Friday, October 24, 2014

Top 15 Underpraised Long Takes

Search for the best long takes in cinema, and you’ll find the usual suspects. The Copacabana shot in Goodfellas; the opening shots of Boogie Nights, Touch of Evil, and Gravity; action scenes in The Protector, Hard Boiled and Oldboy; the car shootout in Children of Men; the TV station shot in Magnolia; the conversation in Hunger; the jog in Shame; the conclusion of The Passenger; the raid in True Detective. You’ll read about the extended use of long takes in movies like Rope, Timecode, Irreversible, Russian Ark, and, soon enough, Birdman. And the thing is, while all of those shots deserve to be hailed as some of the best long takes ever captured, the internet is oversaturated with praise for them. I’ve written about many of those shots on this blog before, so in an effort to branch out, here’s a list of excellent and vastly underpraised long takes in film.

Please be aware that spoilers lurk within.

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
Ready to Take the Day // 2 minutes 32 seconds
As far as long takes are concerned, German maestro Max Ophüls is the be-all and end-all. Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Fuller, and Alejandro González Iñárritu have cited Ophüls’ shooting style as a major influence on their careers. The man was a pioneer of long takes, and choosing just one favorite is damn near impossible. But I’ll offer up the opening shot of The Earrings of Madame de..., in which the camera follows the title character as she gets ready for her day. I would give further insight into the shot, but Paul Thomas Anderson (via the Criterion release of the film) has already articulated the intention of the shot far better than I could.

I Am Cuba (1964)
The Funeral // 2 mins 31 seconds
Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba was released exactly 50 years ago, and I still have no idea how many of the elaborate long takes in the film were achieved. Just watch this goddamn funeral scene (located here). Starts on the ground, traverses up a building, glides to another building, eases through a crowded room, then fucking floats outside in midair. Astonishing.

Fun fact: Paul Thomas Anderson proudly ripped off I Am Cuba’s long take of a pool party for a similar sequence in Boogie Nights.

The Passion of Anna (1969)
A Man Lost // 1 minute 20 seconds
The common thread in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, Shame and The Passion of Anna is Max von Sydow’s fleeting sanity. Although the films are set in different places and different time periods, they form an unofficial trilogy, centered around a man gone mad. Essentially, all three films are leading up to the conclusion of The Passion of Anna, in which we slowly push in on von Sydow’s character pacing back and forth in a barren field. Nowhere to go and no one to listen. Aimless, lost, gone.

All the President’s Men (1976)
“Okay, we go with it.” // 33 seconds
It’s important to note that just because a shot is long, that doesn’t automatically make it effective. A shorter long shot can be as vital as the most extended long shots. This shot near the end of All the President’s Men is a prime example. The entirety of the film builds to this moment. The shot in question begins at the 2:40 mark in the clip above. Washington Post reporter, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) comes running out of an office, the camera pushing in and out, in perfect stride with the actor’s movements. He stops and tells Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) some news, and they take off after their editor, Ben Bradley (Jason Robards). Now, watch what the camera does here. Study it. It glides across the newsroom, effortlessly weaving around desks and barriers. The character focus changes from Bernstein to Woodward to Bradley, all within 33 seconds. It’s truly astounding work; one of the single greatest shots of Gordon Willis’ career.

Halloween (1978)
“Michael’s around someplace.” // shot one: 3 minutes, shot two: 58 seconds
Although the opening shot of John Carpenter’s Halloween sneakily cuts when Michael puts the mask on, the effect remains the same. We’re in there. In the mind of an unseen child – a child we fear, though to the extent of which we do not know. Yet.

Nostalghia (1983)
The Candle Burns // 9 minutes 7 seconds
Andrei Tarkovsky was a master of long takes. It’s so difficult to pick a favorite, but his epic conclusion to Nostalghia is as necessary as long takes get. Out of context, the clip above may not mean much to you. But if you’ve seen the film, you know how devastating this shot really is.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
“This would be a really great way to kill somebody.” // 1 minute 56 seconds
Covering a five person conversation is a nightmare. There are so many angles and points of view to hit on; you could literally spend days shooting masters, mediums and close-ups of every actor in the scene. An alternative solution is to do it the Woody Allen way. Handheld, with the camera bobbing and weaving around the table for one single take. A little sloppy, totally raw, completely authentic.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
“I’m the foot fuckin’ master.” // 2 minutes 36 seconds
Quentin Tarantino has certainly executed much longer takes in his career (the diner conversation in Death Proof is a lot of fun), but this shot in Pulp Fiction is a perfect example of a stealth oner. That is, a long take we don’t really notice. The writing is so good (and the acting so priceless), that you completely forget the entire scene is executed in one take.

