The Top 10 Shots of 2013

Posted by · 9:00 am · February 11th, 2014

(This article originally appeared at HitFix.com.)

If you look here and there on the web these days, you might notice that more than a few outlets are now cooking up their own “top 10 shots of the year” pieces. Here we are in our seventh year of producing such a collective, but imitation is flattery, and frankly, I’m glad others have caught on to the idea. Singular images and the thematic impact they make are as subjective as anything else we end up praising at the end of a given year, so having separate takes on the matter is only a good thing.

But I’m also confident in the value of what we have to offer on the subject every year, which is a unique take on the specific images chosen from the horses’ mouths: the cinematographers themselves. An aside on that…

Late last year, the International Cinematographers Guild saw fit to hand me a pretty trophy in recognition not just of the work I put into these kinds of pieces throughout the year, but our coverage of the craft of cinematography in general in this space. It was a huge honor, one that couldn’t have meant more coming from anyone else, honestly. The idea that there’s a level of appreciation for the spotlight we shine below the line is as gratifying as anything in my work over the years.

In acceptance, I made it clear that they were basically handing me an award for having a blast. Because I truly relish the opportunity to get on the phone with people like Roger Deakins, Sean Bobbitt, Masanobu Takayanagi, the late Harris Savides, Wally Pfister, Bob Richardson and more this time of year, to pick their brains, to discuss their work and to boil down their thoughts on this and that film to that most singular, cellular of elements: the film frame.

Sometimes, of course, it’s more than just one frame. Sometimes it’s a drawn-out composition that digs in and stays. Other times, it’s a clever move of the camera that dazzles or immerses. Whatever the case may be, the heart of this annual piece is an examination of how what we see on the screen informs the greater impact of a film, how what a DP captures through that aperture becomes the essence of our passion and how the resulting, indelible imagery stays with us as an everlasting footprint revealing the soul of a work of art.

So, as it pertains to this space, “The Top 10 Shots of the Year” is a reflection on the most significant, though perhaps not always the most obvious, visual elements of a film year. And 2013 had plenty of wonders to offer – so many, in fact, that the density of quality seen elsewhere in this competitive awards season played itself out on the ballots of the American Society of Cinematographers, as a tie led to seven feature film nominees rather than the usual five.

How did all of that boil down in my own little image diary of the year that was? Have a look below.

#10

“PRISONERS”
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins, ASC

We always talked about it being front-on with the reflection. But on the day, the action was taking longer than Denis thought we could really hold and we were just looking around for another shot so he could condense the action and the cutting. We looked at the side shot and decided that was a better shot anyway. It’s tracking in because of the interaction between the reflection and his silhouette, but also the idea of this pressure mounting on the character. It seemed to emphasize that. The shot came about from our conversations in prep and our discussions of the script and breaking it down, ‘These are the kinds of shots we’ll do for that scene,’ and then on the day just finding it, really.

– Roger Deakins

I went back to “Prisoners” a couple of times this year to just absorb the craft. Denis Villeneuve is a truly special filmmaker with an already refined and honed sense of voice and visual storytelling. He and his team elevated this material considerably, and none more so than celebrated DP Roger Deakins.

The interesting thing about the cinematography, though, is it’s so roundly exceptional. It makes it hard to suss out a definitive frame. But I knew there was something lurking in there. And as I slowly took to a motif of shooting subjects through windows, this particular image really just seized me. It’s the dramatic turning point of the film, really, evangelical rhetoric playing over a radio in the background, only further embossing its thematic implications. It’s a brave shot for such a moment, particularly in a studio thriller, and that just makes it of a piece the film overall. (For more, check out our interview with Deakins here.)

#9

“INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS”
Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel, ASC, AFC

It’s a turning point in the movie, this scene. It’s basically when Oscar decides that he’s going to give up, so we had a lot of discussion with Joel and Ethan because of the context. It happens in a concert hall, which is a club, different than The Gaslight, obviously. But it was not like an audition on stage. So there was something about intimacy that we wanted to keep. He picks the one song that you shouldn”t sing if you’re doing an audition, you know? The mood of the whole scene was conveying this despair, somehow. His failure. And the push-in was basically to kind of emphasize as if something was happening or could happen, and never happened.

