Tuesday, January 18, 2011


 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!)

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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.
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.


  1. Your top ten favorite images are hard to beat, particularly the first one on your list from THE GHOST WRITER. It was the ending you never saw coming. And by showing nothing, you saw everything.

    Here are three more images from the movies of 2010, which I will have to describe. If you have seen these films, you will remember. If you have not, beware of the spoilers below.

    In the dead of night, lit only by the blue moon, Ree Dolly (Best Actress Nominee Jennifer Lawrence) comes into view in a small canoe with two others. She is now forced to collect the evidence. Reaching beneath the black surface of the lake, she tugs, hard, to position a snagged corpse resting just below. Grimacing, she proceeds to grab one of her father’s cold, dead hands, and then the other, jaggedly severing both. It’s all done below the waterline. Yet you see the horror of the crude dismemberment all over her face.

    2.) LET ME IN
    Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is once again terrorized and held by the hair underwater in the pool during gym class by the four bullies who have been tormenting him for some time. Before he drowns, Abby (Chloë Moretz) arrives as promised, and unseen by the viewer (and Owen), dismembers the bullies. As evidenced by falling limbs and heads passing by under the water, as the scene is shot from an underwater perspective. Owen is finally pulled from the water by the still unseen Abby. Stunned, he gasps for breath as he lays on the pool deck in extreme close-up, his porcelain, perfectly-untouched young face surrounded only by her blood-soaked hand and foot.

    3.) BURIED
    The very best shot is the very last. The leaking sand is now quickly filling the coffin buried in the Iraq desert that American truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) hopes will not be his. He hears the rescuers over the cell phone digging, calling his name, telling him to hang on. Surely he can’t die. He’s one of the good ones. We are right there in Conroy’s head with him thinking, “just hang on a few seconds more and you’ll make it”. The sand level closes in, and he is completely immobilized by it. Leaving less than an inch to breathe. We see just his nose and mouth. We see the sand rising as we hear over the phone that the rescuers discover they were led to a different coffin instead. We, and Paul Conroy are frozen by the shock of the words, “I'm sorry Paul. I'm so sorry." The screen goes black.

  2. Hey, Fan With No Name, those were indeed some amazing shots from films last year. And your excellent descriptions of them really brought them to life without the aid of pictures. (Not sure if you could even add images to the comment sections here.) Thanks for sharing your choices with us here.

    You actually made me remember some other shots that didn't quite make my top ten list. The BURIED scene was one of them. Another was that wonderful image from Clint Eastwood's HEREAFTER where Cecile De France tries to run out the tsunami barreling down on her in the shopper's market. Probably responsible for that film's Oscar nomination for special effects.