For a decade now I’ve written about the year in single images. It’s an annual tradition that started on a whim — certain shots from “No Country for Old Men” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” spurred a desire to seek out other potent imagery and chew on it — and it has developed into my own little way of adding to the usual year-in-review cavalcade.
The rise of press screeners has certainly helped me to be thorough. Re-watching the year’s movies and scrubbing them for stand-out shots I might have missed has become its own unique form of absorbing movies. Other outlets have come along and taken similar approaches, which is great, because this is as subjective as anything else. But many have bailed after giving it a go, too, which I understand: this can be sort of taxing.
But I’ve cherished it. I’ve delighted, and continue to delight, in the conversations I have with cinematographers, examining the nuts and bolts of visual storytelling. Whether it’s the most weathered of veterans or the freshest talent on the scene, these are the people who speak the language of cinema most fluently, and they’re eager to talk about it and share the details of their decision making. I’ve even observed some of them climb to the industry’s top shelf. That’s been a gift, and I thank each and every lenser who has hopped on the phone with me to discuss along the way.
So let’s dive in. For the 10th year running, the top 10 shots of the year…
Director of Photography: Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC
“We weren’t very clear in general about how he was going to see these faces of Christ that are described in the book and the script. Here, it ended up being this painting from Goya. This shot was an important moment where you would think Rodriguez is starting to lose his mind in his confusion of where Christ is and the silence of not answering his prayers. Jesuits try to mold their way of life and spirituality in Christ himself, and I think this moment speaks to that, as well as that confusion of, ‘How would Christ behave in this situation?'”
“Silence” is arguably Martin Scorsese’s most personal film yet, making it a very specific thing that either resonates with you or it doesn’t. Rodrigo Prieto’s celluloid photography is jaw-dropping throughout, certainly aesthetically speaking. Here, an on-the-nose image, heavy with thematic context, contrasts with the film’s otherwise reserved and meditative approach. It’s the kind of flourish that permeates “The Last Temptation of Christ” yet isn’t really utilized in “Kundun,” the other two films in this spiritual trilogy of sorts from Scorsese. But in “Silence,” it makes for bold juxtaposition.
Director of Photography: Drew Daniels
“Every shot in the movie was supposed to suggest Krisha’s point of view. This was one of our Altman kind of shots. Instead of cutting into coverage — because obviously you want to end this scene in a close-up — we start zooming once the conversation begins taking a turn for the worst. First we push in on a dolly to elevate the intensity of the conversation, and the zoom, that’s when we’re just going totally subconscious. Krisha has zoned out and you can tell it’s not going to go right. The zoom pushes past her guard and into her psychology, where basically she feels isolated and there’s this total disconnect from her son.”
Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha” was one of the year’s most exemplary directorial debuts, signaling an unmistakable voice and the confidence to convey it. The film is most effective in its assemblage, as Shults uses active picture editing to establish a state of mind. But there are also a number of moments that allow things to breathe, and this climactic conversation between the eponymous family black sheep and her son is one of them. It crystalizes the depth of actress Krisha Fairchild’s performance and visually tells a story with aplomb.
Director of Photography: James Laxton
“This was in the script, so we knew we were building to this moment. We wanted an image that would be everlasting in the audience’s minds, something that evokes some strong emotional consequences. I think it’s almost like asking the audience to be contemplative and have a moment to think to yourself about what you just watched. I think it’s just asking us all to think about each other and think about these characters to try and find some humanity within us all that connects us. We all have these very similar experiences in our lives on some level and we can all relate to each other.”
James Laxton’s “Moonlight” photography is singular, but he and director Barry Jenkins still had their touchstones. The collaborations of French cinematographer Agnès Godard and director Claire Denis were an influence, as were Ping Bin Lee and Malik Sayeed’s respective lensing of Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s 2005 romance omnibus “Three Times” and Spike Lee’s 1995 crime thriller “Clockers.” For the movie’s final image, the Florida State film school colleagues captured the very spirit of the film’s protagonist, the childlike inner soul of a man longing for a connection.
Director of Photography: Stéphane Fontaine, AFC
“We wanted a very strong texture and a great deal of saturation. The best way to mimic it was to use film stock, as opposed to trying to find the right plugin in post after using a digital camera. In this shot, we’re almost seeing things from Jackie’s perspective. It adds to the intimate feeling that we looked for. Most of the time she’s centered in the frame, which helps translate the fact that she’s part of a bigger picture and she’s always overwhelmed. At one point we were even tempted to shoot in 4:3, which would have been quite extreme, but we ultimately settled on the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.”
There are many arresting frames in Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” which is less a biopic than a refined character study. It’s a delicate portrait of grief, strength and dignity, and there’s a wonderful blend of iconography and humanity to be found in DP Stéphane Fontaine’s imagery. This shot fills the frame with Jacqueline Kennedy’s blood-spattered, weeping visage to start, the intimacy palpable. It closes with her smearing the mirror she’s been peering into — a bit of a reveal — as she struggles to put her internal world back together. It’s a simple choice but hugely effective.
Director of Photography: Bradford Young, ASC
“That shot was a total gift: All that fog appeared out of nowhere. We took off early in the morning to shoot the valley before the sun came up. To the right was the St. Lawrence River and to the left was just these mountains and rolling hills. And then we cleared a ridge line and there it was, that fog rolling off the St. Lawrence. It was like, ‘Hold on, is this really happening?’ That’s all in camera. It’s one of those happy accidents where the movie gods are looking out for you. An aerial shot that was just going to be the most mundane shot in the history of cinema turns into something really special.”
