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Frame By Frame: The Best Shots Of 2013

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 24, 2013 11:02 AM
35 Comments
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3. "Gravity" - Fetal Floating (Alfonso Cuaron & Emmanuel Lubezki)
“That was the point, for us, of the film,” “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron told io9, “Adversities and the possibility of rebirth. And rebirth also metaphorical in the sense of gaining a new knowledge of ourselves. We have a character that is drifting metaphorically and literally, drifting towards the void…and she has to shed that skin to start learning at the end. This is a character who we stick in the ground again, and learns how to walk.” With an achievement as visually stunning as “Gravity” there are many shots we could have chosen, and the opening 15-minute unbroken sequence in which we are introduced to the characters, the geography of the space station, and the sheer clumsiness and difficulty of getting anything done in space, all against a backdrop of the velvetiest blacks and the sharpest 3D whites we’ve maybe ever seen in a theater...well, it deserves a mention at least. But the single image that stays with us most is actually an uncharacteristically static, pictorial, deliberately framed shot, as Sandra Bullock’s Dr Rhinestone (ok, Ryan Stone but we like the “shine on you crazy fake diamond” vibe), having made it into the airlock and waited the excruciating seconds while the oxygen levels rise, unclasps her helmet, sheds her bulky suit and floats in a loose fetal position against the circular portal.

It’s a beat-taking moment that denotes a shift in the film from flat-out disaster movie (though there’ll be plenty more disasters to come) to survival narrative, as from here on Stone’s story becomes one of personal resourcefulness in the face of adversity. And it’s a beautiful, resonant image anyway, with Bullock’s dancer’s body loosely suspended and turning slowly, while umbilical tubing floats around her. But what makes it so memorable for us is the emotion that it embodies—we’re not sure we’ve ever seen the concept of “relief” so powerfully drawn. Soon to come will be a desperate scrabble to get back in contact with Kowalski, there’ll be panic and despair and determination and fear, but at this point Dr Stone is, like a newborn, one thing and one thing only: alive, and for a few seconds of peace amid all the chaos, that is enough. The shot is unavailable online, but here's a compilation of all the trailers to remind you of just what it offers respite from:

2. "The Bling Ring" - Long-Shot Break-In (Sofia Coppola Harris Savides/Christopher Blauvelt)
Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker able to cut a sequence as beautifully and precisely as any rare jewel, and with "The Bling Ring," a true-life caper about a bunch of bored kids who decide to rob unsuspecting celebrities, she was able to indulge with these tendencies perhaps more than ever. The characters we follow in the movie are shallow and pretty and covet the lives of similarly shallow, pretty, though more famous people—Coppola seems to want to suggest that all these lives are somewhat empty. And all of this is exemplified in a sequence where the petty burglars break into a house at night, as it glimmers far-off like some exotic gem. “I loved how the twinkling city lights below looked just like the jewelry the kids were stealing,” Coppola told DGA earlier this year, with the magazine describing the sequence as akin to watching “dolls in a dollhouse.”

We're not sure who was responsible for the shot, since the original cinematographer Harris Savides passed away during shooting (Christopher Blauvelt, Savides’ longtime first assistant took over for him), but whoever did created the film's most memorable sequence as the camera slowly pushes in while the robbery occurs, all in one single shot, without the accompaniment of music or many sound effects (a car drives past here, a dog barks there). The shot operates like a mini-essay about insignificance, about how notions of privacy crumble in the face of a celebrity culture that is all about putting oneself on display for consumption, but also Coppola's detached, voyeuristic camera summons up her frequent themes of the alienation and isolation of modern life—how nobody cares this is going on in plain sight and how everyone, like the gang themselves, feels removed from any real consequences. Again, no isolated embed of this shot, but there is a glimpse of it at the 54sec mark of this trailer:

1."Prisoners" - The Tree (Denis Villeneuve & Roger Deakins)
In “Prisoners,” trees act as silent witnesses to unspeakable acts. They open the movie as Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) ominously utters the Lord's Prayer— “as we forgive those that trespass against us” —not understanding how ironic they will soon sound in the face of some of his own unspeakable acts of violence and vengeance. In director Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners" violence is like a river that runs downstream like a legacy of malice. Violence begets violence and it runs in both directions; outstretched tree branches grasping forward and roots digging in deep to the past. In “Prisoners” Dover takes his son out for a rite of passage: to shoot and kill his first deer. It’s a simple way of communicating how this man is willing to kill to feed his family, but it’s also a kind of ominous sign of the birthright he's passed down to his kin. Within its three opening minutes, “Prisoners” has already established one of its main haunting themes.

What we have deemed "the shot of the year" isn’t especially pretty, complex or superficially impressive, but it does veer close to being, formally, almost profound. In fact, it’s a shot many might not notice, as it functions on such a subterranean and intuitive level. In “Prisoners” the abduction of the children in the film doesn’t happen onscreen, yet it is expressed onscreen. As Dover, his wife and his guests (Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) merrily imbibe and break bread inside, the daughters of both families go outside to play; never to be seen again. And while joy and cheer keeps everyone warm indoors, one of the fathers drunkenly blowing away on a trumpet, the movie suddenly cuts outside to the afternoon chill in the air.

The camera once again is staring coldly on one of the film’s memorably creepy trees. And then something subtly discombobulating begins that is spine-chilling. The camera slowly dollies in to the bark of the tree while the sound design quietly starts to crackle and burn underneath the soundtrack. The broken trumpet blare fades into the background as composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie church-organ based funereal psalm rings out. It’s unnerving, and masterfully so because in that moment, the film has shown you nothing and yet communicated everything to you—something is deeply wrong, something is amiss. In that very moment, you’ve been told: the children have been taken. If the best moments in cinema rearrange your personal molecules, this one scrambles them. Here's our complete interview with Villeneuve in which he talks in depth about this specific shot, but in the meantime, here's one last image from the Roger Deakins-shot film:

Honorable Mentions: As deeply subjective as a feature like this is, we tried to represent mainly those shots that a quorum of us agreed were particularly memorable as stand-alone shots, but there were some others that didn’t quite get the votes but are worthy of mention, like the long one-take conversation in the car in Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight”; the “welcome to the new house” one-shot in James Wan’s “The Conjuring”; the final slow-motion shot in Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12”; the lightbulb shot in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”; the horrible/so wrong bloody corn husk shot in Claire Denis' "Bastards," the goddamn wing-sprouting scene in goddamn “Pacific Rim”; and any random frame from “The Great Beauty” and/or “Pain and Gain” which is possibly the only time those two films will ever get to share a sentence. What shots had you sitting up to attention, quality of the surrounding film be damned? Tell us below.

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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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