Continuing our voyage of exploration of the Best of 2014, today we’re taking a look at the smallest of filmic building blocks —the single shot. If you consider the hundreds of thousands of shots that make up the sum total of feature films released in a year, it’s a daunting task, but one that then becomes quite simple (if immensely subjective) if we insist on one simple parameter: it had to be a single shot, no cuts, that stayed with us long after we finished watching the film.
However this year, for one reason that some of you have probably guessed, the debate about how we actually define “a shot” loomed large. And as with our popular 20 Greatest Long Takes feature from earlier in the year, we came down on the side of what the audience sees rather than how it is made. That is, many of these shots were not achieved in camera in a single take, but are composites of various takes or plates or other CGI wizardry. It’s becoming hard to tell where shot footage ends and post production manipulation begins these days, and so we simply decided that any slice of the finished, theatrically released film that happens between cuts qualifies. Sorry, purists.
And we were also not simply looking for the most beautiful shot either —all our picks have some storytelling function that makes them more than just aesthetically pleasing (if they are even that); they become crucial to our deeper understanding of the characters or the themes of the film.
Finally, we must state very clearly up front that this feature, pretty much from the off, dives deep into shots that are in some cases the at the end or at very pivotal moments of their films, so SPOILERS will abound throughout for anyone who hasn’t seen the film in question. That is a major SPOILER ALERT for this whole feature, folks.
12. “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” – Ape firing from tank (Matt Reeves, Michael Seresin & VFX team)
The most memorable shot of this fine sequel took director Matt Reeves, his crew and Weta’s finest VFX wizards more than a year to get just right. It was one of the final completed as such, locked off by Reeves mere weeks before the film premiered in the summer. Slashfilm explained the complex process, involving a mix of on-location motion capture filming (the first film to do so) and plate shots recorded in a studio. It works not only for the technical virtuosity, but also how the craft is all but invisible and is in service of the story, especially its characters’ specific perspectives. Credit must be given to DP Michael Seresin (a veteran who shot “Midnight Express” and “Angel Heart” among others) and Second Unit Director Brad Parker for the final product. Reeves pushed to refine the shot to “take in… almost like a fever dream, the scope of this battle…. And you would see all of that in this way that looks like we shot it in one shot.” In fact, it took 1,030 iterations before being approved. But as flashy and cool as it sounds, ultimately it works because like the entire film it grounds all the computer-generated effects in a palpable reality. When the camera stays locked on to the tank’s turret, never leaving that point-of-view until the next cut, there is the horror of war in the background and the ape’s hero shot in the foreground, as well as screams, plenty of gunfire and Michael Giacchino’s epic score on the soundtrack, but not a word of dialogue. In a sequel to the prequel of a franchise seven films deep, with several TV spinoffs and a really awful Tim Burton “re-imagining,” it’s good to know there’s still a place for artful, pure cinema (and action thrills) to be found. You can catch a glimpse at 2:11 in this trailer.
11. “The Babadook” – Monster in the neighbor’s house (Jennifer Kent & Radek Ladczuk)
Jennifer Kent’s remarkable horror debut boasts wonderfully well-calibrated cinematography from DP Radek Laczuk throughout, rich with shadows and texture. But one of the most memorable examples is in this heartbeat-quick shot of the monster lurking in the kindly neighbor’s house. It’s as seen from Amelia’s (Essie Davis) point of view, as she washes up —a humdrum routine moment that we’ve seen happen before, as her kitchen sink window looks straight into the living room next door, and the sudden contextualization of the monster within the most mundane of domestic situations further eats into any sense of security. It’s a subtle, hard trick to achieve —too much of him and the ambivalence the film has preserved till then would be destroyed, but too little and we’d miss the scare. But Kent and Laczuk balance the shot in duration and off-kilter composition just enough to make us see him, and then immediately question if we did, like Amelia herself. It’s part of the rhythm of devolution that Kent consciously tried for, saying “… as she degenerates, time becomes less clear and shots become less balanced. I always imagined the film would start like a gentle pair of hands around the viewer’s neck that would get tighter and tighter until people felt they couldn’t breathe.”
