In Contention

The top 10 shots of 2009: part one

Posted by · 12:49 pm · February 16th, 2010

Johnny Depp in Public EnemiesAssembling the assets for my annual take on the best single shots of the year was more of a chore this time around than ever.  Perhaps one need only look to a lackluster list of Oscar nominees in the Best Cinematography category to gauge just how underwhelming much of the work behind the camera was in 2009.  In fact, just one shot from a film shortlisted by the Academy in the field showed up on the list.

And yet, 2009 brought my personal pick for the best cinematography of the decade.  Quite the paradox, I know.

So a note on that.  Anthony Dod Mantle’s work on Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” was the most compelling, the most thematically resonant, the most daring work of the last 10 years.  But when it came to putting together my list, I could not, for the life of me, decide on an image that would make a solid entry from the film.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t even decide on one that stands out as a specific piece of identity for its visual aesthetic.  One possibility would have been quite X-rated, while a handful of others seemed too much of a piece with an overall vision to be singled out.  So the film is not on the list.

At the end of the day, however, I came around to a streamlined, varied collective that represents, for me, a nice cross-section of visions, genres and, certainly, budgets.  We’ve once again rounded up the perspectives from the DPs recognized this year, though two instances saw a necessity to quote the director rather than a proper cinematographer.  But we’ll get into those tomorrow.

For now, let me offer the same sentiment I did last year: I look forward to doing this each and every year I’m cranking out copy for your reading pleasure (or displeasure).  In my view, it is one of the best ways I can commemorate the technicians that so often find themselves overlooked this time of year.  Thanks for your patience as I put it together, and I hope you enjoy the list.

Without further ado…


Megan Fox in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Director of Photography: Ben Seresin

The shot wasn’t specifically storyboarded, although there was extensive pre-visualization for the rest of the scene. The bottled wall was planned, as it is typical in the Middle East. I tried to create a feeling in the room that would give a sense of safety, and that contrasted with the expanse, scale and danger of outside. I could write a book on working with Michael. Basically, he fluctuates from totally controlling to handing things over. Having said that, the aesthetic of the movie is very much his. He feels very comfortable with his bold style and is generally disinclined to experiment with new approaches.

–Ben Seresin

You won’t find me springing outright for mere aesthetic beauty when it comes to this column all that often, but in the case of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” I couldn’t resist this composition.  In and of itself, it says little about the narrative via visual storytelling, but it is nevertheless an expertly crafted frame, impeccably lit and oozing a certain sense of dread.

Of course, it helps to be photographing a face such as Megan Fox’s.  But the way the art direction emphasizes her eye color and the way the lighting manages to delicately kiss certain elements within the frame, it grabbed me from the first moment I saw it in the trailer.  I knew I’d have to find a place for it on this collective.

Michael Bay’s films have a certain music video/commercial aesthetic derived from the filmmaker’s time in those trenches.  Sometimes the work seems bathed in cliche, while other times, I have to say — in all seriousness — there is a fetching visual tendency that is quite unique.  This smoothly conceived image is an example of those two conflicting visual identities being reconciled in an attractive vision.


Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones

Director of Photography: Andrew Lesnie

Coming fresh from one of the most vital experiences of a young girl’s life (first love) and past an energetic expression of youthful energy on the soccer field, the shot smoothly brings us to the close of one chapter and the beginning of the next. By craning up we draw on the film memory of this move as a closing motif, while also using it to introduce the arena for the coming events. The audience are already aware of the conclusion and have seen Harvey in the field at night, so the transition from a colorful environment with contrasting colors to a monochromatic desolute, denuded cornfield is smooth but immediately gets your mind racing.

–Andrew Lesnie

One of the most vibrantly photographed films of the year was Peter Jackson’s critically maligned “The Lovely Bones.” Plenty of credit is due, of course, to Jackson’s limitless imagination, but his lenser of choice as of late, Andrew Lesnie, has had a pivotal role in bringing the director’s vision to the screen since they began their collaboration on the “Lord of the Rings” franchise nearly a decade ago.

Settling on a single image was a chore, if only because it is the overall assemblage, more so than the individual elements, that is most visually arresting for me. I ultimately kept settling back on a haunting crane shot that couldn’t be more eloquently described than Lesnie does in the quote above. Moving from the vibrant, rich colors of afternoon to the fog-drenched desolation of the film’s upcoming dramatic swing, the movement is foreboding and thematically powerful.

