The 30 Most Perfect Movie Shots of the 21st Century (So Far)

10. There Will Be Blood (Dir.: Paul Thomas Anderson, DP: Robert Elswit, 2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson has swiftly risen to the status of having a career path that among American filmmakers is probably the most thrilling to watch. From the wildly adventurous “Boogie Nights” to the meditative, saccharine “Punch Drunk Love” or the enormously provocative “Magnolia” which features one of the greatest film ensembles of all time, he has hardly ever taken a misstep.

But it felt like a breakthrough when he came up with “There Will Be Blood”, a tale of greed, religion and isolation that certified Anderson as a realist with a flair for exacting exploration of themes through the narrative and through less conventional cinematic tools like color, building and defying expectation and even an actor’s voice.

One of the most visually stunning sequences involves the protagonist; Daniel Plainview’s oil well having a gas blowout. The fire that follows makes for a searing rendezvous with all of the film’s qualities: it tells a real story, but adds a layer of dark humor and ambiguous purposefulness that make it both vivid and thought-provoking.


9. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Dir.: Roy Andersson, DP: István Borbás and Gergely Pálos, 2014)

Roy Andersson’s crazy is infectious. After a viewing of his brilliant “Living” trilogy you’d find yourself thinking about the most random things and finding meanings so absurdly valid that they induce sensations as varied as regret, joy, anger and guilt in quick succession.

In the final film of the trilogy, “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”, he challenges our perceptual distortions to a degree where observation of eccentricity at its most informed is made endlessly riveting.

This agonizingly long scene features a giant container full of black slaves being rotated on fire, making a melodic sound that some white people enjoy listening to. This one shot of the fire reflected on the glass door conveys the destruction of a conscience with a lack of subtlety that is absolutely indispensable.


8. The Tree of Life (Dir.: Terrence Malick, DP: Emmanuel Lubezki, 2011)

Very hard to love and yet very hard to ignore Terrence Malick is as great an enigma as most of his films are. You know what they wish to say, but the desire to find more, because you’re never certain of their limits, just keeps haunting you.

His unqualified triumph came with the ambitious, singularly spectacular “The Tree of Life”, which pairs two worlds: the beginnings of our planet, and the childhood of a Texan boy in the 1950s surrounded by an intimidating and not infrequently cruel father and a divinely loving and ethereal mother.

Simplistic if not fully rejoiced in the glory of, the movie is a gold mine of heart-stopping stills. Aside from the use of practical effects to create the Big Bang, the most seductive ones include Malick and Lubezki enriching our memories of childhood with their poetry. This scene, for instance, shows the children playing with the DDT sprayed by the truck. It’s endearingly real, and yet in their hands, feels other-worldly.


7. Mulholland Dr. (Dir.: David Lynch, DP: Peter Deming, 2001)

Any filmmaker, who makes his debut with a film of the stature of “Eraserhead”, should know that there is no cap to what one can expect from him. David Lynch’s obsession with the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious has led him on varied paths that didn’t always end with success, but were completely worth the journey.

He redefined what cinematic future holds for us with “Mulholland Drive”, a film whose mystery or lack thereof still inspires the most incandescent debates. The story of Betty, Rita, Diane and Camilla is fascinating to no end and any concreteness could only be disappointing.

Lynch consistently toys with our senses, and being in full control of the puppet strings, his effectiveness never wanes. Like this fleeting close up of Betty’s eyes as they meet Adam’s which gives us a peak into our own head, convincing us fully that he has mastered all our thought processes.


6. Samsara (Dir.: Ron Fricke, DP: Ron Fricke, 2011)

Ron Fricke has wanted to put what it feels to observe life and nature in action, utterly undisturbed on screen for years. While his efforts are exemplary in “Baracka” (1992) and “Chronos” (1985), his magnum opus is undoubtedly “Samsara”.

Shot over five years in twenty-five countries, “Samsara” has no words. It is a meditation on living and being. Doing is too complicated and thus nothing is of consequence in “Samsara”. The narrative is non-existent and the subject too vast to be confined to the boundaries of language.

It begins with a spellbinding set of images: the Balineese traditional dance, followed by an erupting volcano, followed by the bookends of human life. The appearance of the volcano is bursting with energy, but presented in the calmest of manners making the poetic tonality unassailable.