Funny Games (1997/2007)
A Mother Mourns // 10 minutes 14 seconds
What would you do if your only child was murdered in front of you? How long would it take you to move again, to think again, to breathe again? All questions Michael Haneke explores in this shot from both versions of his pitch black satire, Funny Games. And note, the embedded clip is only a portion of the entire shot. Fucking agony.

Good Will Hunting (1997)
“Your move, chief.” // 2 minutes 38 seconds

This scene has been discussed a lot, mostly due to its strong writing and Robin Williams’ perfect delivery (rest in peace, fine sir). But the cinematography is essential. In one shot, two men are literally, irreversibly united.

Code Unknown (2000)
Subway Terror // 5 minutes 30 seconds
Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown is comprised of a series of vignettes, most of them taking place over a single take. The best one comes near the end, when Juliette Binoche’s character is berated on a subway for no other reason than she’s good looking and white. And perhaps you’ve been exposed to this before: an obnoxious person is on the subway, talking loudly, carrying on. He focuses his cruel amusement on one person, and begins harassing them. You’re there, you’re watching it go down, and so the question becomes: do you do something? Surely someone else will speak up, right? Besides, it’s not any of my business, right? If I intervene, I could get hurt, right?

This is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever witnessed in a film. Unbearable to watch, but absolutely necessary for everyone to see. (Note: I could not find this clip with English subtitles. The film is currently on Netflix Instant in America. My suggestion is that you watch it immediately.)

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Tequila Confessions // 6 minutes 55 seconds
I actually wrote about this scene in my recent list of the best fourth wall breaks, but it deserves mention again, for an entirely different reason. Few contemporary filmmakers execute wildly imaginative long takes as consistently as Alfonso Cuarón and his DP, Emmanuel Lubezki. But Y Tu Mamá También is different. The many long takes in the film never bring attention to themselves. They simply exist, without being flashy. My favorite is the extended conversation the three main characters have at a beach bar. They drink, they toast, and boy, do they dance.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
The Frantic Search // 3 minutes
While the excruciatingly long dinner shot dominates the conversation regarding the cinematography of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the film is full of notable long takes. The most unbearable one for me is the extended take of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) desperately, secretively, trying to discard the baby that her best friend has just aborted. If she’s caught, she’s doomed. She walks carefully, her increasingly nervous energy heightening the tension. Every noise a startle, every person a threat. Perhaps the most gut wrenching aspect of this scene is that, in some perversely odd way, we’re hoping that she’ll get away clean.

Before Midnight (2013)
“This is where it ends.” // shot one: 5 minutes, shot two: 8 minutes 4 seconds
They talk about things that people who have known each other for a long time talk about: work, kids, food, cats. When Jesse brings up his oldest son, Hank, the conversation slowly turns. He misses Hank dearly, and feels that he is shamefully absent for his son’s formative years. Celine hears this, and assumes Jesse wants her to move to Chicago. “This is where it ends. This is how people start breaking up,” she blurts out. It’s the conversation that haunts all of Before Midnight. Beautiful in its simplicity, painful in its accuracy. (Note: although the driving shot temporarily cuts to a shot of the Greek ruins, director Richard Linklater has said that two driving shots were from the some extended take.)

12 Years a Slave (2013)
The Flogging of Patsey // 4 minutes 46 seconds
Steve McQueen is known for his simple, but wholly effective long takes. The extended, central conversation in Hunger gets a lot of play, as does the immaculate running scene in Shame. But the brutal beating of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave is the most visceral long shot McQueen as ever captured. We’re forced to witness the true horror, without the relief of a cutaway shot to mortified spectators, or hands gripped tightly on a tree. It’s all about the faces – some anguished, some lifeless, and others, horrifically, satisfied.

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47 comments:

  1. Oh, the one in Nostalghia is amazing as Tarkovsky doesn't get enough credit for long takes as the one in Y Tu Mama Tambien, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, Before Midnight, and 12 Years a Slave are worth mentioning.

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    1. I feel that, aside from us fanatical film buffs, Tarkovsky isn't really mentioned enough in general, you know? But anyway, I love that you dig that shot. Such moving shit.

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    2. Yea I wandered back to this post because I remembered you talking about him. I worked through all this stuff this week for the first time and I agree he needs way more praise, guy is as much of a poet as Bergman, and that's going somewhere.

      Were you thinking of doing a directors list of his work, or not. Would love to see what you thought of the rest of his stuff :)

      Looking forward to that Boogie Nights post too man! Adore that film, escpecially the drug deal sequence :D

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    3. LOVE that you sought out his work. You know, it's funny... I sat down about a year ago with the intention of watching every Tarkovsky film in order and doing a director's post on him. But I got too wrapped up in the films and didn't have the emotional energy to write about them after! Still, I'd love to cover him soon.