Lesnie and Jackson were intrigued with this area of Pennsylvania having an interesting juxtaposition of working fields and suburbs. They spent quite a lot of time talking through the sequence, putting lights in the distant houses and filming late in the afternoon to make sure they registered, finding a balance between telegraphing the story and setting the mood of the scene.  I think they reached an artful balance.


Max Records in Where the Wild Things Are

Director of Photography: Lance Acord

Getting the suit performers in the water was a challenge because if the suits filled up with water, it would keep them under water. The location, Bush Ranger’s Bay on the Mornington Peninsula in Australia, it has like 8-10 foot waves washing ashore. Pirates in the early 1800s would build fires along the coastline to lure ships into thinking there were settlements there, and it would cause the ships to shipwreck and they would go out and pillage the ships. It was a real miracle that it was the only day of being at that location for close to three weeks when there were hardly any waves. The ocean went completely flat.

–Lance Acord

Cinematographer Lance Acord has been working in the industry for over a decade, and much of that time has been spent as a collaborator with director Spike Jonze. As much as any esteemed director-lenser combo, their work together has established a visual identity unmistakably distinguished and unique.

I was not as taken with Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” as a whole as much as a great many viewers. However, there were many moments along the way that carried an emotional heft which certainly reminded me that Jonze is one of the best in the business at drawing the most impact out of an image.

So it was that the shot I chose from the film was, for me — working in tandem with Carter Burwell’s measured score, of course — one of the more affecting moments of the year. Young Max, leaving the escapist world of his creation behind, stares longingly at a distraught Carol, the manifestation of all the raw emotions and dispositions a young child is capable of. In some way, it reads as an au revoir to youth. In others, an understanding that it will never leave you.  The frame seems to linger just long enough to allow for such consideration of the image’s implications.


Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air

Director of Photography: Eric Steelberg

We had just finished shooting and we were moving between locations at the airport. We were walking by this walkway and Jason said, ‘Do we have Anna? I want to do a shot of Anna on this walkway really quick. Can we do that?’ We didn’t really have permission, so he said let’s talk with the airport and see if we can do it. I think he knew where he would use it tonally but he said, ‘Oh, you know what, I do actually need a cutaway for Anna at the end of the movie.’ It was literally spur of the moment, walking by, seeing the opportunity. And it kind of reminds everybody of her journey as well.

–Eric Steelberg

It’s not always the aesthetic beauty of a shot or its various technical complexities that dazzles. It can be as simple as a concise image that speaks a thousand words based on how a filmmaker and his or her editor decides to implement it within the narrative. And that was the case with the image I chose from Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.”

Shot by longtime Reitman cinematographer Eric Steelberg, the film is trademark of the duo with its lack of fussy imagery that nevertheless carries a certain thematic weight. The quote above lays out the serendipitous circumstances by which the shot was acquired, but it’s lovely to know that it didn’t go to waste.

Reitman is often assumed to be a filmmaker lacking a discernible visual thumbprint, but spend more than a few minutes with any of his creative collaborators and it becomes obvious the artistry is efficient but substantial. I love this shot because, in my opinion, it encompasses that aspect of his work.


Viggo Mortensen in The Road

Director of Photography: Javier Aguirresarobe

John Hillcoat, from the beginning, was very confidant in me. I could work with a lot of freedom. This shot was an improvisation. It wasn’t planned. The movie doesn’t have too many interior scenes and this was something we discovered right there on the set. Most of the movie wasn’t storyboarded and we were really glad that this was a shot that could show like a shadow without a specific shape that is being erased and it reflects the character and what he’s feeling at that moment and accentuates the drama. The water is, in a sense, erasing the past. I think it’s a really powerful moment in the story.

–Javier Aguirresarobe

Lenser Javier Aguirresarobe has had quite the career in his homeland of Spain, but it wasn’t until he was tapped by director Alejandro Amenabar to photograph the moody 2001 thriller “The Others” that domestic audiences got a significant look at his work. After collaborating with filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen, and now with BAFTA-nominated work in “The Road,” he seems poised to be an awards season player one of these days.

There wasn’t a lot about John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel that affected me on the whole, but one sequence in particular grabbed me immediately for its sense of aching nostalgia. The moment is capped off by this image, reflected in a decrepit television set as a drop of dirty water streaks down the mirrored face of the protagonist.  It initially seems like a bit of opportunistic aestheticism but is actually a potent piece of imagery for the reasons Aguirresarobe states above.

If one can say anything about the film, it is that it builds an incredible sense of place and atmosphere. One can almost feel the grime and decay of a lost world. Much of that credit, no doubt, is due to Aguirresarobe’s contribution.