– Bruno Delbonnel

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of the most exquisitely shot films of the year, but much like “Prisoners” (which was, funnily enough, shot by the Coen brothers’ usual DP of choice), it doesn’t lend itself to singular eye-popping images more so than an overall sense of compelling atmosphere. There are moments that stick out for some – a cat’s reflection in a subway car window, for instance – but the shot that really spoke to me might seem unremarkable at first glance. Indeed, being one of the first stills released from the film, it’s overly familiar at this point.

But Delbonnel lays out the reasoning well above, and seemed more interested in discussing this shot than any other. It’s a slow push in on the eponymous Davis as he sings a centuries-old ballad called “The Death of Queen Jane” for the “gatekeeper” record producer, Bud Grossman. For me, it’s the point of the movie, an artist laid bare met with a dismissive, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” But as Delbonnel explains, it builds passionately, purely, as if to a final, yearned-for release, and then…nothing. The entire movie is in this shot. (For more, check out our interview with Delbonnel here.)

#8

“NEBRASKA”
Director of Photography: Phedon Papamichael, ASC

That’s one of those shots that’s kind of representative or typical of the compositions of this film, where we try to place things in these oners and leave them alone and let the audience sort of be able to take in the frame and discover the details rather than cutting to inserts. It allows you time to scroll the frame and discover little details without being manipulated into, ‘This is what we want you to look at right now.’ We found that house and we didn’t touch anything; it just had all these great textures on the walls. And the whole sequence is very economically shot. There are probably six or seven shots altogether and it’s all natural light.

– Phedon Papamichael

The decision to shoot Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” in black and white, as explained by Phedon Papamichael in our longer interview with the DP, was forever a part of the project’s DNA. The goal was to capture a stark landscape where seemingly nothing happens, providing a glimpse of a simple reality one would yearn to rise above.

Many of the film’s most beautiful moments are reduced even further, though, and I was quite taken by what this particular image seemed to be saying. It’s part of a fluid shot that settles into this frame before fading to the next, so if you blink you might miss it. But a son looking through a tattered doorway at his father who is himself peering through a family window long forgotten, it just really resonated, the framing like some cinematic matryoshka nesting doll of remembered childhoods. (For more, check out our interview with Papamichael here.)

#7

“SPRING BREAKERS”
Director of Photography: Benoît Debie

Harmony said he wanted the movie to look like a candy shop, very colorful, and I thought maybe it would be great to use colors we don’t use so much in cinema – purple or pink or yellow, something quite strong. It was a good movie to experiment with those colors. When I went to Florida, we started to scout at night, and when the night is coming, you start to see different colors, neon signs, sodium lights. It’s very interesting. So I started to understand the city and how to light the movie to catch that feeling. This was a tricky shot because I was alone inside the car with the actress to shoot her in profile with a walkie talkie, talking to the girls: ‘Okay, window one, window two,’ to coordinate the shot.

– Benoît Debie

Benoît Debie was featured in this column a few years ago for his amazing work in Gaspar Noé’s “Enter the Void.” He nearly took the top spot that year, in fact. He is absolutely one of the most interesting photographic voices (so to speak) in film today and it’s high time he branched out into higher profile work so more people can see what he has to offer.

All of that is a long way of saying Harmony Korine was smart to tap Debie for his neon-twisted teen escapist kaleidoscope “Spring Breakers.” This shot in particular is a bit of a stunt, but it’s gorgeous throughout, regardless of the movement. And it’s really made by the sounds of Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life” playing over the car stereo as two of the film’s protagonists hold up customers at a local restaurant, obsessed with the greener pastures of another life at whatever cost. And that’s not to say this is a Bonnie and Clyde film – it’s a state of mind film, and this shot, I think, understands that.

#6

“GRAVITY”
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC

The first thing we started working on with this movie was a very simple storyboard of the film. And this image is one of the few images that started in the storyboard and survived the whole process of the movie. It was a very specific idea Alfonso had, that after going through all of that, when Sandra finds herself safe and is able to breathe again, she goes through some sort of a rebirth; it’s the beginning of the change of the character. It was one of the hardest scenes to shoot in the entire movie because matching the virtual cinematography with the live action was incredibly hard. And it’s one of the things that we couldn’t do in the light box. We had to create a different methodology to this scene.

