A great shot in a film, like a particularly good sentence in a novel, can allow a film to transcend its boundaries of aspect ratios and screen sizes. Single frames can speak volumes more than any line of dialogue. Our culture is one built of images and so it is only fitting that film, as our sharpest form of storytelling and cultural measurement, follows suit. The best filmmakers, folks like Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson, are able to craft a whole, cohesive portrait without forgetting the minutiae. A movie cannot be made great by one or two especially good shots, but if the director is able to keep the grand vision in mind along with the individual shots, something truly special is almost certain to result.
The current year was one filled with breathtaking and absolutely powerful filmic frames. There were some pretty bad shots too, but why dwell on those? Let us not think of the toilet-bowl visuals of The Ridiculous Six, but instead the mind-blowing imagery of stuff like Mad Max: Fury Road. Looking back on the past is more fun with rose-colored glasses, so here are the very best shots of 2015. These are the images by which 2015 should be remembered. This is the year in single frames.
Dir.: Todd Haynes; DoP.: Edward Lachman
Carol is a remarkably understated film merely because it is a film of repressed desires and longings for a past that may or may not have ever even existed. Many shots from the film, including the one chosen, are framed through dirty panes of glass looking out into a blurry, unsure world. Rooney Mara’s character, in this particular shot, is looking out and reminiscing on her past with Cate Blanchett’s titular character. Her feelings of faded romance and uncertainty are portrayed to near perfection in this shot. Todd Haynes is a man who knows where to place his camera.
Dir.: Ryan Coogler; DoP: Maryse Alberti
(This entry contains spoilers for the film!)
The final shot of Creed focuses on Adonis Creed and Rocky Balboa, as they look over the iconic “Rocky Steps” in Philadelphia. It’s a peaceful moment after witnessing each character’s triumph over the respective battles but it’s one full of imagery. It shows the relationship between Rocky and Adonis perfectly, while signifying the passing of the torch to the new boxer worth rooting for.
Dir.: Justin Kurzel; DoP.: Adam Arkapaw
There is a strong foreboding, apocalyptic nature to Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth adaptation. From the opening shot of a dead child to the final grisly moments, the film seems bathed in violence and death. Everyone has blood on their hands, and there seems to be no letting up. Soaked in a hellish red, the shot chosen, with Michael Fassbender playing the eponymous mad king, seems to exemplify what Kurzel’s movie is really about. It’s not even really about Shakespeare’s classic verse; it’s a film of the inevitable; of huge, looming figures falling to the steel death around them. People surrounded by visceral images. Like No Country for Old Men, it is a movie about the unstoppable nature of violence. Everyone is tied up in the blood, and no one is innocent.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Dir.: George Miller; DoP: John Seale
While Mad Max: Fury Road has an amazing selection of shots to choose from (there’s not one second of bad cinema), there’s only one single frame that stands out for a Best of 2015 list. The shot of Furiosa using Max as support for her rifle captures both the film and its intentions perfectly. Miller basically created a new action hero icon with the character of Furiosa, but under the guise of a Mad Max film. It’s a brilliant move that goes along with a brilliant movie, and hopefully, we get to see more women of the written quality level of Furiosa grace upcoming blockbusters.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Dir.: J. J. Abrams; DoP: Dan Mindel
(This entry contains spoilers for the film!)
Unfortunately (but for obvious reasons), Disney and Lucasfilm have not used the final shot of The Force Awakens in any of their promotional material, but it has already probably made its mark on the public consciousness. In what is most likely the final frame audiences will see in a theater this year, Rey hands Luke Skywalker his old lightsaber as the camera swoops around the cliff they are standing on. The screen then dissolves into the credits. It’s an awkward shot for Star Wars fans, as previous Star Wars films never ended on motion shots. It’s weird, but it’s Abrams’ final emphasis that this is new and different, but it’s still Star Wars. It’s a mix of the new generation and the Star Wars legacy, and hey, that’s exactly what The Force Awakens was.
BONUS: Alright Music Video
Dir.: Colin Tilley; DoP.: Colin Tilley
While music videos are a long way from receiving even remotely the amount of acclaim and wide reach that motion pictures currently do, Colin Tilley’s excellent video for Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright” seems to show that music videos can hold some of the same visual power as a feature length film. The particular shot above, in stunning black-and-white, shows Kendrick standing bold above the near-ruins of urban Los Angeles; a veritable Christ figure brought about to instill hope and good vibes into the people who have been trodden upon by institutional racism and police brutality. Tilley is presenting Lamar as a sort-of unpretentious street preacher, giving a peace sign to the cold and huddled masses. Soon, in the video, Kendrick is shot down and falls cruciform to the ground. Even in apparent death, he lets out a sly smirk to the camera. It, everything, is going to be alright.
List Authors: Whit Denton, Anton Reyes