The Top 10 Shots of 2012

Posted by · 9:00 am · February 12th, 2013

(This article originally appeared at HitFix.com.)

I decided to do something a little different with the shots column for this, its sixth year (and finally imitated — we’re flattered). I thought I’d go with a metric of instinct rather than analysis.

First let me introduce the overall concept for those perhaps unfamiliar. Every year I recap the year in my own unique way. Film is, after all, about the image first, and so what better way to put 12 cinematic months in a time capsule than to feature the most striking single images of the year? But what is striking to one is always not so much to the next. Like all of this, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

For my part I would always try to give my perspective on shots that might seem, well, unexpected to others. I would posit that an Eric Gautier shot of an eagle picking away at a carcass in “Into the Wild” says something about a country weighing on the soul; or that an unassuming Anthony Dod Mantle shot crammed into a frenetic “Slumdog Millionaire” montage better sums up character motivations than any other frame; or that the simplicity of Anna Kendrick riding slowly away on an airport people-mover as seen through Eric Steelberg’s lens in “Up in the Air” speaks elegant volumes.

Of course, room for sheer aesthetic beauty has often been made. A devastatingly gorgeous Luc Montpellier capture of Patricia Clarkson in “Cairo Time,” for instance, or an iconic Wally Pfister distillation of The Dark Knight in, well, “The Dark Knight.” I’ve even argued for a Ben Seresin angle on Megan Fox against a glass bottle wall in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

Then there are the stunts that dazzle. Jason Bourne leaping from window to shattering window in “The Bourne Ultimatum” had a hand in inspiring this annual column, while complex takes from “Let the Right One In,” “The Secret in Their Eyes” and “The Adventures of Tintin” have stood out in respective years.

And now, our sixth year. As I said, I decided to try something a little different this year. Typically I would set aside a frame of time to specifically look back at many films and note the imagery. A revisit purely for this column’s purposes. This year, both so I could get the piece out sooner than usual (oh how hungry you can be — though that didn’t end up happening, anyway) and so I could simply shake up the way I build it, I shot from the hip and went with the gut.

I always keep a bit of an eye out on first viewings, almost subconsciously, for potential contenders for this piece. But this time I let those stick sooner than usual. I let whatever struck me first survive, and when I had 10, that was it. Along the way this included inevitable revisits, which mostly just strengthened the original take anyway, but the point was I wondered what a first blush would look like rather than a (perhaps over-)analyzed take.

This is what I came up with…

#10

“THE GREY”
Director of Photography: Masanobu Takayanagi

I remember it was a very tiny space to shoot. We shot on the section of the plane that the art department had cut and placed. We didn’t really fake the spacing of the seating or anything. It’s the real aisle space. And Joe had this idea of going through the fuselage and we start seeing the breath of the people. Not to make a big statement but just we’d see the breath and then land on Liam [Neeson]. The crew came up with a great little dolly that I was sitting on, much skinnier than a normal dolly. It was really done in a quick, elementary way. We had the plane beforehand in the prep stage and we went up there with my crew and decided to do that shot.

– Masanobu Takayanagi

My favorite film of the year was shot by one of the great up-and-coming (though really, he’s already arrived as far as the industry is concerned) DPs in the game: Masanobu Takayanagi. And “The Grey” is a film highly dependent on its imagery as it’s very much a film about setting tone and atmosphere. One shot did that simply but effectively early on and always stuck with me as something worth bringing up when this column rolled around.

With the film’s ensemble aboard a late-night flight over Alaska, the shot begins on a fizzling monitor before tracking back down the aisle. As it goes, the frosty breath of the passengers comes into focus, eerie, raising plenty of questions. We fall on star Liam Neeson, fast asleep, before a violent shake snaps him out of it and answers all: this bunch is in for a bumpy ride. It’s a quiet, delicate little moment and it gets such a visceral reaction.

#9

“DJANGO UNCHAINED”
Director of Photography: Robert Richardson

I believe the image speaks magnificently to Quentin [Taranitno]’s perspective on slavery as well as a portrait of what style ‘Django Unchained’ is about to release. Jackson Pollock immediately surfaces to my mind, but Jackson Pollock magnified through a visceral if not near-pornographic eye. It’s less abstract but equally expressionistic. And it’s interesting if you compare it with the final explosion of Candie’s mansion; the explosion might be seen to represent the collapse or comedown of false idols and the cotton emblematic of the first shot fired towards that demise.

