2007 was, to my mind, the greatest year for cinematography in a long, long time. I can’t recall the last time I was so thoroughly impressed with the visual artistry of film after film like I was last year, and I attribute that to the intriguing spark of creativity underway in the film medium as of late. Newcomers and veterans alike were putting awe-inspiring images on film, some of the seasoned pros besting their already exceptional portfolios.
I wanted to do something special in the way of commemorating the efforts of these individuals, and so I set out to interview a number of them as the year drew to a close. Sadly, I was never able to piece those interviews together in a proper story like I would have wanted, but in recent weeks it has occurred to me that it may be just as beneficial to offer up something you don’t regularly see: a personal compilation of the greatest single images from the cinematic year.
And so it goes that I offer the Top 10 Shots of 2007, a two part piece that will run down what I felt were the best of the best in a year full of exceptional cinematographic work. Today, I’m running down shots 10 through 6, and tomorrow, we’ll wrap it up with the top 5. Mixed in you’ll find sporadic comments from the lensers in question, as I feel it only appropriate that I give that small gateway into their process for readers and viewers alike.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did compiling it.
“NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
I suppose in a way it was business as usual, but business is never usual with [the Coens], because every film they’ve done is so different. And I think we felt quite a responsibility to the novel. Visually, graphically, it was a very different look than what we’d been doing together up until then. It was like a Peckinpah western, the old sheriff standing in the way of the way the world was going.
There is an embarrassment of iconic images peppered into Roger Deakins’ greatest creative collaboration with the Coen brothers to date. Any one of them could be spotlighted as indicative of theme or substance, tone or atmosphere throughout.
There is, of course, the instantly classic shot of Lewellyn Moss sprinting through the open country in the dead of night, the headlights of a pickup in hot pursuit, silhouetting his figure against a pitch black night (used frequently in the film’s PR). And who could forget any number of frames from Moss and Chigurgh’s hotel confrontation, the darkening of a hallway light bulb, the jaundiced yellow swaths of street lamp bathing the interior of the room, Moss lying in wait, shotgun in hand?
For me, the image that always stood out is the one that gave me the most discernible start. As much attribution may be given to the editing of the sequence, but there is Moss, waltzing back into the lion’s den of a drug deal ambush and discovering he might not be alone. He turns back to the ridge and there is his truck, suddenly accompanied by another and visually framed at such a distance as to play a trick on the viewer. “Wait, is that…? Fuck!” It isn’t the prettiest frame of the film, but it is the one that sticks with me, the one that, more than any other, captures the sheer anxiety of the endeavor.
“INTO THE WILD”
Director of Photography: Eric Gautier
One of the unsung heroes of the season this year had to be lenser Eric Gautier, who captured Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” on film in such a way as to both electrify and provide a basis for deep consideration of theme and character. Gautier was tasked with depicting the American frontier through the eyes of disenchanted youth, and in so doing he managed to plumb considerable depths with his imagery.
Take this shot of a bald eagle tearing away at the rotting flesh of a sacrificed moose. Chris McCandless, so desperate to prove to himself and to, in some small way, humanity, that he could live off the land in Alaska, he hunted and killed the animal, attempted to smoke the meat but found the process too much to complete, too beyond him to handle. There are cutting themes in this flawed film about the country weighing on a person’s psyche, about the desire to leave it all behind and escape the small tragedies of everyday life. The American way is there, though ever elusive, picking away at the flesh of scattered dreams.
It’s a subtle image, on screen for maybe five seconds, and likely dominated by the pack of wolves partaking in the feast. But it resonated with me. It struck a chord that made me all the more proud of Sean Penn for the dedication he put into this effort, no matter my opinion of the final result. And Gautier is at the forefront of that vision, a brilliant visual guide through the wild of America’s wounded heart and bitter soul.
Director of Photography: Harris Savides
Steven Shore had these banal kind of images of America in the 70s, which were a great reference for colors and for props, and for the world that we were to inhabit and make the audience feel they were watching. Something that did concern me, however, was that it was very dialogue-driven, and I wanted to do things that were more cinematic. But all of David’s references were these wonderful movies that had this structure that I became interested in. The approach that he wanted to take was exciting for me.