Continue to part two and the top five shots of 2009


The top 10 shots of 2014

The top 10 shots of 2013

The top 10 shots of 2012

The top 10 shots of 2011

The top 10 shots of 2010

The top 10 shots of 2009

The top 10 shots of 2008

The top 10 shots of 2007

→ 54 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

54 responses so far

  • 1 2-16-2010 at 12:53 pm

    Lucas said...

    Neat choices!

  • 2 2-16-2010 at 1:15 pm

    Adam Smith said...

    Unfortunately, I’ve only seen two of the films so far on the list (Wild Things and Up in the Air), but both of the choices I have seen are solid (though I also really dig the shot from Up in the Air of Natalie sitting in an empty room, surrounded by empty chairs–just really grabbed my attention for some reason).

    Now, who wants to take bets on which of the Oscar nominees lands a shot on the list? My guess is probably The Hurt Locker (with either James in the bombsuit walking through the smoke, James pulling the string of IEDs out of the ground, or the shot in the cereal aisle), with Inglourious Basterds (probably Shoshanna’s face in the smoke of the burning theatre) as an alternate.

  • 3 2-16-2010 at 1:16 pm

    JJ said...

    I love your ‘The Lovely Bones’ & ‘Up in the Air’ choices. Though, there wasn’t a better shot from ‘The Road’?

  • 4 2-16-2010 at 1:19 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    JJ: In my opinion, not one that spoke on as many levels as this one did. When I watch films throughout the year, I tend to be reminded of this column here and there, and that one stuck out when I saw it way back in late August.

  • 5 2-16-2010 at 1:20 pm

    N8 said...

    Finally, it’s here!

    These five are strong, but I don’t think any of them would be favourite shot from their respective films.

  • 6 2-16-2010 at 1:20 pm

    Mike_M said...

    Nice list, can’t wait for 5-1.

    The camera constantly moving in Bones was awesome and def has some of the best work of this past year. I am glad you had Transformers on here, for the mess the film was, it had some great shots, I loved the battle in the forest.

  • 7 2-16-2010 at 1:22 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    some of my favorite movies of the year, cinematography is one of my favorite categories, if not my favorite, good work

  • 8 2-16-2010 at 1:25 pm

    average joe said...

    This is definitely the best segment of incontention. I look forward to it every year.

    That quote from Andrew Lesnie was great to read, easily my favorite part of the piece.

    To me, there’s no greater single shot than Shoshanna’s face projected in the smoke at the end of Inglorious Basterds. Hope it makes it on the list.

  • 9 2-16-2010 at 1:42 pm

    Morgan said...

    I love this feature every year and I loved that shot from Up in the Air. Absolutely the single image that resonated the most with me — it would almost certainly be on my list, too.

  • 10 2-16-2010 at 2:02 pm

    The InSneider said...

    Off to a great start, Kris. Can’t wait to see what’s up your sleeve for 5-1.

  • 11 2-16-2010 at 2:10 pm

    Marshall said...

    I’m predicting the (hopefully soon to be) iconic shot of George looking out the window and Anna sitting on her luggage from “Up in the Air” will chart in the top 5. At least I hope…it’s my favorite of 2009.

  • 12 2-16-2010 at 2:17 pm

    Brian said...

    The shot of Anna Kendrick gave me the biggest audible gasp I had in the movies all year. Almost as powerful, or perhaps equally so, to the similar Brokeback cutaway.

  • 13 2-16-2010 at 2:22 pm

    billybil said...

    What a very enjoyable selection. You certainly made me rethink a few things. It is reassuring to hear someone acknowledge the “value” of Megan Fox’s face and it is a striking shot! I LOVE that you provided insight into the shot from LOVELY BONES – that they played with what lights would be on in the houses in the distance – it is details like this that remind me of how much control goes into making “magic” sometimes. You happened to pick the emotional high point for me in WHERE THE WILD THINGS. That moment, sort of out of the blue for me, moved me to tears (which surprised me since I was not a big fan of the film while watching it). Certainly something was cooking there for me, though – huh? I’m fascinated by that shot from UP IN THE AIR. I like looking at it – I’ve been studying it – and that particular shot is amazing in terms of the grays and blacks and whites and the balance of gold “glows” on each side – it’s truly a painting. Right now all I can see is a black box for THE ROAD so I’ll try again at home later. Thanks again Mr. Tapley for another interesting, informative, and enjoyable read/view.

  • 14 2-16-2010 at 2:28 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    The shot from The Road is an extremely dark, low contrast shot. Obviously I prefer not to futz with the images in a piece like this, but if anyone has trouble seeing it, let me know and I’ll just bump down the contrast and bump up the brightness.

