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Frame By Frame: The Best Shots Of 2013

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 24, 2013 at 11:02AM

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. If in the living organism of a movie, a shot is perhaps just a single cell, but it doesn’t mean that on occasion that 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.
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Spring Breakers Jetty

7. “Spring Breakers” - The Pink Jetty Ending (Harmony Korine & Benoit Debie)
“I wanted to make a film that looked like it was lit with candies” Harmony Korine said to the AV Club, “like we were lighting it with Skittles or we were using Starburst Fruit Chews. I wanted all that kind of pop gloss and tone, and I wanted all the mythology and the meaning to be the residue from the surface, to kind of bleed from it… all the neon colors, the candy colors. I wanted you to feel like you could touch it or lick it.” Ok, so this writer is not in the pro-”Spring Breakers” camp at all (and make no mistake, you need to pick sides on this one, war is imminent), but one of the things that was so frustrating about watching the film was that just when a particularly pretentious piece of repetitive voiceover, or some other self-consciously arty embellishment had eroded our goodwill to the point of nonexistence, a shot would swim up out of the blur and simply be so viscerally stunning to look at, that we’d be back onside. Momentarily at least.

And this was most striking at the very end of the film, at exactly the point we were sure it had well and truly worn out its welcome and shown us all it was going to, that this perfectly gorgeous, ridiculous shot appeared and our jaw may have dropped. On the surface, it’s not hugely different from what’s gone before—the girls are wearing their bikinis that glow under UV light, the balaclavas are on and they’re carrying guns—so far so “Spring Breakers.” But here the neon pop-art aesthetic is exaggerated to its graphic limit, and something about its woozy immediacy, with the jetty lit pink leading off to house in the distance and the violence to come, more perfectly encapsulates the hollow nightmarishness of the concept of “spring break forever” than anything in the preceding 90 minutes. The sheer bravado of this shot, its almost insulting coolness and Chupa Chups palette works brilliantly to convey both the seduction and the seediness of the vapid but violent lifestyle the girls have embraced, and when the battle lines are drawn in the great “Spring Breakers” war, will probably, along with the peerless use of Britney’s “Everytime” prove this combatant’s major Achilles heel. You can see a smudgy version here—the top of the shot is cut off, but you catch the drift:

Inside Llewyn Davis Cat reflection

6. Inside Llewyn Davis” - Cat looking out the subway window (The Coen Brothers & Bruno Delbonnel
One of the criteria we set ourselves when compiling this feature was that the shots we picked out should be the kind that just knocked our socks off in the theater. Everyone has a slightly different reaction to a shot like that, but personally we end up involuntarily making a noise somewhere between a gasp and a sort of groany shortness of breath. We vividly remember doing so during the train sequence of "The Assassination Of Jesse James," and we did it more than once during the upcoming "Under The Skin" (don't be surprised if this list next year is made up entirely of shots from Jonathan Glazer's film). We weren't expecting to have that reaction this year from a shot of a ginger cat looking out a window, but that's what the Coen Brothers and Bruno Delbonnel (stepping in, beautifully, for Coens regular Roger Deakins, who was busy on "Skyfall" at the time) managed with our pick from the masterful "Inside Llewyn Davis."

Early in the film, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) accidentally lets out a cat belonging to the Gorfeins, who've been putting him up overnight. He manages to grab it, but not before the front door has closed behind him, so suddenly, he's stuck with the animal for the rest of the day. With no other option, he brings it on the subway with him, and the Coens and Delbonnel, remarkably, frame the journey through the eyes of an animal that's never seen anything like it before. It's a gorgeous little sequence, but the shot in particular that gave us butterflies is a sort of POV glimpse, as the reflection of the cat is caught in the window as it watches tunnels and stations rush by, just as the rest of the world is rapidly overtaking the cat's new babysitter. One can only imagine how many takes it must have taken to get right (as the Ethan Coen told Collider, "That was just difficult. It was what you would expect from an animal on the set.... it's just unbelievably boring, frustrating and painstaking to shoot"), but boy, was it worth it. Again, no embed, but you can see a glimpse of the moment in the trailer below.

