The Top 10 Shots of 2011

Posted by · 9:00 am · February 14th, 2012

(This article originally appeared at HitFix.com.)

They’re heeeeeeerrrrreeeeee. That’s right, the images have been assembled, the conversations have been had and the top 10 shots of 2011 are ready for their close-up (or over the shoulder, or two-shot, or insert, etc.).

It’s become a bit of a tradition to note in this space that the year in cinematography wasn’t particularly compelling on the whole. The 2007 season that first inspired the idea behind this piece (now entering its fifth year) really was an exceptional year for the individual film image.

However, while a year abundant in obvious visual takeaways would make writing this up quite a bit easier, I’ve grown to appreciate the digging and re-considering a lack-luster year requires. It’s forced me to appreciate the images all the more.

With that in mind, this year’s collective is very much a reflection of, as usual, the frames that really grabbed me thematically or spoke inner narratives to me in profound ways. So it’s almost become a sort of cathartic exercise to better understand a given film year and how it has impacted me, a nostalgic scrapbook saying as much about me and where I am in my appreciation of cinema as it does the work of the cinematographers involved.

Speaking of which, I have to thank the various DPs who hopped on the phone or exchanged a few emails to better contextualize this piece. Year after year, their input and perspective on the various choices is invaluable, and I think you’ll again find that to be the case this time around.

(And P.S.: It’s great to know this has become such a hotly anticipated item. I really do appreciate it.)

Now, on to the shots…

#10

“MELANCHOLIA”
Director of Photography: Manuel Alberto Claro

The plan was always to finish the film with that shot. We actually storyboarded it before finding the location. In the end the VFX guys had to stitch it together from many different plates to create the perfect setting. They made a small-scale 2D model of the magic cave and the actors, which they used for the explosions. In the editing it turned out to be too static before the impact, so we re-shot Charlotte moving in despair and inserted her into the shot. This was during sound editing, a few weeks before finishing the movie.

–Manuel Alberto Claro

The cinema of Lars von Trier has increasingly reached new visual heights. I felt it hit an apex with 2009’s “Antichrist.” Interestingly enough, that film was a personal favorite top-tier effort behind the camera, yet not a single image founds its way onto this column that year. Perhaps it’s indicative of the whole being richer than the various separate parts.

“Melancholia,” though, was a film built on cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro’s images and their specific impact, I felt, more so than the overall assemblage. Numerous frames stick out for their emotional or visceral effect. Indeed, the entire opening sequence is a cinematic picture book dedicated to the film’s various themes.

For me, though, it was the cathartic impact of the film’s final image: the titular menace on approach before its ultimate cleansing collision. It took a combination of technology to achieve the look, but it’s a stirring image regardless.

#9

“MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE”
Director of Photography: Jody Lee Lipes

It really makes you feel like she’s alone and there’s nowhere for her to go. It almost makes you feel like you’re not sure if she’s going to swim out into the distance and never come back. That’s also the first time that you see the whole house that the movie takes place in. I wanted to save seeing that environment looming over her until the very end. We basically had one chance to shoot it because the water was so freezing cold and we were concerned that Lizzy wouldn’t be able to take it for too long.

–Jody Lee Lipes

The construction of Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” via compelling editing has very much been the story on its craft accomplishments. But Jody Lee Lipes’s crisp and fluid photography was an unsung virtue, properly capturing the claustrophobic, paranoid vibe of the narrative.

One image always stuck out to me as something that particularly accentuated the atmosphere the film conjures. Young Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), swimming in a lake near film’s end, stares off toward the inwardly-zooming camera at something as the wind ripples the water ominously past her.

Again, though, it’s the juxtaposition of imagery that really makes the image pop. The next cut is one of the film’s most unsettling, but its impact would have been lessened without the voyeuristic patience of this particular shot.

#8

“THE TREE OF LIFE”
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki

We were trying to get all these different feelings and emotions out of not only Sean [Penn], but the architecture and the spaces. Five years later the shot was in that scene and became a little more than what we really shot it for, or what I at the moment thought we were shooting it for. That”s the great thing about working with Terry. Sometimes a shot you think is going to make the cut because it”s wonderful or very expressive or beautiful or scary doesn”t make it, and that one we shot that day with probably 300 more that had to do with the same scene, that one makes the cut, and the way it”s put together in the movie becomes so strong.

–Emmanuel Lubezki

My pick for the best cinematography of the year was Emmanuel Lubezki’s lush lensing of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Great photography on a Malick film is something we’ve come to expect, but it was particularly compelling this time around for its use in an urban environment, something we’ve never really seen out of the director.

And the image that I found captivating, both in regard to that and to one of the film’s many themes: the convergence of man and nature, was this shot of a cloud-filled sky bleeding into the glass facade of a reflective tower. They had a few cracks at it, as there are two other shots in the film’s first act that are quite similar, but this one — the next-to-last image of the film — was the most beautiful and perfect representation.

Like the actors of a Malick film, the work of a cinematographer could be bent and manipulated to the director’s will, as Lubezki explains in the quote above. There were many great images in the film, but this one seemed to land at just the right time.