  • 15 2-16-2010 at 2:43 pm

    Nate Tyson said...

    I really like your choices so far, especially the bottle wall from Transformers. I had forgotten how cool that was.

    My favorite shot from Up in the Air would be the one of Anna sitting alone in the meeting room full of empty office chairs. As you sad, “efficient but substantial.” That shot sums the film up for me more so than any other, but your choice of her on the walkway was also pretty memorable.

  • 16 2-16-2010 at 2:44 pm

    lizriz said...

    I also gasped at that shot of Anna in the airport. Beautiful.

    And on the computer on now, it took me a minute to see anything in that shot from The Road.

  • 17 2-16-2010 at 2:44 pm

    Megan said...

    I just watched “A Serious Man” last night, and it brought one of my favorite shots perhaps ever.


    The VERY last scene where you see Danny, Fagel, and the other kids from behind while a huge funnel cloud heads their way actually made me stand up, cover my mouth with my hands, and exclaim, “WHAT!?!?” as it cut to black.

    The whole Book of Job motif is so universally understood, and as I saw that last shot and what it meant for the characters, I actually reflected on my own life, and this is something films seldom make me do. The shot makes you think in a way that is neither pandering nor forced.

    The film itself gave me a restless sleep last night. The Coen have won me over once again.

  • 18 2-16-2010 at 3:29 pm

    Hans said...

    So far, this list has been worth the wait. Thank you so much for the hard work and effort you put into making this list year in and year out.

    What I enjoy about this column each year is the fact that the shots aren’t your typical “money” shots that you see bandied around in trailers, posters, forum avatars, etc. They are, instead, shots that really stick with you in terms of all the subtlety that you can find in a shot like the Lovely Bones pick or just the stunning double take a shot like the Up in the Air pick can make you do (really great choice there, Kris). For these reasons, I don’t think we will be seeing tomorrow the oft-quoted shots of Shosanna burning or Sgt. James lifting up the string of IED’s from the sand. Not taking away from those shots, mind you, but I think we’re in for even more of a treat than those.

    That said, I am disappointed to read that only one of the cinematography nominees will have a pic on this list. I could fill up a top 20 list with shots from Inglourious, Hurt Locker, Avatar, and Harry Potter alone (I have not seen White Ribbon), and so I’m really hoping your pick blows me out of the water. I’m also looking forward to what else might possibly be in store if not three of these four.

  • 19 2-16-2010 at 3:31 pm

    JJ said...

    Fair enough, Kris (regarding the Road shot).

    Sometimes it’s the off-kilter, odd (but beautiful) visual that gets ya.

  • 20 2-16-2010 at 3:38 pm

    ángel ramos said...

    please don’t forget: Shots fom Bright Star, The White Ribbon and Broken Embraces

  • 21 2-16-2010 at 3:47 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    I thought ANTICHRIST was a fine, tough film, but in no realm does Mantle’s work on it contend with something like Deakins’ JESSE JAMES or Lubezki’s CHILDREN OF MEN.

  • 22 2-16-2010 at 3:50 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    Also I’m pleased with your Trannies 2 choice. Say what you will about them, Michael Bay’s films are never poorly shot. Edited maybe, but still great to look at.

  • 23 2-16-2010 at 3:53 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Burma: I disagree. First of all, Lubezki’s work has become incredibly overpraised. You’re talking about a legend that’s become a fact because of a few stellar single-take shots.

    Now, I would never take away from the technical proficiency that went into building the rigs for that work. It was my pick for the 2006’s best cinematography largely because of that, but none of them really make a thematic commentary until that one brief moment in the stairway during in the film’s final moments when the conflict stops long enough for the promise of new life to be escorted out of the fray. It’s all entirely aesthetic.

    And no one knows how I feel about Deakins’ work on “Jesse James” more than readers of this site. It would be a strong #2 or #3 for me on the decade (and will show up on my decade ballot post I’m preparing for a few weeks hence). But for me, nothing so clearly and brilliantly captured the theme, tone and atmosphere of a film like Mantle’s craftsmanship on “Antichrist” over the last 10 years.

    My opinion.

  • 24 2-16-2010 at 3:53 pm

    Fitz said...

    In total agreement with you Megan talk about a gasp shot. I’m thinking that sceencap will be #1

  • 25 2-16-2010 at 4:21 pm

    Bernard said...

    This is my favorite column on this site every year!

  • 26 2-16-2010 at 4:30 pm

    half empty said...