– Robert Richardson

Robert Richardson has become a staple of this list each year, and while recent entries have come for Martin Scorsese efforts, this year he pops up for Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “Django Unchained.” The film is a design showcase on a number of fronts, not just photography, but Richardson, as ever, gives Tarantino’s work a certain visual flare that has grown into the filmmaker’s new aesthetic.

The shot I chose is full of overt thematic subtext, a spray of red blood across a crop of white cotton plants. I couldn’t really put it any better than Richardson does in the quote above, but to reiterate, it goes hand in hand with the blatant revisionism of the film and its current of stylized, cathartic vengeance and, indeed, violence. The visual contrast is obviously striking but what’s lurking in between the lines is what makes it so righteous and powerful.

#8

“THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES”
Director of Photography: Tom Hurwitz

The hard and unforgiving truth about documentary photography is that the odds are against anything really good happening twice. So we must get it the first time. If it does happen twice, we should be filming it both times, with different frames. Sometimes this means taking risks or pushing limits. It can take a career to learn when to push and when to step back. In a combat situation, one”s life can be in the balance. In less lethal environments, one”s ability to continue filming may be at risk.

– Tom Hurwitz, IndieWire*

Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles” wasn’t just the leader of the pack in a long line of great documentaries this year, in my opinion. It was also one of the very best films of the year, period. I reacted so strongly to it because, however unexpectedly, it ended up being a powerful thematic piece of work and so crisply dialed into a time and place in this country. And one shot from the film in particular always struck me as perfectly emblematic of that.

It’s a simple shot. Not much fuss to it. A seemingly mundane instance. The son of the film’s subject, Jacqueline Siegel, pushes a merry-go-round round and round until finally tripping up and falling face first into the dirt. There was something so potent about it, this idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” and a shifting values landscape in the film, leading to a great fall. And all of that is right here in this unassuming real-life moment. I unfortunately couldn’t get DP Tom Hurwitz on the phone to discuss but his quote above about capturing a moment when it happens seemed applicable.

#7

“SKYFALL”
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins

We wanted it to feel a lot more kind of mysterious and controlled. So everything”s on a dolly, and they”re all kind of constructed shots as we developed the scene. Sam [Mendes] said, ‘Well, why don”t we just play this? I don”t want to do it all in a lot of cuts because we”re doing enough of that. It would be just much more interesting.’ And because we had this big screen with a jellyfish on it, just the idea of these silhouettes playing against this huge jellyfish, it”s just such an interesting sort of idea just to play it in one [shot]. Each little sequence had a slightly different feel to it.

– Roger Deakins

Like Richardson, Roger Deakins has also become a staple of the list, and it’s understandable why. He is, if not the greatest working cinematographer, then certainly on the top tier. And it’s been a joy to hop on the phone with him each season to discuss what went into whatever stunning image might have tickled my fancy. This year, Deakins was responsible for perhaps the best digital photography we’ve seen in a feature yet, for Sam Mendes’s James Bond effort “Skyfall,” and three sequences in particular, set in Shanghai, Macau and the Scottish Highlands, made for eye-popping imagery to say the least.

The shot I chose came during the Shanghai portion, which as a sequence is enveloping and awe-inspiring with its neon flourishes against the blackest of night. It’s a single take of an action beat, fists and kicks flying as 007 dukes it out in a high rise with a baddie against a bright blue moving jellyfish marquee of light. Finally the camera moves in on the commotion as the antagonist is sent flying out the window. It’s not the most thematically dense image I’ve chosen from Deakins over the years, but there was a majesty to it nevertheless.

#6

“CHASING ICE”
Director of Photography: Jeff Orlowsky

That camera was called AK-3. It was the third camera that was installed in Alaska. I was involved on maintenance on that camera but James [Balog] was the one who actually installed that camera. We certainly weren’t expecting that [amount of movement] at all. Fortunately the camera was in a place where we could pan it a while. Since then, that camera has actually physically been moved to another location because the glacier retreated so far out of frame that it was pretty much inaccessible to capture from that spot. We weren’t expecting the glaciers to change as much as they were, but this was far more dramatic.

