With Gravity, director Alfonso Cuaron and his team pull off some of the most impressive camera shots you'll ever see. That may sound hyperbolic, but when the film has its first cut 15 minutes into the running time and you realize that almost the entire first act of the film was a single shot, your jaw will drop. Lengthy shots have been a badge of honor for filmmakers for decades, but this is Cuaron dropping the gauntlet and setting a new gold standard in what filmmaking can do.
In honor of Cuaron's massively impressive and effective showing off, let's revisit some of the crazier and more impressive one-take shots in cinema. These are the astonishing shots that are not only beautiful to watch, but make you wonder how the hell they were pulled off. Getting a single static shot can be a genuine pain in the butt, so these clips are the work of true master technicians, geniuses who not only know how to tell a story, but how to do it with style.
Whenever a filmmaker goes for the lengthy take, there's always an element of showing off. Whether or not the finished shot ends up being self-indulgent or vital to the film as a whole depends on context. With that said, there has never been a better "show off" shot that actually speaks volumes about a film and its characters than the famous Copacabana in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. The camera follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and soon-to-be-wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) as he navigates her through the back entrance into a fancy club, bypassing the line and literally having a new table placed on the floor for him. It's an incredible shot that's as exhilarating as anything else in the film -- the long take puts us in Karen's shoes and we get to see and feel how exciting it is to be part of Henry's privileged world.
Children of Men
Before he set out to top himself with Gravity, director Alfonso Cuaron was already known for his lengthy and complicated takes thanks to his science fiction masterpiece Children of Men. In a film filled with shots that literally required new equipment to be built from scratch in order to accomplish them, nothing tops the jaw-dropping "Uprising" sequence, which sees star Clive Owen navigating a war zone in order to rescue the last pregnant woman in his dystopic world. The one-shot sequence is so intense and absorbing that you don't start wondering how they pulled it off until the fifth or sixth time you watch it. Once you start to consider the logistics of the scene, you realize what a technical accomplishment it really is. Thankfully, the results are thrilling enough to make it all worth it.
Touch of Evil
No discussion of lengthy takes would be complete without mentioning Orson Welles' seminal Touch of Evil, which opens with one of the most stylish and iconic shots of all time. A seemingly never-ending crane shot that follows a bomb as it's placed in the trunk of a car, the shot serves several purposes. First, it gives us an overview of the small border town where the film takes place, introducing us to our location while keeping us in suspense. Secondly, it introduces us to our characters and immediately makes us concerned for them thanks to their proximity to the bomb. Finally, it lets us know that we're not about to watch any old noir -- we're about to watch an Orson Welles noir. This is easily the most stylish and captivating film prologue ever shot, setting every piece of the story in place and keeping the audience captivated the entire time.
Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is one of the darkest and most twisted thrillers ever made, a masterpiece of bad feelings that'll get under the skin of even the most seasoned film buff. However, it also features one of the most exhilarating action sequences ever put on film. After being held captive for unknown reasons for 15 years, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is released and embarks on a quest for vengeance. After exploring one particularly dangerous avenue, he finds himself cornered in a hallway, surrounded by a couple dozen men. Armed only with a hammer, he gets to work. The fight lasts three minutes and the camera dollies with Dae-su as he works his way through the small army of henchmen, letting us see the tide of the fight shift and change in real time. With no cuts to hide the action, the result is the rare cinematic brawl that actually feels real.
Alfred Hitchcock was always keen on making stylish and visually unique films, but Rope presents one of his most audacious visions. The 80-minute film consists of only 10 shots, with many of those shots edited together to resemble even longer shots. The result is a film that, a few conventional splices aside, feels like one long take, with the story being told in real time. Although Hitchcock himself later admitted that this was just a gimmick, the film remains weirdly compelling, having the tension of a stage play or live performance. The choice also works thematically: the film opens with a murder and a body being hidden in plain sight, so the choice to keep everything in one shot only increases the suspense, since we have literally seen everything that has happened and know exactly how close the murderers are to getting caught.
According to legend, the hallway shoot-out in John Woo's Hard Boiled was done in one shot and completed in a single take because budgeting and scheduling wouldn't allow anything else. Although this is most certainly an exaggeration, there's no denying that it's the highlight in a movie that's seemingly made up entirely of iconic action beats. The handheld shot follows stars Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung down a hospital corridor as they dispatch dozens of bad guys with violent ease. It's the world's most violent and insane shooting gallery, with henchmen falling in explosions of blood while the two heroes calmly discuss the situation at hand. You have never seen so many squibs go off and this much glass shatter without a cut.
With Rope, Hitchcock spliced together a number of lengthy takes to create the illusion of a one-shot movie. With Russian Ark, director Alexander Sokurov actually made a 96-minute historical drama using a single Steadicam shot. Although your enjoyment of the film will depend entirely on whether or not you're interested in an occasionally surreal overview of Russian history, there's no denying its technical accomplishments. The camera follows an unnamed narrator as he explores Russia's enormous Winter Palace, wandering from room to room and observing major moments from throughout the nation's history. The camera movement itself is rarely flashy, but the precise choreography of everything in the frame is as impressive as anything mentioned in this article. Like with so many of these shots, you don't think about the logistics of making Russian Ark happen until much later, but when you do, it only gets more impressive.
To say that Bela Tarr's films aren't for everyone is to make the understatement of the year. The Hungarian filmmaker's work can difficult and impenetrable to the casual viewer, but there's no denying their technical precision. Take Werkmeister Harmonies, a 145-minute film that only has 39 shots. Even if you're not willing to engage in Tarr's bleak nonnarrative, you can't help but gape at his cinematography, which just looks and feels downright impossible. Take the opening shot of the film (see below), which follows a man in a tavern as he uses his fellow patrons to recreate the solar system. Watch it carefully. Where are the cables? Where are the lights? Forget about what the scene actually means for a moment to ponder how this shot actually exists and how Tarr pulled it off. The rest of the film is as odd, chilling and weird as this, but this may be one of the most quietly impressive shots in all of cinema.
No discussion of long shots could be complete without mentioning Michelangelo Antonioni and if you're going to discuss the long shots of Antonioni, you've got to bring up The Passenger. In the film, Jack Nicholson plays a reporter who assumes the identity of a dead arms dealer and watches as his situation spirals out of control. Well, "spirals" may be the wrong word, since nothing moves fast in an Antonioni film. Even the famous penultimate shot of The Passenger is slow by the standards of many of the shots on this list, but that doesn't make it any less impressive. Utilizing a hotel set that was built specifically to get this shot, it's an example of a long take being used to further a story, not to show off. In fact, the whole thing is paced so methodically that many viewers may not notice that it's unbroken at first.
Robert Altman was never known as a particularly flashy filmmaker, often hanging back and giving the spotlight to his actors. However, when he did choose to go big with his camera, he was as masterful (and playful) as any of his peers. The opening shot of The Player is as fun as anything Altman ever directed, introducing us to the film's ensemble cast in one long take throughout a Hollywood backlot. What's most exciting about the shot is how it maintains Altman's signature tics despite going so big. The actors are still center stage and the incredibly mobile camera allows for his infamous overlapping dialogue to take on a more epic scope than ever before.
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