– Emmanuel Lubezki

The task of good film marketing is to find the images that really speak, not only to the outward experience of the film, but also to the inward thematic experience. So Warner Bros. has been smart to use this “in utero” moment from Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” in a number of the film’s marketing and awards campaign materials this season, a beautiful, striking, deceptively simple (like the film itself) frame that lays out everything the movie is about.

Emmanuel Lubezki sums it up perfectly in the quote above, but to reiterate, it’s a movie about rebirth, about how pain and loss can serve as incubation for fortification and release. It was a hugely difficult shot to pull off (Lubezki only touches on it at the end of the quote) but the payoff was considerable. Fun fact: the window portal in this shot is not accurate to the actual design of the International Space Station, which drove director Alfonso Cuarón crazy, but he agreed with Lubezki that providing that space for light was better for the integrity of the shot. (For more, check out our interview with Lubezki here.)

#5

“THE BLING RING”
Directors of Photography: Harris Savides, ASC and Christopher Blauvelt

Harris was involved with this project long before I came on board. The goal for me was to co-DP it with him as he was involved with a considerable amount of medical distractions. I’m glad you chose this shot as it’s one of my favorites in the film. It came up in a conversation about how to give each burglary its own aesthetic. It was Harris’ homage to an Antonioni film, for the attention to long takes and letting scenes play out within the frame. It was a stripped down crew, the last shot of a long day. A handful of us drove up the canyon to an abandoned house overlooking ours and I remember having some laughs with Harris and the crew up there while we waited for the sun to go down. I still miss him very much.

– Christopher Blauvelt

We lost an absolute treasure of the form in 2012 when brain cancer took Harris Savides away from us. His swan song was Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” and as you can see in co-DP (and Savides’ long-time camera assistant) Christopher Blauvelt’s quote above, those closest to him saw the unfortunate end in sight. But the work shines on, and Savides gave a much-needed elegant touch to this film.

The shot that sticks out to anyone who watches it is an extended zoom-in to one of the many mansions the eponymous criminals invade. It sits like a doll’s house in the Los Angeles lightscape, a stunning image, really. To be fair, I nearly opted for another image that flashes across the screen not long after this one, the bling ring’s silhouettes frolicking past the twinkling lights of the city, but this one seemed to have a more immediate whiff of Savides’ hand, and it’s the least I can do by way of tribute. It’s outside the box, and that was Savides.

#4

“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”
Director of Photography: Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC

As we were working, the whole ending of the film was in flux. We were trying to figure out what it would be, but we knew we wanted it to be part of his motivational speaker moment. For Scorsese, the casting of those faces was very important. He was very deliberate in choosing these people and placing them very specifically. They’re all in awe, and they don’t flinch. They’re looking at Jordan Belfort very intensely, with admiration, aspiring to become like him, which is in a way a gaze back at the audience and ourselves. We all could be Jordan Belforts, and perhaps we’d like to be. I think that’s the point of the movie.

– Rodrigo Prieto

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is alive in ways few films are. It would have been interesting to see one of his many long-time collaborators, Michael Ballhaus, handle the camera on this one as it’s such an obvious cousin of “Goodfellas,” but Rodrigo Prieto is one of the contemporary greats so it’s wonderful to see them work together on something so epic.

The film’s final image is like a mirror. Sitting in the audience, you look back at a number of individuals sitting in their own audience. Underneath it all, they’re desperate to learn the art of the swindle, and leaving the film with this last glimpse at ourselves and what we’ve become couldn’t have been a more perfect final indictment. I couldn’t say it better than Prieto did above.

#3

“HER”
Director of Photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema, FSF, NSC

A shot like that is very much a collective effort. Spike and K.K. [Barrett], the production designer, had this idea of a big video screen. I remember at an early stage talking about how we have very few billboards in the film and it’s very sparse, and that there should be one instance where Theodore sits in front of a moving billboard. There was a lot of experimenting with the content and everything, and it became that owl in extreme slow motion going for prey. It was shot in China in a very busy place and we couldn’t close the street down. Everything we did in Shanghai was kind of wild and kind of funky, but I remember we planned it out very carefully so we could get the timing right.

