I have to admit, I procrastinated this column quite a bit this year. It has become a favorite staple for me, and, I’m happy to see, for our readers. But something was holding me back from pulling the trigger on getting the list together this time around.
It’s a lot of work, of course. So I’m sure that played into it. Who isn’t lazy every now and then? But part of it, I came to discover, was that there wasn’t a lot of memorable work behind the camera this year. By that I mean, while there was plenty of quality photography, single images that demanded a spot on a list like this were difficult to come by. Boiling things down to a specific collective was difficult as a result, so it took a little time.
But I’m frankly realizing just now that I’ve written this intro before. I’m spoiled by this column’s inaugural year (2007), where it seemed easy to come up with a set of 10 images and then some. The lack of singular imagery was so considerable this time around that I’m unable, even, to come up with a brief list of also rans, which is something I generally like to do.
Nevertheless, it should be said that great cinematography isn’t (and shouldn’t be) dependent on singular frames or visual moments, but the overall canvas and mise-en-scene delivered from beginning to end. I have a lot of fun digging into the visual vocabulary of a year in film and, to say the least, discussing that vocabulary with the craftsmen and women involved, so who can complain? I hope you enjoy.
“THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES”
Director of Photography: Félix Monti
This sequence dramatically breaks the story in two: before and after finding the murderer. [Director Juan José] Campanella had this sequence in mind from the beginning when he was writing the script. He felt the need to tell this particular moment in a different way, using time and rhythm as an element to play in the whole story. All in all there were nine different camera positions.
One of the shots that I immediately knew would at least be considered for this list I saw at the tail end of last year’s Oscar season. The Best Foreign Language Film winner “The Secret in Their Eyes” was actually, I think, the last of 2009’s nominees that I caught, but it didn’t see a U.S. release until 2010, so it was eligible for consideration here this time around.
The shot is a daring, even somewhat out of place fluid master, beginning with the frame you see above, sweeping across a soccer match and into the stands to catch up with our investigator heroes. The camera then, with plenty of effects and editorial help, stays with them as they pursue a criminal through the crowd, into the lower reaches of the stadium and finally, out onto the field itself.
Sometimes the sheer audacity of a shot is enough for me to give it a shout out here, particularly when it’s pulled off this well. It may not have been the most thematically relevant take of the film, but it certainly got my heart racing for a solid five minutes.
“THE KING’S SPEECH”
Director of Photography: Danny Cohen
Where we put him in the shot, it’s like, here is a man who is cornered. There was a way of putting Colin [Firth] in the frame and giving him lots of head room and short-sighting him that really gives you that sense that things are uncomfortable. There’s not a lot of light going into his eyes. There are deep shadows and all of that kind of builds the tension that it’s not going to be an easy journey. And it breaks up the pacing. There’s no chaos if there isn’t any calm before the storm.
The visual characteristics of Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” have been a source of ridicule for some, but when I saw the film at Telluride back in September, I was immediately appreciative of its aesthetic and thematic virtues behind the camera. And cinematographer Danny Cohen puts it rather succinctly in the quote above.
The shot that first stood out for me in the film and indicated this purposeful thematic framing came in the first few minutes, as Prince Albert, Duke of York (not yet a king) prepares to deliver an address at the British Empire Exhibition in 1925. He is, as noted above, “a man cornered,” and there is clearly an anxiety revealed around the character that will come to define him throughout.
Again, some may find this aesthetic clumsy or often misused, and sure, there are instances of this. But this image wasn’t one of them, I felt. It laid the groundwork well and with simplistic ease.
Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
That was entirely developed out of Marty’s mind. He wanted one sustained take. Once the initial shot was fired and all the soldiers began firing, his idea was, ‘Let’s maintain it. I don’t want to break.’ It was a dolly shot, a hundred some-odd feet, maybe close to 200. And a great deal of the blood was CG blood because of the number of shots fired. We shot it outside of Boston in a small town. It was I believe a mill at one point that Dante Ferretti transformed it into what you saw.
It was really a shame that “Shutter Island” didn’t fare well with the Academy this year, and particularly that Robert Richardson’s typically expert lensing was ignored completely throughout the year. But he and director Martin Scorsese nevertheless found a striking way to tell the story of a man trapped in his own fantasy, one that is, in this viewer’s opinion, misunderstood to this day.
The film is full of vibrant images. And much of the visual journey is impacted more significantly by Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, but when it came to deciding upon an image (as I knew one would have to be considered for this column), I couldn’t help but remember how rocked I was by the extended dolly of American soldiers taking ruthless vengeance by executing equally ruthless Nazis, part of the main character’s many flashbacks.
The shot is affecting because of that extension. After the initial shock of the moment wears off, the dolly keeps moving, allowing the horror to settle in again, and more deeply. The film marked Richardson’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese to date. Here’s to many more.
“THE GHOST WRITER”
Director of Photography: Pawel Edelman
In the original script there was no such ending. From the very beginning we were thinking of how to end this film, how to find this image that would just close the whole story. It was Roman’s idea, two weeks before we were supposed to shoot that scene. We wanted an evening, magic hour shot, mysterious and dark. And we didn’t want to show, we wanted to suggest that something dramatic may have happened. We took two or three takes and the last take was the best.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” this year, but I was, as I imagine many were, quite taken by its final image. The filmmaker collaborated once again with cinematographer Pawel Edelman on the film. If you haven’t seen it, perhaps it’s best to duck out after this paragraph, lest you be spoiled.
The final moment comes after Ewan McGregor’s nameless title character ill-advisedly reveals the twisted truth he has discovered of the former British Prime Minister’s death. He makes his way out into the streets of London (shot in Berlin) and meets, we think, a deadly fate, the story of which is told by countless pages of his tell-all, ghost-written manuscript flying into the shot one by one before ultimately filling the frame.
Images like this are simple but effective, and they reveal artists looking for unique ways to convey a story visually. That is, after all, the trademark of the greatest directors (and great cinematography), and Polanski found himself in their league long ago.
Director of Photography: Luc Montpellier
This was a true dance between Patricia, the camera, the design and her wardrobe just to try to communicate in every frame that there’s an evolution there. It’s almost like she’s 15 again and she realizes she’s alive again. We did numerous takes, just to get her hand positions right and her expression. It was very closely choreographed. Any time we can make the audience feel the way she does, and it doesn’t always have to be with the big vistas, that’s the success of the film, in a way.
One of the most underrated films of the year when it comes to cinematography was Ruba Nadda’s “Cairo Time.” The same could actually be said of its exquisite score, but Luc Montpellier’s sun-kissed photography was kind of a show-stopper for me. There are a number of frames that are captivating, both in composition and in visually telling the story.
The image that jumped off the screen at me, however, was the simple frame above of Patricia Clarkson’s Juliette Grant, after spending a wonderful day with her local escort, Tareq (played by Alexander Siddig), waiting to spend time with her UN official husband. We see the beginnings of an unexpected emotional affair (just moments after a stolen kiss) unfold crisply and powerfully in a glamorous composition.
I really don’t think I could say it any better than Montpellier does above. And it’s nice to know it was less a happy accident than a rigorously detailed shot that was very aware of its thematic virtues. I could have selected any number of shots from this film, though. It was a personal favorite in that regard.
That’s it for part one. Feel free to start rifling off your picks for the year’s best shots in the comments section below if you like.
Continue to part two and the top 5 shots of 2010.
[Photos: Sony Pictures Classics, The Weinstein Company, Paramount Pictures, Summit Entertainment, IFC Films]