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.