Today we wrap up my list of the year’s best shots. In case you missed it, have a look at part one here.
Before digging into the top five today, I thought I would give a shout out to the images that almost made the cut, and there were a few. For instance, who can forget the fateful shot of Harvey Milk ascending the stairs of San Francisco’s City Hall as Dan White stalks the corridors in the distance? Similarly, how about the image of White from behind as he psyches himself into assassinating his fellow politician?
Meanwhile, there was an array of images to choose from in “The Dark Knight,” certainly too many to name here. As beloved as the image of Heath Ledger’s Joker is, breathing in his freedom and tearing off into the night in a Gotham patrol car, I chalk that up to performance as much as if not more than Wally Pfister’s work behind the camera. But the iconography of James Gordon standing, arms crossed in front of the Bat signal was a difficult one for me to snub (for reasons you’ll find out after the jump).
“Let the Right One In” will show up on today’s list, but one other image that came very close to making the cut for me was that of Eli’s victim bursting into flames on a hospital bed once exposed to sunlight streaming in through the window. And though Maryse Alberti’s work on “The Wrestler” has already been represented, I was always tickled by the creativity of The Ram’s walk through the bowels of a supermarket deli, mirroring his walk to the ring.
Finally, Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is loaded with wonderful cinematography. The image I chose yesterday had personal value, but I also loved the long shot of young Jamal and young Salim on the roof of a train to start the film’s exciting montage, as well as the three-shot overhead view of the Mumbai slums during the film’s opening sequence.
This is to say nothing of the work from fine lensers on films that just didn’t make the cut for whatever reason, but were nonetheless wonderful examples of cinematography this year. “The Fall” (Colin Watkinson), “Gomorrah” (Marco Onorato), “The Reader” (Roger Deakins and Chris Menges) and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (Javier Aguirresarobe) are just a few examples.
But enough of the also-rans, right? Let’s get on with the real show: the five best shots of 2008…
“THE DARK KNIGHT”
Director of Photography: Wally Pfister
Chris and I had long conversations discussing the best way to film this scene. This is the last we see of the Joker in the film and sadly one of the last days we were ever to work with Heath. We went back and forth trying to decide whether to leave him upside down in the frame for the whole scene or rotate the camera and have him right-side up and we did not make our decision until that day. Chris felt that, as long as we showed the camera rotation, and let the audience “in,” that the scene would play better with the Joker’s face upright. The end result is, of course, this eerie right-side-up image that defies gravity. We kept the illusion of the police helicopter flying around to motivate my overexposed blue, flickering light on the Joker’s face throughout.
Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is perhaps the most photographically sound film of 2008. To say nothing of the breathtaking innovations Nolan and D.P. Wally Pfister ushered to the mainstream by tinkering with IMAX technology, the film is composed, moment-for-moment, with the utmost expertise and thematic intent. Choosing just one image would bee a fool’s errand. I had to go with two.
Of course, as mentioned in the lede, there are numerous frames to choose from. Click here, here, here and here for just a couple more examples. My own favorite image might be this one, but I had to answer to a higher calling for the purposes of this list, shots that truly said something, capturing iconography and creative liberation all at once, regardless of my fanboy glee over seeing images from my favorite graphic novels duplicated on the screen.
For the first of two “Dark Knight” images selected, I chose a shot that brings an extra element of cinematic uniqueness to Nolan’s already classic vision of the character: the Joker, finally in the Batman’s clutches, suspended high above Gotham as he taunts his archenemy further. The off-screen pain of the line “You and I are destined to do this forever” will always sting, but for Pfister and Nolan’s part, Heath Ledger’s final moments in the film are captured in an unsettling manner worthy of the actor’s maniacal creation.
“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”
Director of Photography: Claudio Miranda
David likes being able to roll instantly and he likes the convenience of HD, but of all the shots that was probably one of the easiest ones of the whole movie. It was just trying to be as naturalistic as possible. I get drawn to it more emotionally, because it’s not busy with light or camera movement at all. There’s no real equipment on that shot. There’s just a camera and a couple of actors out there and we were blessed by a little bit of overcast and there you go. It was one of those happy accidents. And it just seemed to have a great mood to it, the tree kind of pushed in on the side with this nice bell shape. Everyone has their favorite shots but a lot of people react to that one.
Whether or not the Academy’s cinematography branch finally warms up to digital photography hardly matters in the face of the technology’s accelerated proliferation in the film industry. But while we’ve seen nice work from lensers like Dion Beebe and Dean Semler in that vein in the past, I don’t think anyone has really conveyed the potential for gorgeous digital imagery the way Claudio Miranda did on David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
Miranda has been a part of Fincher’s creative ensemble for a number of years. He worked on “Seven,” “The Game,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac” before taking the helm of a Fincher camera department for the first time this year. However, he cut his teeth as a lighting technician, which goes a long way toward explaining his wonderful eye for visual ambiance.
“Button” is packed with beautiful imagery, but it can be difficult at times to discern what is digitally enhanced. The red dress sequence that is so beloved, for instance, wouldn’t have had the same effect if Fincher hadn’t spiked the red in post. But the shot that always causes me to gasp a little everytime I see the film is the one you see here, startling on an emotional level but carrying with it an eerie weight that sums up the film so well atmospherically.
