The top 10 shots of 2009: part two

Posted by · 12:46 pm · February 17th, 2010

Colin Firth in A Single ManIn case you missed the first part of our look at the best shots of 2009, go ahead and catch up here.  Before getting into the top five, however, I’d like to spotlight a few examples that almost made the cut but just missed.

First and foremost, “Inglourious Basterds” is obviously a favorite around these parts.  Robert Richardson, as we’ve come to expect, offered a wonderful visual context for Quentin Tarantino’s story, and though none of the shots particularly spoke to me on a thematic level, it is nevertheless worth pointing out the aesthetic impact of Shoshana’s cackling specter projected on smoke and the gripping crane down to reveal a hiding Jewish family in the countryside of Nazi occupied France.

One of the unsung heroes of the season in the field was Greig Fraser, whose soft touch gave Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” a beautiful identity.  The shot that has always stuck out for me was Fanny Brawne on her bed, intoxicated with love as a strong afternoon breeze blows in her window.

I was also captivated by the visual aesthetic of Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” shot by Eduard Grau.  The disorienting nature of an image featuring a “Psycho” poster always stuck out to me.  It is also worth noting a shot of Jeremy Renner standing in a grocery aisle in “The Hurt Locker,” speaking volumes about his character’s disposition, lost in a safe world (though lenser Barry Ackroyd was not involved with the U.S. portion of the shoot, it should be noted).  And I always smile when I see the image in “Crazy Heart” of a passerby reflected in the window of Bad Blake’s wrecked suburban, rushing down the hill to help.

Finally, Roger Deakins should never go unmentioned in a discussion of cinematography, and what he did on the Coens’ “A Serious Man” was trademark organic beauty.  The image that sticks out to me is, ultimately, the final image of a tornado bringing the arbitrary wrath of the film’s themes to a tangible form.

In any case, it was, as always, a joy digging through the year’s visuals and coming up with this collective.  Even in a weak year for the medium, there are always gems worth spotlighting.  I hope you enjoy the second half, so let’s get down to it.

The top five shots of 2009…


Public Enemies

Director of Photography: Dante Spinotti

It was very complicated from the point of view of visual effects.  They rigged the car so that it was trailing sort of a platform on which the actor was lying and there was a green screen on top of it and then shot the background of the road and all the dust.  So it looked like the guy was actually pulled by the car on the road itself.  Dillinger loses his friend and mentor and teacher in this scene and the fact that something goes terribly wrong with the prison break probably sets the tone of the rest of the story.  Criminality was going in a different direction.  The look between the two actors is really wonderful and the moment is definitely very emotional.

–Dante Spinotti

Dante Spinotti first came to America in the early 1980s.  He soon had a professional relationship with producer Dino De Laurentiis, and after a pairing on one project fell through, De Laurentiis told Spinotti, “Don’t worry, I’m going to put you together with a talented young director.”  That director was Michael Mann, the film was “Manhunter,” and the rest is history.

“Public Enemies” marks the duo’s fifth collaboration (and Spinotti actually got a call for “Miami Vice,” but couldn’t commit).  Spinotti’s work on the film has largely been debated for the use of digital photography, but none of that really figured in to my perception of one of the best shots of the year.

After breaking his comrades out of prison in the film’s early moments, John Dillinger looks on as his friend and mentor is gunned down.  What makes the moment powerful and the image arresting is that the characters get this final, aching goodbye as Dillinger’s friend is dragged alongside the getaway car.  I’ve never seen a shot like that and it became one more reminder that Mann knows how to draw a lot of emotion out of a single unique frame.



Director of Photography: Andrew Dunn

A lot of what cinematographers do has a greater meaning than the shot itself.  This shot is of course only of value within the context of the storytelling.  It reflects her situation.  The apartment is a prison and her life is a prison and within that is this prison, this cauldron of bubbling mess.  We were getting ready to move off that set and we knew we needed an actual storytelling point.  It’s absolutely imperative that you get these little moments of storytelling.  You don’t always know at the time of shooting what will be necessary and valid during the editing process, but it’s absolutely vital that you get all the ingredients so that the editor has choices.

