So much of cinema's power is derived from context and montage that the impact of individual images is often accidentally neglected. On occasion however, one of the many individual shots in a film particularly strikes a chord, standing out from the rest as one that resonates deeply, either with emotional, intellectual, or aesthetic heft. Stephen from Checking on My Sausages has recently issued a call to bloggers to submit their one all-encompassing favorite image in cinema. This tall task has only elicited a strong desire on my part to gather up at least what I find to be among the greatest, and in order to further narrow that down, I have centered my focus on the past decade in film. These 23 shots range from the silly to the mesmerizing to the political, and together they comprise the ephemeral moments from the 21st century that have stuck with me the most. Seeing as it's so difficult to keep the tally low for just one decade, imagine the inconceivable challenge of picking one from all the eleven decades of the medium.
(Click on image to view large-scale.)
Silent Light (Carlos Reygades, 2007, DP: Alexis Zabe)
The most tranquil, breathtaking, and formally impressive shot I can recall from this decade is this one from Carlos Reygades' powerful Silent Light, a dolly shot depicting a sunrise in real time, and then at the end of the film, a sunset. Reygades turns his camera towards a natural event so ordinary and quotidian to remind us of how extraordinary it really is, capturing the eerie placidity of the cosmos in sumptuous, painterly tones.
Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)
The 2nd of a mere 37 shots in Bela Tarr's allegorical opus Werckmeister Harmonies is actually the image I submitted to Checking on My Sausages as my single favorite shot in cinema, though I obviously can't stand by that claim forever. But the fact that this lilting scene set to Mihaly Vig's gorgeous musical score always jumps to mind immediately when probed about the visual power of film is enough to grant it a place in a gallery of prized images. When I first heard about Bela Tarr, this was the first screen shot I found from his work, and its murky, otherworldly beauty continues to fascinate me. I can still watch this scene on its own and be profoundly moved, for there is something remarkably timeless about its lone figure strolling down a featureless Hungarian street.
Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, 2000, DP: István Borbás, Jesper Klevenas, Robert Komarek)
Religion on the left. Government on the right. Society on the horizon line. Youth blindfolded at the edge of a cliff. Roy Andersson couldn't cover much more in this jaw-dropping image, probably the most symbolically loaded moment of the decade that lasts nearly ten minutes and stings of pessimism in the context of the morbidly masterful film that surrounds it.
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2006, DP: Pen-jung Liao)
Tsai Ming-Liang routinely explores the personal disconnection and disillusionment of modern urban life, and few of his shots are more telling than this one: two figures, isolated by a line going down the middle of the frame, posed silently and overlooking a bizarre, musty construction site that looks like something from a science fiction film. Besides that, this shot is just damn pretty.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007, DP: Janusz Kaminski)
Generally, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly doesn't work after it leaves the astonishing optical perspective that comprises its first twenty minutes, resorting to trite flashbacks and visual metaphors to tug at the viewer's heartstrings, but this frenetic burst of life is one of those rare instances when it really really works without being weighed down by director Julian Schnabel's nagging attempt to make everything so desperately sentimental. A wistful shot of a woman's hair blowing wildly in the wind on a past joy ride set to boisterous pop music, the moment is a brief breath of fresh air (literally), and it's all the more precious for its transience.
Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006, DP: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom)
A handful of critics have made the astute comparison of this image - which comes late in Joe's Syndromes and a Century - to the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, another black void of seemingly endless metaphorical possibilities. This sinister dolly towards basement machinery sucking up fog in a hospital however does not feel too "easy" or mindlessly open-ended; instead, it's in line with the countless other enigmatic diversions in the film, a reminder of the dark corners that lurk behind all of the joyous moments in life (and this is a film with plenty of those).
Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003, DP: Harris Savides)
Elephant is a startlingly effective film, even if we expect its ultimate denouement from the very beginning, and this comes from Gus Van Sant's pedantic pursuit of real-time. In the end, after having fallen into familiar rhythms, the sudden outburst of violence is substantially destabilizing, an approximation of the kind of shock that real, unexpected horror brings. Therefore, this shot, which gradually comes into focus as the distant figure nears the camera, is a perfect visual representation of the utter confusion we feel in the face of such a tragedy. All of a sudden the world is no longer clear.
