clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Best Shots of 2023

From ‘Barbie’ to ‘Oppenheimer’ to ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ this year featured shots of clarity, beauty, and complexity

Ringer illustration

Last year, I didn’t see Avatar: The Way of Water in time for my annual, annotated list of the year’s most memorable frames; this year, the only big-ticket item remaining on my list is Aquaman part deux. Let’s just say I’m less worried this time that I missed something major—though I’m sure I’ve left plenty of worthy contenders out and maybe crammed some questionable shots in. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder; on top of that, beauty isn’t necessarily the point of this exercise. It’s more about identifying those cinematic images that either jumped off the screen or burned themselves into our memories so deeply that they remained visible over everything that followed.

Barbie

Warner Bros.

Welcome to the dollhouse: Everything that’s funny, feminine, and expressly fetishistic about Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is distilled into this early image, which plays up the fairy-tale perfection of the main character’s morning regimen while playfully inscribing its artificiality. It anticipates the plot point in which Margot Robbie’s plastic-fantastic heroine will have to choose her shoes and how she wants to fill them. In a movie filled with euphoric dance sequences, this sweetly miniaturized bit of existential ballet, captured in a single take by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who showed his range in 2023 by also handling the camera for Killers of the Flower Moon), goes beyond being merely memorable. It’s also an image of balance—a necessity in a movie that lurches between subversion and sentimentality in search of equilibrium. Barbie doesn’t always work, but a shot like this goes a long way toward justifying the effort: As both semiotics and satire, it’s wonderfully en pointe.

Beau Is Afraid

A24

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Ari Aster’s go-for-broke picaresque until the final tableaux, at which point I decided that, whatever its faults, Beau Is Afraid was a work of considerable conviction. Not to mention self-awareness: It takes guts to end a three-hour orgy of bad taste and worse vibes with a scene that looks uncannily like a movie theater emptying out beneath a projector beam while the credits roll in silence—at which point the actual credits begin to appear over top of it. For several agonizing minutes, Aster turns the screen into a mirror, effectively staring down any stragglers who might be wondering if there will be anything else—a final twist, a sudden cut, a figure emerging from underneath that lonely, overturned motorboat. Not that Beau is necessarily a movie that leaves you wanting more, but by making it so abundantly clear that this is all we’ll get, Aster holds the line. Call it bleak, call it trolling, call it what you will: It’s the shot from 2023 I’ve thought about the most, and not in a happy way.

John Wick: Chapter 4

Lionsgate Films

On the one hand, single-take, multicharacter, CGI-assisted fight scenes have become a genre cliché—a checklist item for action-movie directors chasing the kinetic intensity of Park Chan-wook or Alfonso Cuarón. On the other hand, we’re not made of stone over here, and the extended set piece in John Wick: Chapter 4 that finds Keanu Reeves blasting his way through a massive, dilapidated apartment complex—inspired by a video game and executed through the vertiginous choreography of an NBA-style Spidercam—is absolutely wonderful stuff, blocked and executed with slapstick aplomb by teams on both sides of the lens. The pace is exhausting, but the bird’s-eye view is exhilarating—the kind of out-of-body high that we always want from the movies but so rarely get. Kudos to Mr. Wick for going out on a high note—or raising the bar for any future comebacks.

The Killer

Netflix

A throwaway moment in a movie of fanatical focus, and the umpteenth example over the past 30 years of David Fincher’s sick-fuck sense of humor, as well as the furiously pressurized feelings that churn beneath his frictionless surfaces. On one level, this offhand glimpse of a boy training a toy gun on his unsuspecting mother is just a sight gag. Or does it suggest some kind of broad statement about the culture of ambient, hardwired violence that produces mercenary murderers like Michael Fassbender’s nameless, heartless assassin? Another option: It perfectly foreshadows a later sequence featuring Tilda Swinton as a quasi-maternal figure who ends up on the wrong end of her colleague’s barrel—the closest the movie gets to an emotional reckoning. The finer point, though, is that like most of the setups in The Killer, it’s a point-of-view shot, a fact that effectively personalizes its meaning without clarifying it. Fincher’s intention here is to put us behind this unfeeling assassin’s eyeballs, begging us to ask whether Fassbender’s character is distracted, contemplative, or simply checking his blind spot out of habit. The media clichés about Fincher’s taskmaster tactics are getting old; the images he conjures up out of his methodology are enduring. There’s a difference.


Killers of the Flower Moon

Paramount Pictures

Martin Scorsese uses slow motion as rapturously as any director in history. In the prologue of Killers of the Flower Moon, he turns it on for an extraordinary, iconographically loaded sight of Osage natives dancing beneath an oil geyser. Instead of asking us to choose between lyricism and horror, Scorsese simply interlaces the two, leaving us suspended in a beautiful no-man’s-land where our knowledge of what the oil strike will ultimately mean for the Osage recasts all that torrential, dripping rebirth imagery in a morbid light. It’s a sequence other filmmakers would surely drag out to underline its power, but Scorsese uses it swiftly: Nothing here is obviously belabored or overworked. Instead, it’s assured, which makes the film’s evocations of representational inadequacy or doubt that much more moving. The main reason that Killers climactic Brechtian gesture works is because there’s that much craft to strip away.

