Assembling 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…
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.