5.) Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Yeah, this won’t surprise anyone. Scorsese has always been one for style (Raging Bull, 1980, has an astonishing tracking shot of its own, as La Motta enters the boxing ring) but Henry Hill’s entrance to The Copacabana nightclub has got to rank among his finest moments. It starts with a parking attendant and ends in the luxurious main hall. The camera moves at a relaxed pace to take in Henry’s world; the most important moment may be the one you take for granted, as he tips the doormen by slipping dollar bills from a bunch in his hand – a simple display of wealth and power. We’re allowed to soak in the environment viewed by only a select few; gliding through a backstage tour of excess. The attention to detail is astonishing too; the movement in the kitchens especially. If anyone needed proof of why Scorsese is rated as one of the modern greats, look no further.
4.) Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)
Werckmeister Harmonies – which I once described as an arthouse monster movie – is slowly becoming one of my favourite films of the last decade. It takes a long time to fully appreciate a Béla Tarr picture; they have incredibly slow, dreamlike movement and little dialogue. But very few could deny the visual power of his work, especially this beautiful film about a town, a circus and their whale. There are many long takes to choose from but my favourite is the scene where a character walks through the rioted town and observes the whale at its centre. The shot is incredibly simple but beautiful nonetheless. The score, by Mihály Vig, is also hugely important here, as is the cinematography, which lends the scene a melancholic air – especially when the man stares into the dead eye of the beast. It’s a deeply moving take, executed with style but never showing off. It’s just pure cinema.
3.) Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) [Main Picture]
It’s another film made up of long takes so you could honestly take your pick. But I’m going for two linking shots which follow a character from the playing field to a hallway where the camera finally lingers on a group of girls staring at him. The camera has an almost ghostly quality here, following at a distance from the action. The shot initially allows the character space as he’s crossing the field; sparsely populated, he seems isolated. There is a cut as we enter the school and the camera is focused solely on his back. Now the tone is even more eerie as light projects through the window at the top of the hall and a soft piano score kicks in. The rest of the frame is blurred – it’s as if we’re now following the path to his death (although this scene occurs long before the shooting). Hugely impressive.
2.) Touch Of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
The first time I saw the opening to Touch Of Evil my jaw put a dent in the proverbial floorboards, instantly dwarfing any accomplishment made in Welles’ seminal 1941 classic Citizen Kane. The shot begins with the planting of a car bomb and then ascends over a large building to a bustling city strip. We focus on the car for a while before picking up with a couple walking the streets. The audience is always made aware of the car, but never in the foreground. In fact, Welles’ cheekily plays with our focus by moving the car in and out of shot – it even gets stuck behind a herd of goats at one point! It’s a slow build up to the checkpoint where a ticking sound makes itself heard. The car drives out of view for a final time, while the audience is catching their breath from this astonishing long take, and then the explosion happens off-screen. Cinema defined.
1.) Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)
Although I don’t really like the film itself (much hindered by an incessantly annoying, overly-ponderous 19th Century aristocrat) Sokurov’s technical showcase – a single take tour through Russian history, via the State Hermitage Museum – is undeniably impressive and frequently dazzling. It’s a shame he didn’t inject his film with any narrative or ideas; the description I’ve provided is pretty much what you get from. It’s shallow and frequently infuriating, but its magisterial beauty, courtesy of DP Tilman Büttner, graceful movement and opulent indulgence are best served by such directorial audacity. Hats off to Sokurov for even attempting a single-take film, let alone accomplishing one, even if it does sorely lack in any regard other than spectacle. We slowly move through the Museum as galleries, sweeping dance-floors and snowy exteriors are joined by architecturally perfect corridors, often peacefully isolated. Magnificent,but quite boring.