From Elle to The Lobster to The Neon Demon, 2016 boasted some incredible moments of cinematography.
After the premiere of Fences, Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's seminal play, a conversation regarding the film's "stagey" direction arose on Twitter. Critics debated the role of cinematic language—of what, exactly, a director is supposed to be doing behind the camera, and what makes a movie a "movie" rather than filmed theater. This is a conversation worth having, one that often falls to the sidelines in favor of thematic analysis (i.e. the politics of Star Wars, or "What Manchester By the Sea Gets Wrong About Seas"). But while plot and character will always dominate conversations, film is still a visual medium; the director should be able to use the camera to tell a story, illustrate themes, and say things that words cannot.
That's not to say visual excess equals great direction. La La Land, an empty nostalgia-steeped trek through Golden Age Hollywood and Jacques Demy-inspired variegation, certainly looks pretty, but its images, competently framed and lit, have nothing going on under the surface. Similarly, Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals is a meta-mess of alluring images (the hand of a trashy Texan troublemaker drumming on the roof of a car stands out) that are forced together nonsensically, suggesting cinematic illiteracy.
A great shot can be visually pleasing its own, but it is not sublime without context. Such is the nature of a film: a sequence of shots that inform and influence each other and alter our understanding from one moment to the next.
1. Kaili Blues — The 41-minute long take
The most audacious feature film debut of the year, Kaili Blues is an eccentric and elusive tale of time-travel and Proustian intermittence in China—but you may need to read a plot synopsis to get that. Plot and story seem almost superfluous for 26-year-old filmmaker Bi Gan, who's more interesting in exploring the notion of memory as a tangible entity. The film begins with a medley of images that are vivid, drowsy, and only tentatively related, like a playful mosaic of pillow shots whose purpose is difficult to discern. Bi and his prodigiously talented neophyte DP Tianxing Wang use assiduous compositions and astute camera movements to turn the grayscale villages of China's Guizhou region into oneiric realms where time is nebulous and the living and dead coexist.
A 41-minute long take in which all of the narrative fragments coalesce, like a shattered teacup repairing itself.
The aesthetic culmination of Bi's film is a 41-minute long take in which all of the narrative fragments coalesce, like a shattered teacup repairing itself. It begins as a static glance of a motorbike cabbie named Weiwei, for whom we've been searching throughout the film. Weiwei is trying to attract potential passengers, but his bike is a barely functional clunker, mocked by the more privileged cabbies. Eventually, his uncle Chen, whom Weiwei does not recognize, hops on the bike, and, after many revs and a lot of sputtering, they're off. While they traverse the winding mountainside roads, the camera is passed between three operators (some on bikes, some on foot) and the focus of its gaze shifts, veers off, and latches onto other characters, traipsing through a derelict town, crossing a rickety bridge, and hopping in a boat to circle back across the river. It makes a detour to the barber (also the dead wife of Chen) and finally reunites with abandoned or deceased characters before finally ending up with a band playing listless music to a small crowd.
With its fluid lapses of logic and airy aesthetic, Kaili Blues conjures corporeal worlds out of fleeting memories. This village is its nexus. The denizens of this sleepy town—barbers, tailors, musicians, townsfolk, dead wives—eddy in and out of focus like recurring dreams. When asked how the shot came to be, Bi said he just kept filming: "The cinematographer kept the camera on." Simple enough. The coordination of the shot displays great technical skill, but it is also intimate; there's nothing garish or back-patting about it. Whereas long takes are often bravado show-stoppers whose length and complexity purportedly justify their existence, Bi uses the leisurely, wavering shot to immerse us in a place without time. It acts as a travelogue of involuntary memories.
2. Knight of Cups — The underwater dog
In Terrence Malick's existential anti-adventure Knight of Cups, Christian Bale plays a writer who never writes—he drives, he drinks, he parties, he tends to his sickly father and his recovering brother, he goes through a roulette of disposable women who can't satisfy him in their presence but haunt him in their absence, and he whispers plaintive musings into the void. Though the film's lack of traditional narrative left many cold, it is undoubtedly gorgeous, featuring one of the year's most beautiful images: a dog fetching a tennis ball. Emmanuel Lubezki, that rare cinematographer whose name is a brand, places the camera in a pristine pool, where it lingers with no context provided. Then, abruptly, a dog plummets into the water, struggling to snatch a tennis ball that drifts just out of reach. The image is immediately comical—it's a dog, jocular and adorable, failing at a task as mundane as fetching a ball—but it also extrapolates the deeper themes of the film.
