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The 15 Greatest Long Takes In Cinema History

21 February 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Emilio Santoni

long takes cinema history

Long take. One-shot. Oner. Continuous take. Different terms for the same principle: An uninterrupted (or seemingly uninterrupted) shot in a movie. And with these shots come various difficulties. Lengthy dialogue which needs to be memorised. Difficult choreography of all the moving elements in the frame. Various lighting conditions. Hard working conditions for the cinematographer but also for other crew members. And all of these things have to come together in perfect harmony for it to work.

The longer the shot goes for, the more difficult this becomes to achieve of course. Not only because of the logistics involved but imagine the build-up of pressure on everybody involved. If the shot has been going for several minutes and you’re the one to stuff something up, the whole thing will have to be shot again, which usually involves a lot of lost time and/or money, not to mention frustration. The longer the shot goes for, the more the pressure increases.

The long take is an art form and understandably a bit of a passion or even a calling card for some directors. And when done properly, the results are often some of the highlights and most memorable parts of the films they appear in. This list is testament to that.

 

15. Oldboy (2003) – The hallway fight scene, 2 minutes 34 seconds

This might be the shortest shot on this list and take place in only one location but what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in visceral impact. After the protagonist has been jailed in solitary for 15 years, for reasons which are unknown to him, he comes out with only one thing on his mind: vengeance. This scene takes place later on in the movie after he has found the location where he was being kept all those years and pays it a visit to try to find some answers.

The scene sees our main character fight his way through a plethora of goons in a corridor armed only with a hammer whilst the camera pans along with his progress. And boy does it make you sit on the edge of your seat. It took seventeen takes spread over three days to get this scene right and the only doctoring with the footage is the knife which is stuck into our hero’s back, which was added via computer generated effects in post-production. If you haven’t seen this film, please do not opt for the recent Spike Lee remake, the original is where it’s at.

 

14. Atonement (2007) – Dunkirk scene, 5 minutes 7 seconds

In stark contrast to Oldboy, this scene is all about the grand scale of what is on display, which adds to the already in itself impressive five minute plus steadicam shot. A giant location and more than 1300 extras were used to convey the madness going on in Dunkirk and it is this scene that sticks with you after having seen this movie.

The scene required amazing choreography and coordination as all those extras scramble along the beach whilst vehicles move around, guns and explosions go off, horses are being shot and choirs sing to convey the madness of the British forces as they are desperately waiting to be transported back to England after their defeat.

This one shot conveys the chaos, tragedy and absurdity of war brilliantly and might be the second most impressive shot on this list as far as sheer scale and complexity are concerned whilst the number one in that category actually tops this list.

 

13. Hard Boiled (1992) – Hospital shoot-out, 2 minutes 42 seconds

The first action-packed continuous take with lots of fire power on this list is nearly three minutes of explosive mayhem by the master of the bullet ballet, John Woo. Armed with just a few handguns and a shotgun, two cops make their way through the halls of a hospital filled with baddies, including an elevator ride to get to another floor and continue, in what can best be described as the closest approximation of a first person shooter on film.

John Woo was already renowned for his completely over the top shoot-outs but this scene from Hard Boiled topped them all and was his last calling card before leaving Hong Kong and starting a career in Hollywood. Possibly the best shoot-out ever filmed and certainly the greatest to ever have been choreographed in one uninterrupted take.

 

12. Hunger (2008) – Conversation scene, 16 minutes 30 seconds

It’s not always scale, complexity and mayhem that are required to make an impressive long take. This scene from Steve McQueen’s directorial debut features two actors, Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham having an uninterrupted conversation for 17 minutes straight whilst the camera remains static for the entire duration of the shot.

The movie deals with the second horrible IRA hunger strike in Maze prison in 1981, which resulted in the death of ten inmates. Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, the leader of the strike, and Cunningham plays Father Dom, his priest, who tries to talk him out of this extreme form of protest.

Apparently Cunningham moved into Fassbender’s apartment for some time to be able to rehearse the scene from twelve to fifteen times per day. The results clearly show this dedication as this is a truly impressive and mesmerising piece of acting on display here. This is the scene you are most likely to remember long after the credits of this movie have rolled.

 

11. Tom Yum Goong (The Protector) (2005) – Staircase fight scene, 3 minutes 55 seconds

Another Asian film and another kick-ass long take, quite literally this time. Let’s start by pointing out that Tom Yum Goong is a truly horrible film. You can basically not sit through it, even if you fast forward the thing. But what it does have is some of the most amazing fight sequences to have ever been put on film and this continuous take is one of them.