5. In The Mood For Love (Dir.: Wong Kar-wai, DP: Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin, 2000)

Famed Hong Kong Second Wave filmmaker Wong Kar-wai has perfected the idea of stylistic executions with a carefully designed purpose like no other presence in world cinema. At times it seems the characters’ underpinnings shape the story and at others the story seems to lend the characters the layers they purport in his films.

About a young man and woman who discover their spouses are cheating on them with each other, “In the Mood for Love” is a game of faith, loneliness, restraint and love played with such openness that even without personal investment one can stare at the collection of paintings for hours on end.

In what follows a confession from our two protagonists of their love for each other, they are seen in a taxi. And as we believe how so much is yet undecided for them, we get a sense of their acceptance of their tragic fate and their quiet mourning is incomprehensibly heartbreaking.


4. Hero (Dir.: Zhang Yimou, DP: Christopher Doyle, 2002)

Zhang Yimou’s visual prowess is unmatched. The sharpness of “The House of Flying Daggers” creates thrill, while the overabundance of color in “The Curse of the Golden Flower” was unimaginably bold.

But with “Hero”, his sophistication transformed an intricate tale told from different perspectives into a somber reflection on trust in the context of our turmoil with peace and disquiet, whether it be internal or external.

The exquisitely filmed masterwork shows inconsolable devastation caused by the war we wage on our own impulses when Snow accidentally kills Sword who doesn’t defend himself against her attack because of his feelings for her. She wails in agony and the potent sequence transcends almost the entire film.


3. The Master (Dir.: Paul Thomas Anderson, DP: Mihai Mălaimare Jr., 2012)

The first feature film since Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996) to be shot and released in 70mm, “The Master” was the epic Paul Thomas Anderson finally had the resources and creative independence to make after the smashing success of “There Will Be Blood.”

Although a commercial failure that still divides audiences, “The Master” is an uninhibited, atmospherically perfect projection of a single man’s vision. Everything from Joaquin Phoenix’s contorted body to some of the most human animalistic tendencies at display seems to be whirling out of control in this film, but is measured and framed to absolute magnificence.

The most captivating and possessed of all of Anderson’s creatures is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the titular master who leads a cult of followers too wrapped up in the illusion of his knowledge to be cognizant of his all too clear flaws. When we first see him, his head is down, he has a pencil in his hand and strikes an imposing image on Freddie and on us, supposedly colluding new ways to maintain the illusion. Like Freddie, not many among us would want it shattered.


2. Carol (Dir.: Todd Haynes, DP: Edward Lachman, 2015)

Cate Blanchett once said in an interview, “That’s what makes Todd so alluring: he is an auteur with an outsider’s perspective.” That description completely rings true. Todd Haynes’s presence still feels a misfit for the Hollywood machinery and yet, he is lauded among all of his peers as a creative force like few others.

His second feature set in the 1950s, bolstered by the fine-grain cinematography of veteran DP Edward Lachman, “Carol” is a romantic telling of profound isolation that nails the feeling of falling in love. Akin to the flow of a stream, the unpredictability of the passion two women harbor for each other in a time where even a description for their relationship doesn’t exist, runs out of their control and is wondrous to behold.

In this desperately melancholic scene, we find Carol sitting in a diner after she has surrendered to her husband’s wishes in regard to the custody of their daughter. She quietly writes a letter to Therese, and staring at her from the window, the viewer realizes and so does Carol that if she can have Therese, she might just have been saved.


1. The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (Dir.: Andrew Dominik, DP: Roger Deakins, 2007)

Andrew Dominik has not made enough films to really define his professional arc in any conclusive way. But the three films he has directed unquestionably position him for greater heights and his particular brand of industrious filmmaking that seems to be reflective of a peculiar, yet ravishing intent is bound to produce stimulating work.

His unhurried, intensely moody Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is an account of an infamous Missouri gang led by the arresting Jesse James and details the events before his murder by the subdued, insecure Bob Ford, who had always cherished a desire to be a part of the gang.

In a film whose ending is already known, it’s the exhibition of what makes the experience mesmeric that matters the most. In perfect awareness that Jesse James is a ghost, the audience holds the capability to emote even with the simple frame of him looking at the sun going down. The vastness of the country combined with the sadness the film is perfused with, makes it unreservedly remarkable.

Author Bio: Anmol Titoria is a student at University and has been writing and engaging in many a parley about film since he was in school, where he was responsible for writing the film column of the monthly newsletter. He professes his love for Kubrick, Bergman and Tarkovsky in ways so multifarious and with such alarming regularity that his family has considered throwing him out repeatedly.