The Intruder (Denis, 2004, DP: Agnès Godard)
It's difficult to select one single shot from Claire Denis' The Intruder, because in some sense it feels like it was consciously constructed of moments meant to burn in the memory without explanation. Denis knows that some of the best visuals are the ones that leave the screen just before we can make sense of them, augmenting the visceral impact. Here is one of those examples. A character pushes snow aside to reveal a face hidden beneath ice, a murderous act that we know of only tangentially from earlier in the film.
Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, 2009, DP: Anthony Dod Mantle)
For those who have seen Lars Von Trier's batty Antichrist, I'm sure you'll agree that there are several frames in it that are far more memorable, more damaging, and more brain-stamping than this one, but in the interest of decency, I have chosen one of the film's equally divisive throwaway moments, one that, love it or hate it, has been remembered. Endlessly parodied and recycled - most cleverly in this hybrid poster with Fantastic Mr. Fox - the spontaneous talking fox is simultaneously monumentally stupid and oddly disturbing.
Fire and Rain (Ruhr) (James Benning, 2009, DP: Benning)
James Benning's tantalizing trailer for his latest digital experiment Ruhr, which is several minutes of an industrial machine process going about its mechanized routine, feels like it was made in the spirit of my opening credo. It's a scrap of media that strips away all context and montage, except of course for the context and montage that you bring to it. Benning rediscovers the primal allure of smoke, fire, and water.
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000, DP: Chris Doyle)
The fact that this image is the first that comes to mind when I think of Wong Kar-Wai's lovely In the Mood for Love is a testament to how pleasurable the film's little details are. Kar-Wai and cinematographer Chris Doyle make Maggie Cheung's trip to the underground lo-mein market a dazzling feast for the senses, shooting in slow motion and with a shallow depth of field all while the pizzicato strings induce a state of mysterious hyperreality.
Garden State (Zach Braff, 2004, DP: Lawrence Sher)
After receiving an undesired gift from a relative, Andrew Largeman wanders awkwardly into a nearby bathroom to try it on. The next cut is to him standing and looking in the mirror while the shirt matches the wallpaper in the room uncannily. Zach Braff, who also directs, plays the part perfectly, sustaining the same deer-in-the-headlights look he does for the entire film. It's a poignant, wryly humorous shot that stands as one more odd diversion during his lukewarm existential crisis.
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008, DP: Sam Levy)
With just a few features under her belt, Kelly Reichardt has become a quintessential American independent. Wendy and Lucy may currently be her crowning achievement, and this shot from the film - a selfless monetary gift given to Michelle Williams' down-and-out character by a similarly destitute supermarket security guard - is one of the most moving moments in the film, a tribute to the prevailing humanity in the face of larger socioeconomic problems. It also epitomizes recession-era America just as Umberto D's weathered face epitomized postwar Italy, realizing how the only source of income for many is the good nature of others.
Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 2004, DP: Cobi Migliora)
Lisandro Alonso's films always teeter on the edge of a scant narrative without ever quite getting there, yet manage to somehow quietly thrill regardless. It is perhaps significant then that the most indefinably effective shot in his oeuvre is the one that most pointedly abandons any remote sense of narrative stricture. After following the same ex-convict through the Argentinean jungle for an hour and twenty minutes, Alonso slowly tilts his camera down and lets him walk out of frame with a little native child, focusing on a pair of stray toys in the dirt. If there's one image in this list that proves that film has the ability to work in such curiously moving ways even when a narrative is thrown out the window on a dime, it's this one. When I saw it, I held my breath until the credits rolled.
Transformers 2 (Michael Bay, 2009, DP: Ben Seresin)
Yes, Transformers 2 is an unprecedented antithesis to quality cinema, a garish collection of all of the disposable gratuities in contemporary American media, an example of the tasteless objectification of women, and an insult to the sensitive viewer, but somewhere beneath Michael Bay's boyish need to blow things up and ogle at Megan Fox's heinie is a unique maximalist sensibility. The above still frame is indeed probably just a natural result of the kind of scrappy metal play he indulges in, but try to prove to me that this is not some form of brilliant subconscious art worthy of being displayed large-scale in a museum. The candy-coated colors, swirling Autobot detritus, and cramped composition create an opulent abstraction that feels like a cinematic update to Robert Rauschenberg.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006, DP: Luke Geissbuhler, Anthony Hardwick)
The image plays like a print from "Where's Waldo?". Like Waldo, Borat, one of the absurdly larger-than-life creations of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, has become a culturally ubiquitous figure, instantly recognizable for his idiosyncratic look. Unlike Waldo however, Borat sticks out like a sore thumb; a complete book of "Where's Borat?" would be a frustratingly quick skim-through for even young readers. It is precisely this recognizability though that makes this frame from the uproarious Borat an important one. No other mug from 21st century media immediately provokes something so strong in the national consciousness, whether it is seething anger or fond hilarity.
