Last year, I looked at five shots from some of the key films of 2017. It was a reminder that movies are about images more than ideas—or rather that images can contain and convey ideas more articulately than even the sharpest screenplay. For 2018, I got to double down on this project with 10 selections that not only sum up the crucial movies around them but that also show the amazing range of image-making in cinema today, from Hollywood franchise tentpoles to international art-house outliers.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
For many, the first vignette of Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—starring Tim Blake Nelson as a white-hatted, black-hearted gunslinger who amasses an impressive body count before getting his brains blown out by a swifter, younger usurper—was merely the latest exhibit in the case for the brothers’ gleeful misanthropy. Typically cleverer than their critics, the Coens have Buster display his own Wanted, Dead Or Alive alias (it’s, um, “The Misanthrope”—sorry, haters) and let their images do the talking from there. The boys may be mean, but that doesn’t keep them from accessing the sublime more easily than any number of nice-guy auteurs in their rearview mirrors. This astonishing composition encapsulates life, death, and the possibility of something beyond, using the horizon line itself as a divider between states of being and nothingness. Meanwhile, the song on the soundtrack puts words around the evocative melancholy of the image—“when a cowboy trades his spurs for wings.”
No film played with point of view as skilfully as Lee Chang-Dong’s terrific thriller, which is seen almost exclusively from the visual and emotional perspective of the sexually and existentially frustrated Jong-Su (Yoo Ah-in). Everything that happens in Burning is for his eyes only, including the sunset striptease by his friend-with-benefits Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), framed by Lee as an expression of Jong-Su’s longing and confusion for his obscure object of desire. Over the course of a patient, jazz-scored tracking shot, Hae-mi is transformed from a flesh-and-blood figure—a dopily stoned young woman in a pink sweatshirt—to a mythic silhouette whose curves are visually indivisible from the rural landscape. As a result, her dance seems to rise up out of the earth itself, flaunting not only her body but an entire, tactile realm that fills Jong-Su’s line of vision while remaining out of reach. The teasing presence of a South Korean flag whipping in the wind, meanwhile, suggests what the protagonist’s covetous gaze signifies on a larger social level, neatly enfolding questions of class and cultural identity into what could be taken as an objectifying digression in an otherwise tightly plotted potboiler.
Paul Schrader’s critically lauded drama is all about dichotomies: heaven and hell; the sacred and the profane; private piety and public prayer; all culminating in the intersection of biblical and secular apocalypses. At one point, Ethan Hawke’s tortured Reverend Toller talks about the importance of sustaining two conflicting thoughts at the same time, but a shot of the good pastor pouring Pepto-Bismol in his whiskey illustrates that some things don’t mix.
The line between self-medication and self-abuse is as blurred and nauseating as the mix of liquids in his glass, which also resembles the industrial pollution that’s causing the end of the world as we know it. The shot alludes broadly to film history, from the famous “universe in a cup of coffee” insert in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her to the ominous Alka-Seltzer tablets in the Schrader-scripted Taxi Driver, but it has its own grim, pulpy poetry. It sticks in the mind until the film’s climax, when Toller considers downing something even stronger and is stopped before he literally and symbolically cleanses himself to death—a moment of clarity amid the swirling metaphysical murk of the year’s most sobering drama.
If Beale Street Could Talk
In Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight, Barry Jenkins established himself as one of contemporary cinema’s greatest practitioners of screen-filling close-ups. If Beale Street Could Talk puts him over the top. I could have chosen any one of the shots when stars KiKi Layne and Stephan James gaze hypnotized into each others’ eyes—or toward the screen, bringing us into their shared sense of romantic ecstasy—but the image I can’t let go of is one where a character is forced to look at (and into) herself. Alone in Puerto Rico in a desperate attempt to help clear her would-be-son-in-law’s name, Regina King’s Sharon prepares for a meeting that requires a bit of subterfuge. We see her carefully putting on a wig that alters her appearance, before silently deciding whether to dispense with the disguise. The subtle gradations of thought, from agonizing deliberation to instant impulse, that flash across King’s face are why she’s the odds-on favorite for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The intimate composition and beautifully modulated lighting—at once realistically drab and as multifaceted in its illumination as a Turner painting—shows a director generous enough to hand things over to his star without ever quite effacing his authorship.
You could say that the occupation of Toni Collette’s Annie Graham in Hereditary—acclaimed installation artist specializing in realistic dollhouses—is a bit too on the nose given the film’s subtexts of villainous intimacy and domestic manipulation. You could say that writer-director Ari Aster leans a bit too heavily on these miniaturized simulations to punctuate the film’s forward propulsion. You could say all this, or you could simply look at the shot above and feel the shiver run down your spine. Art imitates (after)life: Even though that’s not really Annie’s late mother—only a scale model lurking outside an ersatz bedroom—the sensation of something watching from the shadows, on the verge of passing from one realm to another, is fully authentic and deeply creepy. When kids think they see a monster outside their bedroom door, they go get Mom. Here, Mom is the monster in the dark.