#7

“DRIVE”
Director of Photography: Newton Thomas Sigel

The scorpion was a visual representation of the scorpion and the frog fable. Yet there’s obviously this emotional side to Driver that makes him not only fall in love, but be willing to make a sacrifice. Making that sacrifice is sort of done by making the scorpion side come out. And the scene in the elevator is a turning point: There’s no going back. There’s no, ‘That’s not really me.’ She sees a side that had to come out in order to protect her, and she can’t embrace it. He knows she’ll never embrace it, and their relationship will stay one of sacrifice. Framing the scorpion without his head, it shows you that it will be the controller of his destiny.

–Newton Thomas Sigel

Newton Thomas Sigel is one of my favorite working cinematographers, so getting a chance to speak with him for this piece was a real pleasure. But to be able to discuss the imagery of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” made it all the more compelling and stimulating.

The film is exquisitely shot, countless images sticking out as instantly iconic. And the closing frame following the film’s intense centerpiece elevator scene was one of the first shots I saw this year that I knew would survive until this column. It’s a simple image, the signature scorpion design on the back of Driver’s (Ryan Gosling) jacket framed in rusted shadow. But it stood out for reasons I couldn’t properly explain.

Sigel’s compelling consideration above does a nice job of it, though. With that in mind, in many ways, the image therefore becomes the crux of the entire visual enterprise, the fulcrum about which its thematic structure ultimately pivots.

#6

“SHAME”
Director of Photography: Sean Bobbitt

We always talked about the weighting of the frame and how you can place things within so you avoid the center-weighting of composition until that moment that it really counts. So for a lot of the film, it’s consciously framed off-center. The way the light falls across the body and across the folds of the sheets, it felt right to leave the space. But also by putting his head so close to the edge, it does make it just slightly disconcerting, just a little uncomfortable. And his eyes are so compelling, you’re sort of drawn up into the top of the frame. If he was put dead center, I don’t think it would strike you.

–Sean Bobbitt

Steve McQueen’s “Shame” brings the first returning DP to this year’s installment of the column: Sean Bobbitt. He previously popped up rather high on 2008’s list for his work on McQueen’s “Hunger.” Both that film and their latest collaboration, “Shame,” feature actor Michael Fassbender. And, interestingly enough, both shots featured Fassbender on a bed.

The context of that fact is much different this time around, however. The previous image was all about a starving Bobby Sands, his soul desperate to escape his self-inflicted torment. Here, it’s about a no-less tormented Brandon Sullivan, his soul suppressed behind icy blue eyes as he wills himself to get out of bed.

It’s the film’s opening image, and it sets the emotional tone, the overriding theme and the lead character’s disposition all at once. It uses Fassbender’s physicality to accent his shame laid bare, his inner monologue loud and clear, and it also signals the patient photography you’ll see throughout the film, already a hallmark of McQueen/Bobbit cinema.

#5

“MONEYBALL”
Director of Photography: Wally Pfister

Our earliest conversations about the style and look of the film was that Bennett [Miller] wanted to have it grounded with a real indie feel, regardless of who we were putting on the screen and what the subject matter was. We looked at ‘Sugar’ and a lot of other great stuff. Bennett described the locker room, the weight room, the hallways as the submarine, and the stadium was ‘above water,’ and that made it very clear to us where the delineation was and the difference between those two environments.

–Wally Pfister, Movie City News*

I found “Moneyball” to be a meticulously crafted film and was happy to see its film editing singled out by the Academy this year. The construction of the film, scene-to-scene, is very much a part of its power. But Wally Pfister’s photography was award-worthy, too, finding the right moments to accentuate precise relationships of character with environment. (And he’s our returning champion this year!)

One running current I found compelling throughout the film was Billy Beane’s (Brad Pitt) relationship with the baseball field. He nearly jinxes his team’s win streak by returning to the field at one point, while a torrential downpour greets him at Fenway Park during a job interview. It’s as if he’s not welcome on the diamond, and his place is in the bowels of a stadium, changing the game.

But one moment toward the end of the film ties that thread together nicely as Beane walks out onto the grass of Oakland’s Coliseum and lies on the ground, finally able to have that intimacy with the field. One shot preceding it, of Beane walking out (used for the poster) is aesthetically rich, but this one has more feeling, particularly since its viewed as security camera footage, as if we’re peeking in on this private, important moment in the character’s life.

#4

“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY”
Director of Photography: Hoyte van Hoytema

We wanted to build up the paranoia in one single shot as a real time build-up, adding elements progressively: starting from them getting out of the car, the car suddenly speeding off and during that dialogue the plane landing. It was shot on a ridiculously long lens to tighten the actions happening on the various planes. Throughout the film, the camera is observant at times, almost voyeuristic. We wanted to create a feeling that people where being watched by yet another pair of unknown eyes. The whole MI6 world was primarily about people peeping on each other, and people moving around in secrecy. We tried to make the language very unsettling at times.”

–Hoyte van Hoytema

So much of Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is about a sense of paranoia and heightened awareness of “the other.” And one image from the film really nailed that vibe with an unsettling mix of performance, framing and background action.

