A scene from Steve McQueen’s “Shame”
They’re heeeeeeerrrrreeeeee. That’s right, the images have been assembled, the conversations have been had and the top 10 shots of 2011 are ready for their close-up (or over the shoulder, or two-shot, or insert, etc.).
It’s become a bit of a tradition to note in this space that the year in cinematography wasn’t particularly compelling on the whole. The 2007 season that first inspired the idea behind this piece (now entering its fifth year) really was an exceptional year for the individual film image.
However, while a year abundant in obvious visual takeaways would make writing this up quite a bit easier, I’ve grown to appreciate the digging and re-considering a lack-luster year requires. It’s forced me to appreciate the images all the more.
With that in mind, this year’s collective is very much a reflection of, as usual, the frames that really grabbed me thematically or spoke inner narratives to me in profound ways. So it’s almost become a sort of cathartic exercise to better understand a given film year and how it has impacted me, a nostalgic scrapbook saying as much about me and where I am in my appreciation of cinema as it does the work of the cinematographers involved.
Speaking of which, I have to thank the various DPs who hopped on the phone or exchanged a few emails to better contextualize this piece. Year after year, their input and perspective on the various choices is invaluable, and I think you’ll again find that to be the case this time around.
A closing note, though, before getting to the shots. I’m very happy that this is such a popular feature that I am asked — incessantly — when it will come out every year, beginning around early December and lasting clear through phase two of the Oscar season. For the record, though, the 2007 list came out on February 21. 2008: January 14 (I was actually on top of it for once). 2009: February 16. 2010: February 22. And now, 2011: February 14. So, for future reference, you will most likely NEVER see this list before early February of a given season, and certainly not as an end-of-year feature in December, as a great many apparently expected this year.
The reason is simple: I have to take the majority of these images from screeners, which I don’t fully have in hand until late December. So it’s rather impossible to gather everything up, get the DPs on the phone and crank this out before February. Keep that in mind when you get an itch to ask, “Hey, Kris, are you doing your shots column this year?” The answer, of course, is: “YES.” You’ll be the first to know when it drops. I promise.
Nevertheless, as I said, it’s good to know it’s become such a hotly anticipated item. So I really do appreciate it.
Now, on to the shots…
Director of Photography: Manuel Alberto Claro
“The plan was always to finish the film with that shot. We actually storyboarded it before finding the location. In the end the VFX guys had to stitch it together from many different plates to create the perfect setting. They made a small-scale 2D model of the magic cave and the actors, which they used for the explosions. In the editing it turned out to be too static before the impact, so we re-shot Charlotte moving in despair and inserted her into the shot. This was during sound editing, a few weeks before finishing the movie.”
–Manuel Alberto Claro
The cinema of Lars von Trier has increasingly reached new visual heights. I felt it hit an apex with 2009′s “Antichrist.” Interestingly enough, that film was a personal favorite top-tier effort behind the camera, yet not a single image founds its way onto this column that year. Perhaps it’s indicative of the whole being richer than the various separate parts.
“Melancholia,” though, was a film built on cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro’s images and their specific impact, I felt, more so than the overall assemblage. Numerous frames stick out for their emotional or visceral effect. Indeed, the entire opening sequence is a cinematic picture book dedicated to the film’s various themes.
For me, though, it was the cathartic impact of the film’s final image: the titular menace on approach before its ultimate cleansing collision. It took a combination of technology to achieve the look, but it’s a stirring image regardless.
“MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE”
Director of Photography: Jody Lee Lipes
“It really makes you feel like she’s alone and there’s nowhere for her to go. It almost makes you feel like you’re not sure if she’s going to swim out into the distance and never come back. That’s also the first time that you see the whole house that the movie takes place in. I wanted to save seeing that environment looming over her until the very end. We basically had one chance to shoot it because the water was so freezing cold and we were concerned that Lizzy wouldn’t be able to take it for too long.”
–Jody Lee Lipes
The construction of Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” via compelling editing has very much been the story on its craft accomplishments. But Jody Lee Lipes’s crisp and fluid photography was an unsung virtue, properly capturing the claustrophobic, paranoid vibe of the narrative.
One image always stuck out to me as something that particularly accentuated the atmosphere the film conjures. Young Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), swimming in a lake near film’s end, stares off toward the inwardly-zooming camera at something as the wind ripples the water ominously past her.
Again, though, it’s the juxtaposition of imagery that really makes the image pop. The next cut is one of the film’s most unsettling, but its impact would have been lessened without the voyeuristic patience of this particular shot.
