When I picked the best shots of 2019, I quoted Martin Scorsese’s line that cinema “was a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” That wisdom will always apply, but in a pandemic year when it was hard to keep my mind from wandering beyond even the most beautifully composed frames, it wasn’t always clear what “cinema” even was. No, this isn’t an attempt to litigate whether Small Axe—or Twin Peaks: The Return, or whatever—should be filed under movies or television, but an acknowledgement that for the first time, I saw a vast majority of new releases—pretty much everything except Tenet—on my television or laptop, and as a result, some brilliant images (and the movies they were attached to) loomed smaller in my mind’s eye than those experienced on the big screen. Because a few of the movies on this list (First Cow, Bacurau, The Vast of Night, Vitalina Varela) played at festivals in 2019, I can recall being overwhelmed by some of their moments or compositions; if it seems like this list privileges a lot of small-scale scenes, that’s a byproduct of my own in-home viewership as much as specific filmmaking choices (although I am, by nature, a sucker for subtlety). The movies are still big; it’s the screens that got small. Hopefully the 10 stills selected here will plunge you deeper into the endlessly spacious movies they’re taken from.
People often talk about film budgets as encompassing expenses above and below the line. In a typically witty composition from The Assistant, Kitty Green imagines the divide between the glamorous face of moviemaking and the cogs in the wheel as a split screen. Jane (Julia Garner) works for a Harvey Weinstein–style mogul whose daily schedule includes meetings with prospective stars like Patrick Wilson, whose cameo as himself—a quiet, fashionably distracted leading man—shores up the movie’s authenticity while drawing a bead on its critique of Hollywood’s culture of silence. Time and again in The Assistant, Jane is obliged to hold her tongue in the presence of powerful men, and while it’s left ambiguous in this early scene whether she’s starstruck, frustrated, or merely a tentative, entry-level employee, the shot serves as an overture for a movie about the suffocating feeling of being stifled at every turn. If clean, antiseptic symmetry is a bit of an indie-film cliché, Green’s expert direction plays with convention instead of capitulating to it, while Garner’s performance—which in a perfect world would be getting Oscar plaudits—is a master class in body language. Here, Jane is at once self-effacing and attentive—present, as well as an afterthought. And while Wilson doesn’t have dialogue, he’s memorable all the same.
Drone shots have become a cliché in contemporary action filmmaking: The more disembodied cinematography gets, the easier it can be to write movies off as exercises in technocratic style. But Brazilian filmmakers Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles repurpose drone shots with menace in Bacurau. The film, which won a major prize at Cannes in 2019, is a clever, politically resonant thriller set in a Brazilian village whose inhabitants are being hunted for sport by a group of foreigners who’ve paid for the privilege. The premise of well-monied Westerners using a modest settlement for target practice gives Bacurau a potently allegorical subtext—making class warfare into a series of paramilitary style maneuvers—and the film’s villains are visually aligned with technocratic practices; in an affectionate nod to the sci-fi classics of John Carpenter, the camera-mounted, remote-controlled devices they use to surveil their prey look like miniature UFOs. By staging point-of-view shots from inside the drones, Filho and Dornelles visualize the predatory perspective of opportunists whose wealth and resources give them a literally elevated advantage. The middle finger being pointed at the camera in this sequence, meanwhile, plays up the cocky vulgarity of the bad guys while functioning as a “fuck you”—accidentally and hilariously foreshadowing the defiant, eye-for-an-eye vengeance meted out by the townspeople in Bacurau’s cathartic climax.