– Jeff Orlowsky

One of the great feats of photography this year was unquestionably Jeff Orlowsky’s “Chasing Ice.” Part profile of photographer James Balog and his mission to capture the world’s receding glaciers on film, part eye-opening document about climate change, the film had more than its fair share of staggering images. But one in particular was the film’s money shot, and it may be a bit of a cheat to include it on here, but when you get down to it, it’s actually the essence of cinema.

The shot is a time-lapse depiction of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska receding on an epic scale. In fact, as the context of the film reveals, they had to keep going back and panning the camera to capture the full extent. So this shot is really a series of single frames, shown at a key moment toward the end of the film in a keynote setting. But then again, no cinema “shot” isn’t a series of single frames. So it’s fair. And in a great year for documentaries, two showing up on this countdown already, none had a moment on camera quite like this.

#5

“LIFE OF PI”
Director of Photography: Claudio Miranda

We shot that in like a 30-foot-deep tank and we kind of had it all mapped out where everything was going to be and I think that shot, which I think is really special, worked according to plan. He was silhouetted against the sinking ship, which I think looks really beautiful. And Ang [Lee] wanted to have sort of a 3D moment of having him kind of float out into the audience a little bit. The ship was all blue screen but all the lights and stuff were in there. I was trying to replicate the ship’s sinking lights so it’s all sorts of small little lights and they kind of descend and slightly flicker out as it goes on. I love that shot.

– Claudio Miranda

This year’s frontrunner to win the Best Cinematography Oscar is Claudio Miranda for the watercolor touches and 3D wizardry of Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” And it’s a film with no shortage of beautiful, potent images. One in particular caught my attention immediately when I first saw the film at the New York Film Festival and has taken my breath away every time I’ve seen it since.

As the eponymous Pi struggles in the torrential currents of the Pacific after abandoning not just the massive sinking vessel that was carrying him to a new life in Canada, but the tiny lifeboat that has been claimed by the film’s Bengal tiger star Richard Parker, he paddles beneath the surface of the water to avoid an epic crashing wave. As he struggles underwater, the camera moving with him throughout, he pauses in suspended animation, silhouetted against the sinking ship taking his entire life down to the depths. It’s an arresting image full of profound, unshakable loss.

#4

“THE MASTER”
Director of Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.

A lot of times I’m asked about the shots on the boat but very few people ask about the shot in the prison, so that’s a pleasant surprise. We scouted that location a few times and weren’t sure we’d end up using it. One of the reasons was it’s basically a museum. But it was an interesting location and it gave a lot just from how the cells were. We were discussing a shot like that from the first time we scouted it. But nobody, not even Joaquin, knew he would end up breaking the toilet, which was a piece of the museum! They had a hard time replacing it but it just happened and that was the take pretty much.

– Mihai Malaimare Jr.

One of the stories in cinematography this year was celluloid’s grip on relevance by going big. Wally Pfister, as mentioned, pushed IMAX to new heights. Meanwhile, Paul Thomas Anderson insisted on 65mm for his production of “The Master,” shot by Mihai Malaimare Jr. The idea first came up to use it here and there, the high density image revealing so much clarity. Soon it was used throughout, and for a filmmaker with a vision like Anderson, it makes the already potent imagery pop even more.

The shot that seals the film’s thematic ideas, though, was the obvious choice for me. It’s almost a split screen motif, Lancaster Dodd and Freddy Quell tossed into a jail cell for unruly behavior. And as the scene plays out, the film’s idea of a man split in two comes forth, Joaquin Phoenix raging on one side, Philip Seymour Hoffman cool and collected on the other. Nothing else so clearly illustrates the nature versus composure construct the film is so interested in quite as well.

#3

“MOONRISE KINGDOM”
Director of Photography: Robert D. Yeoman

When Wes first described this shot we all knew that it would be a challenge to pull off. As the introduction to the scout regional hullabaloo, he wanted to incorporate as much about scouting life as possible into this single shot…We walked the field several times while reading the script so we could determine the length of the fence. We knew that the fence in the foreground would not only give a sense of where the actors were, but would also be a great visual as it quickly moves along at the bottom of the frame. It was a bit of a challenge to keep all of the actors in the frame so they literally walked in each others’ footsteps, as close to each other as possible. With so many separate elements it was difficult to coordinate everything, but obviously in the end it worked out beautifully.

