Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.

Most Anticipated Films of 2010

I promised last time that my posts wouldn’t always be so long. Well, they’re still going to be that long for the moment, because I’m bored as what and compiling lists and such seems as good a use of my time as any. Today I’ve been cruising around IMDB and various blogs and such to find out exactly what new films we can look forward to for the rest of the year. There’s sure as hell nothing to look forward to for the next few weeks, as Hollywood continues to stuff the theaters with sequels, gross-out Judd Apatow comedies and poorly conceived adaptations of video games and SNL sketches (a few notes to any big film executives who might happen to read this: 1) no matter how many TV ads you ram down my throat, I am still not buying Jake Gyllenhaal as a Persian, and 2) MacGruber??? Seriously??? You’re going to make an hour-and-a-half film based on a series of wildly unfunny 30-second sketches mocking an ’80s cult show that no one remembers? Yeah, that one’s going to be a HUGE hit).

So! Let us instead dream of the glorious days of autumn and winter, when (Christopher Nolan excepted, of course) the true talent of the film world is finally allowed to poke its under-appreciated little head above ground like Punxsutawney Phil’s little brother Percy. I present to you my Top 25 most anticipated films of the rest of 2010, ranked because alphabetical order is just too damn neat. Davai!

25. Centurion

dir. Neil Marshall, starring Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko

Gladiator-esque action, Michael Fassbender kicking ass and chewing scenery and one of the hottest women in the world as bloodthirsty barbarian queen? Long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously, I’m in.

24. Faust

dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, starring Hanna Schygulla, Maxim Mehmet and Antoine Monot Jr.

Sokurov is best known for his 2002 film Russian Ark, a technical marvel in which the director managed not only to film a 90-minute semi-narrative tour of the famed Hermitage art museum in a single take, but also broke the world record for most obscure Russian history references in a 90-minute period. However, the director also has a very intriguing series of films concerning the corrupting influence of power on man, including biopics of Hitler (“Moloch,” 1999), Lenin (“Taurus,” 2000) and Hirohito (“The Sun,” 2004). Sokurov next tackles the legendary German folk tale, a subject I have grown particularly fond of since composing a presentation on F.W. Murnau’s 1926 version. God only knows if this film will actually be distributed this year, but I’ll be keeping an eye out.

23. Biutiful

dir. Alejandro Iñárritu, starring Javier Bardem

No official trailer yet, just this teaser. Biutiful has gotten an extremely mixed response after debuting last week at the international festival in Cannes, and all I have on the plot is this blurb: “This is about a man embroiled in shady dealings who is confronted by a childhood friend, now a policeman.” I’m not the biggest fan of Iñárritu’s brand of human drama and despair, but Bardem is likely to snag the best actor award at Cannes, and this film figures to be a hot topic of discussion.

22. Somewhere

dir. Sofia Coppola, starring Michelle Monaghan, Benicio del Toro, Elle Fanning, Stephen Dorff

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a bad-boy A-List actor stumbling through a life of excess while living at Hollywood’s legendary Chateau Marmont Hotel. His days are a haze of drinks, girls, fast cars and fawning fans. Cocooned in this celebrity-induced artificial world, Johnny has lost all sense of his true self. Until, that is, his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) unexpectedly shows up and unwittingly begins to anchor him. – sounds decent enough, coming from one of the more intriguing writer/directors in Hollywood today. I didn’t hate Marie Antoinette nearly as much as some critics did, but I would still appreciate a return to Lost in Translation form.

21. Harry Brown

dir. Daniel Barber, starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, David Bradley, Sean Harris

Believe it or not, Michael Caine used to be an action hero, a sort of poor man’s James Bond. Always nice when Hollywood lets old people kick some ass.