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2008, DP: Robert Elswit)
Robert Elswit won one of the few deserved Oscars of the decade for his cinematography in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, bringing superior technical skill and an understanding of the psychological effects of the vast landscape shot to this gritty turn-of-the-century parable of greed and oil. No other American film this decade felt as effortlessly grandiose and old-fashioned, utilizing big panoramic shots of its charismatic star Daniel Day-Lewis in the center of the imposing heartland that have a way of recalling John Ford and Sergio Leone. The above frame is one of them that particularly stands out.
Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001, DP: Linklater, Tommy Pallotta)
Richard Linklater's a filmmaker who's not normally known for remarkable visuals, but by the time he began work on Waking Life, it seemed he was ready to invent a new aesthetic. Utilizing initial footage and then grooming every frame with writhing animated flourishes, he devised a form of radical rotoscoping, resulting in a lively film that is impossible to stop looking it. It's also a uniquely dreamy, metaphysical work that is perpetually open to the possibility of sheer randomness, of spontaneous thought materializing. This shot is one of those instances, involving an embittered outcast who suddenly sets himself aflame after a rant. Made, incidentally, in conjunction with 9/11, something feels disturbingly timely about it.
Caché (Haneke, 2005, DP: Christian Berger)
An alarming burst of violence in a film that, up until this point, sits completely static, poised in a state of cerebral quietude, is enough to jolt a viewer out of complacency. The scene, as it turns out, involving the main character's estranged brother's suicide, eventually turns out to be a brutal physical manifestation of his own feelings of repressed guilt. This does not make it a detached abstraction though; Haneke is one of the few narrative directors willing to show real violence and human blood in its unglamorous nature, in a way that does not titillate an audience but rather confronts them.
The Life Aquatic (Wes Anderson, 2004, DP: Robert Yeoman)
This has to be one of the few moments in Wes Anderson's filmography that does not divide believers and non-believers, that is indeed unquestionably fantastic. In what I believe to be his best film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Bill Murray gives a lengthy description of his treasured ship while Anderson nimbly surveys the rooms in a continuous tracking shot, making the boat into a life-size dollhouse. The cartoonish set design, precise lighting, and playful color scheme of salmon pink, turquoise, and tan make this a marvel of concise visual storytelling.
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009, DP: Robert Richardson)
Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew whose family was massacred during World War II, goes up in a blaze of light and smoke while laughing maniacally at the antagonistic Nazi's seated before the silver screen. Tarantino's explosive climax to his latest film Inglourious Basterds was as cleverly staged as it was provocative, using the cinematic image as a grand way of revising history. For all his flaws, he's definitely one of the ballsiest American talents.
Birth (Jonathon Glazer, 2004, DP: Harris Savides)
Rarely does an actor or actress pull off the kind of feat that Nicole Kidman does here, wrenching through an entire three minutes with her subtle facial expressions alone. The camera stays fixed and relies on her to carry the weight of the scene, which she does beautifully. Not to mention the complexity of the scenario: her character has just begun to believe that her deceased husband has reincarnated in the form of a ten-year old boy.
INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006, DP: Lynch)
The two-second path that David Lynch takes to get from this to the above frame is an unexpectedly frightening one, culminating in what is likely the most petrified expression that has ever washed over Laura Dern's face. Of course, Dern is owed the lion's share of the credit for making this such an alarming frame, but a portion of what makes it so destabilizing is Lynch's fearlessly unconventional aesthetic. Shot on a consumer-grade camera, he deliberately lets the digital video blow out, distort, and smear the look of its subjects, an aesthetic that has forever been a sacrilege in Hollywood. This shot singlehandedly epitomizes Lynch's trailblazing experimental sensibility, and shouts a "screw-you" to major studios that think that films must be pristine on the surface to be effective.