It’s a yearly tradition here at The Establishing Shot to pick the favorite images from each movie year and 2016 will be no exception. What constitutes a favorite image? They’re the shots from films that I found to be the most memorable. They were startling, notable, artistic, or even shocking. No matter what the reason, here are the 10 images from this year that are still in my head. (And yes, there will be some spoilers in the upcoming paragraphs.)
Director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim set out to tell a bolder and more intimate story about First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy than had ever been put on a big or small screen before. (The name of the film clues us in immediately that this is going to be more personal.) And in a film filled with searing images of her grief in the days and weeks after her husband President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, perhaps none demonstrates her despair more than the unforgettable one of her removing the aftermath of the shooting. As pictured above, it is a graphic and uncompromising look at her victimization in Dallas that day. Not only was Jackie (a never better Natalie Portman) splattered with her husband’s blood and brain matter, but she could have been shot as well. Then, to make matters worse, she had to clean it off to get ready to witness LBJ’s emergency swearing-in on Air Force One. Moments earlier in the film, Larrain showed a similar shot of her adjusting her pillbox hat for the parade through Dallas. Now, her life is destroyed and she is forced to look presentable for the cameras. It’s one of the most devastating images in JACKIE, one impossible to forget, and it’s my pick for the most memorable of the year.
LA LA LAND
There are so many stunning images in Damien Chazelle’s modern movie musical LA LA LAND that it’s hard to narrow down the list. My favorite is one of its most witty and ethereal. The film establishes early on that the musical numbers are fantasies, spooling out from the romantic hopes and dreams of its characters. And on their first date together, struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and headstrong jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) venture to the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles. As their romantic feelings for each other manifest, Seb gently lifts Mia up and she starts to float towards the ceiling like a child’s balloon. Soon he joins her for a mid-air waltz that is as poetic as it is cheeky. I wish the very first trailer hadn’t given away this sublime moment, but it doesn’t rob its power a smidge. Instead, the audience is lifted along with them as we fall in love with this romantically inclined couple.
You know you’re in for something unique and brazen from the very start of the anti-hero superhero movie DEADPOOL. To the synthesized strains of Juice Newton’s 1981 “Angel of the Morning”, the camera moves in slow motion, serpentining around a vicious and graphic brawl happening within an exploding RV, frozen in mid-air. The pure choreography of this absurd, gonzo opening is hysterical, with screaming faces, crotches being bitten, and glass shattering everywhere, all stuck in suspended animation. But what makes it even more of a howler is that this is the opening credits sequence. Soon, brutally honest credits will weave their way in and out. Star Ryan Reynolds is identified with the credit “God’s perfect idiot.” The producers are labeled as “asshats.” The funniest announcement is when the screenwriters are proclaimed as “the real heroes of the movie.” Director Tim Miller comes from an animation background, and indeed, his entire film is practically a live-action cartoon, albeit an R-rated one, starting with this outrageous opener.
John Huston once remarked that 90% of a film is casting. If you don’t believe the people saying the lines, you won’t believe any of the movies. So, when the two main characters of ZOOTOPIA, police bunny Judy Hopps and con artist fox Nick Wilde, head to the DMV to retrieve some critical information needed in their criminal investigation, time is precious and they need their information delivered in a hurry. Enter the clerk. He happens to be a sloth. Yep, casting. The sloth’s inability to give them answers as quickly as they desire provides the biggest laughs in the latest animated gem from Disney. Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) grows more and more impatient while Nick (Jason Bateman) adds to her angst and tells a time-wasting joke. The sloth (Raymond S. Perci) gets it eventually, but the long time it takes for him to process it, and then react with a laugh, feels like an eternity. A hilarious, inspired eternity.
Transferring a novel to the screen is never easy, particularly when it’s an author like Philip Roth. His descriptions of scenes and the inner thoughts of his characters are so vivid, cinema often bungles his prose in translation (Case in point? This year’s misfire of an adaptation of Roth’s AMERICAN PASTORAL.) Yet here, in writer/director James Schamus’ vividly detailed telling of Roth bestseller INDIGNATION, the source material is done proud. Never has the meaning of Roth’s words been more beautifully realized onscreen. Especially potent is when protagonist Marcus (Logan Lerman) first sets his eyes on Olivia (Sarah Gadon) in the college library. Roth spent a lot of time in his novel describing her coquettish leg swaying as it rests on her chair. Schamus shoots the girl from Marcus’ POV and we see the young goddess through his eyes. When Olivia looks up and their eyes meet, he’s a goner. And we in the audience are just as bewitched.