“THE TREE OF LIFE”
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
“We were trying to get all these different feelings and emotions out of not only Sean [Penn], but the architecture and the spaces. Five years later the shot was in that scene and became a little more than what we really shot it for, or what I at the moment thought we were shooting it for. That’s the great thing about working with Terry. Sometimes a shot you think is going to make the cut because it’s wonderful or very expressive or beautiful or scary doesn’t make it, and that one we shot that day with probably 300 more that had to do with the same scene, that one makes the cut, and the way it’s put together in the movie becomes so strong.”
My pick for the best cinematography of the year was Emmanuel Lubezki’s lush lensing of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Great photography on a Malick film is something we’ve come to expect, but it was particularly compelling this time around for its use in an urban environment, something we’ve never really seen out of the director.
And the image that I found captivating, both in regard to that and to one of the film’s many themes: the convergence of man and nature, was this shot of a cloud-filled sky bleeding into the glass facade of a reflective tower. They had a few cracks at it, as there are two other shots in the film’s first act that are quite similar, but this one — the next-to-last image of the film — was the most beautiful and perfect representation.
Like the actors of a Malick film, the work of a cinematographer could be bent and manipulated to the director’s will, as Lubezki explains in the quote above. There were many great images in the film, but this one seemed to land at just the right time.
Director of Photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
“The scorpion was a visual representation of the scorpion and the frog fable. Yet there’s obviously this emotional side to Driver that makes him not only fall in love, but be willing to make a sacrifice. Making that sacrifice is sort of done by making the scorpion side come out. And the scene in the elevator is a turning point: There’s no going back. There’s no, ‘That’s not really me.’ She sees a side that had to come out in order to protect her, and she can’t embrace it. He knows she’ll never embrace it, and their relationship will stay one of sacrifice. Framing the scorpion without his head, it shows you that it will be the controller of his destiny.”
–Newton Thomas Sigel
Newton Thomas Sigel is one of my favorite working cinematographers, so getting a chance to speak with him for this piece was a real pleasure. But to be able to discuss the imagery of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” made it all the more compelling and stimulating.
The film is exquisitely shot, countless images sticking out as instantly iconic. And the closing frame following the film’s intense centerpiece elevator scene was one of the first shots I saw this year that I knew would survive until this column. It’s a simple image, the signature scorpion design on the back of Driver’s (Ryan Gosling) jacket framed in rusted shadow. But it stood out for reasons I couldn’t properly explain.
Sigel’s compelling consideration above does a nice job of it, though. With that in mind, in many ways, the image therefore becomes the crux of the entire visual enterprise, the fulcrum about which its thematic structure ultimately pivots.
Director of Photography: Sean Bobbitt
“We always talked about the weighting of the frame and how you can place things within so you avoid the center-weighting of composition until that moment that it really counts. So for a lot of the film, it’s consciously framed off-center. The way the light falls across the body and across the folds of the sheets, it felt right to leave the space. But also by putting his head so close to the edge, it does make it just slightly disconcerting, just a little uncomfortable. And his eyes are so compelling, you’re sort of drawn up into the top of the frame. If he was put dead center, I don’t think it would strike you.”
Steve McQueen’s “Shame” brings the first returning DP to this year’s installment of the column: Sean Bobbitt. He previously popped up rather high on 2008′s list for his work on McQueen’s “Hunger.” Both that film and their latest collaboration, “Shame,” feature actor Michael Fassbender. And, interestingly enough, both shots featured Fassbender on a bed.
The context of that fact is much different this time around, however. The previous image was all about a starving Bobby Sands, his soul desperate to escape his self-inflicted torment. Here, it’s about a no-less tormented Brandon Sullivan, his soul suppressed behind icy blue eyes as he wills himself to get out of bed.
It’s the film’s opening image, and it sets the emotional tone, the overriding theme and the lead character’s disposition all at once. It uses Fassbender’s physicality to accent his shame laid bare, his inner monologue loud and clear, and it also signals the patient photography you’ll see throughout the film, already a hallmark of McQueen/Bobbit cinema.
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In Contention, Academy Awards, Melancholia, Lars Von Trier, Manuel Alberto Claro, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin, Jody Lee Lipes, The Tree Of Life, Emmanuel Lubezki, Drive, Newton Thomas Sigel, Nicolas Winding Refn, Shame, Steve McQueen, Sean Bobbitt, Terrence Malick