–Andrew Dunn

Lee Daniels brought a stylistic sense to “Precious” that few would have anticipated given both the material and his career to date.  But what resulted was a flourish of creative storytelling and an affecting drama that has a singular, penetrating vision.  Much of that vision is owed, in no small part, to British cinematographer Andrew Dunn.

One of the key sets on the shoot was, of course, Precious and her mother’s New York apartment.  The goal was to shoot those scenes like the hot bed of tension they were, and one instance early on in the film stuck out to me as an intriguing commentary on everything from stereotypes to health concerns to, most definitely, thematic context.

Dunn’s quote above really tells the tale.  The shot is deceptively simple: a boiling pot of pig’s feet.  But what seems like a simple cutaway insert holds so much more information, and its usage in the editorial flow of the scene becomes a mark of detail-oriented visual storytelling.


Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker

Director of Photography: Barry Ackroyd

It’s very informational in a lot of ways.  It’s kind of a symbolic image as well, which I think gives it its strength.  The obvious thing was to show this from above to give this kind of web surrounding him, which I think is metaphorical for his position, but also the moment of ecstasy at the center of this thing, it’s like he’s caught in a spider’s web.  And it’s almost like an impossible place to be, so I think it’s a little bit mystical as an image.  You wouldn’t get yourself in the center of such danger, but that was obviously the character.  He was prepared to do that, which made him different to the other guys, and I think ultimately that’s what the film’s about.

–Barry Ackroyd

Lenser Barry Ackroyd started his career back in the early 1980s.  After paying his dues in the world of television, he hooked up with director Ken Loach for a number of projects before finally breaking onto the scene Stateside with Paul Greengrass’s “United 93.”  And it was that film, in fact, with its blend of intimate drama and guerrilla-like docudrama filmmaking that caught director Kathryn Bigelow’s attention.

With “The Hurt Locker,” Ackroyd worked with Bigelow to develop a singular frenetic style meant to emulate the high tension of the profession being dramatically documented.  But the image that stood out as iconic in the face of all of those multiple cameras and set-ups was a calmer perspective, and one that helped to define the visual identity of the film.

Staff Sergeant William James, stuffed into an ominous bomb suit and having diffused one IED already, discovers he’s not out of the forest yet.  As he yanks on a chord connected to a slew of other devices, he lifts the arrangement out of the dust, yielding one hell of a gasp-inducing moment.  Intriguingly enough, given the weight of a typical IED, this is something a man wouldn’t have had the strength to do, but it makes for high visual drama nevertheless.


The Cove

Director of Photography: Brook Aitken

We had four hours and five minutes of drive time.  It was a prototype camera, then we had to have a battery specially made.  So the inside of this camera, the lithium batteries were around it, so it looked just like dynamite.  We tried it once and it didn’t work because we had gotten it too early, and the second time we got it, it happened in the last five minutes as we were running out of hard drive space.  It’s actually a dissolve.  We sped it up so that probably about a minute and a half got reduced to maybe five seconds.  We didn’t mess with the color at all on that stuff, and that honesty was really important to me in that shot.

–Director Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos’s “The Cove” was a feat of cinematography from the get-go.  The film is, after all, about a covert operation to capture vital footage that could galvanize and help start an activist movement.  The planning that went into getting that footage, the building of casings to hide cameras, the prototypes unitized in order to get large amounts of digital footage, is an undeniable accomplishment.

One image in particular really stood out to me when I first saw the film, as I’m sure it did many others.  One of the underwater cameras captures, in stark detail, a flood of dolphin blood filling the screen and turning the water crimson red.  The impact is helped along, no doubt, by the use of audio over the shot, the screams of terror from the dolphins filling the soundtrack.

Psihoyos put together a wonderful team for his film and much credit should be given, obviously, to DP Brook Aitken.  But when it came to this particular moment, I thought it would be best to get the director’s perspective, given the overall guerrilla group effort.  And being a former National Geographic still photographer himself, I knew he would have plenty to offer to a discussion of one of the film’s most arresting visuals.


Paranormal Activity

Director of Photography: Oren Peli

I literally spent months playing around with it and tweaking it, finding the right angle and the right colors, the right filters.  It took a lot of effort.  Once I got the positioning I had to figure out the lighting.  It had to look natural but not like we were trying to be creepy.  So I had to create a source of light that allows you to see what’s going on but not too clearly.  I took a light and put it in the corner facing the wall, used filters to give it a little more bluish look and increased the contrast a little bit more.  I knew this was going to be the standard shot we were going to use.  I didn’t want to keep using different shots with drastically different angles.