Upstream Color

5. “Upstream Color” - The Bathtub (Shane Carruth)
When we asked Shane Carruth how he would define his delirious, enigmatic, indefinable ”Upstream Color” if he had to choose just one thing, he replied “That's tough. I would say romance… But there's only a small part of it that's their relationship, some of the romanticism is Kris and her whole story of being broken down and there being some resolution… but yes. It's tough but I would say romance.” And having lived with the film for most of a year now we’d have to say, pigs and orchids and starlings and microbial infections and kidnappings and “Walden” and fraud schemes and all, we agree: our overriding memory of this rich, complex and rewarding film, is of (ostensibly) the simplest of its elements, the love story. And the other thing that stayed with us (apart from the fantastic score which clocked in as our collective 3rd favorite of the whole year) was the silvery loveliness of the cinematography, which, like the soundtrack too, was masterminded by the polyglot Carruth. Appropriate, then, that the shot that has lingered most in our minds (also possibly helped along by the fact that it was used in some of the film’s marketing materials) is one which is probably among the most romantic in this romance. 

Kris (Amy Seimetz) has awoken in a panic and thinks she hears strange noises, and Jeff (Carruth) infected by her panic, as their symbiotic bond suggests he must be, unquestioningly hurries them both into the bathroom, where they tangle up defensively in the tub and pull the curtain. The silliness of this move as a potential deterrent to whatever might be lurking outside is part of the brilliance of this moment, a kind of childlike “if I can’t see it, it’s not there” response, that shows how both characters have, in this moment, devolved into creatures of pure, shared instinct, as incoherent and illogical as that instinct might be. And so this shot, overhead looking down at the two of them, almost as though they’re sharing a womb, is both suffocatingly claustrophobic and swooningly romantic: they practically dissolve into one another physically here, as much as they already have emotionally and psychologically. In that it perfectly embodies what makes this film so special: it may be "simply" a romance, but it tells us that romance is anything but simple, and it’s about the mystery, terror and sadness of being in love, and the erasure of self that implies, more than it’s about love’s joys. No clip available, but the trailer has a brief look at the moment leading up to it (and also serves as a reminder of the numerous other fantastic shots in the movie).

Place Beyond The Pines

4. “The Place Beyond The Pines”- Opening Tracking Shot (Derek Cianfrance & Sean Bobbit)
“[Cinematographer] Sean [Bobbit] quickly decided that we needed to start the movie off with an epic opening shot, like so many of our favorite films, whether it be a Béla Tarr film or ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ or ‘The Player’ or ‘Touch of Evil.’ A shot that will kind of teach you as an audience how to watch the movie,” director Derek Cianfrance told Vanity Fair about the ballsy opening to his epic drama, “The Place Beyond The Pines.” And while the rest of the movie mostly forgoes the style, as an opening statement of intent there’s a reason we’re still talking about it nine months after it opened in theaters and over a year since it premiered at TIFF. With a firm nod to the Dardennes and something a bit sinister and noir about it too, Cianfrance keeps the face of his lead Ryan Gosling out of view to kick things off and instead starts on his inked, ripped body and hands—playing with a butterfly knife no less—as he paces impatiently. The unbroken shot then follows Gosling from behind as he works his way through a busy fairground, walking with focused purpose. He arrives inside a tent where an excited crowd awaits, and he turns to sit on a motorcyle, and after we see his face for this time every so briefly, he covers it again with a helmet and proceeds into the appropriately named Cage Of Death, where he’ll defy death with a sideshow stunt. But for all the style that the sequence contains, and technical virtuosity with which it was pulled off, the sequence immediately tells us a lot about Ryan Gosling’s tragic, romantic heatthrob Luke: he’s fearless, reckless and confident. And it’s combination that will soon see him riding like lightning, and crashing like thunder. Watch the full sequence below:

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Best of 2013, Best Movies of 2013, Prisoners, Gravity, The Bling Ring, 12 Years a Slave, The Place Beyond The Pines, Upstream Color, Inside Llewyn Davis, Spring Breakers, The Grandmaster, Only God Forgives


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