20. Certified Copy

dir. Abbas Kiarostami, starring Juliette Binoche, William Shimell

Now there’s the definition of a teaser. Anyway, this is the first film made outside of his homeland for Kiarostami, a highly respected Iranian filmmaker. It’s about an English author and French gallery owner who meet in Italy; they fall into a flirtatious role-playing game, but it soon becomes difficult to separate make-believe and reality. Having seen several of Kiarostami’s earlier films, I assure you that won’t be nearly as dramatic as it sounds, but sure to be quietly pleasant at the least.

19. The Social Network

dir. David Fincher, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Rashida Jones, Justin Timberlake, Andrew Garfield

Penned by the sharp-witted creator of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, this could be a nice, fast-paced, funny take on the founding of Facebook. Though I don’t even want to think about how many ads and polls I’m going to have to look at to try to get to my profile when it gets close to the release date.

18. Love Ranch

dir. Taylor Hackford, starring Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Sergio Peris-Mencheta

Woooooo sexy sexagenarians! And, you know, younger hot girls too.

17. Never Let Me Go

dir. Mark Romanek, starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightlet, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins

Based on a famous novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the story revolves around three teenagers who grow up in an idyllic English boarding school, but as they grow into young adults discover a haunting reality. The thoughtful sci-fi premise is promising for the long-awaited second feature by Romanek, director of the incredibly creepy One Hour Photo.

16. Miral

dir. Julian Schnabel, starring Willem Dafoe, Freida Pinto, Alexander Siddig, Hiam Abbass

The true-life story of a Palestinian woman who created an orphanage in Jerusalem immediately following the creation of Israel in 1948. I’m very excited to see Schnabel’s follow-up to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; he has a knack for making a biography without the typical sentimentality that goes along with most of them.

15. Black Swan

dir. Darren Aronofsky, starring Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Sebastian Stan, Mila Kunis

A thriller revolving around New York City ballerinas. *shrug* OK, sure. One thing to keep an eye on: Aronofsky has a knack for helping actors in a rut revive their careers (see Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler); can he do the same for Winona Ryder?

14. The Kids Are All Right

dir. Lisa Cholodenko, starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson

I’ve read that this film is a little deeper than the comedy-oriented trailer lets on, but does a great job of striking a balance between the family drama and lighter elements. Sounds good to me, especially with that cast.

13. The Rum Diary

dir. Bruce Robinson, starring Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Amber Heard, Aaron Eckhart, Amaury Nolasco, Richard Jenkins

I’ve been on a Transmetropolitan binge recently (if you have any interest in graphic novels, by the way, go pick up that series right now), so a movie based on one of hard-living journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s books is of particular interest for me. This project has been in the works for a loong time, but the combination of cult director Robinson (Withnail & I) and Depp is quite promising. I like how Depp’s style fits with Thompson’s work – it lets Depp bring out the crazy, entertaining side, but also requires him to bring his serious face.

12. Get Low

dir. Aaron Schneider, starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black

Duvall was getting major buzz for an Oscar last fall, but then the film got delayed. Still, looks promising, if the campaign can get started back up.

11. Exit Through the Gift Shop

dir. Banksy

Documentary, or world-class prank? No one’s sure. Banksy is the most famous street artist in the world, though he has always maintained his anonymity and general sense or irreverence toward society. So is this tale of Thierry Guetta, a ridiculous, possibly completely untalented disciple of Banksy who hit the big time true? Or is the whole thing a hoax, a comment on the superficial world of modern art? Either way, the definitely real footage of several famous street artists setting up their (illegal) works is supposed to be fascinating. Also, my early vote for best title of the year.

10. The Grand Master

dir. Wong Kar-Wai, starring Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chen Chang

This is a biography of Ip Man, the man who taught martial arts to Bruce Lee. That’s really all the information we have; this might not even come out in 2010, to tell the truth. But Wong Kar-Wai is one of the most unique directors in the world (see Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, vastly different in style but equally brilliant), and any new project, especially when teamed with frequent collaborator Tony Leung, should be highly anticipated.