As Gary Oldman’s George Smiley lays it all out to fellow British Secret Intelligence Service member Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and how he’s been played by Soviet spymaster Karla, a twin propeller airplane lands in the background. The shot is held as the airplane wheels to a stop, Smiley never looking back once but Esterhase ever aware.

It’s an arresting image because of the long lens used, making the airplane appear closer than it is throughout. But it also builds on that claustrophobic, unsettling atmosphere threaded throughout. It’s really become something of an identifying frame from the film, actually. (Hoytema’s work in 2008’s “Let the Right One In” turned up in the #1 spot that year.)

#3

“HUGO”
Director of Photography: Robert Richardson

With a 3D rig, you have a very large camera and matte box, so technically you’re looking at something that’s like two feet. It’s an extraordinarily large shape. What happened was Sacha [Baron Cohen] was looking toward Asa [Butterfield], and he began to lean down toward Asa. But because his lean requires the camera to move in order to frame him, the matte box and every other element of the camera moved along. So he kept continuing to move deeper, and that shot became itself because Sacha had to reach Asa, but he couldn’t see him by nature of the technical properties of the camera rig. After we saw that, Marty decided he would make it a part of what he was doing.

–Robert Richardson

Martin Scorsese’s leap not only to 3D filmmaking, but to fully endorsing it and its place in the progression of cinema, was one of the bigger stories of the year, I feel. And in “Hugo,” he went to great lengths to employ the technology as a story-serving device, as opposed to a mere gimmick.

For cinephiles, it’s already intriguing that Scorsese would go there. But to bring his trusted and talented frequent collaborator Robert Richardson along for the ride was icing on the cake.

A number of images were fetching for this reason and that. And even without the 3D, Richardson’s color palette is a gorgeous one. But I felt that the unsettling effect a shot of actor Sacha Baron Cohen moving closer and closer to the camera as he interrogates the titular character, his face pushing further and further into the audience, really stuck out. Funny that, according to Richardson, it was an effect discovered purely by accident. (Richardson showed up on last year’s list with a shot from “Shutter Island.”)

#2

“THE IDES OF MARCH”
Director of Photography: Phedon Papamichael

It’s the two sides of the coin. In front of it, ironically, he’s giving his speech at the same time. He’s selling and representing the facade, and in the back you have the sort of inner unraveling of the inner doings of the machine. That was not preconceived too much. That flag went up and then when I lit the stage we saw it had this transparent value. I said to Clooney, ‘We’ve definitely got to stage something back here and play these small figures silhouetted.’ It’s almost like the anti-‘Patton’ shot. It sort of naturally fell in place but it just applies, also, so perfectly.

–Phedon Papamichael

George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” was unfortunately cast aside for the most part this season (though I’m thankful it was remembered by the writers). I personally always felt Phedon Papamichael’s photography was exemplary, finding slick but purposeful ways to capture the rather straightforward narrative.

The shot of campaign consultants Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) and Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) standing behind an American flag as Clooney’s political candidate gives a speech to a crowd on the other side is almost too obvious. (Indeed, an LA Times piece looking to crib off this column’s conceit already covered it a bit.) But it’s also too good to pass up.

The ideas are clear and striking: the men behind politics, in the shadows, pulling the strings. And as the quote above illustrates, it’s a shot that was purely suggested by the production design of the film, a great illustration of synergy in filmmaking.

#1

“THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN”
Previsualization Supervisor: Jamie Beard

When we started animating ideas for Steven [Spielberg] and Peter [Jackson], years ago, we would do it with a single camera, no editing, mainly so we could show the idea and not lock Steven into anything. By doing that it made us often have to compose with a lot of deep staging and complex choreography. Buster Keaton was a huge inspiration for us. He would often keep the camera rolling and do very complex deep staging. When we started to try and edit them together, what Steven realized was that he really loved that single camera technique, particularly for this sequence. So he actually threw down the gauntlet for us. He loves the single camera technique, which he’s used since “Duel”; he loves keeping the camera rolling so that you don’t have the chance to blink.

–Jamie Beard

I’m very aware: this is cheating. I’ve never included or really considered animated films for this annual piece because it goes against the grain of its intention: spotlighting photography and photographers.

However, as previs supervisor Jamie Beard makes clear above (and he was ultimately THE best person to talk to about this shot), this stunning moment from Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” — a single “take” motorbike chase through the stepped streets of a Moroccan village — was fully suggested by camera movement. And since the sequence began with practical filmmaking elements — cameras, actors, staging, etc. — it felt like the cheating was okay.

And regardless, the exhilaration of the shot can’t be dismissed. “Tintin” was one of the year’s best films, a burst of creative cinema from a mind desperate for decades to capture moments just like this one, but inhibited by the limitations of the medium. Here he and his collaborators cooked up the defining image of the film, the defining element of that desperate imagination. How could it not be the shot of the year?

And there we have it! The top 10 shots of 2011. Feel free to discuss these and your thoughts on them in the comments section below, and as always, do offer up your own choices for images that might not have made the list.

*Wally Pfister was unavailable for original comment.




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