– Robert D. Yeoman

One of my favorite films of the year was Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” and a big part of that was the fact that, finally, his penchant for artifice was reconciled with personal emotion for me. I realize that has happened just as well for other viewers with his previous films, but it never fully clicked as well as it did here. And the photography from Robert Yeoman was criminally ignored most of the season.

There was always a shot from the film that stuck out for me, and it wasn’t particularly deep in a thematic sense, but it wasn’t so empty as to be merely a stunt, either. It was a wonderfully choreographed tracking shot full of movement in the frame laying out a setting with ease, with this added element of a fence moving along the bottom like the teeth of a saw. It was just dazzling to me and so giving in that it showcased all of the design elements of Anderson’s film, the costumes and the sets getting perhaps their biggest moment.

#2

“ANNA KARENINA”
Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey

Joe loves playing with time, but in a similar way, he likes for a shot — in one take — to be both subjective and objective. We see Anna and Vronsky move onto the dance floor and sort of activate these dancers with their passion, so there’s already a metaphor at work. Then it goes from the real gradually into a more psychological sort of space, when he lifts her up and the camera swirls around her. At that moment there was an almighty stampede behind the camera and underneath the camera as all the extras had to kind of evacuate the auditorium really in the space of five or six seconds! But it’s an exciting technique to explore, because when you have that symbiosis between your actors and the camera, you can create another layer of dynamism. It’s a cinematic, sort of architectural travel. And that’s always the goal. It’s not to make a peacock of a shot.

– Seamus McGarvey

Seamus McGarvey has been here before. Recall a centerpiece steadicam shot from 2007’s “Atonement,” moving through the beach at Dunkirk and all the production coordination that went into it. Yet in that introductory year of this column, I resisted the temptation to choose it and instead went with something more modest, but just as powerful. This year, though, I couldn’t resist the big moment of “Anna Karenina,” and McGarvey’s quote above does a nice job of summing up why.

The shot itself is a feat of choreography, of course. But what it says thematically is key. So much of the film, particularly the cinematography, is exciting and a true testament to artistry this year. There are some days I think it should have found a place on my top 10 list, and certainly, it nearly did. But director Joe Wright is an exciting talent because he is so involved with what the images of his films actually mean. And by the way, a big hand to steadicam operator Peter Robertson, who was holding and guiding the camera on both this shot and the big shot from “Atonement.”

#1

“LES MISÉRABLES”
Director of Photography: Danny Cohen

One of the things Tom was trying to do was give the audience an experience in tact, which was the reason to do a lot of long takes and not cut into them. You are limited by a frame and where you put a face in the frame is important because it tells more of the story. If you’re not conscious of where you’re putting the actor and the reason, I think you’re missing a trick. One of the things we looked at was ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ by Carl Dreyer, and it’s just an amazing film about faces. The only thing you don’t get when you see the stage musical is, in your brain, you can’t cut to a close-up. The one thing film as a medium can do is cut to the close-up. As soon as you get a face in the frame and you place it in an interesting place in the frame, the rawness just kind of jumps out of the screen.

– Danny Cohen

I can kind of hear the groans but I really don’t care. It’s humorous to me that the oft-criticized cinematography of Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” ended up topping this list, and that I couldn’t personally argue with myself on the choice anyway. From the moment I saw the film, this single take of Anne Hathaway performing the showstopper “I Dreamed a Dream” struck me in a profound way. Dismiss the technique of using a great many close-ups in the film if you must, but this one proved the production was on to something, and in all likelihood, it’s the single shot that will land Hathaway an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

That’s the point of this column. To get at the most powerful shots of the year. And what’s more powerful than that? Plenty is owed to the performance, of course. Plenty is owed to the song. But the decision to do it this way was brave and could have been a disaster, particularly with the added high wire of live singing, and all involved pulled it off perfectly. It is, in so many words, the best shot of 2012. And it will be remembered for many years to come. It will become one of the identifying images in all of film. It will never go away.

And there we have it. My take on the best shots of the year. But let’s turn it over to the readership. What were some exceptional images for 2012 in your book? Have your say in the comments section below!

*Tom Hurwitz was unavailable for original comment.

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