Let the Sunshine In
Claire Denis is one of the world’s great filmmakers, creating at least one indelible image per film, seemingly as effortlessly as you or I get out of bed in the morning. In the devastatingly funny romantic comedy Let the Sunshine In, the protagonist is an artist whose work is long established as part of Paris’s high-end gallery scene. The problem is that she’s painted herself into a corner in her personal life. In this subtly brilliant shot, Denis aligns the character’s canvas with her own. As Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) spatters a white backdrop with black paint—filling in the void—her own movement across the screen becomes a form of embodied abstract expressionism. Is Isabelle the creator of this image or its subject? Or both? Through the simplest of means—a fixed overhead shot in a modest studio space—Denis transforms the movie screen into a space for appreciation, contemplation, and projection. It’s a shot suitable for framing.
Mission: Impossible — Fallout
“You will believe a man can fly,” blared the ads for 1978’s Superman, promising audiences state-of-the-art illusion. Forty years later, Tom Cruise fulfilled the prophecy without wires or green screen (and while sharing screen space with the most recent Man of Steel to boot). The real-time, real-stakes, look-ma-no-CGI mania of Mission: Impossible — Fallout’s signature sequence—the Halo jump undertaken simultaneously by Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Henry Cavill’s August Walker—has been publicized and documented to the point of parody. There’s something off-puttingly monomaniacal about a movie star trying to preserve his youth (and mojo) by literally defying death (supposedly they did 106 takes, which I like to think is Cruise’s fuck-you to Stanley Kubrick). And yet it’s impossible to deny the weightless thrill of this single-take scene, which is not just about Cruise’s courage (or recklessness), but the bravery, patience, ingenuity, and indulgence of the crew, particularly ace skydiving cameraman Craig O’Brien, who strapped a 20-pound rig to his head at 25,000 feet. If not a special Oscar, he deserves an honorary IMF license at least (if he should choose to accept it).
Ready Player One
I’m of the opinion that Steven Spielberg has lost his fastball a bit in the past year. Both The Post and Ready Player One struck me as subpar, although the guy is such a naturally brilliant filmmaker that both had their moments of mastery. I remain amazed, for instance, by the way the director visualizes the lurking spiritual crisis of Ready Player One’s Extremely Online protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) by placing the face of his nemesis Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) in the middle of his VR visor during their first digitally mediated confrontation. It suggests that the idealistic young Wade (whose avatar is named Parzival for extra mythic resonance) could just as easily align his perspective with the rapacious technocrat who’s trying to undermine his quest. In a near-future where adopting a new persona is disconcertingly easy (and consequence-free), the line between hero and villain (or innocence and experience) is pixel-thin. But you don’t need the context of dystopia to worry that you’re going to become the thing you hate. Nobody does the drama of fathers (real or surrogate) and sons like the director of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Catch Me If You Can. The eloquent anxiety of this image cuts through the sound and fury of the movie around it like a scalpel. Even when he fails at spectacle, Spielberg is able to locate the universal in the specific.
I feel like I have to start out by saying that I’m not sure how I feel about Alfonso Cuarón’s odds-on Oscar favorite. For now, I’ll defer to The Ringer’s pro-Roma contingent and think a bit more about what it is that bothered me about such an obviously brilliantly made movie. There’s an astonishing image-making intellect at work in the film’s opening shot, in which cascades of soapy water transform a solid, forbidding surface—a tiled garage floor—into an ephemeral, shimmering mirror. The watery reflection of the skylight opens up like a portal to another world; the airplane criss-crossing the frame materializes miraculously in real time. Roma’s cold open is not simply a feat of staging and lighting, it’s a gorgeous, complex emblem of escape in a film about a character whose servitude is simultaneously a source of seclusion and salvation. That airplane indicates a way out, even as it’s clearly a mirage—real and unreal in the same instant. It’s one thing to conjure up such a shot and another to make it mean something beyond its own impressiveness. Cuarón, whose assurance here is total, is a conscientious magician, gesturing back to his amazing curtain-raising trick at the film’s conclusion and giving his epic a poetic sense of balance and closure. Remind me again why I’m not a fan?
Lucrecia Martel’s hazy, hilarious horror movie—not horror in the things-that-go-bump sense of Hereditary, but the terror of being stuck in a job that you can’t get out of—is designed to humiliate its antihero at every turn. Overheated, underappreciated, and perpetually horny, Spanish monarchist middle manager Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) would like nothing more than a transfer out of his backwater Patagonian post, but his superiors are content to let him stew in his own juices. A figure of respect who can’t get any, Zama’s lack of gravitas isn’t all his fault. How seriously can we take a guy who gets upstaged by a llama? Conversely: How can we not afford to take seriously a filmmaker who understands exactly how funny it is—fucking hilarious, if you ask me—to design an entire sequence around a cameo by a llama (rhymes with Zama) that generates and usurps sympathy from his human costar? Martel was recently in the news for supposedly rejecting the overtures of Marvel Studios (now there’s a meeting I would pay for a transcript of), and is probably better known to American audiences for her comments about superhero movies hurting her ears than her string of visionary masterpieces dating back to 2001’s La Ciénaga. Hopefully Zama’s great reviews (including the no. 1 spot on Film Comment’s roll call of the year’s best films) will change that significantly.