Leung’s Ip Man and Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er (for our money, the de facto star of this particular show), and most especially the moment, in trademark Wong Kar-Wai slow motion, when Zhang’s masklike, perfect face drifts so close to Leung’s, their eyes steady on each other, that it feels more intimate than any possible liplock ever could. Also, Zhang is twirling above him in mid-air at the time. It’s a shot that Wong returns to later on in flashback, and while shorn of its context it might not seem as straightforwardly sumptuous as some of his other, grander compositions. But what makes it so special is the weight of emotion we read into it: it acts as the keystone shot to the relationship between these two characters, and since that relationship turns out to be the keystone to the film, this one moment takes on heady added meaning, but with the grace and restraint typical of Wong’s films. This is as close as they ever get, and we know it, somehow, the second it happens—they will never be closer, but as close as they are, they are so very, very far apart. You can watch the whole fight here:
8. “12 Years A Slave” – The Hanging (Steve McQueen & Sean Bobbitt)
Steve McQueen, and his regular DoP Sean Bobbitt (who had a spectacular year: he’s the only DoP to make this list twice, thanks to his work on “The Place Beyond The Pines,” and also did sterling work on the otherwise disappointing “Byzantium” and “Oldboy“) made their name on long, unbroken shots: in particular the 20-minute conversation between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in McQueen’s debut “Hunger.” While their style is a little more traditional in their phenomenal “12 Years A Slave,” they go to the long-shot well twice, more effectively than ever. The whipping of Patsy (Lupita N’yongo) is heartbreaking and borderline unwatchable in its refusal to look away, but we were struck even more by the earlier example, as Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s Solomon Northrup is the victim of an attempted lynching by Paul Dano‘s repulsive overseer. Dano is stopped just in time, but while Chapin (J.D Evermore) won’t let Solomon die, he won’t cut him down either.
The result is a horrifying series of long-shots as Solomon dangles from a tree by his neck, toes scrabbling on the ground to keep himself from dying, as white folk and slaves alike ignore him. As Bobbitt told Thompson on Hollywood, “Northrup’s hanging for the better part of the day is inconceivable. And yet nobody can touch him because he belongs to another man. And to see everyone else moving around behind him is such a powerful statement.” It’s gruelling, and by placing the camera at a distance, the filmmakers make the audience just as complicit as those who fail to come to his aid. “The idea was to make it believable but also for the audience to viscerally become a party to that physical torture,” Bobbitt continued. The temptation may have been to make the film as ugly as the actions within it, but in a terrible way, the shot’s so perfectly composed that it takes on an uneasy aesthetic value. According to Bobbitt, that was very much deliberate: “[We wanted it to be] oddly beautiful so that it resonated and it wasn’t an image that you could just throw away… By making it beautiful, it makes it palatable for the audience. If we had made it ugly and gritty and desaturated, I don’t think the audience would stay with it. There would be no hope and the look comes from the story. These plantations have an inherent natural beauty and to defy that would be a lie.” No embed available.
7. “Spring Breakers” – The Pink Jetty Ending (Harmony Korine & Benoit Debie)
“I wanted to make a film that looked like it was lit with candies” Harmony Korine said to the AV Club, “like we were lighting it with Skittles or we were using Starburst Fruit Chews. I wanted all that kind of pop gloss and tone, and I wanted all the mythology and the meaning to be the residue from the surface, to kind of bleed from it… all the neon colors, the candy colors. I wanted you to feel like you could touch it or lick it.” Ok, so this writer is not in the pro-”Spring Breakers” camp at all (and make no mistake, you need to pick sides on this one, war is imminent), but one of the things that was so frustrating about watching the film was that just when a particularly pretentious piece of repetitive voiceover, or some other self-consciously arty embellishment had eroded our goodwill to the point of nonexistence, a shot would swim up out of the blur and simply be so viscerally stunning to look at, that we’d be back onside. Momentarily at least.