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    4. Oh yea its really draining man, as is Bergman, but its so damn captivating that I cant help but watch it over and over again, trying to uncover what it all means- to me. The great thing about these two is everyone can take something from each of them films specific to them, rather than having one accepted 'theory'.

      I'm going to trawl through Haneke's stuff next, after Armour rocked me to the fucking core. Worth it?

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    5. Bergman is the only director whose films I cannot watch back to back. Like, I can never do two Bergman's in one day, because they take so much out of me. That's why he's my all-time favorite. And I don't think it's a coincidence that one of Bergman's favorite filmmakers was Tarkovsky. It's all connected.

      I crushed through all of Haneke's films in a week a few years ago (and have revisited many of them often since). Amour is his tamest work yet. It is heavy, heavy stuff, but yeah man, so worth it. My favorite is still his first, The Seventh Continent. But I like them all.

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    6. Very true. Ill report back when I've seen them all. They may be HEAVY from what I've heard, but if anything that makes them even more important to see, at least for me :)

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    7. Yeah they definitely weigh a lot. But there's so much to dive into with them. Exquisite visual puzzles.

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  2. I'm only familiar with a handful of the ones you mentioned but there are definitely some interesting choices. I'm certainly familiar with the opening of Touch of Evil (in fact, I think it might be the only thing about that movie I am familiar with, I know almost nothing else about the rest of it). I think part of the reason the scene in Gravity is such an iconic example now has to do with just how unusually long it is, even for a long take.

    It shouldn't surprise me that Tarkovsky had a fondness for long takes. If Solaris was anything to go on he certainly liked to drag out his scenes way longer than necessary so why not take it a step it further by minimizing the cutting?

    It never really occurred to me that the scene in Pulp Fiction was done in one shot. You were right, you really don't notice that aspect until you find yourself examining it. Going back over it there were even one or two points where I expected a cut and was surprised to find they kept the same shot going.

    The Before Midnight shot is another great one. I'll admit I was surprised with how long that scene went, with the camera being placed in on spot at one angle for most of it. On the other hand it did manage to convey quite a bit about what had happened in between films and helped to set the scene for everything to come. I mean those two girls spend most of the scene asleep and have almost no dialogue and yet they still feel like actual characters.

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    1. Your thoughts on Before Midnight are perfect. People may think it's "easy" for child actors to be still for so long (over a number of takes), but it'd actually be really difficult. And you're so right, they feel real. That's such a marvelous scene, because the dialogue is half what's going on now, and half what happened then. If you haven't seen the first two films, that scene in Before Midnight will catch you up, while not being overly expository. Ah, I just love it.

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  3. I am so happy you included Halloween. Carpenter has been one of my favorite filmmakers for the longest time. He just happens to work (and does his best work) within the horror genre.

    12 Years A Slave I have a hard time revisiting, specifically for the long take you mentioned. Yet, I would not want that shot executed any other way.

    Many extended shots that go unnoticed are Spielberg's. The constantly shifting backgrounds, the vis effects, how the camera is always following the emotion or action of a character. There is a great video on youtube under the user name Every Frame A Painting documenting Senor Spielbergo's one shot takes.

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    1. I never was a big fan of Halloween. Personally I'd have preferred the long take that opens "Escape From New York".

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    2. Spielberg is a master of the stealth oner. Though I didn't find room to mention him in this post, I really appreciate how he executes long takes without being flashy. And Halloween... man, what a ballsy way to start a horror film. I absolutely adore that movie.

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  4. Fantastic post. Your imagination in terms of the subjects you get to choose is apparently limitless. The long shot technique... God, it's so damn unconventional for mainstream audiences as a technique and especially for the american audiences. But can be so much effective. Man, that take on "12 years a slave", it was more than effective. This scene literally killed me. The way McQueen handles the camera is almost breathtaking. Mixed with the content of that scene, it ends up almost insufferable. And of course, how could you make a post like that without a "Funny Games" reference? To me, the masterful scene you refer to from Haneke's exceptional scene tops everything. The way Haneke uses static shots over camera movement is just chilling. Fucking agony indeed, man. It gets under your skin. And it just goes to show the brilliance with which Haneke can empasize into the distance between the image of reality conceived from the audience through the media and the actual reality. Brilliance. Pure brilliance in both versions (1997/2007).