Knock at the Cabin

Universal Pictures

What’s obviously striking about this early shot from Knock at the Cabin is the terrifying disparity in size and strength between the hands of Leonard (Dave Bautista) and Wen (Kristen Cui)—the feeling that he could snap her wrist like a twig if he wanted to. Which he doesn’t: If anything, their first meeting plays out as an encounter between gentle, kindred spirits. (Who knew the ex-WWE champ would prove so skillful at evoking the child within?) Still, our anxiety about the big man’s capacity for violence gives M. Night Shyamalan’s end-of-the-world thriller the electrifying energy of good pulp. Look at how insidiously Night uses extremely shallow focus here—not just to draw our attention to the characters’ moment of connection, but to introduce the idea of a story whose outcome (and meaning) pivots on our ability to see beyond our immediate, foregrounded reality and understand the bigger picture. Even when Cabin’s metaphysics get fuzzy, the imagery remains marvelously sharp.

May December

Netflix

Christopher Blauvelt is one of the most consistently impressive American cinematographers, with credits for Sofia Coppola, Kelly Reichardt, Gus Van Sant, and now Todd Haynes. Stepping in for the injured Edward Lachman, Blauvelt shot the hell out of Haynes’s May December, encasing its deconstructed melodrama in compositions that bristle with shivery precision. The same uncanny camera placement that renders Charles Melton’s Joe a transparent phantom in his own lakeside home also reveals his teenage daughter, Mary (Elizabeth Yu), gazing affectionately in his direction—a stolen moment on a difficult day that Joe probably would’ve rather noticed. Under Blauvelt’s gaze, two generations are together and apart, present and absent, hopeful and tragic. At this point in Haynes’s career, we expect such complex, multifaceted visual puzzles; the fact that he continues to craft them—seemingly from the inside out of his emotionally charged material, instead of imposing them from above—is what makes him such a miraculous filmmaker.

Oppenheimer

Universal Pictures

For all of his bro-teur bona fides, Christopher Nolan isn’t really the #oneperfectshot type; the eloquence of his filmmaking resides largely in its editing rhythms, the surging velocity that’s become his signature. When Nolan is really working, his films feel less like stories than slipstreams. Oppenheimer’s carefully designed yet essentially subliminal fission/fusion structure—which alternates not only between color and black and white as a means of bridging time and space, but also between an objective and subjective perspective—is as intricate as anything he’s devised, which is why it’s hard to pick a single shot to celebrate. (Of all the movie’s major collaborators, editor Jennifer Lame is the most likely to take home some hardware.) Still, this precariously balanced and phenomenally ominous image stands out: Framed against the horizon with his friend and rival Edward Teller, Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer can only watch as his creation is taken from his control and into the arms of the military-industrial complex—a significant moment of transference in a fateful chain reaction that Nolan’s film suggests is still unfolding at this very moment.

Past Lives

A24

“Let’s all meet up in the year 2000,” sang Jarvis Cocker once upon a time about childhood sweethearts who resolve to reconnect when they’re fully grown. Korean Canadian filmmaker Celine Song’s acclaimed debut, Past Lives, resonates with the same bittersweet spirit of Pulp’s dance-floor banger; it begins on the eve of Y2K in Seoul, with grade-schooler Na Young about to emigrate to North America, leaving her doting, protective pal Hae Sung behind to pine and wait for Facebook to be invented. What Song is doing in this particular shot isn’t subtle, exactly, yet the overall feeling is still one of understatement; the conceptual elegance lies in the way it sets the film’s dual protagonists on diverging paths while suggesting they’re ultimately heading in the same direction: toward the joys and compromises of adulthood, and also back toward one another.


Showing Up

A24

For most of Showing Up, Michelle Williams’s perpetually tetchy abstract sculptor, Lizzy, is seen either glowering into the middle distance or gazing down anxiously at her oh-so-breakable creations. But the climax finds her and the other members of her Oregon art school community suddenly looking up—an image that serves as a punch line to the extended shaggy-pigeon joke that gives Kelly Reichardt’s wondrous film its narrative spine. There’s something sublime going on as well, however; Reichardt has steadily refined her lo-fi style over the years so that it’s both functional and poetic, and her most beautiful shots have the self-contained eloquence of a good haiku. By taking a modest, ground-level view of art-making as a taxing and often thankless practice—one riven by insecurity, precarity, and petty competitiveness—Showing Up embraces realism. The climax, though, gets at more elusive and exhilarating sensations, including the melancholic contradiction that when you finally put something you care about into the world, it’s truly gone forever. Nothing lost, nothing gained.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.