And this was most striking at the very end of the film, at exactly the point we were sure it had well and truly worn out its welcome and shown us all it was going to, that this perfectly gorgeous, ridiculous shot appeared and our jaw may have dropped. On the surface, it’s not hugely different from what’s gone before—the girls are wearing their bikinis that glow under UV light, the balaclavas are on and they’re carrying guns—so far so “Spring Breakers.” But here the neon pop-art aesthetic is exaggerated to its graphic limit, and something about its woozy immediacy, with the jetty lit pink leading off to house in the distance and the violence to come, more perfectly encapsulates the hollow nightmarishness of the concept of “spring break forever” than anything in the preceding 90 minutes. The sheer bravado of this shot, its almost insulting coolness and Chupa Chups palette works brilliantly to convey both the seduction and the seediness of the vapid but violent lifestyle the girls have embraced, and when the battle lines are drawn in the great “Spring Breakers” war, will probably, along with the peerless use of Britney’s “Everytime” prove this combatant’s major Achilles heel. You can see a smudgy version here—the top of the shot is cut off, but you catch the drift:
6. Inside Llewyn Davis” – Cat looking out the subway window (The Coen Brothers & Bruno Delbonnel)
One of the criteria we set ourselves when compiling this feature was that the shots we picked out should be the kind that just knocked our socks off in the theater. Everyone has a slightly different reaction to a shot like that, but personally we end up involuntarily making a noise somewhere between a gasp and a sort of groany shortness of breath. We vividly remember doing so during the train sequence of “The Assassination Of Jesse James,” and we did it more than once during the upcoming “Under The Skin” (don’t be surprised if this list next year is made up entirely of shots from Jonathan Glazer‘s film). We weren’t expecting to have that reaction this year from a shot of a ginger cat looking out a window, but that’s what the Coen Brothers and Bruno Delbonnel (stepping in, beautifully, for Coens regular Roger Deakins, who was busy on “Skyfall” at the time) managed with our pick from the masterful “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Early in the film, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) accidentally lets out a cat belonging to the Gorfeins, who’ve been putting him up overnight. He manages to grab it, but not before the front door has closed behind him, so suddenly, he’s stuck with the animal for the rest of the day. With no other option, he brings it on the subway with him, and the Coens and Delbonnel, remarkably, frame the journey through the eyes of an animal that’s never seen anything like it before. It’s a gorgeous little sequence, but the shot in particular that gave us butterflies is a sort of POV glimpse, as the reflection of the cat is caught in the window as it watches tunnels and stations rush by, just as the rest of the world is rapidly overtaking the cat’s new babysitter. One can only imagine how many takes it must have taken to get right (as the Ethan Coen told Collider, “That was just difficult. It was what you would expect from an animal on the set…. it’s just unbelievably boring, frustrating and painstaking to shoot”), but boy, was it worth it. Again, no embed, but you can see a glimpse of the moment in the trailer below.
5. “Upstream Color” – The Bathtub (Shane Carruth)
When we asked Shane Carruth how he would define his delirious, enigmatic, indefinable ”Upstream Color” if he had to choose just one thing, he replied “That’s tough. I would say romance… But there’s only a small part of it that’s their relationship, some of the romanticism is Kris and her whole story of being broken down and there being some resolution… but yes. It’s tough but I would say romance.” And having lived with the film for most of a year now we’d have to say, pigs and orchids and starlings and microbial infections and kidnappings and “Walden” and fraud schemes and all, we agree: our overriding memory of this rich, complex and rewarding film, is of (ostensibly) the simplest of its elements, the love story. And the other thing that stayed with us (apart from the fantastic score which clocked in as our collective 3rd favorite of the whole year) was the silvery loveliness of the cinematography, which, like the soundtrack too, was masterminded by the polyglot Carruth. Appropriate, then, that the shot that has lingered most in our minds (also possibly helped along by the fact that it was used in some of the film’s marketing materials) is one which is probably among the most romantic in this romance.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) has awoken in a panic and thinks she hears strange noises, and Jeff (Carruth) infected by her panic, as their symbiotic bond suggests he must be, unquestioningly hurries them both into the bathroom, where they tangle up defensively in the tub and pull the curtain. The silliness of this move as a potential deterrent to whatever might be lurking outside is part of the brilliance of this moment, a kind of childlike “if I can’t see it, it’s not there” response, that shows how both characters have, in this moment, devolved into creatures of pure, shared instinct, as incoherent and illogical as that instinct might be. And so this shot, overhead looking down at the two of them, almost as though they’re sharing a womb, is both suffocatingly claustrophobic and swooningly romantic: they practically dissolve into one another physically here, as much as they already have emotionally and psychologically. In that it perfectly embodies what makes this film so special: it may be “simply” a romance, but it tells us that romance is anything but simple, and it’s about the mystery, terror and sadness of being in love, and the erasure of self that implies, more than it’s about love’s joys. No clip available, but the trailer has a brief look at the moment leading up to it (and also serves as a reminder of the numerous other fantastic shots in the movie).
