Have you been watching HBO's “True Detective?” Did you catch Sunday night's episode? The entire back half of the show built to an absolutely arresting finale, the fallout of which was ultimately captured in one extended take. Some might dismiss it as a mere stunt, but while I was certainly captivated by it technically, I was also drawn in by how consistent and controlled and drilled-down Matthew McConaughey's performance was throughout the take. Shots like that are a group effort above and below the line, even after being meticulously blocked and lit by the camera department.
It was a bit of serendipitous timing for that episode to hit when it did, given that this annual feature was planned for this week. And the concept of continuous takes – or “oners,” as they're called – might have some relevance to today's wrap-up of the best shots of the year, but, well…no spoilers yet. I would, however, like to take a moment to consider the year in cinematography in general, because it was a banner year for the industry's camera wizards.
Again, the American Society of Cinematographers couldn't even settle on just five, as a tie led to seven nominees. At the Oscars, fantastic work from two Brits – Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) and Barry Ackroyd (“Captain Phillips”) – ended up on the sidelines, leaving as our nominees Roger Deakins (“Prisoners”), Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Philippe Le Sourd (“The Grandmaster”), Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”) and Phedon Papamichael (“Nebraska”), all deserving. And I'm happy to say we talked to each of them here at In Contention this season.
But there were plenty of stellar accomplishments behind the camera otherwise that just didn't find a foothold on the circuit. Near the top of that list, for me, would be Hoyte Van Hoytema's work on “Her,” beautifully capturing a non-dystopian future, but more on that in a moment. And what about the chiaroscuro strokes of Masanobu Takayanagi's efforts on “Out of the Furnace?” Sensational. I'm also frankly stunned I could never settle on an image from “Rush” for this piece, as Anthony Dod Mantle's work in that film is just beyond.
In the indie sector, there was Lubezki killing it again and in a manner perhaps more palatable for purists in “To the Wonder.” There was also Sam Levy's black and white capturing of “Frances Ha,” equally deserving of the recognition Papamichael has been getting for “Nebraska.” I also loved what the talented DPs behind “All is Lost,” “Big Sur,” “Leviathan,” “Stoker” and “Upstream Color” cooked up, while in the realm of Hollywood blockbusters, “The Lone Ranger” – for all its countless faults – was immaculately crafted.
Rounding it out, Tobias Schliessler put us right in the thick of the action in “Lone Survivor,” while exciting newcomer Bradford Young hit the ground running with “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” and “Mother of George.” Luca Bigazzi crafted an electrifying mise-en-scene in “The Great Beauty” while the delicacy of Ruben Impens' work in “The Broken Circle Breakdown” shouldn't go unmentioned. And under his pseudonym “Peter Andrews,” Steven Soderbergh lensed some of his best digital work to date in “Side Effects.”
Yes, it was a wonderful year for the form. But now it's time to boil it all down to the top five shots of 2013. If you need to catch up on part one, do that here first, then dig in with the big finale below.
“THE BLING RING”
Directors of Photography: Harris Savides, ASC and Christopher Blauvelt
“Harris was involved with this project long before I came on board. The goal for me was to co-DP it with him as he was involved with a considerable amount of medical distractions. I'm glad you chose this shot as it's one of my favorites in the film. It came up in a conversation about how to give each burglary its own aesthetic. It was Harris' homage to an Antonioni film, for the attention to long takes and letting scenes play out within the frame. It was a stripped down crew, the last shot of a long day. A handful of us drove up the canyon to an abandoned house overlooking ours and I remember having some laughs with Harris and the crew up there while we waited for the sun to go down. I still miss him very much.”
– Christopher Blauvelt
We lost an absolute treasure of the form in 2012 when brain cancer took Harris Savides away from us. His swan song was Sofia Coppola's “The Bling Ring,” and as you can see in co-DP (and Savides' long-time camera assistant) Christopher Blauvelt's quote above, those closest to him saw the unfortunate end in sight. But the work shines on, and Savides gave a much-needed elegant touch to this film.
The shot that sticks out to anyone who watches it is an extended zoom-in to one of the many mansions the eponymous criminals invade. It sits like a doll's house in the Los Angeles lightscape, a stunning image, really. To be fair, I nearly opted for another image that flashes across the screen not long after this one, the bling ring's silhouettes frolicking past the twinkling lights of the city, but this one seemed to have a more immediate whiff of Savides' hand, and it's the least I can do by way of tribute. It's outside the box, and that was Savides.
“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”
Director of Photography: Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC
“As we were working, the whole ending of the film was in flux. We were trying to figure out what it would be, but we knew we wanted it to be part of his motivational speaker moment. For Scorsese, the casting of those faces was very important. He was very deliberate in choosing these people and placing them very specifically. They're all in awe, and they don't flinch. They're looking at Jordan Belfort very intensely, with admiration, aspiring to become like him, which is in a way a gaze back at the audience and ourselves. We all could be Jordan Belforts, and perhaps we'd like to be. I think that's the point of the movie.”
– Rodrigo Prieto
Martin Scorsese's “The Wolf of Wall Street” is alive in ways few films are. It would have been interesting to see one of his many long-time collaborators, Michael Ballhaus, handle the camera on this one as it's such an obvious cousin of “Goodfellas,” but Rodrigo Prieto is one of the contemporary greats so it's wonderful to see them work together on something so epic.