Many criticized Knight of Cups for its unsympathetic main character, a rich writer whose problems are comparatively meager. But in a world of supermodels and movie moguls, a dog still struggles to get a ball. Who can't relate to this dog?
3. Certain Women — Looking out from the barn
Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women opens with a long shot of a train trundling across a chilly landscape, transecting the screen from top-right to bottom-left. We never see a train again; cars are the preferred means transport (also, a horse).
Transportation—leaving one place for another, not knowing whether you'll ever return—is a quietly integral theme of the film. In the final section of the subdued triptych, a reluctant teacher (Kristen Stewart) attracts the attention of a farm girl (Lily Gladstone, an unknown actress who is hands-down the year's best discovery). They go to a local diner together, where Stewart eats half of each of her meals in a hurry and Gladstone looks at her with quiet longing. Reichardt favors simple static shots and shot-reverse-shot patterns: Stewart wiping her mouth with an unwrapped napkin, Gladstone watching pensively.
The shot that encapsulates this section—and the film—is a snowy landscape strewn across the horizon, a perfectly straight yellow metal bar transecting the screen and a second, curved bar hanging below that one. The bars recall those train tracks, and also suggest an inalterable inevitability. Shot in 16mm, the image has a quality that brings to mind a Monet or L. A. Ring painting, a wooden barn standing resiliently against the snow and a young woman tending to her farm with no human companions. You can interpret the shot, with its near-parallel bars, as a deeply-layered metaphor, or you can just bask in the serene beauty of it. There are no right or wrong answers in Certain Women, just hope—and, for some, disappointment.
4. The Lobster — Eternally waiting
Yorgos Lanthimos' mordant, droll film isn't a romance, but rather a work of cruel romanticism. (Those who called it a great date movie should be approached with caution.) It depicts a familiar society in which love adheres to schematics instead of emotions, being single is illegal, and the lonely hearts of the world embark on a retreat to find (or, more likely, feign) true love, or else get transmogrified into an animal of their choosing. A deadpan-tragic Colin Farrell exudes lonelines; he's portly and plain, with a flop of dark hair and a paunch. He rarely speaks without pausing to contemplate the most benign response to a question or a way to escape a conversation. Rachel Weiss plays his love interest, a woman who lives with a coterie of the excommunicated in the woods. Even here, among those who are purportedly free from the shackles of the authoritarian dating world, there are unmitigated rules: no one in the woods can fall in love. So when Farrell and Weiss do just that, Weiss is blinded as punishment.
For most of the film, Lanthimos frames his shots with clinical and detached precision, reflecting the manipulative, duplicitous nature of modern dating. In the final scene, Farrell and Weiss sit in a diner, where Farrell promises to go into the bathroom and blind himself with a steak knife so they can be together. We see him glare into the mirror with reluctance; the final shot, a simple two-minute take of Weiss sitting alone as vehicles and couples pass by the window behind her, recalls Antonioni. We peruse the frame, waiting for Farrell to return, watching the background to see if, maybe, he'll try to sneak away, or if he'll actually shove that steak knife into his eyes. The film ends with no resolution—just Weiss waiting patiently, in solitude. The ambiguity of the shot has poignancy because it feels like everything we've seen in the film, particularly the last hour, has been building to this, to Farrell having to finally make a decision. It's not only a test of love for him, but a comment on how we perceive shared flaws to be romantic catalysts and how we always have to sell a manipulated idea of ourselves to those we claim to love.
5. Allied — The hand in the mirror
Robert Zemeckis, one of America's most formally-assured mainstream filmmakers, taps 1940s-era Hitchcock with this tale of romantic espionage. Allied's visual bravado belies its middlebrow story. When Canadian military intelligence officer Brad Pitt is told his wife (Marion Cotillard), a former French resistance fighter, may actually be a Nazi spy, everything he thinks he knows about his life is flipped. Zemeckis, a classicist, literalizes this paranoia with repeated shots of mirrors, of Cotillard reversed. (If it's not exactly clever, it's certainly handled with dexterity.) Zemeckis has done dazzling mirror shots before: in Contact, he blended three different shots of a young Jena Malone ascending a staircase into a hypnotic composite that makes it appear as if the camera has passed through a mirror. It's pure showmanship, and it's stunning.