Reminiscent of the shot of the ghostly photo from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ”Les Diaboliques” is definitely a moment we feel that grip tighten, as suddenly we suspect that not only is the Babadook real —it is out there in the world. And if it can menace the sweet Parkinsons-afflicted neighbor, then no one and nothing good is safe.
10. “Force Majeure” – The Avalanche (Ruben Östlund & Fredrik Wenzel)
While the majority of Ruben Östlund’s dark, scabrous and scathingly witty dissection of gender roles and the institution of marriage (which hasn’t had a good year with “Gone Girl” too) is shot in elegant, long takes that play out like little theatrical pieces (the director favors doing 30 to 50 takes of each scene), nowhere is that impulse more memorable than in the centerpiece avalanche shot that spurs the story. It unfolds with us at a remove, because as Östlund told TOH!, “It’s … a voyeuristic style. We are watching, rather than being in the emotions of the characters,” and indeed this ironic remove allows us to dissect the interrelationships without necessarily feeling for the participants, which accounts for a lot of the film’s schadenfreude-fuelled enjoyment. In fact this one locked-off shot could really be a short film in itself —the shattered equanimity of the family’s sense of itself, the shock of betrayal and the currents of shame and blame are already apparent before we even cut away. It’s also a spectacular scene, itself a composite, Östlund confesses, of “a North American avalanche messing things up for a Swedish family in the French Alps.”
But the avalanche itself is not CGI, and the performances all perfectly calibrated so that in one, locked-off sequence, we get the whole gamut from complacency to thrill to panic to relief and thence to shame, embarrassment and awkwardness. And it somehow manages to be deeply, witheringly funny at the same time.
9. “Godzilla” – HALO drop extreme wide shot (Gareth Edwards & Seamus McGarvey)
In one of the always-wonderful New York Times Anatomy of a Scene videos, “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards described the thought process that went into the film’s dazzling HALO (which stands for High Altitude Low Opening) sequence, wherein our hero (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) leaps from a plane into a battle-ravaged San Francisco. But it’s the super-wide shot (there are actually two of them, at .37 and .47 in this clip, but we’ll focus on the slightly later example), showcasing the entirety of the city as the skydivers, lit by flares, plummet downwards, that makes the entire sequence truly something special —we’re so far away that it really gives a great feel for the scale of the threat (imagine how much more ordinary the sequence would be if it was all told in the standard wides and mid shots that make up the rest of it). This HALO drop is described by Edwards as “angels descending into hell,” and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey shoots it as such, with the biblical, apocalyptic feel amplified by the choice of György Ligeti‘s “Requiem,” a piece of music most memorably used before in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Guillermo del Toro has said that visual effects are like a lie: if it’s just out there, then nobody is going to believe you, but with proper atmosphere and mood, then that lie becomes gloriously alive. That is certainly the case with this shot, with clouds that swirl and smoke that coughs heavenward, and it’s those added thematic and symbolic dimensions that make the scene not simply thrilling but uncannily epic. We don’t have to point out that it’s also really cool and beautiful in a terrifying sort of way. And as Edwards adds in the NY Times piece: “This works really well in IMAX 3D.”
8. “Mr. Turner” – Turner lashed to the mast (Mike Leigh & Dick Pope)
Appropriately for a film about a legendary artist, perhaps the most famous that Britain ever produced, Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” is the filmmaker’s most gorgeous picture ever. His collaboration with longtime DoP Dick Pope results in a spoiling number of absolutely beautiful landscapes and compositions that the film’s subject, J.M.W Turner, would be proud of. But the one that lodged itself in our retinas wasn’t one of the sun-dappled widescreen landscapes, but a more chaotic image summing up the film’s masterful final act of Timothy Spall’s Turner lashed to a mast in a snowstorm, like Odysseus, as research for a later painting. It’s an act of borderline madness, shot in a woozy, tilting closeup that remains tight on Spall’s remarkable face as flurries of snow assail him and lightning flashes all around —such is Turner’s dedication to his art. Much of the film involves placid, peaceful compositions, but just as Turner’s work becomes more and more abstract and proto-impressionistic as his career gets later, Leigh and Pope let themselves off the chain here, lending this shot a startling, visceral, elemental quality, that is itself a very impressionistic moment in an otherwise more classically-presented film. Surprisingly, Pope (Oscar-nominated for “The Illusionist” a few years back, and likely heading for a second nod here) shot the film digitally at Leigh’s request, as he told Hitfix a little while back: “You could say that in the film Turner is looking forward. He’s no Luddite. He doesn’t look back. He’s always moving forward, and in his art, as well, he moved forward, didn’t he? I mean he evolved from much more figurative to much more impressionistic.”