–Oren Peli

The year’s DIY success story also happened to feature one of the most effective images of the year.  Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” was certainly no traditional production, with a handheld camera and a few actor friends filling out the crew.  The director himself essentially served as his own cinematographer, though mostly it was the job of actor Micah Sloat to capture the film in a home video fashion.  One shot in particular was a bit of an exception, and it immediately became the visual identity of the film.

A standard still image used in the narrative to capture what is happening to a haunted couple as they sleep at night, the composition accomplished so much with minimal lighting, some creative production design and a wide angle lens.  To the right, you have your sleeping couple, to the left, a door and, further, a hallway that plays an integral part in the plot.  However, it is one thing to be efficient with the way you choose to shoot a scene.  It is another thing entirely for your composition to take on a life of its own, capable of raising the hairs on the back of one’s neck as a simple production still.

That is what Peli managed with his shot.  He tried a few different things after renovating the house for his purposes, like placing the bed on the wall to the right, for instance.  But ultimately he settled on this composition, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.  It is, for my money, the best shot of 2009.

And that does it.  Another year charting the greatest images in film comes to a close.  I’m sure there are plenty of opinions out there, so feel free to cut loose with your own list below!


The Top 10 Shots of 2018
The Top 10 Shots of 2017
The Top 10 Shots of 2016
The Top 10 Shots of 2015
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

→ 72 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

72 responses so far

  • 1 2-17-2010 at 9:06 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***The shot of deep satisfaction on Eli Roth’s very Jewish face…***

    That’s… really kind of offensive.

  • 2 2-17-2010 at 9:34 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I’ m actually down with Kris’s top three picks this year. I knew for certain he was putting that sea turns to blood shot on here and actually did think Paranormal would make this list.


    I am not sure if it is effective as a still but the scene of her throwing her boyfriend at the camera was excellent in my opinion. The hallway is dark and you hear footsteps approaching with the tension high and then BAM! Here he comes.

    That scene/still for me is classic. Although I very much disliked her crawling and then making faces at the camera. That was overdone.

  • 3 2-17-2010 at 9:35 pm

    Zach said...

    I was kind of suprised that you chose that particular “Up in the Air” shot. Whenever I think about that movie, I think of the shot of Anna Kendrick sitting alone in an room filled with empty, discarded office chairs. The shot is bunched into a montage, and is onscreen for like three seconds, but I was immidiately struck by its meaning.

  • 4 2-17-2010 at 10:00 pm

    Artorious said...

    @Matthew Starr

    I was just talking to my roommate about this. Even though I didn’t like PA, the shot of her standing in the doorway with blood down her shirt after throwing him at the camera freaks me out. I still am scared when it’s dark in my house.

  • 5 2-18-2010 at 6:07 am

    Megan said...

    “***The shot of deep satisfaction on Eli Roth’s very Jewish face…***

    That’s… really kind of offensive.”

    I find it more offensive when people bother to call people on stupid stuff like this. So he’s got ethnic features. So what. How is that a bad thing? You even think Eli Roth himself would get all up in arms about that?

  • 6 2-18-2010 at 7:36 am

    BrianA said...

    I completely agree with Megan. Noting that someone has ethnic features is in no way derogatory. I understand there may be more sensitivity for Jewish people because of their history, but philosophically I see it as no different than saying Emma Thompson has English facial features or Antonio Banderas has Latin features, both of which are true.

  • 7 2-18-2010 at 8:36 am

    Tom said...

    Kris, love how you’ve been doing this for the past couple of years. however, i must object to your list this year; no District 9 specifically the shot of the ship in the air? that is one of the most ominous shots i have ever seen.

  • 8 2-18-2010 at 8:45 am

    Megan said...

    “Emma Thompson has English facial features or Antonio Banderas has Latin features, both of which are true.”

    And Tiger Woods has a caublasian face–he gets a little bit of everything.

    See? Everybody wins.

    Now, off I go to kiss the reflection of my Polish face in the bathroom mirror…

  • 9 2-18-2010 at 8:58 am

    Benito Delicias said...