4. “The Place Beyond The Pines”- Opening Tracking Shot (Derek Cianfrance & Sean Bobbit)
“[Cinematographer] Sean [Bobbit] quickly decided that we needed to start the movie off with an epic opening shot, like so many of our favorite films, whether it be a Béla Tarr film or ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ or ‘The Player’ or ‘Touch of Evil.’ A shot that will kind of teach you as an audience how to watch the movie,” director Derek Cianfrance told Vanity Fair about the ballsy opening to his epic drama, “The Place Beyond The Pines.” And while the rest of the movie mostly forgoes the style, as an opening statement of intent there’s a reason we’re still talking about it nine months after it opened in theaters and over a year since it premiered at TIFF. With a firm nod to the Dardennes and something a bit sinister and noir about it too, Cianfrance keeps the face of his lead Ryan Gosling out of view to kick things off and instead starts on his inked, ripped body and hands—playing with a butterfly knife no less—as he paces impatiently. The unbroken shot then follows Gosling from behind as he works his way through a busy fairground, walking with focused purpose. He arrives inside a tent where an excited crowd awaits, and he turns to sit on a motorcyle, and after we see his face for this time every so briefly, he covers it again with a helmet and proceeds into the appropriately named Cage Of Death, where he’ll defy death with a sideshow stunt. But for all the style that the sequence contains, and technical virtuosity with which it was pulled off, the sequence immediately tells us a lot about Ryan Gosling’s tragic, romantic heatthrob Luke: he’s fearless, reckless and confident. And it’s combination that will soon see him riding like lightning, and crashing like thunder. Watch the full sequence below:
3. “Gravity” – Fetal Floating (Alfonso Cuaron & Emmanuel Lubezki)
“That was the point, for us, of the film,” “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron told io9, “Adversities and the possibility of rebirth. And rebirth also metaphorical in the sense of gaining a new knowledge of ourselves. We have a character that is drifting metaphorically and literally, drifting towards the void…and she has to shed that skin to start learning at the end. This is a character who we stick in the ground again, and learns how to walk.” With an achievement as visually stunning as “Gravity” there are many shots we could have chosen, and the opening 15-minute unbroken sequence in which we are introduced to the characters, the geography of the space station, and the sheer clumsiness and difficulty of getting anything done in space, all against a backdrop of the velvetiest blacks and the sharpest 3D whites we’ve maybe ever seen in a theater…well, it deserves a mention at least. But the single image that stays with us most is actually an uncharacteristically static, pictorial, deliberately framed shot, as Sandra Bullock’s Dr Rhinestone (ok, Ryan Stone but we like the “shine on you crazy fake diamond” vibe), having made it into the airlock and waited the excruciating seconds while the oxygen levels rise, unclasps her helmet, sheds her bulky suit and floats in a loose fetal position against the circular portal.
It’s a beat-taking moment that denotes a shift in the film from flat-out disaster movie (though there’ll be plenty more disasters to come) to survival narrative, as from here on Stone’s story becomes one of personal resourcefulness in the face of adversity. And it’s a beautiful, resonant image anyway, with Bullock’s dancer’s body loosely suspended and turning slowly, while umbilical tubing floats around her. But what makes it so memorable for us is the emotion that it embodies—we’re not sure we’ve ever seen the concept of “relief” so powerfully drawn. Soon to come will be a desperate scrabble to get back in contact with Kowalski, there’ll be panic and despair and determination and fear, but at this point Dr Stone is, like a newborn, one thing and one thing only: alive, and for a few seconds of peace amid all the chaos, that is enough. The shot is unavailable online, but here’s a compilation of all the trailers to remind you of just what it offers respite from:
2. “The Bling Ring” – Long-Shot Break-In (Sofia Coppola & Harris Savides/Christopher Blauvelt)
Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker able to cut a sequence as beautifully and precisely as any rare jewel, and with “The Bling Ring,” a true-life caper about a bunch of bored kids who decide to rob unsuspecting celebrities, she was able to indulge with these tendencies perhaps more than ever. The characters we follow in the movie are shallow and pretty and covet the lives of similarly shallow, pretty, though more famous people—Coppola seems to want to suggest that all these lives are somewhat empty. And all of this is exemplified in a sequence where the petty burglars break into a house at night, as it glimmers far-off like some exotic gem. “I loved how the twinkling city lights below looked just like the jewelry the kids were stealing,” Coppola told DGA earlier this year, with the magazine describing the sequence as akin to watching “dolls in a dollhouse.”