When the credits roll, It’s not difficult to imagine Turner giving a grunt and a nod at the work that Pope does throughout, especially in this shot which brings us closer to the man and his genius/madness than perhaps we get anywhere else. No embed available of the shot in question, but you can see some of the elegant compositions it contrasts with in the trailer.
7. “Foxcatcher” – DuPont & The Horses (Bennett Miller & Greig Fraser)
It’s a measure of the beauty of the images in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” and the love that we feel for it here at The Playlist, that there was more debate over which of the shots from the film to include than over (almost) any other selection. The cries of “you ungrateful ape” are still echoing around the offices, but in the end we came to something of a grudging consensus with a shot that caused a shortness of breath in this writer when the film premiered at Cannes. As he loses grip on his sanity immediately after the death of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), we see a brief glimpse, almost to the point of it being a sort of visual non-sequitur, of Steve Carell’s John DuPont, silhouetted from behind, charging in towards an open barn door as her “stupid” horses, which he’s just freed, run rampage. It’s a shocking, primal act of grief, madness, and of the camera crash-zooming behind him. It’s both a neat metaphor, just this side of heavy-handed, and a stunning, show-stopping, heart-in-mouth image, one that haunts us still months on. Miller and DP Greig Fraser (who with this, “Bright Star,” “Zero Dark Thirty” has staked his claim as one of the very best in the world right now) chose to shoot the movie on film rather than digital, one of the few projects this year to do so. In an interview with In Contention, Fraser said “what I was seeing reference-wise was a lot of ugliness. I sort of love ugliness in the beautiful mansions and the beautiful, you know, ball gowns and the beautiful pictures of people entertaining themselves with that much money. That much money with the references that I was seeing was actually ugly, you know?”
It’s something that infuses the film throughout, as Carell’s grotesque millionaire stalks his own personal wrestling-led Xanadu, but reaches its ideal here, as DuPont’s outline seems to embrace the chaos, the fury, and the beauty of the beasts that he never understood.
6. “Birdman” – Emma Stone in the window/nearly all of “Birdman” (Alejandro González Iñárritu & Emmanuel Lubezki)
There’s really no way to avoid the large, “Birdman”-shaped elephant in the room in a feature about 2014 shots, and, having dithered but finally decided on its eligibility (the manner in which a “shot” is achieved is for us less important than its intended effect), it really does have to ride high on this list, because while “Birdman” is, famously, a whole bunch of blissfully loose-feeling Emmanuel Lubezki shots edited together to appear as one seamless whole, it’s clear that the directorial intention is to experiment with the very nature of “a shot” and shotmaking so as to enhance the storytelling in a very calculated way: to change how the viewer interacts with the film thereby making us feel like we’re watching events unfold from a very specific, participatory point of view —while Lubezki described the director’s other films as “very cutty,” here, as Iñárritu himself explained “I wanted the long take to make the people really feel the experience of this guy… a radical point of view [where] the people wear the shoes of the character”— as well as, of course, it having the effect of building momentum, hurtling, ever-faster toward either a magnificent skyward launch or a catastrophic earthward crash, a point in the film (pictured above) which, if the purists out there want us to pick a particularly memorable image/beat from the whole extended “shot,” we’d probably choose as our favorite, as Emma Stone‘s character looks out after her father and her gaze turns upward with incredulous joy; the emotion is clear but the inference is still ambiguous, meaning that while debate still rages over whether the ending is self-defeating or self-fulfilling, it is definitively an ending and everything, even the longest take or the longest run-on sentence like this one, must come to a close.
