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.