“It’s a weird year.” That’s been a common refrain in virtually all circles over the last several months, mostly because this Oscar season has refused to conform to any typical paradigm. There is no best picture frontrunner. There isn’t even a consensus on the year’s best movie. One glance at the regional critics circuit makes that clear enough; so far 11 different films have claimed top honors, already up by five from last year’s final spread. (More on that when we have an even fuller picture in a few weeks.)
Another reason it’s a “weird year,” no doubt, is because of the dark cloud that has settled over this and other industries as fresh allegations of sexual misconduct have become a part of the daily news cycle. It’s difficult to engage with the awards season status quo in the face of that. It renders all of this so…small.
Here at In Contention, we’re 11 years in on putting 12 months of movie-going to bed with a look at the individual images that made an impact throughout. That kind of reflection also takes on a different sheen in a “weird year.” A cinematic frame that might have been rather standard in another context suddenly means so much more.
That’s why this column has become such a mainstay. Every year is different. Every context is its own. The top 10 shots of the year becomes a sort of time capsule in some way, with the only real connective tissue from year-to-year being the analysis of cinema’s most basic component: a picture, telling a story.
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Whittling the list down for 2017 wasn’t as taxing as it has been in other years. That’s purely subjective, of course. These are my choices. Your process would differ. For me, many of the year’s most striking frames announced themselves immediately. That doesn’t necessarily mean it amounted to the most potent assortment we’ve collected, just that many of 2017’s movies seemed to quickly boil down to one image that said it all. That kind of precision has always been hard to ignore for this piece.
A note on specs: Half of the films on this year’s list were full-on digital productions (each of them shot on the Arri Alexa camera). Three were strictly film: two in 35mm, one in IMAX. Two others employed a mix of digital and photochemical formats. That ongoing evolution, as ever, is interesting to track.
So with that bit of preamble out of the way, let’s just dive right in. Here are the top 10 shots of 2017.
“THE SHAPE OF WATER”
Director of Photography: Dan Laustsen, ASC, DFF
“Guillermo originally wanted to shoot in black and white, and I was jumping up and down! But that disappeared. For this shot we decided to shoot some tests on dry-for-wet, because it’s much better for the performance. Her world in the beginning is green, steel blue, cyan, and the world around her is more warm and neutral. There is very little red in the movie except fear and love and death. As she’s falling in love, she’s starting to have a red coat, red shoes — it’s a transformation.” —Dan Laustsen
“The Shape of Water” has been percolating for director Guillermo del Toro since his childhood, but he first brought it to cinematographer Dan Laustsen when they were collaborating on “Crimson Peak” a few years ago. A tight budget ($19.4 million, officially) meant all of the money was going up on the screen, and the imagery they conjured for this fairytale was sublime at every turn. For the film’s final moment, an emblematic frame, Laustsen rigged two 20K projectors in a pitch-black studio bathed in artificial smoke for the “dry-for-wet” process he mentions above. The same technique was used in an opening sequence to simulate underwater effects, leaving an eerie visual signature that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.
“A FANTASTIC WOMAN”
Director of Photography: Benjamín Echazarreta, ACC
“In the beginning I was a bit skeptical because for me this shot was a little too obvious, but in the end it worked incredibly. In one shot you have the whole idea of the movie. Technically, the level of the camera, the lens, the position of the dog, her face, the expression — everything was like an orchestra. And there are a lot of reflections in the movie. That idea was very important. The question is where is the identity? In the genitals? In the mind? That’s what the image is questioning.” —Benjamín Echazarreta
Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” is one of the year’s most impressive foreign films, featuring a performance by Daniela Vega that is among the best in any category. It’s packed with bold imagery and inspirations ranging from Buster Keaton and “Steamboat Bill Jr.” to the cinema of Pedro Almodóvar. Cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta may be correct that this particular image seems on the nose in the abstract, but as a part of Lelio’s overall symphony, it feels like a necessary visual note, one that effectively synthesizes waitress and nightclub singer Marina Vidal’s existential conflict.