The camera follows our hero, Tony Jaa, as he fights his way through three floors of bad guys via a large winding staircase, which he keeps throwing them off from. The best thing about this shot is that you can actually see the toll it takes on Jaa. As he gets to the top floor, he’s still going strong but the fatigue is visible.

The scene took over a month of preparations and five takes before they finally got it in the can. If you ever see this movie, please just watch this scene, the Tekken-like tournament in the middle of the film and the bone-crushing finale, which puts even Steven Seagal to shame. No matter how bad a movie this is, these scenes are absolutely worth the price of admission alone for any martial arts or action film aficionado.

 

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  • Flavio Rucci

    Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice got a scene, a tracking shot of Alexander, Little Man, and Otto talking and walking, lasts nine minutes and twenty-six seconds. Shame on you guys, please do yourselves a favor and watch this movie: Masterpiece.

    • Dillard

      Still, I wouldn’t say this is the best tracking shot in Sacrifice…

  • Jack Hank

    Whilst.

    • niin

      Magician(s), by Song Il-Gon (Korea, 2006). The whole 90min movie is one take. Though it’s technically not as great as the Ark, it still manages to follow 4 persons on different locations along a non chronological story (the making has a lot to do with theatre actually). The sad thing being all HD copies have been lost (which seems absurd in the digital era)

  • Ana

    Kill Bill Vol I, the Bride arriving at the House of Blue Leaves…

  • Bhagyesh Parekh

    Before Midnight?
    The almost 20 minute long conversation in the car?

    • Red Lagoon

      I was surprised not to see Before Midnight (and the two movies before it) in this list.

    • Whitey

      There’s a Pov cut in that scene

  • Ross Brown

    How can this list not include the Harbour scene in The Longest Day? One long take, a long crane shot that covers a tremendous amount of real estate. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eZMkleDjWI

    • http://www.refocusedmedia.com Refocused Media

      Wow. That was absolutely incredible.

  • Kyle Michel Sullivan

    I think the most famous long take was the ending of “Queen Christina”, keeping forever on Gretta Garbo’s face…

  • Dion Matthews

    Not technically cinema, but the end of the 4th episode of True Detective on HBO (season 1) contains a spectacular long take revolving around a home invasion/heist/getaway. About 6-7 minutes

    • Doug Graves
      • Dion Matthews

        Fully agree, thanks for sharing the clip!

    • Andy Rovins

      It’s cinema, it ‘s just not made to show in theaters. Same techniques, same crew, same gear.

    • http://dizi-mania.com/ widfara

      i am here to write same thing. amazing scene!

  • Mike White

    Allow me to add Josh Becker’s Running Time to the mix: http://www.beckerfilms.com/page3.html

  • Jesse Herzog

    Eternal Sunshine

  • Olivier Beguin

    HARD BOILED is not one uninterrupted take though… (1:11)

  • buddy

    Replace the 2 Cuaron entries (which as you admitted are not real one takes but rather feats of editing) with the car wreck scene from Weekend and the ending of the Passenger.

  • buddy

    Also, not even a mention of Bela Tarr, who shoots every scene in his films- whether a minute long or ten- as a single take, and a version of Macbeth in 2 shots, one of them 67 minutes long.

  • Steven Burgas

    It’s sad that so many shots mentioned here are digitally manipulated and stitched together.

    Epic fail on the part of those nominating them.

    • Alessandro Schiassi

      If the cuts are seamless, who cares?

      • Steven Burgas

        It’s a lie.

        At least highlight the lie, instead of covering it up.

        • Alessandro Schiassi

          Movies ARE lies. 24 lies per second. They are not documentary, they are made to entertain, not to educate. This article is about the art of long takes, not about their technical execution.

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  • Mitchel A. Jones

    Is it really a long take if there are cuts? Using scene’s with hidden cuts doesn’t make any sense for this list. By this standard every movie falls into this category.

  • JD Walker

    you forgot reservoir dogs cop torture scene!!

  • Kito

    Please! El secreto de sus ojos should be on this list! If not, an honor mention at least! Sequence starts at 2:05 on this video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04A3SykBIj0 Amazing work from Argentina filmmakers.

  • Cody

    “Rope” described as “not one of the master’s best movies” and “a great little film?” Puh-leese. Hitch’s first foray into color photography is a masterpiece!