    Love Lubezki’s work on CoM as well, but I agree that it’s probably been overpraised as a result of the long shots. However, I would also mention the moment where the camera hangs back with the cops after the ambush as thematically relevant. It’s definitely been talked to death over the last few years, but it’s still a pretty great moment.

  • 27 2-16-2010 at 5:02 pm

    billybil said...

    My computer at home could handle the shot from THE ROAD quite nicely. It is gorgeous with the shadows on the right and the angle. Very nice. I still can’t bring myself to see the movie, though. :-(

  • 28 2-16-2010 at 5:42 pm

    Danny King said...

    If I had to pick one shot from Antichrist, it would most definitely be one of the opening shots of Dafoe and Gainsbourg in the shower. Here’s the specific one I’m talking about:

    That entire opening sequence is so beautifully shot, but that is the one that stood out the most in my mind.

    P.S. – Could that Depp photo possibly foreshadow some Public Enemies love tomorrow? It would make my day.

  • 29 2-16-2010 at 5:54 pm

    Danny King said...

    As for the Up in the Air shot, I love it, but if I had to pick one, it would be the zooming-out shot of Clooney drinking alone in his hotel room. Obviously the plot points are what mainly make the shot so emotional, but I thought the subtlety of it was genius.

  • 30 2-16-2010 at 5:56 pm

    Me. said...

    I got angry when I saw “Transformers” on the list but then I completely fell in love with you when you put the “Where the Wild Thing Are” shot near the end along with a shot from “The Road”. Can’t wait for the top 5.

  • 31 2-16-2010 at 6:20 pm

    Matt T said...

    I absolutely love your column, Kris. This is probably my favorite one you do. Also, I hope that the burning face from Inglourious Basterds is #1. That shot is hauntingly beautiful.

  • 32 2-16-2010 at 6:47 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I don’t remember that shot from Up in the Air and I saw it six weeks ago.

  • 33 2-16-2010 at 7:07 pm

    Glenn said...

    Lubezki’s best work was on “The New World” if you ask me. Ahem.

    Loving the list so far, Kris. That shot from “Up in the Air” is particularly amazing. You’re right though, it’s not so much the shot itself, but how it was utilised. That ever-so-brief cutaway gave that scene a much bigger resonance than it otherwise may have had.

  • 34 2-16-2010 at 8:29 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I like the Transformers shot. As for Up in the Air, like some of the readers mentioned I much more enjoyed the shot of Anna sitting the empty room with chairs.

    I was hoping for some shots from A Serious Man, Moon, The Cove, The Hurt Locker….

  • 35 2-16-2010 at 8:54 pm

    Mike_M said...

    Tried to think about it tonight but I’m in the sane boat as Chad – I do not remember that scene in Up in the Air. Can anyone jog my memory?

  • 36 2-16-2010 at 9:26 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Directly after Bateman’s line: “Natalie quit.”

  • 37 2-16-2010 at 10:22 pm

    Filmoholic said...

    Kris, I hope you considered Chan-Wook Park’s Thirst. That film is filled with stunning images, especially in the third act after they paint the house white.

    Take a look at this:

  • 38 2-16-2010 at 10:32 pm

    Maxim said...

    You missed (and that is something I’ve remembered) two of the best shots of 2008 in Indy 4.

    The first one was when he was on the bike on campus passing through the protestors. Brilliant shot.

    The second… this one I’ll keep to myself.

  • 39 2-16-2010 at 10:35 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    There is nothing brilliant about Indy 4.

  • 40 2-17-2010 at 6:14 am

    Michael W. said...

    The shot from Up in the Air is also an example of the wonderful and subtle editing in the film. But it has many great shots. This one, and also the ones other have mentioned. Natalie alone in the room with the chairs, Clooney in his appartment looking out the window. But also all the shots from the air gives the film a great visual style. Giving it an Oscar nom for cinematography would maybe be a stretch, but I really don’t understand how it could miss an editing nod. It’s absolutely the best film of the year.

  • 41 2-17-2010 at 6:34 am

    Mike_M said...

    Thanks Kris, I remember it now…

  • 42 2-17-2010 at 12:15 pm

    DetroitJeff said...

    I think we’re going to get a mention of Werner Herzog and iguanas in the next installment, which would be great, definitely my favorite shot of the year.

  • 43 2-17-2010 at 12:15 pm

    deets said...

    @ Maxim,
    Did you just do a Saving Private Ryan reference?
    …the rosebush pruning memory he keeps to himself.

  • 44 2-27-2010 at 1:39 am

    destiny said...

    i love that shot from up in the air… so simple yet it speaks a thousand words