Director of Photography: Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC, FSF, NSC
“It was very stressful because we had one plane to burn and we were shooting it all in the magic hour. We only had one shot at it. It’s always complicated with fire, to get that perfect exposure, but it worked out. I think in some earlier versions it was the last shot of the film, but there might not have been much material from the shot to use. An IMAX camera can only shoot two minutes before you have to reload and every time you reload, the dusk has changed.” —Hoyte van Hoytema
Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a film about recalcitrance in retreat, the steeled will of regrouping in the face of a domestic showdown. An image of defiance, such as this, perfectly captures that theme. It might have been even more powerful as the film’s closing shot, but Nolan makes the decision to cut away in the final instant, back to the lead character Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). It was an understandable decision, as it leaves viewers with the human face of what’s at stake. On the whole, the film might be Nolan’s most effective exploration of the large-scale IMAX format to date, capturing jaw-dropping land, air and sea imagery in a dazzling ticking-clock mixture that marks the director’s finest hour.
“BATTLE OF THE SEXES”
Director of Photography: Linus Sandgren, FSF
“It was important for Valerie and Jonathan to make a shift in mood from the light and fun part of the scene to a very intimate and emotionally charged moment. Ideally it would catch the audience by surprise. The scene starts with long zoom lenses. As we notice a change in the mood between Billie Jean and Marilyn, we move much closer, and we changed to a macro zoom, focusing on details of delicate and subtle senses. The camera is trying to figure out what is going on between them.” —Linus Sandgren
There is something rather intoxicating about the visual language of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes,” particularly in the first half of the film as Billie Jean King begins to explore newfound emotions. In this sequence, King (played by Emma Stone) makes an instant connection with Andrea Riseborough’s Marilyn Barnett, amounting to, surely, one of the most erotic on-screen haircuts in cinema history. Oscar-winning “La La Land” cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera allows Stone’s nuanced performance to play out beautifully, often capturing it through the mirror’s reflection, leaving the audience feeling like a fly on the wall witnessing the spark of attraction.
“BLADE RUNNER 2049”
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
“We had to have a 40×30 LED screen projecting back the pink figure of Joi that we shot in pre-production, so the whole perspective and color and feel was accurate. That not only helps the actors but gives a reality to the whole thing. All the atmosphere we had on that stage, the color interacts with the atmosphere and it lights Ryan the correct way. That’s something we could have done with a lighting effect and green screen, but it would never look as real as it does.” —Roger Deakins
Marketing materials don’t always find their way onto the list, but some images are just too stunning to ignore. SPOILERS if you haven’t seen “Blade Runner 2049,” but there’s something haunting and melancholic about Ryan Gosling’s replicant K staring up at Joi, the popular A.I. of the film’s era, in one of the later scenes of the picture. With all the echoes of “Pinocchio” ringing throughout the narrative, K’s longing to be a “real boy” and the impact his journey of discovery has on him, there’s something poetic about that pointing finger. But the color palette on display and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’ sensibilities behind the camera take everything up another notch, resulting in one of the movie’s most identifying frames.
Director of Photography: Bill Pope, ASC
“To me this shot is pure Edgar. It sets a tone that’s fun and it also says a lot about what he thinks of an audience, which is he believes they’re intelligent and in on the joke. He first started talking about the film as a bank-robbery/musical. This is obviously the musical half, with its reference to ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (the lamp post), although it also has a sly reference to Walter Hill’s ‘The Driver’: the release date is printed on the wall where Ansel poses with the horn. This is just Edgar having a good time.” —Bill Pope
It took something like 26 takes to capture the opening credits sequence of Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver,” filmed along Forsyth and Poplar Streets in the heart of downtown Atlanta, but the 23rd or 24th time was the charm. Wright and cinematographer Bill Pope first blocked out the scene, a sort of interactive musical number set to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” with a full traffic stoppage and video camera one week before they captured it for real. It’s a tracking shot that further sets the tone established in the opening robbery sequence, that this is going to be a feast for both the eyes and ears. Kudos, too, to Steadicam operator Roberto De Angelis, who was jet-lagged and had the flu while muscling through all those takes.
