Today we round out the top 10 shots of the year with the final five. Check out part one if you missed it.
Let’s dive in:
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit
We were completely ripping off New York filmmaking from the 1970s, things like “Klute” and pretty much everything Owen Roizman has ever shot. But Tony’s sense of these things was not lots of little pieces; he loves making kind of graphic frames that play as long as possible.
Robert Elswit had a hell of a year in 2007, finally getting his due from the American Society of Cinematographers who awarded his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” There was another film featuring Elswit’s unique signature, however, that flew under the radar for its considerable attention to composition and camera movement: Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton.”
Much is made of the film’s final sequence, a long shot focused on Clayton as he rides away from the hysteria in his life, desperate for his cab driver to “just drive.” But a companion shot from earlier in the film was just as arresting, if not more so, as a purposeful point of transition to the second half of the endeavor. A long tracking shot that never misses a beat, both behind and in front of the camera, the scene detailed is the expert, painfully clinical execution of Arthur Edens, played to an award-worthy T by Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson.
The final image is steeped in theme, and an initial tracking sequence under Edens’ opening monologue pulls the viewer into the film’s interior world, but this particular shot is so cold as to be frozen in its depiction of something at once gruesome and strangely beautiful, fluid. I’m not privy to whether it may have been a directorial decision, though I suspect it may have been, but it is the crown jewel in a film packed with precision from Elswit.
“THERE WILL BE BLOOD”
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit
If we were stealing from anybody, it was a little bit of Kubrick. But that tends to be kind of Paul’s taste anyway. But in terms of temperature — and we’ve said this a million times — it was ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre.’ We really wanted a sense of that. Oil drilling was a really hard life, and I think Paul was absolutely obsessed with capturing that.
Elswit bumps up against himself here, one of the countdown’s two individuals with dual representations. The imagery throughout “There Will Be Blood” is instantly classic, much like it’s sister film, “No Country for Old Men.” The ASC has seen fit to reward Elswit for his work on the picture, and with due cause. The result of “Blood” is a testament to the artistic splendor of the lenser’s 5-film collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson.
The shot that stuck out in my head the very first time I saw the film spoke to me so deeply that I referenced it in my initial review: “A few years trickle by as Plainview adds onto his enterprise until finally, oil. A black-tarred hand reaches to the sky and suddenly you sense the influence of Stanley Kubrick on the film. Like the apes who discovered weaponry in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Plainview has come upon the object that will dictate America’s destiny for the next century and more.” I don’t thiink I could say it any better now.
Indeed, the Stanley Kubrick reference is palpable, and obviously, Elswit is on the record as saying the work of the highly visual director was referenced on the film. It is perhaps the most Kubrickian image of the year, which is saying something, given the number of times the filmmaker’s name has been evoked in critical discussion of the year’s cinema.
Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey
Joe and I are very clear that cinematography must be in service of the story. With the unfettered imagination, meaning can just explode and proliferate. So we wanted to keep in line with the script’s insistence on no adjectives, keep things clean as a whistle, very clear and with unfiltered light.
Perhaps the most talked about shot of the year is the 5 minute-plus tracking scene of Dunkirk in Joe Wright’s “Atonement.” Seamus McGarvey served lensing duties on the pic, but camera operator Peter Robinson perhaps deserves most of the credit for that shot. However, it is an image just moments later that was most striking to me and, indeed, more thematically relevant.
Robbie Turner, robbed of four years of his life due to false charges, painfully in love with Cecilia Tallis, desperate to return to her arms, is injured, his life draining away, his exhaustion taking its considerable toll. In front of a theater screen, his anguish plays out expressionistically behind him as a black-and-white romance shines bright on the screen, two lovers locked in a kiss. Robbie holds his head in his hands, everything…slipping away.
This shot means so much more than any other image in the film. And while McGarvey and Wright’s (and Robertson’s) Dunkirk odyssey has been unfairly maligned as it is, I have to say, not enough attention has been paid to the visual splendor found elsewhere. And I still contend this might be a dark horse in the cinematography category at this weekend’s Oscar ceremony.
“THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”
Director of Photography: Oliver Wood
Thankfully, Universal’s “Bourne” franchise finally received its fair share of film awards acknowledgment this year as the best film in the series received three Oscar nominations. Sadly, a tip of the hat to lenser Oliver Wood wasn’t in the cards, but that’s okay. He and his crew were responsible for one of the most jump-out-of-your-seat images of the entire year — perhaps the entire decade — in Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
At the end of an involved and lengthy (some would say too much so) action set piece that dazzles the viewer with both visual skill and editorial expertise (thank you Christopher Rouse), Jason Bourne fixes in on his target, the elusive “asset,” a building away, closing in on the unsuspecting Nicky Parsons. A split second decision from the robot-like former government operative and Bourne sprints toward a window, out onto a ledge and leaps headlong into the air. Typicality would suggest a simple profile view of Bourne crashing through the oncoming window, but no. Wood and company followed the character through the air, hell, through the WINDOW, on the way to eliciting gasps and perhaps cheers from spellbound audiences.
Dazzling. Simply dazzling. And the only drawback is that the sequence was spoiled in PR and trailer promotions for the film, but no matter. If half the industry’s cinematographers were willing to be this brazen and think this far outside the box (and really, the concept doesn’t seem that far-fetched in a close analysis), we’d be in for treat after visual treat.
“THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD”
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Andrew said he wanted to create a Victorian Western, and he had a lot of visual references, from photographs to paintings and stills from other movies. But this was the 1870s, kind of late for a western. Jesse James was around at a time when the west was really changing; he lived in an area that was bustling. And Andrew wanted to get across that notion of change.
It may seem almost cliche to select an image from Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” as the single greatest shot of the year, but let’s face it — it’s true. Any number of images from this film would blow the competition out of the water, and indeed, it was a fool’s errand to select just one. Jesse James obscured by tall wheat; his iconic image approaching a stopped locomotive, doused in smoke and steam; snow-streaked scenes washed out in stark beauty; his dead, displayed body reflected in the lens of a camera — you name it.
What I settled on was the image directly following a moment that hinted to us that this may be Deakins’ greatest work to date (that being a somewhat experimental shot of a locomotive approaching the camera and taking us on a ride). The image in question lifted my heart to take it in: Jesse James, the outlaw, approaching a rise of wooden debris, awaiting an oncoming train as the engine light casts his shadow in the center of the frame. It’s simply gorgeous, a testament to the possibilities of iconic imagery within the genre (possibilities strangely untapped throughout the years, for the most part).
But truthfully, I could post image after image after image from this exceptional piece of work and easily fill a list of ten. This one was monumental, though — demonstrative of a career pinnacle for the lenser, a singular vision of an American art form from the mind of an Aussie and the eye of a Brit. I can’t tell you how in love I am with the imagery of “Jesse James,” except to say how undeniably deserving Deakins is of an award for what he accomplished. Here’s hoping…right?
Well, that wraps up my personal compilation of the year’s greatest images. Astounding work from so many, and indeed, so many left off the list:
Janusz Kaminski vibrantly depicted “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in ways almost aggressive in their creativity. Phedon Papamichel re-invented the western genre as a modern actioner in “3:10 to Yuma.” Rodrigo Prieto filled his frames with aching thematic resilience in “Lust, Caution.” And Ed Lachman brought Todd Haynes’s twisted, surreal and avant garde vision of Bob Dylan to life in exciting ways in “I’m Not There.” But 10 is 10.