The end is the beginning: Kelly Reichardt’s frontier period piece opens with a shot that suggests the eventual fate of its protagonists—as well as the skeletons in America’s closet. The plot of First Cow concerns a meek cook and an ambitious entrepreneur who join forces in a scheme to steal milk from a wealthy Englishman living on the edge of a muddy, multicultural settlement in 19th-century Oregon; their plan is to use the milk to make pastries that can subsidize their flight to greener pastures. Because Reichardt is American cinema’s poet laureate of failure, we suspect that Cookie and King-Lu are doomed—a feeling underlined by the morbid imagery of the opening shot. But what First Cow is really about is intimacy, and the trust that exists between two outsiders whose mutual need and respect may also conceal a deeper, more dangerous form of love. First Cow is a beautifully made movie, tracking observantly through forest landscapes and capturing the splendor and emptiness of a time and place when, as KIng-Lu says, history hasn’t arrived yet, and its lyricism is always yoked to its themes. The opening shot is not a spoiler but a statement of intent. It’s a testament to Reichardt’s image-making brilliance that her closing tableau functions dually as a callback and a complication to her cold open, fleshing out its symbolism and deepening its sense of melancholy.
Eating dinner alone in his government-appointed lodgings on the outskirts of London, Sudanese refugee Bol is haunted by a memory of his treacherous overseas passage; as he descends into memory, director Remi Weekes pulls back to show his dining room carved out and adrift under a blood-red sky. Of all the attempts at expressionism in His House, this scene is at once the most visually spectacular and the most affecting, underlining the complicated, contradictory emotions of a character caught between countries. In crafting a parable about a space haunted by its new inhabitants, Weekes indulges several blunt, effective, Candyman-style jump scares; as this scene goes on, he gives us zombie-like monsters rising out of the waters. What stays in the mind’s eye, though, is the distanced scope of the composition—the way it pulls back into a physical and psychological establishing shot. The technique required to achieve such a seamless, surreal illusion is considerable, but what’s impressive is the relationship of image and meaning, and the understanding that stylizing reality can also be a way of heightening it.
The Invisible Man
Leigh Whannell’s high-tech remake of The Invisible Man was one of the last movies I saw in theaters in 2020, and it yielded the biggest audience freak-out I’d seen in a while: While explaining to her sister that her late husband isn’t really dead—and that he is in fact using fantastic optical technology to haunt her from the beyond the grave—Elisabeth Moss’s Cecilia is so caught up in her own paranoid story that she doesn’t notice the knife levitating beside her. A couple of seconds later, it’s been used on her sister and placed in her hand—a horrifying act of violence committed by an invisible man in plain sight. The effectiveness of this sequence is largely a matter of editing—of waiting just long enough to register the shock on Cecilia’s face before cutting to a gory money shot—but in freeze-frame, the images conveys The Invisible Man’s theme of sinister forces: The knife could be the Sword of Damocles dangling above our heroine’s head. It’s rare these days to see special effects used judiciously, but Whannell’s now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t approach indicates that it’s still possible to surprise us.
Steve McQueen’s background as a visual artist informs his filmmaking; the director tends to use long takes, sometimes involving virtuoso camera movement but often taken from a fixed position that challenges our attention span and spectatorship—especially when what we’re being shown is intense suffering, as in 12 Years a Slave. For the docudrama Mangrove—the first and strongest installment of McQueen’s impressive new Small Axe series—McQueen shows surprising fidelity to courtroom drama conventions, but asserts his authorship nevertheless in moments that couldn’t have been filmed by anybody else. In the aftermath of a racist police raid on a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, McQueen shows us a colander that’s been thrown on the floor and chronicles its wobbling long after the room has been emptied out; the shot suspends us inside an anxious, miniature eternity while suggesting an endless, rotating cycle of abuse and victimization. It’s a haunting, uncanny bit of filmmaking that infuses the everyday with dread and desperation; long after the movie ends (and the court case reaches its triumphant conclusion), we’re still thinking of that colander and how long it takes to stop.