Director of Photography: Sean Bobbitt
It is an interesting shot in that it sort of highlights the working relationship between myself and Steve McQueen. He said it was as if the camera was a balloon bouncing around the room, always looking at Michael. There was no visual reference that he could think of but he had a gut feeling that there was something about that movement of the camera. It highlights Steve’s creativity because he’s coming from the world of art. We had several discussions about how you get a camera to move like that, coming up with all sorts of rigs — including large balloons — none of which were really practical. As we were getting more into the shoot, the birds started to grow in importance, and for Steve it was suddenly clear that it wasn’t a balloon, it was a bird, and the bird represented Bobby Sands’ soul, trying to escape this room.
Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” is a visual masterpiece, loaded with captivating images sprung from the mind of a contemporary artist in this, his first feature film. One could talk all day about the virtues of the film’s narrative structure, a broken string of moments that catches its stride in an extended glimpse of hunger striker Bobby Sands (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) in his final days of incarceration at HM Maze Prison outside of Belfast.
Sean Bobbitt has spent much of his time in the world of television as of late, but it seems a collaboration with McQueen was all it took to unleash a ferocious sense of creativity in the lenser. He captures the Maze with a number of clever and thematically potent angles and hues, equally effective with elaborate camera movement and the stillness of visual commentary.
The shot that stuck out in my mind comes late in the film, perhaps the most unusual of the numerous memorable images on display. The camera hovers above Fassbender as he goes into a series of convulsions, forgoing whatever fluids might have remained in his stomach. It then pushes in swiftly on the actor as the viewer hears the sound of bird wings flapping, then out again, repeating the movement a number of times before resting in a somewhat defeated manner. I do it no justice here; the movement is excellently explained by Bobbitt above.
“THE DARK KNIGHT”
Director of Photography: Wally Pfister
The Battersea Power Station has such a wonderful history and was perfectly suited for our story. There are very few locations where you can find that kind of scale. Chris really likes these iconic Batman images (the helicopter shot of Batman on top of the tall building is another) and usually uses them in very powerful, emotional moments in the film. All that weight was presented on a massive, eight-story screen when viewed at an IMAX theater. I was quite pleased with the duality of the color palette, the blue of the dawn light mixed with the warm, orange of the fire light. We decided to shoot this as a dawn scene, as it allowed us to see much more of the destroyed Battersea interior than we would have had it been a night scene.
As Pfister notes in his comment above, one of the things Christopher Nolan has nailed with his Batman franchise is the iconic imagery of the character. The first shot that really put fanboys on the edge of their seats in 2005 was that sweeping helicopter shot of the Caped Crusader perched atop a Chicago skyscraper in “Batman Begins.” At the time, comic artist Jim Lee called it his favorite image from the series’s reboot.
Translating that sense of iconography to IMAX photography was just one more way of adding a sense of majesty to the character and, indeed, lending a greater sense of importance and urgency to the events of “The Dark Knight.” And there was ultimately one image that came to define the film for me, both in this way and in a general sense overall. The choice was simple.
A battered but unbroken Batman stands on a pile of blown-out rubble, fires blazing all about him, looking down with the heavy heart of a shadowed hero. Using the Battersea Power Station in South London only amplifies the grandiosity of the image, but what is most startling is that, though it seems instantly iconic, there is no real reference for the composition, no frame in a comic book to inspire the image. It was born out of Nolan and Pfister’s creativity and dedication to capturing the essence of a character that has struggled to find that identification on the screen for decades.
“LET THE RIGHT ONE IN”
Director of Photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
This shot can be seen as a compressed example of how we tried to treat the story throughout the film. It pretty much followed the ideas Tomas and I had about how to show cruelty, action and supernatural elements and where to put focus. We wanted to be close on Oscar and the way he experiences the situation, as well as have a platform to tell everything that happens in one shot. I am not sure if it is the most “pretty” frame of the film, but it was very exciting to try to unravel and solve the puzzle of all present elements in this shot, technically, as well as emotionally. I am very proud of Tomas and the way he dared to go with a climax that is so violent, but restrained and subtle at the same time.
–Hoyte Van Hoytema
Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In” has been considered one of the year’s best films in many quarters. It is a burst of creativity and ideas that stretches far beyond the realm of the visual. I think vampire chic has enjoyed its 15 minutes. And it wasn’t working anyway. When Hollywood wasn’t raping and pillaging the work of Richard Matheson it was copying and pasting the work of Stephanie Meyers, both times to box office success of course. And who can forgive the many faults of television’s “True Blood?”
Along came Alfredson and his brilliant D.P. Hoyte Van Hoytema and, hopefully, they’ve changed all that. Who knows how wretched the American remake of “Let the Right One In” will be, but that a film this dynamic and artistically exciting will serve as a jumping off point certainly nurtures a sense of hope. Then again, fool me once…
Like many of the films on my list, this one is scattered with memorable images. The sound work should be noticed as much as Hoytema’s work behind the camera, by the way, but we’re focused on cinematography here, and there was really only one image worth considering, not merely as the best frame from the film but as the year’s single greatest shot. Young Oscar (Kåre Hedebrant) is held under water by a pack of bullies who’ve haunted him throughout the film. At first the audience isn’t quite sure what is happening above the surface, but as the bloody pieces begin to fall into place, we know. And we’re dazzled. This is the moment that finally made the film click in my head as one of the year’s best. I can’t imagine that I’m alone.
And that’s a wrap! This is, without a doubt, the feature I look forward to writing each year more than any other. Again, I hope you all have enjoyed the list as much as I did compiling it. These were my 10, but feel free to cut loose with your picks for the year’s best shots in the comments section below.