The cinematic consciousness of a viewer is primarily defined by memories. The memories collectively determine the perception, however distorted, that the viewer holds towards a certain film. And while the verbal and the acoustic play a critical role in shaping those memories, the first contact towards all cinematic art is visual.
Not very disparate from the impressions the texture and color of a painting is able to leave, certain images from films can be relied upon to pop up in the heads of viewers long after they’ve seen the film when their mental trajectory stumbles upon the thematic intentions conveyed, and more importantly, received from the film at the time of consumption.
Crafting these images is never a facile task. Filmmakers, cinematographers, production designers, set decorators, makeup designers, hairstylists and customers spend hours deliberating on what goes into that one frame that could potentially effectuate a favorable opinion in the minds of the audiences.
The choice of film over digital, natural lighting over artificial sources and even a desaturated color palette over a bright one is of consequence when it comes to making visual-minded decisions. The results are all over the place, from hugely misappropriated aesthetic choices that alienate more than they communicate, to path-breaking innovation that lend an entirely different dimension to the cinematic experience.
Cinema, like every art form, has evolved as a ramification of cultural developments across the globe. While conforming to the norm still persists, filmmakers are now dismissing tested tactics in favor of personal absurdities. And while the nostalgia-infected hint at the glory of the time gone by, their contemporary sensibilities are hardly mistakable.
Music that once seemed purely decorative now seems to be emanating from the very seams of the moving pictures, thanks to employment of potent sound and visual technologies. Experimental filmmaking has now amassed a sizeable following of its own and this has prompted craftsmanship of a kind that proves difficult to analyze, let alone explain in any conclusive terms.
Film shots have become a significant part of the discussion surrounding cinema and illuminate, without pronounced ambitions, the veracity of visually forward filmmaking. Here are some of the most memorable film shots from this century.
30. Birth (Dir.: Jonathan Glazer, DP: Harry Savides, 2004)
Jonathan Glazer’s filmography, while not vast and multifarious, is still enviable. With his debut feature being the fast paced, wit-fueled “Sexy Beast” (2001), no one expected him to tackle the slow burning reincarnation beauty that is “Birth”.
The film stars Nicole Kidman, in arguably the most towering achievement of her career to date, as Anna, who is told by a 10-year old boy that he is her dead husband. Over the course of the film, she is seen initially dismissing the ridiculous proclamation and gradually accepting it, as if she had been consumed by a mad trance.
This particular scene, a subject common to almost all assessments of the film, finds Anna at an opera with her fiancé, and as she considers not only the possibility of the boy being her departed spouse, but also her own underestimation of her grief, the one long, delectably strained shot of her face seems to betray the truths of a lifetime.
29. American Honey (Dir.: Andrea Arnold, DP: Robbie Ryan, 2016)
Andrea Arnold’s fiery second feature “Fish Tank” (2009) saw her paint an immaculate portrait of the turbulent life of a fifteen year-old living with her single mother. Built on similar lines, but aesthetically and thematically divergent from “Tank”, is her bold, bubbling-with-life epic “American Honey”.
Shot on the now rarely used Academy ratio (1.375:1), it chronicles the adventures of a free-spirited, impoverished teen named Star as she travels with a sales crew all through the American Midwest. The film benefits from the airy autonomy that audiences have come to associate with Arnold’s creations and beautifully captures the rhythms and joys of an aimless life.
In this shot, which appears at the close of the film, Star rises out of a lake she’s come to release a turtle in. Her sense of freedom restored to her, she lets all that’s tying her down go and the possibility of what might lie ahead for her is overwhelming and poetic.
28. Movern Callar (Dir.: Lynne Ramsay, DP: Alwin H. Küchler, 2002)
Lynne Ramsay doesn’t inform in her cinema. She only shows. Vivid tapestries of human nature animated by imaginative eccentricities that are only too close to reality form the very kernel of her sharply observant, yet profoundly abstract tendencies.
While her debut feature, the fantastically delicate “Ratcatcher” (1999) didn’t receive a wide release, her formidable talents were on full display in the masterpiece that followed. “Morvern Callar” tells the story of a young Scottish woman Morvern whose boyfriend kills himself. He leaves behind an unpublished manuscript of his novel and the film is an unsympathetic but dangerously witty journey into her unique mind.
This shot is the perfect encapsulation of why Ramsay doesn’t believe in concrete messaging. So many lyrical opportunities are wasted and the complexity possessed by a single image can be far more expressive than multiple lines of dialogue. Credit must also be accorded to Samantha Morton, whose zesty performance is nothing short of a miracle in itself.
27. Mud (Dir.: Jeff Nichols, DP: Adam Stone, 2012)
Jeff Nichols has a self-confessed affinity towards the South. He creates poetic renderings of everyday life that seem at once still and cold, but also resonating with palpable emotion and genuine nostalgia for the land Nichols grew up in.
In “Mud”, two boys Ellis and Neckbone stumble upon a strange loner named Mud, played by a deft Matthew McConaughey, who promises his boat to them in return for some help. As past secrets are revealed, we see lives on the island the film is set in intersecting in the simplest of ways, which under Nichols’s lens become substantially illustrious.
This particular scene, near the opening of the film, establishes character, location, texture and the grittiness of the narrative without a single word spoken. The actors’ faces are deceptively unostentatious and still manage to engender a stupendous intrigue. It doesn’t stand out, as much as it informs of what experience we are in store for, with Nichols’s signature absence of self-consciousness.