– Hoyte Van Hoytema

Hoyte Van Hoytema has now been featured in this annual space three times. He took the top spot in 2008 for an electrifying underwater image from “Let the Right One In” and popped up once again three years later with an ominous shot from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” He is one of the great working DPs, for my money, and I can’t wait to see what sort of new iconic imagery he and Christopher Nolan have cooked up for “Interstellar” later this year.

In 2013, Van Hoytema stepped in for Spike Jonze regular Lance Acord on the beautifully crafted “Her.” And it was one of a handful of times this year that a specific image grabbed me by the heart and said, “You’ll be writing about this one.” The film’s protagonist sits in a futuristic Los Angeles as a video billboard behind him depicts an owl lunging for prey. I don’t think any other image in the film had more to say about technology’s death grip on society and, indeed – as the film’s themes lay bare – our very souls. (For more, check out our interview with Van Hoytema here.)

#2

“12 YEARS A SLAVE”
Director of Photography: Sean Bobbitt, BSC

When I first read the script, it struck me as the single most important scene in the film from a dramatic point of view. Here is something truly horrific that happened to a real person. It spells out the depravity of slavery, where someone is owned so totally and completely by someone else that compassion isn’t even an option. From the beginning I thought, and Steve agreed, that this had to be a visceral and very upsetting moment. It had to be a simple observation, but as beautifully composed as possible. There was some pressure to shorten it because it was upsetting people, but I would be tempted to elongate it, actually, to even further heighten the effect. It has to be unacceptable.

– Sean Bobbitt

Sean Bobbitt’s work with Steve McQueen has yielded a spot on this list every single time, whether it be the fluttering of birds and attempted escape of a soul in “Hunger,” the opening glimpse of a certain sort of addict in “Shame” or, indeed, a 75-second static shot of Solomon Northup hanging by a noose as daily life moves on casually behind him. Theirs is already a storied modern collaboration.

But this was actually the most difficult choice for me of the lot. I knew when I saw “12 Years a Slave” at Telluride that this image spoke to me, and Bobbitt’s explanation above is wonderfully detailed. But there is another image from the film that I nearly included, Bobbitt’s own favorite, in fact, of a very broken Northup staring around the frame in sorrow before looking directly into the lens for a beat. It was so arresting, and Bobbitt’s thoughts on it so compelling. But, again, what’s happening in this particular shot says so, so much. (For more, check out our interview with Bobbitt here.)

#1

“GRAVITY”
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC

Beginning with ‘Y Tu Mamá También’ we started experimenting with these long scenes that have no intercuts. For some reason we felt very comfortable doing it. It’s hard, technically, but the payoff is enormous. It allows the audience to get immersed in the movie. We started using them more in ‘Children of Men,’ so by the time we got to this movie, I already knew he wanted to do a very, very long scene with almost no cuts. To me the story behind the movie is that humans are tiny little specs in space and we’re afraid of that and we’re afraid of death and we’re afraid of infinity and we don’t understand it. This is one of the central shots that carried that message.

– Emmanuel Lubezki

An accomplishment like “Gravity” demands multiple inclusions on a list like this, and so it is that 2013 marks only the second time we’ve had a double-dipper. Yesterday I explained why the oft-seen “in utero” composition was so moving and thematically resonant, but today it’s time to explain how an opening shot like the one in this film can put you on notice for the ride to come.

The first 13 minutes of “Gravity” are a microcosm of the entire film. They contain moments both intimate and outrageous. They find emotion and they find thrills, and they prepare you for what’s to come. Intriguingly, the shot was meant to go on longer, the camera racing to catch up with a tumbling Sandra Bullock after she hurdles off into space. But the very idea that the camera could catch her in that expanse took away from the terror and vastness of the setting, so DP Emmanuel Lubezki and others convinced director Alfonso Cuarón to cut, to the next awe-inspiring extended take (the one that ends up inside Dr. Ryan Stone’s helmet).

This is what this column is all about. and regardless of the fact that this image had a healthy dose of CG-enhancement, it was – every bit of it – a result of what Lubezki brought to this film. In one clean package, these 13 minutes represent the future, of filmmaking, of cinematography. They tell the entire story of the film, and in one viewer’s humble opinion, they collectively make for the best shot of 2013.

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 2013 in your book? Have your say in the comments section below!




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