5. “Nymphomaniac Vol 1” – Deathbed trickle (Lars Von Trier & Manuel Alberto Claro)
We’re long past the Dogma period of shaky camerawork and diffuse, unmanipulated lighting in Lars Von Trier’s career. In fact recently, especially working with DP Manuel Alberto Claro, who described “Nymphomaniac” as “a fuck you to film school energy that’s all over the place,” he has made exquisitely composed, almost painterly imagery something of a hallmark. And the first half of his filmic orgy of sex and storytelling is laden with remarkable images, from the opening of Joe in the alleyway, to Seligman’s fantasy sequences, to the girls looking through the train window and on and on. But of all these shots, none is perhaps quite so memorable as this somewhat less polished, black-and-white, pull-focus through Joe’s legs to her father (played by Christian Slater) on his deathbed. Within such a wilfully provocative (and often very visually playful) film, being able to still have moments that snag the attention like the trickle of wetness that slides down Joe’s inner thigh as she watches her father die is a signal of Von Trier’s undeniable, spiky talent. And in one image, it sums up so much: if there are only two subjects for art —sex and death— there’s pretty much no single image that so perfectly encapsulates both. Claro said in interview, “My aim is to make images that are in love with the story and not with themselves” and while certainly this is not the most beautiful image in the film, it is so packed with meaning and provocation and insolence and sadness (accompanied by Joe’s typically blunt, self-loathing commentary) that it is not just in love with the story of “Nymphomaniac,” it kind of is the story. The shot is at 1:27 of this trailer.
4. “Enemy” – The Spider (Denis Villeneuve & Nicolas Bolduc)
Denis Villeneuve’s sorely underrated “Enemy” is as dark and weird as movies generally get, but the movie’s the second-to-last shot is profoundly disturbing and ingenious, elevating the entire movie to a different plateau. As the shot begins, Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a nebbish college professor, has decided to permanently assume the identity of Daniel St. Claire, a Canadian actor to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. Expertly photographed by Nicolas Bolduc, the shot follows him in Daniel’s apartment, talking to Daniel’s pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon). She’s just gotten out of the shower and as he nervously gets “into character,” she crosses behind him, going into the bedroom. He turns a fateful key over in his hand, asking her if she has any plans tonight and when she doesn’t answer him, he goes into her bedroom. It’s here that the shot has its big, fat, eight-legged exclamation point, as instead of Gadon, we get a giant, monster-sized spider. The shot is a digital composite of a real-life spider (inside a miniaturized room), which is part of what makes it so powerful —you can feel that the spider is real and probably also scared (that little jitter, complete with an unforgettable sound effect, is really unsettling). “Enemy” is all about identity (taking it, losing it, co-opting it) and instead of just some shocker gotcha! ending, this shot begins a whole new avenue of interpretation of the film to that point, and isn’t afraid to linger a moment on the creature, the better we take it in. And then it cuts to Gyllenhaal’s reaction shot, which is a whole other essay in ambiguous, ambivalent, what-does-it-all-mean?-ness by itself.
