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The Top 10 Shots of 2018

Posted by · 8:30 am · December 19th, 2018

(This article originally appeared at Variety.com.)

The best cinematography of 2018 has come in black and white. It’s come in vibrant color. It’s come as photochemical reaction and as streams of ones and zeroes. It’s crossed genres and approaches, from horror and satire to costume porn and blockbuster action. It’s taken us from the hearth to the moon and into the souls of artists and lovers.

This annual column, a 12th edition, is a personal reflection on the year in single cinematic images. Thematic import, technical prowess and of course good old fashioned subjective affinity figure into determining the list, which would probably change if you asked me tomorrow. But if you’re asking me today, these are the 10 best shots of the year.

SPOILER WARNING: It goes without saying that a granular assessment of filmmaking such as this will deal quite liberally in information that might be deemed a spoiler. Some of these films have not yet been released, so proceed as you will.

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The Top 10 Shots of 2017

Posted by · 8:30 am · December 19th, 2017

(This article originally appeared at Variety.com.)

“It’s a weird year.” That’s been a common refrain in virtually all circles over the last several months, mostly because this Oscar season has refused to conform to any typical paradigm. There is no best picture frontrunner. There isn’t even a consensus on the year’s best movie. One glance at the regional critics circuit makes that clear enough; so far 11 different films have claimed top honors, already up by five from last year’s final spread. (More on that when we have an even fuller picture in a few weeks.)

Another reason it’s a “weird year,” no doubt, is because of the dark cloud that has settled over this and other industries as fresh allegations of sexual misconduct have become a part of the daily news cycle. It’s difficult to engage with the awards season status quo in the face of that. It renders all of this so…small.

Here at In Contention, we’re 11 years in on putting 12 months of movie-going to bed with a look at the individual images that made an impact throughout. That kind of reflection also takes on a different sheen in a “weird year.” A cinematic frame that might have been rather standard in another context suddenly means so much more.

That’s why this column has become such a mainstay. Every year is different. Every context is its own. The top 10 shots of the year becomes a sort of time capsule in some way, with the only real connective tissue from year-to-year being the analysis of cinema’s most basic component: a picture, telling a story.

Whittling the list down for 2017 wasn’t as taxing as it has been in other years. That’s purely subjective, of course. These are my choices. Your process would differ. For me, many of the year’s most striking frames announced themselves immediately. That doesn’t necessarily mean it amounted to the most potent assortment we’ve collected, just that many of 2017’s movies seemed to quickly boil down to one image that said it all. That kind of precision has always been hard to ignore for this piece.

A note on specs: Half of the films on this year’s list were full-on digital productions (each of them shot on the Arri Alexa camera). Three were strictly film: two in 35mm, one in IMAX. Two others employed a mix of digital and photochemical formats. That ongoing evolution, as ever, is interesting to track.

So with that bit of preamble out of the way, let’s just dive right in. Here are the top 10 shots of 2017.

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The Top 10 Shots of 2016

Posted by · 8:30 am · December 28th, 2016

(This article originally appeared at Variety.com.)

For a decade now I’ve written about the year in single images. It’s an annual tradition that started on a whim — certain shots from “No Country for Old Men” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” spurred a desire to seek out other potent imagery and chew on it — and it has developed into my own little way of adding to the usual year-in-review cavalcade.

The rise of press screeners has certainly helped me to be thorough. Re-watching the year’s movies and scrubbing them for stand-out shots I might have missed has become its own unique form of absorbing movies. Other outlets have come along and taken similar approaches, which is great, because this is as subjective as anything else. But many have bailed after giving it a go, too, which I understand: this can be sort of taxing.

But I’ve cherished it. I’ve delighted, and continue to delight, in the conversations I have with cinematographers, examining the nuts and bolts of visual storytelling. Whether it’s the most weathered of veterans or the freshest talent on the scene, these are the people who speak the language of cinema most fluently, and they’re eager to talk about it and share the details of their decision making. I’ve even observed some of them climb to the industry’s top shelf. That’s been a gift, and I thank each and every lenser who has hopped on the phone with me to discuss along the way.

