So many movies, so many images. What were my favorite shots from movies this past year? Here are my top 10 choices. (And you’ve been warned as there are spoilers!)
1.) THE GHOST WRITER
There are very few end shots in film that are the most brilliant; even fewer that are the most chilling. Yet leave it to the dark mind of Roman Polanski to save his best shot for last in this unsettling thriller. It’s the single image that gave me the biggest thrill of any from a movie this past year.
The lead character in this film is a helpless sap, a hack ghostwriter (Ewan MacGregor) who doesn’t even get a name in the film except for “Ghost.” His name also foreshadows his end, of course. In the last moments of the clever film, he’s finally figured out the murder mystery and put all of the pieces together. The answer is in the manuscript of the book he’s just finished penning. But what does he get for his troubles? He becomes one more piece in the morbid puzzle he just solved. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never be able to put the pages back together again.
2.) BLACK SWAN
Picking just one shot from this magnificent high-end horror tale was difficult. The entire film is filled with them – from all the mirror shots to the visual transformation of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) into a literal black swan during “Swan Lake.” (That vivid metamorphosis is director Darren Aronfsky’s greatest directorial flourish ever.) But the end shot with Nina leaping backwards and falling to her death in character was as chilling and memorable as anything in this amazing head-trip of a movie. The cinematography echoed the end of “The Red Shoes” and Lee Remick’s fall off the balcony in “The Omen” as the camera follows Nina falling backwards in hyper slow motion. And in that final study of Nina’s face we see pride as well as the sad resignation that her greatest performance is also going to be her last.
3.) THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
Technically a movie that opened last year, it didn’t play in Chicago until 2010. It’s a thriller heavy with melodrama, romantic yearning and brilliant images. It’s been a long, long time since close-ups of faces telegraphed so much, but in this Argentina film that won the best foreign film Oscar, the eyes have it. And they speak volumes, perhaps nowhere more so than in the scene where Benjamin and Irene encounter the rapist/murderer Gomez on the elevator. They had helped bring him to justice only a few short months ago, only to find out that a sleazy bureaucrat has released him to do the murderous biddings of the corrupt government. When they encounter him on the elevator, and he smugly checks his state-issued revolver right in front of their very eyes, their faces register the dread of what might be coming their way. They are frozen with terror. And so is the audience.
4.) TOY STORY 3
Often times the greatest kids cartoons appeal to adults just as much. That’s certainly true of any of Pixar’s work. But I don’t know how many children appreciated the symbolism of Woody, Buzz and their gang holding hands in resignation to their fate as they inch closer and closer to the fires of the incinerator. This shot from the year’s best animated film couldn’t help but remind knowing adults of similar images of the Holocaust. It was an audacious and dramatic image for any movie, let alone a “Disney film.”
Movies like Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster illustrate the never-ending wonders that can be created through special effects. This mind-bending adventure was chock full of unbelievable shot after unbelievable shot rendered absolutely believable by state-of-the art CGI work. For my 9 dollars, the most astounding visual in the movie, other than a radiant Marion Cotillard, was this one where Ellen Page’s imagination made a Parisian street roll over onto itself right before her eyes.
6.) TRUE GRIT
Despite being ostensibly a comedy, the latest from the unparalleled Coen Brothers is dark and often brutal. The central character of Mattie Ross achieves her goal out west by the end of the film, yet at quite a price. I won’t elaborate for those who haven’t seen it yet, but this image, beautifully captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins, will haunt me for some time.
7.) THE SOCIAL NETWORK
In the year’s best movie, the vivid characters that Aaron Sorkin wrote use words as weapons, none more brutally than the anti-social Mark (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who takes down his former girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) by slurring her in words and pictures on his Harvard blog. Director David Fincher shows no more than a fleeting reaction shot of her to convey her discovery of what’s he done, but it is devastating. Connecting socially has never been so isolating.
8.) THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Another haunting image of a hurt woman, but this time that of a child. In the wildly popular Swedish crime thriller, there were many images I wish weren’t stuck in my head - the vicious rape of Lisbeth Salander by her parole officer, or her protracted revenge against him. But the sight that sticks with me the most is the one of the young Lisbeth Salander lighting her abusive stepfather on fire, and thus igniting a lifetime of rage that can never be extinguished.
9.) I AM LOVE
The awakening of passion in lonely Italian housewife Emma (played by the sublime Tilda Swinton) starts with an exquisite meal prepared by Edoardo, the young chef she will soon have a torrid affair with. She has lived a repressed and dutiful existence her entire married life, but when Emma meets the handsome foodie he opens up her palate and her heart. Can a prawn be foreplay? Yes, it can, if as exquisitely prepared and presented as this.
10.) THE TOWN
10.) THE TOWN
I’ve seen many heist movies, with plenty of masked robbers, but this shot of a disguised thief gazing at a child en route to the bank robbery is chilling. Director Ben Affleck mixes Catholic guilt, violence and wit to great effect in his enthralling Boston thriller.