3. “The Immigrant” – final shot with mirrors. (James Gray & Darius Khondji)
When asked about the bifurcated final shot of “The Immigrant,” which burns itself into the memory banks of all those who’ve seen the film, celebrated DP Darius Khondji told AFC cinema, “it’s a director’s shot. You’ve got to be a director to come up with that.” And he’s giving all the props to James Gray because, in the director’s own words from the same interview, what we are watching is “in fact, not at shot” per se since it was achieved through three planes of visual effect. Be that as it may, it’s eligible for our purposes here because, through use of movie magic, it beguilingly tricks us into seeing one uncut take of two worlds divided. We see Marion Cotillard’s Ewa sailing away on the left-hand side of the frame, and Joaquin Phoenix’s mirrored Bruno walking away on the right-hand side. It’s one of the most memorable endings to any film released in 2014 precisely because it hits the sweet spot of what this wondrous art form is all about; conveying volumes of information without a single syllable of exposition. Circling back to the opening shot of the pan away from the Statue of Liberty, all of the film’s core themes —a longing for liberty, unrequited love, opposing cultures and values— are contained within this steady zoom of visual contrast, achieving a result that can be unpacked and studied for hours. One way to look at it is through the director’s own intention, which he explained to Cinema Scope as “both go off to uncertain futures, but there is hope.” For us, the final shot equates Bruno with Ewa by framing them together as kindred spirits who will always have a connection, as much as it divides them by having them depart from each other’s lives. Most of all, the shot stands as one of the year’s profound examples of how to utilize every inch of the screen to express a wealth of riches for both mind and soul. Sadly no embed available, but here is the mirror-opposite scene as Bruno and Ewa meet on Ellis Island
2. “Stray Dogs” – Looking at the mural (Tsai Ming-liang & Liao Pen-jung, Lu Qing Xin & Sung Wen Zhong)
“It’s actually 14 [minutes],” said Tsai Ming-liang to the Financial Times when the newspaper asked him about what they’d estimated was the ten-minute penultimate shot of his slow-cinema masterpiece “Stray Dogs.” “The scene was longer when we filmed it, but I decided to cut when the two characters first start to hug each other.”
The Taiwanese director has long been the master of long, meditative takes, but his move into digital with “Stray Dogs” gave Tsai —and his three (!) cinematographers, Liao Pen-jung, Lu Qing Xin & Sung Wen Zhong— new license to hold on his compositions, and there are a number of bravura long shots in the picture, including one where his protagonist eats a whole cabbage made up as a doll. But the show-stopper —and potential deal-breaker or maker for the pro/anti slow-cinema factions— is the second-to-last, as Lee Kang-sheng’s homeless father and a woman who may or may not be the mother of his children, enter an empty floor of a dilapidated building they live in, and stare… at something. She’s moved to tears, he’s initially indifferent, swigging from a bottle, but the impact eventually hits him, and he moves closer to her, resting his head on his shoulder. The cut, when it comes nearly quarter-of-an-hour later, is one of the most satisfying in cinema history, revealing a mural of a seascape on the wall, one glimpsed earlier in the film (if anything can be glimpsed in a Tsai film). It’s a sort of slow cinema version of Sideshow Bob stepping on the rakes: moving, then tedious, then crossing back and becoming doubly moving again, a borderline still-life in which every tiny fleck of a gesture becomes crucial. As with the film as a whole, what it means is left up to the viewer —we have our theories, but it’s best that you watch this essential film yourself and form your own. You can catch a glimpse of the scene at the 1:09 mark in the film’s evocative trailer.
1. “Under the Skin” – dragging the body past the baby on the beach (Jonathan Glazer & Daniel Landin)
Jonathan Glazer’s deliriously atmospheric “Under the Skin” was always going to figure here (the film was our collective Best Film Of 2014 by a resounding margin), but the question was which shot? The dissolving man, accompanied by that bloodcurdling sound? The first guy following Scarlett Johansson‘s alien into her lair, unaware he’s sinking into that reflective black ooze? The disfigured man? The HAL-esque formation of an eyeball at the very start? We could have populated this whole list with shots from this film alone. But we’ve gone for a less overtly ethereal/otherworldly pick here because it packs such an enormous psychological wallop, and in one single shot encapsulates what is so unique about the film: it’s a mind-breakingly brilliant combination of the utterly ordinary and the chillingly uncanny. In one steady, unblinking shot we get all three figures, the alien hefting the body, completely oblivious to the screaming of the baby, and it is at that moment that we realise fully how far from human she is, as there just can’t be a soul watching who isn’t primordially tuned to attend to a crying child. Glazer compounds this near-unwatchable discomfort by returning at night with the motorcycle man and lingering on the baby alone, but it’s this earlier shot that invests everything that comes with such ferocious otherness, such outright fear. As Glazer told Vulture, “we wanted to … show a scene that we know would affect human beings, and then show Scarlett and how she responded to that and how faraway her response was from ours. It measures the distance, really, between us and the alien.” In a year when “Interstellar” went through wormholes to far-off planets in other galaxies, there was no greater distance mapped by any film than that one, in this one shot. Watch it here.
