Top 10 Shots of 2009

So, as I mentioned in my first post, Kris Tapley does a very cool feature every year where he runs down his top 10 favorite shots from the films he’s seen. It’s much fancier when he does it, of course, because as a respected blogger he is actually able to talk with the cinematographers who were responsible for the shots. *sigh* Someday…

Anyway, I was inspired to make my own list for two reasons: 1) I watched Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox the other day, and there was a particular shot that I immediately thought was worthy of being singled out among the year’s best, and 2) I thought Tapley’s list kind of sucked this year. I say this with the utmost respect, of course: I completely agreed with his choice of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for the best cinematography of 2007, and his multiple picks from The Dark Knight in 2008 were equally inspired. I also appreciate his desire to look beyond art-house cinema for his picks; cinematography is one of the areas where summer blockbusters can really hold their own against less populist work.

But look at his list and you can probably see why I’m bothered.

Paranormal Activity at #1? Seriously? C’mon. My problem here is that I don’t believe Tapley is necessarily choosing cinematic images. Several of his choices are stills, not shots, per se. There is a fine line between cinematic and photographic images, the key piece generally being movement, of course. But I also feel that there is a certain thematic resonance to cinematic images; or, more precisely, a thematic dependence. A still shot from a film doesn’t generally stand on its own the same way a photographic still does. Take Tapley’s shot from Transformers 2 at #10, for instance; the composition and lighting is striking, yes; does that shot really tell you anything thematically about the film as a whole, though? Not really. That’s what I tried to keep in mind while making this list: a great film shot is striking, but not necessarily because it’s beautiful. If I could, I would show you the actual clips, to show the shots in their entirety, but still photos and my descriptions will have to do. And off we go!

10. Broken Embraces (director: Pedro Almodóvar, cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto)

Here, blind ex-film director Harry Caine, watching TV, realizes that the channel is broadcasting one of his films; specifically, the film that Broken Embraces has revolved around, a comedy called Girls and Suitcases. The movie, however, is spectacularly unfunny, and Caine doesn’t understand or remember why he seems to have used all of the worst takes from filming.

This shot makes the list because it so defines Almodóvar’s introspective streak. It’s not just that Caine is a film director; Girls and Suitcases is actually loosely based on one of Almodóvar’s earlier films, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Caine’s act of self-reflection is also Almodóvar’s. Almodóvar is obsessed with the act of filmmaking, with voyeurism and how the act of seeing affects that which is seen. There is just layer upon layer hidden in this shot, ready to be peeled open.

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (director: Wes Anderson, cinematographer: Tristan Oliver)

This…is possibly the most gorgeous shot I’ve ever seen in an animated film, and that’s including the unforgettable images found in Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir, The Triplets of Belleville and the works of Hayao Miyazaki. But, as I pointed out in my opening, it’s not just about beauty. In Anderson’s film, Mr. Fox’s label of “Fantastic” is less of a badge and more of a burden. His family and the other animals look to him for guidance when their home is threatened by three local farmers. Of course, it’s also his fault that they’ve been brought into this threatening situation in the first place. When this shot takes place, Mr. Fox had recently thought he had outwitted the farmers, only to see his family flushed into the sewers and his nephew kidnapped.

The profound sense of isolation is almost overwhelming. As his wife slowly approaches him, you really feel Mr. Fox’s…humanity? Foxiness? Damn anthropomorphism. Anyway, you get the point. He is what he is: a man/fox trying his best, disappointed by his weaknesses, but who can and must find the strength to set things right. Anderson didn’t miss a beat in transferring his usual themes of family and paternal responsibility to an animated setting.

8. Where the Wild Things Are (director: Spike Jonze, cinematographer: Lance Acord)

Boy, did I have a time trying to pick one shot from this extraordinary film. There was Max, standing tall above his years as he pilots his sailboat into the unknown; the wild, hand-held shot that starts the film as Max tumbles down the stairs after the family dog in a frenzy of youthful energy; the heart-breaking last shots of the Wild Things themselves on the beach, particularly Carol, as Max sails away from the island forever.

Ultimately, though, I decided on this shot of Max and Carol on the beach for the way it captures the tone of melancholic wonder that dominates the film. The windswept beauty of the New Zealand landscape (literally) shines through, capturing the optimism of childhood even as the forlorn, sand-covered figure of Carol represents the emotional pitfalls scattered along the way.

7. Sugar (directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, cinematographer: Andrij Parekh)

This wonderful film takes every stereotype of the Inspirational Sports Film and turns it on its head, leaving the viewer with a thought-provoking look at the role of sports in the issues of immigration and the American Dream. Here, the camera follows pitcher Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos as he makes his way out of the dugout on to the field at a low-level minor league park. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh has clearly watched his fair share of Inspirational Sports Films like The Natural, 61*, The Pride of the Yankees, etc. It’s the typical “Underdog Athlete Hits the Big Time” shot, with one crucial exception: this isn’t Yankee Stadium. Hell, it isn’t Progressive Field. This is Nowheresville, Iowa. Baseball rounds up these ‘hot prospects’ from all over the Caribbean, luring them to America with promises of wealth and fame, and then dumps them in these completely alien towns to develop their skills, leaving them on their own to deal with the inevitable culture shock. Only a fraction of those recruited ever make it to the major leagues. The wide-open sky over the field in one way represents the freedom and dreams of new immigrants to America; it also represents what a lot of those dreams come to: a whole lotta nothing.