9. Blue Valentine

dir. Derek Cianfrance, starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams

This marriage drama is getting raves out of Cannes. Williams and Gosling filmed the first part of this film years ago, then returned to the project last year to finish up, so that the characters’ aging would be realistic. I always like to see dedication like that to a project. I’m a big fan of both lead actors, so this collaboration is quite welcome.

8. The Way Back

dir. Peter Weir, starring Colin Farrell, Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, lots of Russians

Based on the true story of several prisoners escaping from a Siberian gulag in 1940. The group crossed the Siberian arctic, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas before settling in India. Sounds like quite the tale and should be a visual feast, although I’m nervous about some of these actors playing Russians.

7. The Tempest

dir. Julie Taymor, starring Helen Mirren, Chris Cooper, Alfred Molina, Alan Cumming, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, David Strathairn, Ben Whishaw, Felicity Jones

Julie Taymor’s last excursion into Shakespeare produced her fascinating combination of ancient Rome, fascist Italy and the future in 1999’s Titus. She’s already directed two different stage versions of The Tempest, so you know she’s comfortable enough with the material to do some similarly radical experimentation; like, say, switching the gender of the play’s lead character. Will turning Prospero into Prospera end up being a successful move? Who knows, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Helen Mirren. Plus, did you see that supporting cast???

6. True Grit

dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper

Boy, the Coen brothers are just cranking ’em out these days. Hopefully we’re headed for another No Country for Old Men rather than Burn After Reading, but that seems like a pretty safe bet, considering it’s a Western and all. Remakes always make me queasy, but I can imagine that a Coen remake will be…different….enough from the original to make the material their own (see: their “adaptation” of The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). John Wayne won his only Oscar playing Rooster Coburn in the original; fresh off his own first win, how will Jeff Bridges fare taking over the role?

5. The Tree of Life

dir. Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Fiona Shaw, Joanna Going, Jessica Chastain

This still-enigmatic film follows the journey of a young man growing up in the 1950’s Midwest into disillusioned adulthood. There’s weird rumors of this really being two films, of it being released in IMAX…but what else could you expect from a man who has only made 4 other films in his entire 38-year career? Malick made two masterpieces in the 70’s (Days of Heaven, Badlands) and then literally disappeared for 20 years before returning to make another masterpiece (The Thin Red Line) and one beautiful but ehhh film (The New World). Every Malick film is a cinematic event, but where on the spectrum will this mysterious, meditative project land?

4. The Illusionist

dir. Sylvain Chomet

Chomet’s follow-up to The Triplets of Belleville follows an aging magician, quickly losing trying to make a living despite losing his audience to rock and roll and other new forms of entertainment. The animator’s gorgeous visual style would be enough to rocket this near the top of my list, but to it off, Chomet took the story from a never-filmed script by legendary French comic actor/director Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime). A new Tati film almost 30 years after his death? Incredible.

3. Another Year

dir. Mike Leigh, starring Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Imelda Staunton

Blue Valentine and Certified Copy got favorable reviews at Cannes, but Another Year has far and away been the critical darling of the festival, drawing raves from viewers from all over the world. Leigh has produced some heartfelt, memorable ensemble dramas in the past, but it’s looking like Another Year could be his masterpiece. It takes a single year in the life of an older married couple, and just observes them as they play host to a variety of regular faces each season, magnifying their existential struggles. Even the most level-headed awards prognosticators are already guaranteeing the film Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Manville) nominations.

2. Machete

dir. Robert Rodriguez, starring Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Robert de Niro, Lindsay Lohan, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey

The trailer’s in my first post. I’m not ashamed to say it: I’m excited.

1. Inception

dir. Christopher Nolan, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Lukas Haas

I am not posting a trailer for this film. I am not posting any plot summary for this film, because I do not know what it’s about. I do not endorse going to any other site to find information about this film. Christopher Nolan has proven over his career that the less you know about his films going into them, the better. I’ve seen enough to be intrigued. Now I’m just going to sit back and let my mind be blown.

Yay for enormous, day-consuming blog posts!

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?