“CALL ME BY YOUR NAME”
Director of Photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
“The fire itself was not enough so I started to fill in some things, because the emotion is so intense. I put in another reflection to make it more visible. But my principle of working is I don’t allow myself to put anything in the way of the actor. What I want to do is create a space for them. And having a fire, for me, it’s a really good tool to show what he feels inside. That’s what I’m looking for, something as simple as that.” —Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom learned much of his craft by watching movies in Russian, a language he did not understand. He developed a refined sense of visual storytelling that would lead him first to defining collaborations with surrealist Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and eventually, a ripe opportunity with filmmaker Luca Guadagnino. “Call Me by Your Name” unfolds with an easy aesthetic grace, dolloped with odes to Antonioni and Bertolucci, culminating with this devastating close-up. As the film’s closing credits silently splash the screen and Sufjan Stevens croons a breathy “Visions of Gideon,” the audience is invited into Elio’s ache, the world moving right along behind him, ready when he is.
Director of Photography: Sean Bobbitt, BSC
“A concept we spoke a lot about was where to draw the audience’s eyes, and sometimes not where you’d think. ‘The Insider’ was a reference for that. This shot was sort of last-minute. David felt something was missing from Jeff’s time in hospital, and it was the sheer agony he had gone through. I think we only did one take, and as it was happening, the hair on the back of my neck started to stand up. It was obvious that the camera was in the right place to tell the story.” —Sean Bobbitt
It took a moment for director David Gordon Green and his DP Sean Bobbitt to settle on the right coverage for this scene in “Stronger,” when Boston marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) has his initial bandages removed following a double leg amputation. A reverse take with the bandages in the foreground wasn’t satisfactory, but this angle captured exactly what they were going for. The drama of the scene is with Jeff and his girlfriend, Tatiana Maslany’s Erin Hurley, not with the procedure causing him such pain (one carried out on camera by the actual doctor and nurse who originally did it, incidentally). It’s a great example of the film’s tendency to allow certain dynamic information to play out of focus near the edges of the frame.
Director of Photography: Toby Oliver, ACS
“That was the last day of shooting. It was done in a civic center in Mobile, Alabama. The concept was written into the script in vague terms, but then how do you describe someone’s subconscious? We used a dry-for-wet, where you’re shooting in slow motion to simulate being underwater. But we didn’t use smoke. We tested it but in a black void it looked milky. For me, it was a challenge to say, ‘Here’s this abstract scene coming from Jordan’s head. How do we make that something we can shoot?'” —Toby Oliver
Up until the appearance of “the sunken place” in Jordan Peele’s brilliant thriller-satire-comedy-whatever-you-want-to-call-it, things were uncomfortable for the protagonist, but certainly not unmanageable. And just like that, with the filtered growl of Catherine Keener — “SINK” — “Get Out” takes you on a whole other trip. Peele and his cinematographer, Toby Oliver, were largely inspired by similar imagery in Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” but as the DP states above, the real trick was finding some way to depict the subconscious in a compelling way. Hence the second use of the “dry-for-wet” technique on this year’s list.
Director of Photography: Matthew Jensen, ASC
“This was one of the first sequences I jumped into on prep, and this was always one of the key images. It’s representative of Wonder Woman’s power and influence. She’s able, with her strength and determination, to reach the Germans at a stalemate when they’re trying to overwhelm her. I don’t think any of us anticipated the emotional reaction the movie would set in motion. We wanted to talk about heroism and choosing love and a belief in humanity as a new stance for a superhero. The subtext is because it hit the world at the right time.” —Matthew Jensen
Another time, another year, maybe this image from Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” doesn’t have the impact it does now. But the fact is it lands a significant blow in the current climate. The import of a frame depicting a woman standing strong amid a torrent is pretty self-explanatory, whether you want to draw a line to last year’s presidential election or this year’s flood of brave survivors coming forward with accusations of sexual assault and harassment (and thereby instilling courage in others to do the same). In the film, this moment depicts a deed that inspires Allied forces to storm out of a trench and help, rendering Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman as a powerful force of change. The resonance is simply unavoidable. Jenkins and cinematographer Matthew Jensen were heavily influenced by comic book artists like Alex Ross, George Perez and Cliff Chiang, as well as portraitist John Singer Sargent, in conjuring the film’s visual identity. But here, they captured their own potent, inspiring, instantly iconic image — the best shot of 2017.
The Top 10 Shots of 2016
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
|Variety’s Best of 2017|