Frame By Frame: The Best Shots Of 2013

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by The Playlist Staff
December 24, 2013 11:02 AM
35 Comments
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Continuing our look at the Best Of 2013, we've come down to definitely the smallest, most fleeting and ephemeral of cinematic elements: the single shot. In the living organism of a movie, a shot is perhaps just a single cell, but it doesn’t mean that on occasion one cell can’t take on an importance, weight and memorability totally disproportionate to its size. And in each of the cases we list here, it was a shot that at least some of us found irrevocably “sticky” — an image that, even during the film, had leapt out at us and caught us by surprise, and the one that lingered longest after the credits rolled. In some cases, it’s a shot of particular cinematographic beauty, but we tried to stay away from those that were only that, and instead focus on shots that invested the experience of watching whichever film it was with some deeper thematic significance and/or featured a cat looking at his own reflection.

Sometimes they sum up the film, sometimes they transform the film, and sometimes they simply settle into the mind’s eye like they’d always been there, but these are the ten shots that, out of all the hundreds of hours of footage we’ve all watched over the past year, we can’t and don’t want to shake.

10. "Only God Forgives" - Ryan Gosling's Hands (Nicolas Winding Refn & Larry Smith)
A closed fist, Nicolas Winding Refn told an "Only God Forgives" Q&A audience back in July, "is an extension of the erection, and when you open up it becomes very feminine. I wanted to make a movie where the hand has to be amputated. And Ryan has great hands." Divisive as it may be, there is perhaps one thing that folks on both sides of the aisle can agree about when it comes to Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest: it looks fucking great. The measured pacing of the film is matched by its visual approach, that at times can resemble less a moving picture than a collection of still images. And among the many beautiful frames collected by Refn in “Only God Forgives” (indeed, there were a few that could have easily been chosen for this list) one of the most significant and symbolic, is simply of a pair of hands; their menacing promise of what’s to come, and the shameful history of where they’ve been. Ryan Gosling’s largely mute Julian carries on his shoulders not only the burden of having to avenge his pervert brother’s death, but a history of violence as both victim and perpetrator. It’s a vicious cycle he knows he can’t stop no matter his best intentions, or his appearances of settling down with a girl, and running a legitimate business instead of a front. And this moment, looking down on his hands, is something of a chilling reckoning, one where Julian understands that whatever comes next for himself, the cop on his tail and his seething mother, nothing will ever be the same, and these same hands hold that destiny. And the shot in full:

9.“The Grandmaster” - The Almost Kiss (Wong Kar-wai & Philippe Le Sourd)
"To fight is to kiss” is, according to Wong Kar-wai, a Chinese saying. “You have to get very close, you have to be confident, your whole body is pressed against your opponent. And there is this stillness—it's easy to trick the audience when you are moving, dancing around. The most difficult part is the pose, it has to be flawless.” Not only does the fight/kiss correlation make sense of a lot of the homoerotic undertones to our favorite 80s action flicks, but it’s taken almost to its literal extreme in this one shot from Wong’s “The Grandmaster,” a film that, though its moments don’t string together into a whole worthy of them, is undeniably beautiful and thrilling at certain points. One of those points is defintiely the fight between Tony Leung’s Ip Man and Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er (for our money, the de facto star of this particular show), and most especially the moment, in trademark Wong Kar-Wai slow motion, when Zhang’s masklike, perfect face drifts so close to Leung’s, their eyes steady on each other, that it feels more intimate than any possible liplock ever could. Also, Zhang is twirling above him in mid-air at the time. It’s a shot that Wong returns to later on in flashback, and while shorn of its context it might not seem as straightforwardly sumptuous as some of his other, grander compositions. But what makes it so special is the weight of emotion we read into it: it acts as the keystone shot to the relationship between these two characters, and since that relationship turns out to be the keystone to the film, this one moment takes on heady added meaning, but with the grace and restraint typical of Wong’s films. This is as close as they ever get, and we know it, somehow, the second it happens—they will never be closer, but as close as they are, they are so very, very far apart. You can watch the whole fight here: 

8. “12 Years A Slave” - The Hanging (Steve McQueen & Sean Bobbitt)
Steve McQueen, and his regular DoP Sean Bobbitt (who had a spectacular year: he's the only DoP to make this list twice, thanks to his work on "The Place Beyond The Pines," and also did sterling work on the otherwise disappointing "Byzantium" and "Oldboy") made their name on long, unbroken shots: in particular the 20-minute conversation between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in McQueen's debut "Hunger." While their style is a little more traditional in their phenomenal "12 Years A Slave," they go to the long-shot well twice, more effectively than ever. The whipping of Patsy (Lupita N'yongo) is heartbreaking and borderline unwatchable in its refusal to look away, but we were struck even more by the earlier example, as Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northrup is the victim of an attempted lynching by Paul Dano's repulsive overseer. Dano is stopped just in time, but while Chapin (J.D Evermore) won't let Solomon die, he won't cut him down either.