So let’s dive in. For the 10th year running, the top 10 shots of the year…

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The Top 10 Shots of 2015

Posted by · 8:30 am · December 30th, 2015

(This article originally appeared at Variety.com.)

This is the ninth year I’ve sat down to digest and meditate on the year in single cinematic images, and every time I do it, it’s an absolute joy. Happy accidents, intriguing intentions, strong visual thematic ideas and unique directorial vision can be found under every stone. You just have to enjoy turning the stones over.

This year things came together rather simply. I kept a mental tally throughout the year of the frames that spoke to me. In revisiting some films, however, I did find myself reacting unexpectedly to certain shots. That’s part of the fun, too, going back through and having the hindsight context to apply to this image or that.

And it’s always interesting to see how things turn out in the micro. For instance, my picks for the two best examples of cinematography this year — “Carol” and “Son of Saul” — aren’t featured on the list at all, though they certainly could have been. I always try to make the point that a director of photography’s collective work on a film doesn’t necessarily break down into single selections for this piece, and that’s perfectly fine. The moving image works in mysterious ways.

As for the overall year in cinematography, it was again part and parcel of a golden age for the form. The field could even be represented at the Oscars this year by a mixture of 16mm, 35mm, 70mm and digital photography, indicative of how our brightest minds behind the camera aren’t driven in a single direction, but rather are inspired by all the tools at their disposal.

These are the 10 single images that stood out to me this year. I’d be curious to hear yours. Let us know in the comments.

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On In Contention going to Variety

Posted by · 11:20 am · August 19th, 2015

On August 19, 2005, In Contention was born. (That was 10 years ago today for those keeping score at home.) It was born by accident, to be honest, not at all by design. I landed a gig, then I lost it before it even started, but I had all this material gathered and ready to publish regarding the then-upcoming film awards season. I launched a blog, “In Contention” sounded edgy enough in the space and off she went. (The funny thing is I ended up keeping the first gig after all, but by then this little enterprise had taken on a small life.)

From there it only grew. We moved out of the Blogger/Blogspot space and into the dot-com realm. We groomed a staff of like minds along the way, at one point notably large for such an outlet, but eventually honed into a tight ship that forged the In Contention identity. It became a remunerative enterprise, humming along in the bizarre but expanding niche world of awards coverage, separate from the independent movie blog ventures that were themselves gaining footing at the time (many of them, interestingly enough, unloading to buyers as of late).

When HitFix came calling in 2011, it was a fascinating fit. It was an exciting hybrid enterprise — yin and yang. Eventually In Contention was fully acquired by the company and things really settled. But times change. HitFix has new priorities now, and I wish them well. Thankfully the four years of content we produced under that banner will soon be available right here at InContention.com for posterity. That was important to me, that my work — Guy Lodge’s work, Gerard Kennedy’s work, Roth Cornet’s work, Greg Ellwood’s work — live under one umbrella.

But of further note to you, our readership, is that per the terms of that agreement, I am taking In Contention with me. So while all of the above was its own era, we’re now entering a very new one.

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Testing

Posted by · 11:18 pm · June 22nd, 2015

;)

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HitFix’s In Contention content now available

Posted by · 11:00 pm · June 20th, 2015

As part of our exit agreement with HitFix in 2015, all of In Contention’s content from that period is now archived here at home base. In addition to its home at Uproxx (which acquired HitFix in 2016), you can now view it at www.incontention.com/hitfix.

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The Top 10 Shots of 2014

Posted by · 9:00 am · December 29th, 2014

(This article originally appeared at HitFix.com.)