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    1. Thanks man! The first time I saw 12 Years a Slave, I knew what he was doing with that shot about 2 minutes in. And I kept thinking, "Fuck, I hope he doesn't show her getting hit, fuck I hope he doesn--" And then, of course, he does. He has to. And if you understand the very basics of cinematography (I mean you as in "you," not you as in Stergios) then you can appreciate how complex the blocking is in that scene. It's really quite something.

      Michael Haneke and the static shot. I'm just not sure if anyone does them better. Save a few minor pans right and left, some of the best shots of his career are completely still. Such a marvelous feat.

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    2. Hell yeah, man, I totally get everything you say there. Haneke is really the master of static shots. And it's damn true that scenes like the one in "12 Years A Slave" and "Funny Games" are going to make you feel uncomfortable, but that's the point. Filmmakers as great as Haneke and McQueen get their audience thinking rather than simply entertaining them. That's HUGE in every art form. Period.

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  5. Great list! (I wonder how many times I've said that on your blog? You're always coming up with such great ideas) I forgot that scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days was all in one take. I love that Halloween and Pulp Fiction made it in here.

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    1. Ha, thanks Brittani! I so appreciate every time you say that here, really, it means a lot! That whole sequence in 4 Months is so goddamn tense. I hadn't seen that movie in years actually. Was so glad to have a reason to revisit it.

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  6. Excellent list. One to consider looking at, if you've never seen it, is the bank robbery scene from Gun Crazy. Such a wonderful way to film an important scene, and it all comes across as so natural. Check it out if you haven't.

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    1. Thanks man, really appreciate you stopping by and commenting. You always have the best recommendations. Gun Crazy... I'm all over it.

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  7. I've seen all of those films except for Manhattan Murder Mystery and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. The one I will disagree with, going along with your point of "just because it's long doesn't mean it's good", is the one from Funny Games. After several minutes I just said "enough already" and hit fast forward until the movie finally started up again. Five minutes would have been more than enough time for Hanake to get his point across.

    One continuous take that doesn't seem to get praise, perhaps because it's from a very popular movie and critics tend to avoid praising the craftsmanship in those too much or they will lose points among their peers, is in The Avengers. During the Battle of New York there's a single shot that pans over all six of the heroes as they are each achieving victories both major and minor. It was a great way to show both the scope of the scene, but also that the massively different "powers" of some of them does not mean that they are just standing around, trying not to get killed. It's probably less than a minute in length, but it was a great way to show them both as individuals and as a team.

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    1. I get where you're coming from regarding Funny Games. Haneke's films (and many of his indiviual shots) are so polarizing. One person sees brilliance, the other sees excess. Definitely fair enough.

      I have a vague recollection of that shot from The Avengers, but I want to go back and check it out now. It's very rare for a huge movie like that to pull off a oner. Great inclusion for this list.

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    2. A clarification on Funny Games: I felt it was one of the better Haneke films I've seen, probably because it has a complete story in it. I was only disputing the more than 10 minute length of that scene and if that length was necessary to convey what it needed to.

      And Whedon tends to put continuous shots in all the things he does. The opening of Serenity has a long sequence that starts in the cockpit and travels through the entire ship, laying it out for everyone and introducing all the characters. There is a hidden edit in it, though.

      For what it's worth, it wouldn't surprise me if the scene I mentioned was on Youtube. It ends with Thor and the Hulk combining to take down one of those large ships (Hulk driving a piece of metal into the head and Thor using his hammer to pound it the rest of the way in.) I can't remember who it starts on - possible Black Widow.

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    3. Just watched it. Yeah, that's a solid shot.

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  8. Not very familiar with a lot of the scenes on the list, so I guess I have plenty of movies to add to my watch list! Love that you included Manhattan Murder Mystery. That's such a wacky movie but hilarious.

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    1. I love the style of MMM so much. Though the style better used in Husbands and Wives, I always thought MMM was a lot of wacky fun as well. And that restaurant scene really impresses me.

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  9. Once again, great choices and such an interesting post!

    That Funny Games scene is just so hard to watch, but brilliantly constructed. Just fantastic filmmaking.

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    1. Thanks buddy! I agree, that Funny Games scene is so hard to sit through, but that is exactly Haneke's intention. Fantastic indeed.

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  10. That scene from 12 Years a Slave is harrowing. Steve McQueen knows what he's doing with long takes! Great list, Alex!

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    1. Thanks Courtney! That's definitely one hell of a harrowing scene there. So intense.

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  11. Thank you for making a list like this, Alex. It's so refreshing to see other long takes get paid their due instead of the same old Children of Men/Atonement/Goodfellas/Boogie Nights/Etc. shots. Don't get me wrong. Those are great scenes, but there are other long takes out there. That Funny Games one is great, really shocked me. I also loved seeing Jules and Vincent banter in that Pulp Fiction scene. Manhattan Murder Mystery is chock full of long takes. I'm surprised I rarely see that mentioned and I'm really glad it's on here.