Marketing people know what they’re doing, so sometimes the defining image from a film makes it onto this list. Such is the case with “Arrival,” but it’s worth pointing out that Bradford Young’s gorgeous helicopter shot — mostly free of a CGI assist, as he shockingly reveals above — is helped quite a bit by the way director Denis Villeneuve underscores it with composer Johann Johannsson’s creepy contributions. It’s the stand-out example from a film that reminds, yet again, that Villeneuve is a bold stylist capable of elevating material off the page with his choices.
Director of Photography: Pedro Luque
“It’s a great way of introducing the geography and making the house credible. But also it’s a symbol for the whole movie, because you see all of the things that will come into play later. There’s a sense of a bigger order of things. We talked a lot about ‘Panic Room.’ It’s very elegant and beautiful, but the cinematography we did in this movie was a little more expressive in a way, where colors are stronger and shadows are more pronounced. But this was like a mini-‘Panic Room.’ We had a stage, but it was small compared to Fincher!”
Just as the action really begins in director Fede Álvarez’s horror house chamber piece “Don’t Breathe,” a three-minute, CG-stitched take provides something of a table of contents for the film’s narrative beats. Numerous elements that will come into play — a skylight, a workbench hammer, a curious bell, an eerie crawlspace, a strategically-placed firearm — are scattered throughout as lenser Pedro Luque establishes the environment. It’s a fun choice, one that obviously owes a debt, but it’s not arbitrary. And it’s part and parcel of Luque’s overall underrated work on the film.
Director of Photography: Chayse Irvin, CSC
“There was a compositional arc throughout the whole collaboration with Khalil [Joseph], a desire to conceal a lot of information in the frame, or at least the most important information. This shot is a great example of that, because we’re concealing her face with that coat she’s wearing. It was this kind of beast or this mythical creature starting to transform. And what Khalil did with the sound was captivating and interesting. His form of editing is beautiful. He’s constantly stitching together the most contrasting of images to give some sort of metaphor or meaning that resonates on a subjective level.”
“Lemonade” — Beyonce’s Knowles-Carter’s visual album that hit like a lightning bolt in the spring — has popped up on a few assessments of the year’s best films. Whatever parameters you might have for what makes something a proper movie, the project was absolutely a work of cinema, the compendium of an artist working through many levels of expression. Its identifying image stood out in particular, leading off the proceedings and serving as the album’s key art. There’s an eerily metamorphic quality to it, like something stirring from a slumber to unleash a pent-up energy.
Director of Photography: Anthony Dod Mantle, ASC, BSC, DFF
“In this scene, I wanted to allow for potential innovative dialogue or improvisation. We linked the two shooting sets for recording both characters simultaneously, through high-quality projection of Corbin onto the screen at the set where Snowden stands to face him. I also wanted to seize this one opportunity in the last meeting between these two characters, to underline, visually, the degree of power and influence bestowed on a superior officer, and to give Rhys [Ifans] the necessary tools to visually enhance this theme by using the space in the frame I allotted to him.”
—Anthony Dod Mantle
Anthony Dod Mantle may have won a prize at this year’s Camerimage cinematography festival for Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” but his sterling work on the biopic has mostly hovered below the radar. He consistently brings an innovative signature to the films he tackles, and this was no different. The most striking frame of the movie really hammers home a well-worn dystopian image; it’s Orwell’s big brother brought into the modern context, Edward Snowden dwarfed beneath the imposing, watchful eye of his CIA recruiter Corbin O’Brian.
“THE BIRTH OF A NATION”
Director of Photography: Elliot Davis
“I was trained as an architect and there are many structural visual elements that were incorporated in an architectural way. This is one of them. The whole film is really encapsulated in this frame. It’s a very stark reading of a complex idea. It’s about the polarization of a system and of a people liberating themselves from an oppressor. But there’s no pretense of friendly fascism and slavery. The role of religion is delineated between the two conflicting sides, the slaves on one side, and the dying system on the other.”
Nate Parker’s embattled “Birth of a Nation” was oddly divisive, a passionate explosion from an artist’s soul to some, a pedestrian exercise in historical drama to others. The photography was nevertheless filled with iconic frames and none more so than this paradoxically beautiful tableau. As Elliot Davis explains above, it’s the film in one image. In part, “The Birth of a Nation” is a movie about righteousness and the myriad perspectives it beckons. This shot crystallizes both that thematic DNA and of course the film’s surface narrative conflict.
“LA LA LAND”
Director of Photography: Linus Sandgren, FSF
“When we found the location, we had to adapt. The sun was limiting in that the desired camera move would not be possible in one long take without shadowing the actors. It was multiple levels of synchronization between drivers and crane operators, and also precision drivers in the cars that would fill in the traffic. There were hidden tricks on this shot, but it’s fairly analog. Damien [Chazelle] wanted the camera to be like a character in the film. He wanted to give the sense of being there and watching it breathe and not doing any cuts, and then hopefully you would appreciate the numbers better because you were involved.”
Long takes are all the rage, so they often pop up on lists like this for their technical prowess. And indeed, for Damien Chazelle’s indie-hearted Los Angeles musical, the opening tracking shot (which is really a trio of shots brought together via whip-pan edits and other post-production stitching) is impressive for its ambition, just like any other. But it sets one heck of a tone for a film that is, at heart, about being audacious in the face of practicality. It’s also indicative of Chazelle’s confidence behind the camera, and it makes for a dazzling preview of DP Linus Sandgren’s camera movement signature throughout. For me, it is the best shot of the year.
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