Another film that is quite bewitching, literally, concerns the presence of brides of the devil nestled within a puritanical Pilgrim community. Robert Eggers delivered not only the best horror movie this year with THE WITCH, but also has visualized some of the year’s most potent images within it. The director saves one of his most terrifying for his final moments of the film. Up until that time, we’ve seen a seventeenth-century New England family trying to live according to the disciplines described in the Bible. But their human frailty cannot follow the letter of God’s laws, and one by one, the members lose their faith, as well as their lives. When the remaining teen daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) succumbs to the dark side, she does so by accepting the devil’s invention to “a life lived deliciously.” She then strips naked and joins a coven of witches dancing naked near a forest campfire. As she watches, their pure exaltation levitates them into the night air. She soon follows. It’s a denouement as chilling as every other moment of this truly unsettling 93-minute thriller.
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
Sometimes a camera can merely rest on an actor’s face and be as powerful as any kinetic action onscreen. Thus, it is with Hugh Grant’s visage and the calculating expressions he delivers as St. Clair Bayfield, the enabling husband of FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. When he hires young pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany Florence (Meryl Streep) in her pursuit of dreams to be an operatic singer, Clair doesn’t tell him that his wife’s talent is utterly off-key and shrill. When she shrieks her first notes, Cosmé is incredulous, but Clair tempers the tension with a sly look that subtly suggests that he agrees with his take, but they will never let Florence know how atrocious she really is. Grant has always been an exquisitely droll actor, and his work here is some of the cagiest and cleverest in his brilliant career. That’s why his face alone is one of the most engaging images on film this year.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
Jeff Bridges plays Marcus, an old coot of a sheriff, laconically chasing a couple of brother bandits (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) who are robbing banks throughout present-day Texas. In HELL OR HIGH WATER, a modern western, he’s about to retire and he constantly reminds his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) of that fact. Then, after almost 90 minutes of jibes, anecdotes, and shambling police work, their pursuit suddenly takes a harrowing turn when Alberto is shot dead. All at once, Marcus must become fully engaged. He yells at the others joined in their pursuit to back off for fear of losing their lives. Suddenly this hayseed is a keen enforcer, terrified, yet giving 100% to the job. It’s a shocking character reveal that plays as bold and dynamic as the narrative jolt of that sudden death in this acclaimed thriller.
About 30 minutes into ARRIVAL, Amy Adams’ linguist Louise Banks accompanies the military personnel up into the entrance of an alien spaceship. Their intent is to establish genuine communications with the visitors aboard, who could be friends or foes. Director Denis Villeneuve shoots the scene above the characters, looking down on the mile drop below them. Unexpectedly, Louise is pulled up by Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber to enter the zero-gravity present at the edge of the alien vessel. She’s startled and terrified, as are we in the audience. The feeling of vertigo created by that image is overwhelming. I never thought I’d feel such a fear of heights watching a movie as I did last year upon seeing Robert Zemekis’ THE WALK in IMAX. I was wrong. ARRIVAL did it to me again. And this time, it was merely on a regular screen. Damn.
In Tom Ford’s complex psychological thriller, Amy Adams plays Susan, a bored and frosty art gallery proprietor living in the bubble of privilege. She’d like to feel alive and connect with someone, but cannot. Her marriage is a sham, her friendships vacant. Then one day, she’s sent a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The disturbing revenge plot in his pages revives her. Her blood really gets pumping as she realizes that Edward is writing about their twisted relationship in his way. Can she reconnect with him and start over? Her hopes rise when Edward invites her to dinner. She dolls herself up with a killer green dress, stylish hair and full makeup. But as she faces herself in the mirror, Susan realizes that she is a façade, far from the unfettered and honest girl Edward once knew. She dramatically, and almost violently, wipes of her blood-red lipstick, wishing that she could wipe away her wicked life along with it. Former fashionista Ford has turned into one of the most arresting filmmakers working today. He is an expert at creating images that can make the ugly beautiful and the beautiful ugly. And he does it from the first frame to last in this challenging thriller.
Those are the 10 favorite movie images of mine this year. What are yours? Tell me the shots that are still lingering in your head and why. And here’s to just as many wonderful images that hopefully await us in the new slate of cinematic offerings for 2017!