    This is pretty great. I knew that Hurt Locker shot was going to be used and I’m very surprised by the #1 pick, although I do agree that it was excellent.

    Did like the choice of the Precious scene, for what it stands for, but the cinematography inside the apartment is one of my biggest issues against the film.

  • 10 2-18-2010 at 10:03 am

    James said...

    I’ve never thought of it, but yeah, that PA image is iconic now…

  • 11 2-18-2010 at 10:07 am

    Daniel said...

    Chalk it down to a difference of opinion & taste.

    I’m really thankful that Kris started this series, which has given cinephiles something seriously meaningful to mull over now that the Oscars have become a bit of a bore, and if it aint worth debating over, it aint worth reading. Since this series started, I have started to pay more attention to the depth and meaning of each shot whenever I watch a film. So I’m grateful to the guy who originated the idea.

    But I have to admit this year’s choices are a great disappointment to me – even though the rationale behind each of these selections is extremely well written and sensible. Last year’s winner was spot on to me. Nothing even came close to the climactic shot in Let the Right One In. But I find myself disagreeing to most of the choices this year.

    The #1 shot did nothing for me and was, to me, as much of a one trick pony as the movie was. Though, of course, the way one responds to GREAT shots is inadvertently a reflection of how much he likes or dislikes the film. They are not mutually exclusive. And my opinion that the #1 pick is completely dismal is, I guess, also due to how much I disliked Paranormal Activity, so there is no way a shot like that could exert any thematic or emotional impact on me.

    The other picks are a bit of a mixed bag for me. The shots in THE COVE, PUBLIC ENEMIES & THE ROAD were amazing to me, and absolutely deserved their slots. THE HURT LOCKER pick is ok. The others wouldnt have made my list, or even my also-rans. And I fail to see how the TRANSFORMERS shot has more thematic resonance than the ones in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (the one everyone is talking about), or the shot of Fanny in bed with the curtain blowing against the window in BRIGHT STAR, or one of several in AVATAR, WHITE RIBBON & ANTICHRIST.

    The winner for me would have been the shot in THE COVE, which left me speechless.

    Again, chalk it down to a difference of opinion. Just my two cents worth. I’ll still be violently anticipating next year’s list while compiling my own. It’s great fun.

  • 12 2-18-2010 at 4:41 pm

    a shot in the dark said...

    All things are relative. That was the best shot in Paranormal Activity FOR THAT FILM. But compared to other shots in other films, it was nowhere near the top. C’mon, now.

  • 13 2-18-2010 at 4:53 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Lol. “C’mon now.”

    Ay, ay, ay.

  • 14 2-18-2010 at 7:27 pm

    Glenn said...

    Just face it, Kris. Your opinion on your website is obviously wrong. No point denying it.

  • 15 2-19-2010 at 4:43 am

    Peter said...

    Awesome list. I look forward to this every year. I kinda got inspired to do my own. Ch-ch-check it out if you get the chance.

  • 16 2-19-2010 at 9:34 am

    Tim C. said...

    I agree with Zach above on the shot of Anna Kendrick among the office chairs–very meaningful, and it hasn’t been done before.

    Also, I was surprised at the lack of any love for Up, specifically the shot of the girl playing with her toys in her room as the house (and colorful shadows from the house balloons) drifts by her window.

    Additionally, World’s Greatest Dad, with Williams and Goldthwaite sitting on the bed, waiting to leave for the talk show. I loved it.

    And, of course, the opening credits of Duplicity (Giamatti v. Wilkinson) were fantastic.

  • 17 2-20-2010 at 11:49 pm

    The Q-Mann said...

    Man, love these lists every year.

    I think the thing I love most is how they point the way to movies I may have missed out on and make me wanna check ’em out. It happened with Let the Right One In last year and for that I am eternally grateful.

    Love the choice for #1. The most iconic and most important to the film itself of any shot in ’09, hands down. Only change I would’ve made was to include the Shoshana projection shot from Inglorious Basterds. Sure it’s an obvious choice, but so is the Hurt Locker IED shot (which I also love). It’s the only glaring omission in my humble opinion.

    Nevertheless, kudos on another great list… now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go check out The Cove.

  • 18 2-21-2010 at 9:02 am

    BP said...

    The Paranormal and Hurt Locker shots were top notch.