The result is a horrifying series of long-shots as Solomon dangles from a tree by his neck, toes scrabbling on the ground to keep himself from dying, as white folk and slaves alike ignore him. As Bobbitt told Thompson on Hollywood, "Northrup's hanging for the better part of the day is inconceivable. And yet nobody can touch him because he belongs to another man. And to see everyone else moving around behind him is such a powerful statement." It's gruelling, and by placing the camera at a distance, the filmmakers make the audience just as complicit as those who fail to come to his aid. "The idea was to make it believable but also for the audience to viscerally become a party to that physical torture," Bobbitt continued. The temptation may have been to make the film as ugly as the actions within it, but in a terrible way, the shot's so perfectly composed that it takes on an uneasy aesthetic value. According to Bobbitt, that was very much deliberate: "[We wanted it to be] oddly beautiful so that it resonated and it wasn't an image that you could just throw away... By making it beautiful, it makes it palatable for the audience. If we had made it ugly and gritty and desaturated, I don't think the audience would stay with it. There would be no hope and the look comes from the story. These plantations have an inherent natural beauty and to defy that would be a lie." No embed available.

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35 Comments

  • Jake Bart | January 25, 2014 8:29 PMReply

    It may not measure up to some of these shots in terms of a technical feat, but the closing shot of THE WOLF OF WALL ST. was one of the most chilling and memorable images I saw on screen all year. Perfect button for that film.

  • James | January 14, 2014 12:41 AMReply

    I just saw "The Hunt" today and I have to say that the shot of Mads Mikkelson in the church towards the end, looking emotionless, is one of the most powerful images I've seen all year.

  • QG | January 5, 2014 11:56 AMReply

    The opening of "American Hustle" with Christian Bale trying to paste a muffin on his head--so reminiscent of the ageless hope of mankind for immortality, bringing to mind the monolith in "2001" or the various efforts of Dr. Frankenstein through the decades. OK, I kid, but it's all I could come up with on short notice.

  • Shane | January 1, 2014 7:37 AMReply

    As much as people hated it, I loved the Family and it had some really interesting camera work
    Specifically, in the opening where the Assassin emerges from the smoke and also many of the stuff in the eerily yet enthralling yellow of the end shootout sequence.
    The Tracking shot in Mama, so damn creepy...
    Also most of the shots from Ain't Them Bodies Saints specifically at the beginning...

  • Patrick | December 31, 2013 12:05 PMReply

    Well, it took a while to read all of the reviews and I'm not sure I necessarily want to see any of these films, even Gravity. The little note on Before Midnight...I guess that film wasn't special enough to the reviewers to make the list but it is the only film mentioned here that I actually saw.

  • Lord | January 2, 2014 7:57 PM

    Wow! thanks for sharing your opinion, Poop-stick. Like anyone gives two shits that you have poor taste in films. Grow up and Get Lost.

  • Zach | December 31, 2013 12:02 AMReply

    If you're going to throw on a shot from "Pacific Rim" I think it's got to be the jaeger coming out of the mist towards the beginning of the film.

  • Enrique | December 30, 2013 12:42 PMReply

    this list has no credibility without Post Tenebras Lux on it.

  • Ger-Bear | January 2, 2014 7:59 PM

    Light after darkness should have been called turn off the light and leave me in darkness. Hit the road, art-house snob.

  • PhilipG | December 24, 2013 4:26 PMReply

    *harrumph* : How about the shot in Stoker where it fades from Nicole Kidman's hair to the wheat field......

  • FP | January 2, 2014 3:02 PM

    Excellent transition in an awful movie.

  • Genga26 | December 24, 2013 10:27 AMReply

    Nice list. I have to say my preferred shot in Grandmaster isn't the 'Kissing' scene between Zhang and Leung. Rather, I felt the scene with Leung and the old master lighting the cigarette scene later on to be THE scene of the whole film. It conveyed so much with such simplicity. Two masters without having to throw any punches who size each other up with a mere lighting of a cigarette. Beautifully poetic.

  • Glass | December 23, 2013 2:52 AMReply

    That first shot in Place Beyond the Pines was so Vimeo-cliche I wanted to turn the movie off. Can we stop with the tracking shots from behind characters soon? It was stale in 2010.

  • james | December 23, 2013 12:28 AMReply

    The final shot of Beyond the Hills

  • joel | December 22, 2013 11:32 PMReply

    The shootout at the end of Spring Breakers is the worst part of that shit film. It's amazing how much you hipster douche bags have elevated what is one of the most predictable and pedantic films of 2013 into the cinematic equivalent of coconut water. The really funny part is going to be in three years when you realize you spent $25 on the blu-ray only to discover you never watched it twice and you can't sell it because your douche bag pals already tried to unload their copies onto Ebay. Enjoy your clams, cocksuckers.