6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (director: David Yates, cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel)

It’s strange for a film so far along in a series to earn an Academy Award nomination where its predecessors all failed, but Half-Blood Prince set itself apart from the earlier Potter films and won a deserving Cinematography nod. In my particular favorite shot, Harry and Luna walk down a hallway on their way to one of Professor Slughorn’s parties or something (I don’t really remember or care), but the camera surprisingly lingers after the couple move out of the frame. For a moment, you don’t realize why the shot hasn’t cut yet; then you notice, barely visible at the edge of the frame, the cut-off, isolated figure of Hogwarts’ resident brooder, Draco Malfoy.

The film gets a little over the top with Malfoy’s emo-ness when he starts crying and staring into mirrors later on, but this is a beautiful way of showing Malfoy’s suffering and seclusion in cinematic terms.

5. The White Ribbon (director: Michael Haneke, cinematographer: Christian Berger)

The closing image from Haneke’s haunting tale of abuse and the dark side of humanity perfectly sums up the film. I don’t want to say too much – it’s one of those films that really must be seen in order to be understood – so I’ll just give a little context here. This small, pre-WWI German village has been terrorized by a string of terrible, unexplainable events: the town doctor fell from his horse and broke his collarbone; a local farmer’s wife fell through moldy floorboards at the mill and died; the Baron’s son was kidnapped and tortured. As the townsfolk try to proceed on with their lives, we find that fear is actually business as usual in the village; the male leaders of the town routinely abuse and terrorize their families. Here, all of those patriarchal figures are visible in the congregation: the priest, the Baron, the Baron’s steward. In the balcony, the town’s young schoolteacher stands to the side, a witness to everything that goes on around him. And looming above all, the children…

4. Inglourious Basterds (director: Quentin Tarantino, cinematographer: Robert Richardson)

OK, hear me out, I swear there’s more to this shot than a stunning Melanie Laurent. Here we have one of Tarantino’s many homages to German cinema in this film: Laurent is clearly dressed up to resemble the heroine Veronika Voss from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1982 film of the same name (I haven’t been able to track down the film on the poster across the street). The slow pace of this shot reflects Shosanna’s contemplative mental state, as she pauses to consider the course of action she has chosen. It’s not a moment of ambiguous contemplation, mind; you can see her firm resolve in the window reflection. No, as the soundtrack declares in a moment, she’s putting out fire with gasoline.

Instead, I prefer to think she’s remembering: remembering everything she’s lost, remembering how much her family meant to her, and how far she’s willing to go to have her revenge.

3. A Single Man (director: Tom Ford, cinematographer: Eduard Grau)

Tom Ford displayed an obsession with eyes in his visually lush depiction of Professor George Falconer (Colin Firth)’s last day on earth. What better way to drive home this concern with sight and perspective than an homage to the master of cinematic voyeurism, Alfred Hitchcock? Here, Falconer exits his car in front of a giant poster for Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho.

The shot is striking, disorienting, confounding. Throughout the film there is a tension between being seen and being invisible; Falconer is frustrated with having had to hide his homosexuality for most of his life, frustrated with having to hide his enormous grief at the loss of his lover Jim, all while constantly living under scrutinizing eyes. Is it worth living such a life?

2. The Hurt Locker (director: Kathryn Bigelow, cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd)

The one shot where Kris Tapley and I are in complete agreement. Here, bomb tech Sergeant William James, having defused one IED, finds himself surrounded in a deadly web. In the moment, it’s a thrilling, gasp-inducing shot; under further consideration, it’s also a simple, perfect visual metaphor for the Iraq War. The Hurt Locker was a stunning combination of heart-pounding suspense and thought-provoking commentary on the effects of war on the human mind – how fitting that the best shot of the film should similarly combine plot and theme.

1. A Serious Man (directors: Joel and Ethan Coen, cinematographer: Roger Deakins)

I wanted to fight my love for the Coen Brothers, I really did. But there’s no getting past it: if you see A Serious Man, I can guarantee you’ll never forget the surprising, mystifying image of a tornado bearing down on the school of young Danny Gopnik. The Coens are building a reputation for ambiguous endings (remember No Country for Old Men’s almost Sopranos-esque cut to black?), but this one isn’t really as frustrating as it feels on the first viewing.

The Coens’ re-interpretation of the Biblical story of Job, set in a 1960’s Jewish Minnesotan suburb, is all about the search for meaning and God in a seemingly chaotic, random world. Poor Larry Gopnik – just when he thinks everything seems to finally be working itself out for him and his family, life just throws another wrench in the plan. A very windy wrench. Ultimately, God’s ways (or enlightenment, or the meaning of life, or whatever you want to call it) remain elusive. We can search all we want for the reason behind the random suffering in this world, but that won’t stop it when there’s a tornado breathing down your neck.

So there you have it. Those that barely missed the cut:

  • Anna Kendrick on the moving walkway, Up in the Air
  • too many shots to choose from, Bright Star
  • Tolstoy and Bulgakov walking through the birch wood, The Last Station
  • night-time chase sequence, Public Enemies
  • man reflected in rear-view mirror of Bad Blake’s crashed car, Crazy Heart

I promise most of my posts won’t be this long, especially the non-lists! Hope you enjoyed this; anyone remember any of their own favorite images they’d care to share?

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