A CGI spectacle pales in comparison to this simple but enthralling scene of a hand in a mirror.
In Allied, Pitt has put a false set of confidential instructions on his night stand to see if Cotillard will report them to her purported Nazi commander. Pitt stands in the bathroom, peering at the note in the mirror, when Cotillard's hand reaches out, hovering above the note like a plane ready to drop a bomb. After an eternal moment, she instead reaches up and tugs the lamp cord. Aside from the sheer logistics of lighting two rooms to keep the foreground and mirrored background both in focus, and the beauty of the composition, and the pacing and rhythm of the scene in general, the shot reflects (sorry) the internal conflict of Pitt's character, who loves his wife and doesn't want to believe that she could be a spy. Later, a CGI plane crashes into a house, and the spectacle pales in comparison to this simple but enthralling scene of a hand in a mirror. The film's anomalous moral relativism reflects a long-standing Hollywood trend of creating entertainment free of political obligation, but Pitt has no such freedom. He can't remain apolitical, and every moment he watches his wife is another moment he loses her.
6. The Neon Demon — Murder next door
The Neon Demon is a shiny phantasmagoria about the fashion world, so it only follows that its primary concern is beauty. It's a film of sensual surface-level pleasures in a world inhabited by gangly and grotesque models, and it brings to mind a great line from the decidedly not-great Deep Blue Sea: "Beneath this glassy surface, a world of gliding monsters." Yet the film's real star never appears onscreen. That would be Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose initials adorn the title screen like a brand of high-end cologne. NWR reigns supreme, his presence unseen but ubiquitous. His characters are husks, his sets lush, his vision the God that decrees what is and is not morally acceptable. We follow Elle Fanning's character, an aspiring model who has some sort of ineffable talent that everyone can sense but never describe. Soon, the models whose gigs she begins to nab conspire against her, and the whole film goes Profondo Rosso.
In a scene of disturbing voyeurism—one that sets in motion the film's violent final act— Fanning is awakened by a volley of agitated fists beating at her door. She stares, unmoving, and soon the unseen visitor moves from her door to the neighbor's, and the camera pans, slowly, across a room-length mirror. Fanning's relief gives way to horror as the camera follows the sounds of the visitor storming into the neighbor's room. We hear a woman struggling, screaming in pain. NWR controls the pacing and the focus, leaving Fanning to catch up with him. She presses her head to the wall. Cut to what David Bordwell calls a planimetric shot, meaning the camera is perpendicular to the wall. Her head and hand are shrouded in silhouette as the camera zooms out impossibly far, harkening back to a similar optical illusion in Michael Mann's The Keep. She shrinks into the inky blackness.
The Neon Demon is a calculated, geometric film told with shapes and lines instead of humanity or warmth. NWR seems to set his shots with a ruler, measuring every inch, placing every stroboscopic light with precision. It's exact and exacting, and this two-shot sequence encapsulates his approach.
7. Elle — Female victory among the dead
"Life has no genre," Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven is fond of saying. Elle, his first film in a decade, appropriately mismatches genres, marrying a burlesque of bourgeois manners to a rape-revenge thriller. Like a couple taking turns speaking but not really listening, each scene feels like a different genre without ever really becoming one uniform style. This is the film's brilliance.
Isabelle Huppert plays Michele, a former literary editor who, with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), starts a video game company that deals in grotesque, sexually violent fantasy games. In the film's opening moments, shot from the point of view of a voyeuristic cat, Michele is raped by a man in a ski mask. Michele confides in Anna, but to complicate matters, she's also having an affair with Anna's husband, a bald, boorish man with a petty jealous streak. In the end, after the rapist has been vanquished and the various oafish men of their lives have been put in their places, Michele and Anna saunter through a cemetery, an assemblage of the dead, with Michele offering to let Anna move in with her. It's by no means a formally tricky shot— and not even a particularly stylish one—but it lays the film's killing blow. These two women (placed center-frame) have survived the torments of all the mediocre men in their lives, and this parting image, of two friends embracing and forgiving as they leave behind a necropolis of men, suggests a sort of victory for them. Any concerns about the film's gender politics are allayed with this portrait of female companionship triumphing over unavailing masculinity.