Harris Savides sat behind the camera of three solid visual achievements in 2007: Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” and David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” His versatility can be felt throughout his work on these vastly different projects, but it was on the latter that he proved a certain capacity for mainstream artistry as of yet untapped.
Much of Savides’ work in the film was buttressed by visual effects. In many cases, the seams are so transparent as to become a mere afterthought, but one shot, simply accentuated by CGI in the background, really spoke up on the film’s upcoming presence and period immersion. Not quite the opening image (the second, actually, following a CGI establishing shot of the Bay Area during the 4th of July), the shot is a trek through a celebratory neighborhood as Three Dog Night’s “Easy to Be Hard” settles into the bones.
The tone Savides sets with his framing and lighting is one of instant foreboding, an almost sickening sense of impending doom. When I think of “Zodiac,” I immediately think of this image and something cold sits in my stomach. It gets me every time.
Director of Photography: Martin Ruhe
Black and white always has the danger of being too stylized, but Anton is great at being efficient and taking risks and not questioning too much. That gave us confidence to go ahead with things. We wanted to make the film really personal and daring in a lot of ways.
Cinematographer Martin Ruhe had been a frequent collaborator of director and photographer Anton Corbijn in the music video world, where Corbijn had cranked out more than a few shining examples of visual acuity (Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” Rollins Band’s “Liar”). When the time came for Corbijn to make the leap to feature films, it was only fitting that he bring Ruhe along to attack the photography of the endeavor. Indeed, the lenser and filmmaker managed to capture their fair share of iconic imagery on the way to cinematically immortalizing Joy Division front man Ian Curtis.
The shot that springs to my mind is one that not only assures the viewer of Ruhe’s skillful hand behind the camera, but one that announces Corbijn as a visually dynamic filmmaker who promises to be an exciting talent to watch in this new phase of his career. Curtis walks down the street having donned his infamous “HATE” jacket on the way to the local employment offices as Joy Division’s “No Love Lost” attacks the cerebellum. It’s the perfect transition into the second act of the film and really sucks the viewer in.
There are, of course, numerous other images of note in “Control.” The final shot of smoke rising in the extreme bottom of the frame following the heart-wrenching denouement might come to most minds. But whatever your favorite shot, it is refreshing to see a first time director so comfortable with the narrative medium and so capable of conveying visual meaning, thanks in no small part to the work of Ruhe, a solid fit for Corbijn’s expressionist tendencies.
Director of Photography: Andrew Reed
The Prospect Park scene was the best example of a happy accident. It was not something that Aaron and I talked about a great deal. Though there were some basic ground rules. Obviously the movie is 80-90 percent handheld, and that was a conscious choice. We also made the decision that all of the cityscape shots were going to be completely static and separate from those other shots. We didn’t want there to be any additional presence other than the city.
It’s no secret that I fell in love with the warmth and realism of Aaron Katz’s “Quiet City,” but something that always resonated with me was the subtle and yet purposeful work from lenser Andrew Reed. In a movement consistently spotlighted for its minimalism (“mumblecore,” the kids are calling it), I find myself arguing for “Quiet City” as an entity unto itself. Much of my reasoning has to do with Reed’s efforts in setting the film apart visually, while at the same time clearly working with the influence of his idols in the field.
The shot that became the film’s calling card has, in effect, become the film’s cliche. But cliches aren’t always a whitewashing of reality, and this image has the goods and captures the heart of Katz’s film in one fell swoop. The central duo, Jamie and Charlie, decide upon a spontaneous race in the middle of a sun-washed
park. Noticing the descending sun and the opportunity to capture something special, Reed set the camera on the ground and aimed into the light, capturing the characters in a long take as they run away from and then back toward the frame. It sounds trite but it is, in fact, beautiful.
I really hope Reed and Katz continue to collaborate on future efforts, because they seem to have a chemistry that unfolds on the screen in very special ways. Sometimes shots are a stretch or otherwise self-aware,
sometimes the opportunity to break out of a visual shell is lost, but more often than not, they settle into a splendid groove and will surely continue to solidify their visual voices.
(Click here for part two.)