26. Eastern Promises (Dir.: David Cronenberg, DP: Peter Suschitzky, 2007)
Cronenberg is as stunning as gore is possibly ever going to get. His seductively postured, performed and filmed flashes of brilliant body horror work so effectively because they are servicing the basest of human fears. His filmography is as hard to digest as it is to resist.
In what is easily a career stand-out, Cronenberg takes us into the darkly phantasmic world of the Russian Mafia operating in London whose cover is threatened by a midwife Anna, who discovers their existence when she delivers the child of a young prostitute, part of a trafficking ring run by the Mafia.
This infamous scene sees Nikolai, the family “cleaner” betrayed by his employers and attacked by two members of a rival gang who mistake him for the son of the vor of the Mafia. He is beaten, brutally; the sumptuously filmed scene pronouncing the imagery of Nikolai’s place in the scheme of things, while keeping the gorgeously choreographed action constantly riveting.
25. Cache (Dir.: Michael Haneke, DP: Christian Berger, 2005)
Michael Haneke’s hostility towards violence and his gift for displaying the seriousness so often not afforded to it has made him stand out from the auteurs of modern cinema as one whose works are some of the most impressionable achievements of this century.
In what is his most mysterious and gripping film, he presents the life of Georges Laurent and how his childhood comes back to haunt him. Someone begins to send unnamed tapes to his house and his family life begins to gradually dismantle. He suspects the son of an Algerian couple who worked for Georges’s parents when one of the tapes leads him to his apartment.
In this deliriously unnerving sequence, Haneke doesn’t endeavor a tonal shift. The calm is just as detached and disturbing as it has been throughout the film, but once he’s yanked the rug out from beneath you, your perspective has been changed and its swiftness or steadiness has ensured the change isn’t even noticeable.
24. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir.: Wes Anderson, DP: Robert Yeoman, 2014)
Wes Anderson is the hippie who never learned to grow up. Fortunately that translates to ingenious, edgy, impeccably crafted masterpieces that are filled with such childlike imagination and sense of recklessness, yet are controlled in symmetry and authoritative technique. Because even though Anderson’s spark hasn’t been compromised yet, his maturing into an impressive artistic presence has been thrilling to watch.
Never have his abilities shined brighter than in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, where intensity is replaced with naiveté and profundity found at the most unexpected of places as Anderson weaves the tale of a lobby boy of an imposing hotel, called Zero, working under the charming concierge Gustave H., played expertly by Ralph Fiennes.
The above shot apprises us of Zero’s memory of the glory days, when he met the love of his life. Saoirse Ronan’s beautiful face wrapped in the precious kind-heartedness Agatha possessed in Zero’s eyes, elicits a response so sudden and moving, the viewer is left utterly surprised.
23. Melancholia (Dir.: Lars von Trier, DP: Manuel Alberto Claro, 2011)
Equally abhorred and beloved, Lars von Trier has never been categorized as someone even remotely conforming to convention. His films are often perplexing, disturbing, even glorious forays into his own unnaturally wired brain. It doesn’t bode well for consumers of his work at large, but the faithful are willing to follow him anywhere.
The staggering second installment of his Depression Trilogy, “Melancholia” is an unclassifiable fever dream. It is the story of Justine and Claire, as their lives move towards accepting the end of the world. The film is filled with weird imagery and jarring shifts in viewpoints and thematic expressions.
This scene finds Justine, having escaped her wedding, coming to the golf course and staring up at the night sky. All of the film’s undercurrents of positioning banal elements of human life, with something greater at play come to a head and it is saturated by a dizzying vastness.
22. The Turin Horse (Dir.: Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, DP: Fred Kelemen, 2011)
Enigmatic Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr will unfortunately never direct a film again. His exploration of philosophical themes through long takes and the haunting use of monochrome has worked to such quietly thunderous results in films like “Werckmeister harmóniák” (2000) and the masterwork soaked in bleakness, “Sátántangó” (1994).
His final film “The Turin Horse” continued the tradition. The film is set in 1889 Turin where philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suffers a breakdown after he witnesses the flogging of a horse and tries to save him. But the film primarily follows the driver of the horse and his mundane life with his daughter after the events of the well-known story.
This shot, part of one of the thirty long takes that constitute the film, conveys atmosphere and lays the groundwork for a deeply observational mood piece that doesn’t concern itself with exhilarating the audiences, only to scar them with an understated truth. The images in the film are hazy and stylistic, but oozing languid vitality.
21. The White Ribbon (Dir.: Michael Haneke, DP: Christian Berger, 2009)
Frequent collaborators Michael Haneke and Christian Berger have a unique soberness to all their esoteric artistic decisions that brings an ambiguity and universality to their work that is breathtaking to behold. It’s not instantly accessible but the worlds they create become almost palpable as you get lost in them.
With the shattering virtuosity of “The White Ribbon”, they proved their metal beyond doubt. The film covers the time immediately preceding World War I set in the fictitious village of Eichwald, Germany. It tells the stories of the people in control of the village and those under their power with an intoxicating emulsification of brutality and humanity.
The children are the very center of this despondent nightmare and this shot captures their individuality and their terrifying unity all by using one perfect framing device. The history might make up much of the allure of this grim drama, but the vivacity of the children is as relevant as storytelling devices get.