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Ranking The 20 Greatest, Most Celebrated Long Takes

Photo of Jessica Kiang By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist March 27, 2014 at 2:39PM

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5. "I Am Cuba" (1964) Director: Mikhail Kalatozov DP: Sergey Urusevsky

Without a doubt one of the most beautiful films ever shot, it's astounding that "I Am Cuba" was so long neglected, following the negative reaction to its initial release in the Soviet Union and Cuba. It took valiant efforts of film conservationists such as Martin Scorsese to get it restored to its former glory, which is characterized by several mesmerizing long takes, notably one that ends up underwater in a hotel pool. But we're choosing to showcase this shot, which one would have thought impossible with the technology of the time, in which a protest march turns into a funeral procession and we follow in and out of buildings, high above the streets. 

4. "The Player" (1992) Director: Robert Altman DP: Jean Lepine

Featuring Welles's "Touch of Evil" lower on this list than the Altman-directed long take that literally references it may seem a bit sacrilegious, but hey, we're iconoclasts. And also, this shot is just an absolute blast, a witty inside-baseball look at the workings of a film studio in a film about filmmaking in which everyone works in the film industry and everyone only talks about films. It's a little like Playlist Towers in that regard, only everyone's better looking and it's sunny. While the meta, look at me! nature of extremely long takes is sometimes an issue, this one is in service of an extremely meta film, so it gets a joyous pass. 

3. "The Passenger" (1975) Director: Michelangelo Antonioni DP: Luciano Tovoli

Many of these shots contain a "how did they do that?" element, which is often part of the problem, as regards something that distracts you from the story. But we'll suggest that that distraction is part of the reason the penultimate shot of Antonioni's enigmatic identity-swap drama works as well as it does. As the camera first follows Jack Nicholson around the hotel room, then ventures out through the bars to the courtyard outside, the discomfort of the "impossible" move is part of what is puzzling about the sequence and it sets up an uncanny sense of "things happening beyond our ken" which is perfect reflection of watching the business of the courtyard while an offscreen death is occurring. Still amazing, still unknowable.

2. "Goodfellas" (1990) Director: Martin Scorsese DP: Michael Ballhaus

Well. We could write a novel about this shot, and about all it represents and everything it has influenced since, but really it's simply an example of as close to perfect a long-take shot as has ever existed in film. It tells us so much about the characters, and their relationship, it establishes so much of a world and a mood, and it does all that so stylishly and with such fluidity and dynamism that it should surely feel a million times rehearsed. And yet the real genius of this shot (and why it rides so high on this list, when "Raging Bull" has terrific examples too, as has late entry "The Wolf of Wall Street") is that it feels natural—the complexity of the shot never, ever, detracts from its vitality. Compared to other, impressive but more stately long takes (some of which we've shouted out here), this is a peerless example of virtuoso filmmaking whose technical virtuosity feels like the last thing on its mind. 

1. "Children of Men" (2006) Director: Alfonso Cuarón DP: Emmanuel Lubezki

And here we are, breaking our one-entry-per-director guideline, not for Tarkovsky or Kubrick or PTA or Scorsese, but for Best Director Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón. But there's no getting away from the flat-out amazingness of this scene, which famously required days to shoot, whole new rigs to be built and which at one point Cuarón was convinced they hadn't got because of blood splatter on the camera lens. But as much as the technical heights it scales cannot be underestimated ("Gravity" after all, was hugely complex but somehow more controllable than this shot with all its variables of vehicles, characters, performance, timing etc), most impressive to us is the fact that this scene is one which, the first or second time out, we didn't even register as a one-take wonder. So wrapped up were we in the story that the craft only ever worked on us in a completely subconscious manner (as opposed, for example, to the other fantastic, emotional long shot of Clive Owen walking through the ruined hospital with the baby, whose length and grace we actively noticed). This long take, that breaks so many long take "rules" (like how the truly shocking moment happens not at the end but in the middle) is for us simply the supreme example of masterful, accomplished filmmaking being put in service of sky-high dramatic stakes. 

Notable by their absence are a few no-brainer films that we excluded because they almost feel like they have a different agenda. So “Russian Ark” which is of course all one take, Hitchcock’s “Rope,” which is stitched together to give the impression of takes even longer than they actually were, Mike Figgis’ “Timecode,” with its real-time split-screen long takes and Michael Snow’s “Wavelength” which is an experiment in long takes, do not appear but are all instructive for devotees of this sort of thing.

And there are some that just missed the cut: the introduction of the ship and its inhabitants in Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” is a terrific example of establishing geography and character with wit and economy; Tarantino’s voyage around the teahouse in “Kill Bill Vol 1” is a fun ride; Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and “Last Days” both contain several very long takes (some might say tryingly so); as does Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers.” Hitchcock examples from “Frenzy” and “Young and Innocent,” the first-person intro of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” and the initial, journey-through-the-galaxy intro to “Contact” were all also considered, while long takes that are more static, such as those that characterize the work of Michael Haneke or Steve McQueen’s along with very long takes that are more about dialogue or monologues than action or camera hi jinks, such as in Linklater’s “Before”  trilogy or one-man-shows like “Bronson” we’re also saving for another day. 

But let us know the favorite one of yours that we missed, or how you feel about striking the balance between form and content in film criticism, below. 

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Gravity, Children of Men, GoodFellas


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