As more try to co-opt our patented, eight-year-strong “shots of the year” feature, it seemed like maybe I should start trying to get the package ready sooner rather than later. So I tried to hit it as hard as I could to get 2014’s list out to you by the end of the year for the first time ever (it usually drops in late January or thereabouts). So…YOU’RE WELCOME. All kidding aside, though, it makes for a nice bow on the year, even if dropping it this early takes away some of the time I generally allot to thoroughly revisiting film imagery. This time around, the list is very much about the frames that stuck with me instantly, rather than decision-making slaved over toward the end of the year. And there’s something to be said for that, too.

Of course, as always, I delight in jumping on the phone with the various cinematographers to get their takes (no pun intended) on the images chosen. It’s always enlightening and something I think we do a good job of exclusively offering our readers. Hopefully you continue to enjoy it as we inch closer to a decade of producing this feature (wow).

So enough foreplay. You can dig into the first half of the list below. But before doing so, I did want to point you to this. There’s a bit of postured profundity in there to me, but it’s nevertheless interesting and thoughtful. And it’s just the kind of passion we’ve been trying to present with this piece over the last eight years. We’re happy the idea is catching on.

Without further ado…

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The Top 10 Shots of 2013

Posted by · 9:00 am · February 11th, 2014

(This article originally appeared at HitFix.com.)

If you look here and there on the web these days, you might notice that more than a few outlets are now cooking up their own “top 10 shots of the year” pieces. Here we are in our seventh year of producing such a collective, but imitation is flattery, and frankly, I’m glad others have caught on to the idea. Singular images and the thematic impact they make are as subjective as anything else we end up praising at the end of a given year, so having separate takes on the matter is only a good thing.

But I’m also confident in the value of what we have to offer on the subject every year, which is a unique take on the specific images chosen from the horses’ mouths: the cinematographers themselves. An aside on that…

Late last year, the International Cinematographers Guild saw fit to hand me a pretty trophy in recognition not just of the work I put into these kinds of pieces throughout the year, but our coverage of the craft of cinematography in general in this space. It was a huge honor, one that couldn’t have meant more coming from anyone else, honestly. The idea that there’s a level of appreciation for the spotlight we shine below the line is as gratifying as anything in my work over the years.

In acceptance, I made it clear that they were basically handing me an award for having a blast. Because I truly relish the opportunity to get on the phone with people like Roger Deakins, Sean Bobbitt, Masanobu Takayanagi, the late Harris Savides, Wally Pfister, Bob Richardson and more this time of year, to pick their brains, to discuss their work and to boil down their thoughts on this and that film to that most singular, cellular of elements: the film frame.

Sometimes, of course, it’s more than just one frame. Sometimes it’s a drawn-out composition that digs in and stays. Other times, it’s a clever move of the camera that dazzles or immerses. Whatever the case may be, the heart of this annual piece is an examination of how what we see on the screen informs the greater impact of a film, how what a DP captures through that aperture becomes the essence of our passion and how the resulting, indelible imagery stays with us as an everlasting footprint revealing the soul of a work of art.

So, as it pertains to this space, “The Top 10 Shots of the Year” is a reflection on the most significant, though perhaps not always the most obvious, visual elements of a film year. And 2013 had plenty of wonders to offer – so many, in fact, that the density of quality seen elsewhere in this competitive awards season played itself out on the ballots of the American Society of Cinematographers, as a tie led to seven feature film nominees rather than the usual five.

How did all of that boil down in my own little image diary of the year that was? Have a look below.

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The Top 10 Shots of 2012

Posted by · 9:00 am · February 12th, 2013

(This article originally appeared at HitFix.com.)

I decided to do something a little different with the shots column for this, its sixth year (and finally imitated — we’re flattered). I thought I’d go with a metric of instinct rather than analysis.