The title character of Mank is a cynical screenwriter who identifies with the myth of Don Quixote; strolling through a Hollywood back lot circa 1934, he imagines that actress Marion Davies is a princess in need of saving. But she’s not about to be burned at the stake: she’s taking a smoke break. Truth and illusion—and the unique way that the movies can confuse them—are at the heart of David Fincher’s film, and like many great filmmakers before him, he satirizes the unglamorous side of Hollywood, even dropping a boom mic into the shot under the pretense of being behind the scenes. For Gary Oldman’s Herman Mankiewicz, the dream factory is something he prides himself on seeing through, and yet in the same way that Amanda Seyfried’s Marion is not what she seems on camera, his self-image as a truth-teller will be complicated by his unwitting complicity in a prototypical, studio-subsidized version of Fake News. Without getting into the conversation and controversy about aspect ratios, sound design, and cigarette burns swirling around Mank’s release, Fincher’s visual language here is clear and clever; even as Mank’s script by the director’s father, Jack, is being praised for its cynical one-liners (and criticized for its myriad inaccuracies under the sign of poetic license), it’s worth remembering that Fincher is one of the most adept photographic minds around.
In Possessor, assassins commit murder by proxy, downloading themselves into the bodies of oblivious hosts and instrumentalizing them against their targets. Working remotely is a soul-killing enterprise. Gazing out at his reflection in a mirror, Christopher Abbott is surprised to see Andrea Riseborough’s face staring back alongside his own. Or is she surprised to see him? The body-swapping plotline of Brandon Cronenberg’s sophomore feature is pure B-movie pulp—served up with extra gristle and a side of NC-17-level violence—but it’s also a thoughtful exploration of consciousness. What does it mean to take up real estate in somebody else’s head? And, with apologies to another recent and very famous movie on the same theme, what happens if you can’t (or won’t) Get Out? Possessor visualizes this battle of wills through surreal stroboscopic dreamscapes that suggest a mind on the verge of fragmentation, but also through more lo-fi means. Cronenberg loves his actors’ faces, and scrutinizes Abbott’s acting so that we can sometimes see Riseborough’s mannerisms peeking through—and then being repressed. It’s a movie filled with people seeing and watching themselves, and it exerts the same mesmerizing fascination on its audience. Even when Possessor is at its most violent and destabilizing—or maybe especially in these moments—it’s impossible to look away.
The Vast of Night
Give no. 13 credit: That elbow jumper is wet. Part of the fun of this snaky long take in Andrew Patterson’s sci-fi drama The Vast of Night is wondering how many times they had to do it to get it right. Getting a massive ensemble of actors to hit their marks is one thing; hitting a midrange jump shot at precisely the right moment is another. If long takes are sometimes the cinematic equivalent of a run-on sentence, the nothing-but-net moment is like graceful punctuation. Patterson uses the camera as a mapping tool throughout his debut, exploring the streets, alleys, and hidden secrets of a small New Mexico town experiencing strange phenomena. The sense of loneliness and emptiness in the exteriors is exacerbated by the fact that everybody’s at the basketball game—everybody except the movie’s heroes, who keep catching up to and being lapped by the camera. Breathless momentum is the name of the game here. There’s definitely something ostentatious about Patterson’s style, but there’s exuberance, too, and an acknowledgement that low-budget filmmaking doesn’t have to result in lower quality aesthetics. His calculated tracking shots express not only his Spielberg-sized ambition, but an understanding that well-controlled pace and perspective can be as exciting as special effects.
Pedro Costa’s movie could have easily been called The Vast of Night; arriving in Lisbon three days after the death of her husband, the title character is cast into a nocturnal world where illumination is scarce and it looks like morning may never come. But it does, and while it’s wrong to reduce a movie as personal and political as Vitalina Varela down to its sepulchral aesthetics, it’s amazing what Costa can do with light and shadow. It’s not a spoiler to say that the film’s final shot deviates from a previously shadowy palette, or that in a movie haunted by death—to the point of seeming like purgatory—the scene depicts rebuilding and rebirth. Without appearing remotely contrived or composed, Costa’s tableau captures a life force that’s no less potent for being so mysterious—and no less poetic for feeling so rooted in the everyday.