As we keep noticing, television and cinema are drawing ever closer together in terms of the quality of their visual storytelling, and so we thought it only fair to call out a couple of particularly terrific examples of small-screen shotmaking that grazed our eyeballs in 2014.
“True Detective” – Episode 6, Tail-light Shot (Cary Joji Fukunaga & Adam Arkapaw)
Best Shots and “True Detective”? Now, we know what you’re thinking: great, another treatise on how awesome that episode 4, 6-minute tracking shot was. And indeed it was, but we felt it got enough love, occasionally at the expense of an appreciation of just how cleverly and beautifully the rest of the show was shot too, even when they weren’t necessarily trying to pull of big stunts like that. And a great example is the final shot of episode 6 —literally one of this writer’s favorite TV shots of all time— after the reunion between Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson) has happened on the road after ten years apart. From about 1:40 in this clip, as Rust gets back into his pickup and drives away, what could have been a simple, bland ending is given layers of meaning by framing the truck so that the smashed taillight, which we saw getting broken during he parking lot fight all those years ago, occupies a slightly soft-focus foreground, with Rust reflected in the side mirror. “That’s an idea we had on the day,” Arkapaw said to Vulture “It was scripted that the tail-light was still broken. It was a poetic time to remember the time they fell out.” It tells so much about looking to the past, and how we can never escape our histories, but also tells us much about Rust himself: he never got that taillight fixed, because some things just stay broken.
“The Knick” – Episode 1, Sister Harriet Smoking (Steven Soderbergh)
Without a doubt the best-looking TV show in recent memory, Steven Soderbergh’s stunning photography (for he is his own DP) is in evidence practically every frame. So really the only debate was over which shot to include. With a full admission of the total subjectivity of the pick, we’re going with this relatively static shot of Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) smoking near a tree, if for no other reason than, 36 minutes or so into the first episode, it seemed like as good a time as any to become completely obsessed with “The Knick.” It’s a beautifully composed shot, of course: we would expect no less with Soderbergh acting at the height of his powers as regards camera placement, framing and focus, but thematically too, the scowling, smoking nun combines, in one simple image the old-fashioned with the surprisingly modern —a constant dichotomy that makes “The Knick,” with its anachronistic Cliff Martnez score, thematic fearlessness and silky, fluid camerawork, feel so fresh. And to cap that off, it’s a shot that introduces us properly to Sister Harriet, one of the show’s most compellingly contradictory and human characters, and to her relationship with the coachman Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), to whom the shot pulls focus as they bicker and jab at each other.
There’s a fair amount of heartache involved in compiling this list (as there was last year) mainly because we try to be very strict about including individual shots that have really stuck with us, and that really have some special, microcosmic qualities for the stories they serve, rather than “just” the most beautiful. So we’re slightly aghast that we couldn’t agree on a single standout image from, say, “Ida” which would undoubtedly take the title for the most ravishingly beautiful cinematography of the year overall. Similarly Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is such a treasure trove of visual pleasures that we were at a loss to isolate just one, as is “Inherent Vice” and even at the smaller end of the scale, films like Josephine Decker’s “Butter on the Latch,” “Tracks” and “The Double” might well have featured if we were talking about the overall quality of the visuals, as opposed to trying to find that one, sticky moment.
And there were a few picks that just fell a little short, like the now-famous-due-to-the-poster opening shot of “Boyhood”; the hanging shot in “Frank”; the moment “Gone Girl” goes full-on slasher movie; and some of the bravura action shots in “The Raid 2” (which is called out in Best Action Scenes here). Plus some of the cleverest framing of the year can be found in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan.”
However as debate-inducing as any best of the year list might be, with the wealth of films to choose from, a list of best shots has to be even more so, seeing as there are hundreds of shots used in each of those films, so we’re very sure you have some images that have remained rattling around in your brains and we would love to hear about them. Call them out in the comments below and meantime, for all our Best of 2014 coverage to date, go here. –Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Nik Grozdanovic, Erik McClanahan