First let me introduce the overall concept for those perhaps unfamiliar. Every year I recap the year in my own unique way. Film is, after all, about the image first, and so what better way to put 12 cinematic months in a time capsule than to feature the most striking single images of the year? But what is striking to one is always not so much to the next. Like all of this, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

For my part I would always try to give my perspective on shots that might seem, well, unexpected to others. I would posit that an Eric Gautier shot of an eagle picking away at a carcass in “Into the Wild” says something about a country weighing on the soul; or that an unassuming Anthony Dod Mantle shot crammed into a frenetic “Slumdog Millionaire” montage better sums up character motivations than any other frame; or that the simplicity of Anna Kendrick riding slowly away on an airport people-mover as seen through Eric Steelberg’s lens in “Up in the Air” speaks elegant volumes.

Of course, room for sheer aesthetic beauty has often been made. A devastatingly gorgeous Luc Montpellier capture of Patricia Clarkson in “Cairo Time,” for instance, or an iconic Wally Pfister distillation of The Dark Knight in, well, “The Dark Knight.” I’ve even argued for a Ben Seresin angle on Megan Fox against a glass bottle wall in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

Then there are the stunts that dazzle. Jason Bourne leaping from window to shattering window in “The Bourne Ultimatum” had a hand in inspiring this annual column, while complex takes from “Let the Right One In,” “The Secret in Their Eyes” and “The Adventures of Tintin” have stood out in respective years.

And now, our sixth year. As I said, I decided to try something a little different this year. Typically I would set aside a frame of time to specifically look back at many films and note the imagery. A revisit purely for this column’s purposes. This year, both so I could get the piece out sooner than usual (oh how hungry you can be — though that didn’t end up happening, anyway) and so I could simply shake up the way I build it, I shot from the hip and went with the gut.

I always keep a bit of an eye out on first viewings, almost subconsciously, for potential contenders for this piece. But this time I let those stick sooner than usual. I let whatever struck me first survive, and when I had 10, that was it. Along the way this included inevitable revisits, which mostly just strengthened the original take anyway, but the point was I wondered what a first blush would look like rather than a (perhaps over-)analyzed take.

This is what I came up with…

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The Top 10 Shots of 2011

Posted by · 9:00 am · February 14th, 2012

(This article originally appeared at HitFix.com.)

They’re heeeeeeerrrrreeeeee. That’s right, the images have been assembled, the conversations have been had and the top 10 shots of 2011 are ready for their close-up (or over the shoulder, or two-shot, or insert, etc.).

It’s become a bit of a tradition to note in this space that the year in cinematography wasn’t particularly compelling on the whole. The 2007 season that first inspired the idea behind this piece (now entering its fifth year) really was an exceptional year for the individual film image.

However, while a year abundant in obvious visual takeaways would make writing this up quite a bit easier, I’ve grown to appreciate the digging and re-considering a lack-luster year requires. It’s forced me to appreciate the images all the more.

With that in mind, this year’s collective is very much a reflection of, as usual, the frames that really grabbed me thematically or spoke inner narratives to me in profound ways. So it’s almost become a sort of cathartic exercise to better understand a given film year and how it has impacted me, a nostalgic scrapbook saying as much about me and where I am in my appreciation of cinema as it does the work of the cinematographers involved.

Speaking of which, I have to thank the various DPs who hopped on the phone or exchanged a few emails to better contextualize this piece. Year after year, their input and perspective on the various choices is invaluable, and I think you’ll again find that to be the case this time around.

(And P.S.: It’s great to know this has become such a hotly anticipated item. I really do appreciate it.)

Now, on to the shots…

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Come join us at HitFix!

Posted by · 12:30 pm · September 20th, 2011

UPDATE: In Contention’s run with HitFix has come to an end. More to come…

We have officially relocated to our new home at HitFix. So come on over to the new URL — hitfix.com/incontention — and join the on-going goings-on. All of yesterday’s material is backdated there and patiently awaits, so feel free to continue the discussion there.

If you’re thinking to yourself right now, “Wait, huh?,” then fear not. All your answers can be found here and here.

You can comment as a guest at HitFix just as you can here, but I recommend registering for an account with them. Keeps it nice and organic. The link for that is at the op right of the main page, or go directly here.