The film's final image is like a mirror. Sitting in the audience, you look back at a number of individuals sitting in their own audience. Underneath it all, they're desperate to learn the art of the swindle, and leaving the film with this last glimpse at ourselves and what we've become couldn't have been a more perfect final indictment. I couldn't say it better than Prieto did above.
Director of Photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema, FSF, NSC
“A shot like that is very much a collective effort. Spike and K.K. [Barrett], the production designer, had this idea of a big video screen. I remember at an early stage talking about how we have very few billboards in the film and it's very sparse, and that there should be one instance where Theodore sits in front of a moving billboard. There was a lot of experimenting with the content and everything, and it became that owl in extreme slow motion going for prey. It was shot in China in a very busy place and we couldn't close the street down. Everything we did in Shanghai was kind of wild and kind of funky, but I remember we planned it out very carefully so we could get the timing right.”
– Hoyte Van Hoytema
Hoyte Van Hoytema has now been featured in this annual space three times. He took the top spot in 2008 for an electrifying underwater image from “Let the Right One In” and popped up once again three years later with an ominous shot from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” He is one of the great working DPs, for my money, and I can't wait to see what sort of new iconic imagery he and Christopher Nolan have cooked up for “Interstellar” later this year.
In 2013, Van Hoytema stepped in for Spike Jonze regular Lance Acord on the beautifully crafted “Her.” And it was one of a handful of times this year that a specific image grabbed me by the heart and said, “You'll be writing about this one.” The film's protagonist sits in a futuristic Los Angeles as a video billboard behind him depicts an owl lunging for prey. I don't think any other image in the film had more to say about technology's death grip on society and, indeed – as the film's themes lay bare – our very souls. (For more, check out our interview with Van Hoytema here.)
“12 YEARS A SLAVE”
Director of Photography: Sean Bobbitt, BSC
“When I first read the script, it struck me as the single most important scene in the film from a dramatic point of view. Here is something truly horrific that happened to a real person. It spells out the depravity of slavery, where someone is owned so totally and completely by someone else that compassion isn't even an option. From the beginning I thought, and Steve agreed, that this had to be a visceral and very upsetting moment. It had to be a simple observation, but as beautifully composed as possible. There was some pressure to shorten it because it was upsetting people, but I would be tempted to elongate it, actually, to even further heighten the effect. It has to be unacceptable.”
– Sean Bobbitt
Sean Bobbitt's work with Steve McQueen has yielded a spot on this list every single time, whether it be the fluttering of birds and attempted escape of a soul in “Hunger,” the opening glimpse of a certain sort of addict in “Shame” or, indeed, a 75-second static shot of Solomon Northup hanging by a noose as daily life moves on casually behind him. Theirs is already a storied modern collaboration.
But this was actually the most difficult choice for me of the lot. I knew when I saw “12 Years a Slave” at Telluride that this image spoke to me, and Bobbitt's explanation above is wonderfully detailed. But there is another image from the film that I nearly included, Bobbitt's own favorite, in fact, of a very broken Northup staring around the frame in sorrow before looking directly into the lens for a beat. It was so arresting, and Bobbitt's thoughts on it so compelling. But, again, what's happening in this particular shot says so, so much. (For more, check out our interview with Bobbitt here.)
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC
“Beginning with 'Y Tu Mamá También' we started experimenting with these long scenes that have no intercuts. For some reason we felt very comfortable doing it. It's hard, technically, but the payoff is enormous. It allows the audience to get immersed in the movie. We started using them more in 'Children of Men,' so by the time we got to this movie, I already knew he wanted to do a very, very long scene with almost no cuts. To me the story behind the movie is that humans are tiny little specs in space and we're afraid of that and we're afraid of death and we're afraid of infinity and we don't understand it. This is one of the central shots that carried that message.”
– Emmanuel Lubezki
An accomplishment like “Gravity” demands multiple inclusions on a list like this, and so it is that 2013 marks only the second time we've had a double-dipper. Yesterday I explained why the oft-seen “in utero” composition was so moving and thematically resonant, but today it's time to explain how an opening shot like the one in this film can put you on notice for the ride to come.
The first 13 minutes of “Gravity” are a microcosm of the entire film. They contain moments both intimate and outrageous. They find emotion and they find thrills, and they prepare you for what's to come. Intriguingly, the shot was meant to go on longer, the camera racing to catch up with a tumbling Sandra Bullock after she hurdles off into space. But the very idea that the camera could catch her in that expanse took away from the terror and vastness of the setting, so DP Emmanuel Lubezki and others convinced director Alfonso Cuarón to cut, to the next awe-inspiring extended take (the one that ends up inside Dr. Ryan Stone's helmet).
This is what this column is all about. and regardless of the fact that this image had a healthy dose of CG-enhancement, it was – every bit of it – a result of what Lubezki brought to this film. In one clean package, these 13 minutes represent the future, of filmmaking, of cinematography. They tell the entire story of the film, and in one viewer's humble opinion, they collectively make for the best shot of 2013. (For more, check out our interview with Lubezki here.)
And there we have it. My take on the best shots of the year. But let's turn it over to the readership. What were some exceptional images for 2013 in your book? Have your say in the comments section below!