As I said a few weeks ago in spotlighting some of the most exciting cinematographers working today, I believe we're quietly going through a golden age for the form. There are some dynamic ideas making their way through the system these days thanks to exceptional artists behind the camera, and hopefully this little feature does its part in celebrating what they have to offer.
It has been a staggeringly good year for cinematography, and the last few years haven't been too shabby, either. I frankly had a tough time settling on my own favorites for my imaginary Oscar ballot, but in addition, I'd also spotlight films like “Calvary,” “Selma,” “Under the Skin,” “Cold in July,” “Enemy,” “The Babadook,” “A Most Wanted Man,” “Fury” and more.
(To say nothing of the films that have shown up on the top 10 shots two-parter yesterday and today: “The Homesman,” “The Immigrant,” “The Rover,” “Nightcrawler,” etc.)
So let's get down to it. I know why you're here. But FYI, if you missed the first part of this year's countdown, you should probably catch up with #s 10-6 first. The top five will be waiting here for you to dig in once you do.
Hope you enjoy…
Director of Photography: Hoyte van Hoytema, FSF, NSC
“That particular shot is so much VFX, apart from the ship itself, which is a miniature and it's lit a certain way. In most of these shots, actually, while we were shooting, we had a miniature unit. So all of these elements there are kind of practical. For me it's a treat because it's just much nicer to shoot something than not to shoot anything and just imagining it and relying on whatever post is coming afterwards. Especially if you like things to be tactile and tangible, there's nothing nicer than basing what you do on what you have in front of the camera.”
-Hoyte van Hoytema
I often don't make this feature purely about the visual. Sometimes the assemblage counts for a lot, how an otherwise simple image takes on a significant impact when viewed in a certain editorial context. Other times, it's about how what we hear feeds what we see. In the case of this shot from “Interstellar,” the latter is very much applicable. As a reminder, the moment comes after Matthew McConaughey's everyman Cooper passes along his audio recording of crickets chirping to ease wigged-out astronaut Romilly's (David Gyasi) cabin fever. Cut to this shot as the crickets overtake the soundtrack.
Right there in a single moment is the macro/micro theme I feel the film handles pretty well. In all that expanse of the universe, Saturn looming large, a wormhole awaiting transport to God knows where in space and time, a reminder of what's back home, what's important, what's driving the mission. I find that to be profound, love the film or hate it. And I have to say, I kind of love how Hoyte van Hoytema's thoughts above speak to that concept in their own way. (For more, check out our interview with Hoytema here.)
Director of Photography: Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS
“You have this terse, complicated big brother/little brother relationship going on against the backdrop of a primeval sport. They are both 'men' in the truest sense of the word, but both have a caregiver and care receiver role to play. Trying to impart this depth in any sport is hard, but wrestling is a very emotional, very human. It involves the most amount of human contact of any contact sport. You really want to find that perfect angle. A little too left or right and you could be dealing with the backs of heads or legs only. On occasion we needed to adjust the guys' position to camera, or on occasion we needed to adjust the camera to them, but finding this sweet spot was very much planned.”
“Foxcatcher” is an immaculate, austere, controlled piece of work. It's a jaw-dropping exercise in craft, and that boils right on down to Greig Fraser's imagery. After Adam Kimmell on “Capote” and Wally Pfister on “Moneyball,” Fraser was an intriguing step in cinematographer progression for director Bennett Miller, and together I think they found a profound signature. There's a lot of patience with the photography, drawn out takes, and when the editing comes, it's so precise and elegant, but not at all showy.
This shot in particular is quite balletic, telling a whole story with one flowing image. Indeed, there was a lot of backstory material shot for the film featuring Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as Mark and Dave Schultz, but all of it was tossed out when this sequence seemed to say everything that needed to be said. That's some serious power there. That's cinema. (For more, check out our interview with Fraser here.)
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit, ASC
“Paul wanted to play it in real time and make it all happen. He wanted the seduction and sexual part of it to be alive and real and not feel cutty. He loves things that happen while you sit there and watch them and you don't become aware of the filmmaker's involvement or manipulation. And his wont is not to have to design things so that they have to be created in the editing room. He doesn't want to sit in the editing room trying to find his movie. He's not in love with post. It's on set, with the actors. He wants to be able to pace some things, certainly, but there are things that happen that he feels it's like an aria that can unfold.”