    One scene that I want to bring up is the stadium scene from The Secret in Their Eyes. I haven't seen the movie yet, so I don't really know the context, but it starts out with an aerial view of a football stadium and gets closer and closer until it's in the crowd. I was really impressed by the technical expertise behind it.

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    1. Wow, Nickloas, what a thoughtful comment. Thank you so much for saying this. The Secret in Their Eyes is a GREAT call. I would love to know how the hell they pulled that off. I mean... some of its HAS to be digital, right? But either way, that's a very good choice on your part. Absolutely love that shot.

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  12. Very interesting post Alex. The flogging of Patsey in 12 Years A Slave is incredible difficult to watch. Those long takes you mention in Shame are beautiful (and to be honest I think I prefer Shame as a movie overall) but they cannot compare with the power of McQueen's camera work in 12 Years A Slave.

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    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and checking out the post. I too prefer Shame over 12 Years a Slave, but I prefer Shame over most films. Ha. Still, point is McQueen knows how to execute a long take. A master.

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  13. Lots of good ones in here. I think all of the moves in the Before series have those long, extended takes, but it's an interesting one that you pointed out in Before Midnight, because that's where their argument started.

    Also, the one in 12 Years a Slave is brutal to watch. For me, I had to look away just because I needed a break from watching the brutality on screen.

    Probably my favorite one on your list is in Halloween. It's just done so well, and it's a great example of how truly scary movies have way more than just a few cheap thrills added in. Great post, Alex!

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    1. Oh there are definitely worthy long takes in all of the Before films (love the shot of them walking on the stairs near the end of Sunset), but that opener from Midnight is my favorite.

      And how creepy is that damn Halloween shot?! That's how you open a horror flick.

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  14. Great list. One rarely-mentioned long take that I love is from a movie listed here - the scene where the slaves are put up for sale in 12 Years a Slave. The scene isn't as violent as Patsey's whipping but it's just as horrific - not to mention the blocking is insanely on-point (how you can produce so many perfectly framed shots in this sort of long take boggles the mind). And I didn't even notice it was a long take until the second time I saw it!

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    1. Thanks man. That is definitely a great long take. And yes, the blocking is crazy good. But really, the blocking in all of McQueen's films is masterful. The shots feel of-the-moment, but were clearly rehearsed very carefully.

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  15. Just recently found your blog, and have been reading a lot of your posts. It's really interesting and cool for me to see someone as passionate about film as I am. I plan on starting a film blog pretty soon to write about my favorite films, this site definitely inspired me. Love your taste in film, nice to see someone else who appreciates Malick. Although I can't agree with your opinion on Slumdog Millionaire. By far the best Boyle film! Maybe even one of the best one the 21st century for me.

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    1. Wow Philip, thanks so much for this comment, it means so much to me. Love hearing that you're a fan of the site, and are passionate about great cinema. Malick is a hero of mine - I so identity with this style of filmmaking. I watched The Tree of Life repeatedly while making my feature film, letting its lyrical narrative creep into me.

      And Slumdog isn't bad by any means! Its appeal has just lessened with me over the years. Still, a worthy Best Picture win, certainly. Thanks again for stopping by, I really do appreciate it!

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  16. The subway shot in Code Unknown is one of my favorite long takes ever. Binoche is amazing in that scene. I love so many of these, especially the ones from Funny Games, Halloween, Before Midnight and Pulp Fiction. I forgot about the one from Manhattan Murder Mystery, which is an inspired choice.

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    1. So glad you like that MMM shot as well. I've always been drawn to the style of that film (and Husbands and Wives too).

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  17. I love long takes, probably my favorite type of shot. They can really add a sense of realism to a film and can create tension. Great post!

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    1. Thanks Rachel! Very hard to top a great long take.

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  18. Worked through the Before trilogy before I went away and adored them. Funnily enough, Sunset is my least favorite, save two little words (you know the ones). Still a superb film though.

    Funnily enough, whenever I see Nostalghia that shot seems to last a fraction of what it actually is- like literally a minute or two. Transfixed me to the very end, I think :p

    Oh and finally, on that note, any thoughts on the latter film's penultimate scene (the suicide)?

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    1. This reminded me that I need to see ALL of Tarkovsky's films again. They're so powerful and evocative. I love that scene you're talking about. Ah, what power.

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    2. I could just watch them over and over again. So much more to see each time.

      That scene really disturbs me each time, just so vivid.

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