  • douche-chill | January 9, 2014 2:43 PM

    spraaaaangbraaaaake forevaaaaaa

  • ROBERT GASSAWAY | December 22, 2013 1:42 PMReply

    "Berberian Sound Studio" - Gilderoy enters the film/becomes the film
    "Leviathan" - disorienting, inverted birds flying overhead

  • Swaggy P | December 21, 2013 11:04 PMReply

    the letter burning shot from 12 Years a Slave sticks out in my mind.

  • S | December 21, 2013 5:37 PMReply

    The film came in for a hiding, but I do remember being impressed by the hotel penthouse break-in scene in THE HANGOVER PT. III, with the damaged fluorescent lights flashing as Black Sabbath's N.I.B. plays loud on the soundtrack.

    Also Macon Blair lighting his own face by torchlight as two home invaders move around the house in Jeremy Saulnier's BLUE RUIN stayed with me.

  • Gerard Kennelly | December 20, 2013 2:19 AMReply

    Dennis Quaid face during customer appreciation day --AT ANY PRICE

  • Erik | December 19, 2013 9:18 AMReply

    I know most people don't care for it, but 'Stoker' contains some truly impressive cinematography.

  • Erik 2 | January 2, 2014 8:05 PM

    God said "you are neither hot nor cold, so I shall rebuke you from my mouth," to those that wavered in the grey area. And you are a indecisive shithead who will be rebuked from both parties for not picking a side on stoker, you Dirty Ass-Face

  • Davide | December 19, 2013 4:03 AMReply

    Love that you mentioned La Grande Bellezza and Pain & Gain. Those movies are gorgeous!

  • POBLANO_66 | December 19, 2013 12:01 AMReply

    Almost anything in the sumptuous palette of director Andrew Dosunmu and DoP Bradford Young's Mother of George is worthy of inclusion on this list. From the luscious wedding sequence in the opening to the askew framing of the disintegration of the marriage 3/4's through. A must see for any true cinephile. Find the trailer and see for yourself.

  • Joss | December 18, 2013 6:36 PMReply

    - The slow zoom into the helmet until it becomes Bullocks POV shot from Gravity.
    - The one take exterior shot of the robbery in Spring Breakers
    - The final shots in the wood in The Hunt. Says so much through so little.

  • mijo | December 18, 2013 6:32 PMReply

    That was the most boring fight scene ever filmed. Good thing i skipped on renting that.

  • Josh | December 18, 2013 6:28 PMReply

    Although I didn't much like it either, half this list could have been filled up with Spring Breakers. Not since Tree of Life have I found a movie so simultaneously exasperating and gorgeous to look at.

  • Lou | December 18, 2013 5:24 PMReply

    I'll echo the "Prisoners" love. I especially loved that last scene with Gyllenhaal driving the little girl to the hospital. Just flat-out beautifully shot by Deakins.

  • serena | December 18, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    Regarding the BLING RING shot, Sofia Coppola mentioned to Elvis Mitchell that she thought about cutting that sequence thinking it would be too technically difficult but Savides fought really hard to keep it in, so it's his handiwork entirely.

  • Matt | December 18, 2013 6:39 PM

    I was lucky enough to meet Sofia Coppola recently and asked her about the glass house shot and if it was inspired by the famous Jacques Tati house shot in Mon Oncle. She said honestly that it was completely her DP's (Savides) idea. But she knew the Mon Oncle reference and said she didn't doubt that Savides knew it too.

  • serena | December 18, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    There's a shot from Terence Malick's TO THE WONDER (seen in the trailer) where it's a wide interior shot on Ben Affleck on the ground floor, Olga Kurylenko on the second floor, and they both walk in the same direction off-camera. It quietly communicates that these two people are going in the same direction, but totally separate at the same time. It's one of the movies where any shot is a piece of art.

  • Tom | December 18, 2013 5:23 PM

    Even the shots at the Sonic drive-in. I'm completely serious.

  • TimParker | December 18, 2013 4:26 PMReply

    Pain and Gain? I have not seen it, but was Ben Seresin's work particularly good? Was Michael Bay's? What was it about that movie's framing that made it worth mentioning? Just curious.

  • Kurskij | December 27, 2013 12:46 PM

    Pain&Gain cinematography and editing is remarkable in a sense that there are no explosions, but it still is definitely a Bay movie: it looks like younger, lesser Roger Deakins shot it while wasted on ecstasy.

    Bright, full of energy and at the same time weirdly restrained and precise in its framing, lighting and palette.

    It's not a good movie (IMHO), but fascinating to look at.

  • Franka | December 18, 2013 4:37 PM

    There's a shot out to P&G in the honorable mention section.

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