This page will be up for a very brief transitional period. Soon it will redirect you to the new location and later on, all the content here will have magically migrated over.

InContention.com, signing off.

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OFF THE CARPET: The great, appreciated unknown

Posted by · 5:47 pm · September 19th, 2011

As we move out of the Toronto fray, Venice and Telluride already a memory, we look to the season ahead. The starting gun echo of those three early fall festivals is beginning to fade away, and with the dust settled or settling, it’s interesting to note the lack of an inarguable emerging player. In fact, the only thing Toronto really did was heat up the Best Foreign Language Film conversation.

In recent years, films like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Juno,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech” have bubbled up in this frame as real contenders to take the lead in the Best Picture field. But nothing at this point really seems to have the kind of stranglehold on things those films had.

Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” with George Clooney front and center, is well-liked, but few really think it has the goods to be a significant Best Picture threat. Clooney’s own “The Ides of March” has enough detractors to raise doubt that it will be an across-the-board Academy favorite, while “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” — freshly opened in the UK — is happy to just be making the case for a nomination at the moment.

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Alfredon’s ‘Tinker, Tailor’ smolders on screen

Posted by · 5:23 pm · September 19th, 2011

I don’t want to write too much about “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” right now because, point blank, I want to see it again and digest and — gasp! — consider.

For now, though, I’ll start with this: It’s an impeccably made, satisfyingly dense piece of work from director Tomas Alfredson. It’s the rare film that is a slow burn but nevertheless moves along at a clip, with a very well-honed editorial sense, I might add.

The thing is, I saddled up to the film this afternoon without knowing the source material or bothering to investigate it much. I’ve never read John le Carre’s novel (I will) and I haven’t seen the 1979 British mini-series starring Alec Guiness (I will). And the vibe I get is it would be helpful to come to the new film with a modicum of knowledge on that, but it’s no less satisfying. It just means a second look is in order, and I’m all for it, because you come away with an extreme reverence for craft here.

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‘J. Edgar’ trailer

Posted by · 5:07 pm · September 19th, 2011

One of the great unknowns of the season (as I’ll get into momentarily with today’s Off the Carpet column) is Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar.” Well today, we finally get a glimpse of the film via the trailer at Apple. The first thing of note, naturally, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s accent, which seems to come in and out in just these few minutes. Also notable is the makeup, which I’ve been saying for a while will be transformative and most certainly something to watch for in that race. Finally, I’ve been hearing that Judi Dench gives the supporting performance to watch for, and that seems evident here. Check out the trailer by clicking on the image below or watch an embed after the jump.

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9/19 OSCARWEB ROUND-UP: Toronto Oscar bounces, threads in ‘Drive,’ adaptng le Carre

Posted by · 8:54 am · September 19th, 2011

Anne Thompson talks “Rampart” with writer/director Oren Moverman. [Thompson on Hollywood]

Greg Ellwood ponders who got an Oscar bounce out of Toronto. [Awards Campaign]

Simon Kinnear on the clothing designs of “Drive.” [Clothes on Film]

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Lebanese foreign film submission ‘Where Do We Go Now?’ wins Toronto’s People’s Choice Award

Posted by · 11:24 am · September 18th, 2011

I can’t say I’m all that aware yet of Nadine Labaki’s “Where Do We Go Now?,” which Guy recently called “a serious-minded comedy with musical elements that premiered to warm reviews in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, where it earned a special mention from the Ecumenical Jury.” But the film has swooped in and nabbed the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award when many were predicting “The Artist” would charm its way to the prize. Expect a domestic distributor to pounce any day now.

The film was recently submitted by Lebanon into the foreign film race, and one of the runners-up in Toronto, Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” was also slotted by Iran. So for a festival that usually paves the way for the major categories in an Oscar race (more on that tomorrow), Toronto has actually heated up the race for Best Foreign Language Film. Unexpected and, I might say, entirely refreshing, that.

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