We’re not sure who was responsible for the shot, since the original cinematographer Harris Savides passed away during shooting (Christopher Blauvelt, Savides’ longtime first assistant took over for him), but whoever did created the film’s most memorable sequence as the camera slowly pushes in while the robbery occurs, all in one single shot, without the accompaniment of music or many sound effects (a car drives past here, a dog barks there). The shot operates like a mini-essay about insignificance, about how notions of privacy crumble in the face of a celebrity culture that is all about putting oneself on display for consumption, but also Coppola’s detached, voyeuristic camera summons up her frequent themes of the alienation and isolation of modern life—how nobody cares this is going on in plain sight and how everyone, like the gang themselves, feels removed from any real consequences. Again, no isolated embed of this shot, but there is a glimpse of it at the 54sec mark of this trailer:
1.”Prisoners” – The Tree (Denis Villeneuve & Roger Deakins)
In “Prisoners,” trees act as silent witnesses to unspeakable acts. They open the movie as Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) ominously utters the Lord’s Prayer— “as we forgive those that trespass against us” —not understanding how ironic they will soon sound in the face of some of his own unspeakable acts of violence and vengeance. In director Denis Villeneuve‘s “Prisoners” violence is like a river that runs downstream like a legacy of malice. Violence begets violence and it runs in both directions; outstretched tree branches grasping forward and roots digging in deep to the past. In “Prisoners” Dover takes his son out for a rite of passage: to shoot and kill his first deer. It’s a simple way of communicating how this man is willing to kill to feed his family, but it’s also a kind of ominous sign of the birthright he’s passed down to his kin. Within its three opening minutes, “Prisoners” has already established one of its main haunting themes.
What we have deemed “the shot of the year” isn’t especially pretty, complex or superficially impressive, but it does veer close to being, formally, almost profound. In fact, it’s a shot many might not notice, as it functions on such a subterranean and intuitive level. In “Prisoners” the abduction of the children in the film doesn’t happen onscreen, yet it is expressed onscreen. As Dover, his wife and his guests (Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) merrily imbibe and break bread inside, the daughters of both families go outside to play; never to be seen again. And while joy and cheer keeps everyone warm indoors, one of the fathers drunkenly blowing away on a trumpet, the movie suddenly cuts outside to the afternoon chill in the air.
The camera once again is staring coldly on one of the film’s memorably creepy trees. And then something subtly discombobulating begins that is spine-chilling. The camera slowly dollies in to the bark of the tree while the sound design quietly starts to crackle and burn underneath the soundtrack. The broken trumpet blare fades into the background as composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie church-organ based funereal psalm rings out. It’s unnerving, and masterfully so because in that moment, the film has shown you nothing and yet communicated everything to you—something is deeply wrong, something is amiss. In that very moment, you’ve been told: the children have been taken. If the best moments in cinema rearrange your personal molecules, this one scrambles them. Here’s our complete interview with Villeneuve in which he talks in depth about this specific shot, but in the meantime, here’s one last image from the Roger Deakins-shot film:
Honorable Mentions: As deeply subjective as a feature like this is, we tried to represent mainly those shots that a quorum of us agreed were particularly memorable as stand-alone shots, but there were some others that didn’t quite get the votes but are worthy of mention, like the long one-take conversation in the car in Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight”; the “welcome to the new house” one-shot in James Wan’s “The Conjuring”; the final slow-motion shot in Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12”; the lightbulb shot in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”; the horrible/so wrong bloody corn husk shot in Claire Denis‘ “Bastards,” the goddamn wing-sprouting scene in goddamn “Pacific Rim”; and any random frame from “The Great Beauty” and/or “Pain and Gain” which is possibly the only time those two films will ever get to share a sentence. What shots had you sitting up to attention, quality of the surrounding film be damned? Tell us below.