Paul Thomas Anderson, for reasons laid out in the quote above, has traded on long takes packed with organic moments since day one. As he evolves as a filmmaker, that tendency evolves, too. And while this particular shot feels like a PTA throwback, it has a fresh and electric quality, letting the viewer observe thick drama play out. It's fully dependent on the actors nailing the moment, and particularly Katherine Waterston, who in this six-minute take wallows in femme fatale intrigue while revealing so much about her character's, Joaquin Phoenix's and their relationship. It's a seduction crammed with layers.
On the whole, “Inherent Vice” is one of the most stunningly shot films of the year. Mixing color temperatures and capturing vibrant production and costume design with atmospheric visual flourishes, it might be Robert Elswit's best work on an Anderson film to date, including the one for which he won an Oscar: “There Will Be Blood.” For obvious reasons, that's saying quite a lot. (For more, check out our interview with Elswit here.)
Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC
“Gareth is a great director for mise-en-scene, and he's thoughtful when it comes to bombast and action. I'd love to claim this entirely but he had pre-vised a lot of the film long before I came on board, and this was always an image he had in his head, right down even to the music. There was a whole combination of approaches to the cinematography there, within the plane and the run out, and then we had real skydivers film the leap for some of the shots. You get that excitement of the vibration of the camera and also the lack of precision to the composition. We wanted to combine that with the grand vistas when you pull back and see something more expressionistic and painterly.”
Spectacle actually means something in Gareth Edwards' “Godzilla,” a summer blockbuster artfully told with a real eye on what to show you, when to show it to you and, above all, how to show it to you. But one stretch of the film in particular is so bold it probably rates as my favorite scene of the year: the HALO jump sequence set to the sounds of György Ligeti's “Requiem.” As a whole, it's a riveting sequence and it was interesting to talk to Seamus McGarvey about the different looks used to accomplish it, but when Edwards pulls back to this vista? Wow.
Yes, it's an effects shot, but it's so beautiful and very much in keeping with the visual language of the film that Edwards and McGarvey used throughout. As those red streamers drop from the clouds above (there are actually two such shots – this is the first, while the second features the San Francisco skyline), the heart sort of stops as the Ligeti takes flight. I guess I'll just say it again: WOW.
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC
“The main reason we shot it this way was it was written like that. The seed of it was in the script. It has to do with getting the audience immersed in the movie and having the audience somehow go through Riggan's emotional roller coaster, through the labyrinth of his mind as his life is collapsing, and have the audience feel what he's feeling as they walk behind his feet. I think in that sense it's beautiful, because this same story could have been told in many other ways. But this one, the form of the movie is really powerful because it makes the inner world of Riggan even more palpable. You feel it. You're right with him through this. And I think that made the movie very special.”
There could simply be no other. It's not often that you basically get to say an entire film (well, 95% of one) is “the best shot of the year,” but that's the case here. And cry foul for picking a digitally assembled tracking shot if you must, but there is some precedent for going there. After a few fleeting thematically relevant images, the “single take” magic trick of “Birdman” begins one minute, 51 seconds into the film and doesn't conclude until an hour 41 minutes and 17 seconds later. In between there are dissolves and digital edits meant to smooth it out and preserve the effect, but that's not at all a deal breaker to me.
“Birdman” – ahem, the best film of the year – is filmed this way with purpose. At a time when 3D imagery and surround sound technology are hellbent on making the theatrical experience all about immersion, here is a film that grabs you by the ears and forces you to to experience the drama right alongside the main character every step of the way. It's breathless, brilliant – absolutely brilliant – and it marks the second straight year the maestro, Emmanuel Lubezki, has topped this list. (For more, check out our interview with Lubezki here.)
That wraps up another detailed look at the best film images of the year. But what's your take on all of this? Rattle off your own list of favorite shots in the comments section below.
(And by the way, thanks for being such champions of these annual shenanigans. It's nice to know people are eager to read it every year.)