    • Cody

      I reserve the claim of “not one of the masters best films” for Hitchcock’s “Secret Agent.”

  • Andy Rovins

    The “Mexican town” in Touch of Evil is FVenice Beach, CA. Starts at Pacific and Horizon, south on Pacific to Windward, West on Windward to Ocean Front Walk, north to explosion .

  • Robert Beveridge

    The 7.5 minute opening pan shot of Satantango. Which may actually be one of the shorter takes in the movie.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Aud2Shtd5k

  • hank scorpio

    The opening of Strange Days. Lots of action. Not sure how long it is, but it’s incredible.

  • Christopher Binder

    Any of the 10 shots from Talking to Strangers or anything from Bela Tarr’s films ought to be on here.

  • Clean Slate Films

    Don’t forget the traffic jam sequence from Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Weekend:

    Pardon the running commentary, but this is the only version I could find:

    http://vimeo.com/11136204

  • Joltin Joe

    This list is not complete without the trench scene from Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.”

  • Erky Kapowski

    Opening sequence of “Donnie Darko”

  • Carsten Nilsson

    Old boy as no. 15? Confused.

  • Greg Easton

    Opening shot of Serenity.

    • Dan

      Absolutely – the opening seen on the ship is one continuous take that introduces all the main characters and the ship itself – Fabulous and should make this list!

  • Ivan Martin

    What about Bonfire of Vanities opening shot?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQTwjA-H8-M

  • David Marks

    Great list! Another movie you should check out if you love long takes is “Timecode (2000)” The entire movie is made up of 4 x 90 minute continuous takes — each playing in a quarter of the screen. The movie takes place in different parts of a city, and all converge at one place.

    From Wikipedia:

    Timecode is a 2000 American experimental film directed by Mike Figgis.

    The film is constructed from four continuous 90-minute takes
    that were filmed simultaneously by four cameramen; the screen is
    divided into quarters and the four shots are shown simultaneously. The film depicts several groups of people in Los Angeles as they interact and conflict while preparing for the shooting of a movie in a production office. The dialogue was largely improvised, and the sound mix of the film is designed so that the most significant of the four sequences on screen dominates the soundtrack at any given moment.

    • Jonathan

      Good call. I was gonna mention that one.

  • BonesOfTheDead

    What about Inglorious Basterds tavern scene?

  • Víctor Manuel Solís

    Great list, but, where is SOY CUBA, I am Cuba (1964)? One of Scorsese’s favorite films, and a fascinating film from a technical point of view, with a stunning long take: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u91Oxyv5U-o

  • http://jonmattox.com mejon

    Shocking there is no mention of Tarkovsky.

  • Jesse G

    Here’s a short I directed that is almost entirely a single take.

    https://vimeo.com/75692429

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  • mms6

    The basically silent, but subtly moving final scene of Big Night.

  • Siavash Ebrahimi

    Fish & Cat a 2013 film directed by shahram mokri from iran . 134 min in one shot . winner of the 2013 Venice Horizons Award Special Prize.

  • Rob Weston

    What about the opening scene from JCVD? Its even awesomely meta at the end:
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xxialx_jcvd-intro_shortfilms

  • Gusbrum

    Russian Ark catapults Sokurov to be one of the best living directors. Incredible movie.

  • Jay Lum Lock

    As someone with a very dedicated appreciation to martial arts movies, I have to say that The Protector was actually a very good movie. Especially if you pay attention to the true to life cultural references of how it is portrayed.

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  • Άλτερ Ήγκος

    The Colombian film PVC-1 is also shot in full in a single shot. Apparently the steadicam operator (director) was training for 3 months for this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HBtm0RJV4E

  • Freddy D Gompf III

    Another film you might want to check out is Mike Figgis’s Timecode. It is made up of four separate shots that are on screen continuously via the screen being divided into four. Each of these shots run the length of the film, and follow characters as they move about and come into contact with the characters from the other shots.

  • http://artytekt.tumblr.com Drug Mare

    You make good lists, that’s for sure. But you need a broader image in order to call an article “…In Cinema History”.
    This list cannot be complete without Tarkovsky.
    For instance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxEXw4UNuGg

  • vincent

    so, to be nit-picky, children of men and gravity technically do not count?

  • Jed Bartlet

    The opening scene (following credits) in Carpenter’s Halloween.

  • dhinged

    Of course they didn’t mention Irreversible, which they can’t without messing up your mind for the rest of your life.