By Will Mavity
Long Takes, aka. “One-takes.” They’re very difficult to accomplish and typically very cool to look at. We entered 2020 watching “1917,” a film comprised entirely of long-takes, so perhaps it was fitting that 2020 was a year featuring more films with long-takes in films than almost any I can remember. Some are more essential to the story than others. Some are more dynamic than others. They nearly all stop the film in its tracks, making you wonder, “Wow…I wonder how many takes it took them to do that?” Based on a combination of factors – impact on the film, difficulty of execution, how cool it is to look at, etc.
Here is my ranking of all of 2020’s “long-takes” I’ve seen.
9. “Train To Busan: Peninsula”
Choosing a film for last place here was an easy call. “Train To Busan Presents: Peninsula” boasts a couple of long takes, and they’re pulled off competently enough, but there’s not much to write home about. They’re compensating for a thin script and aren’t technically undeniable enough to rank higher.
“Nomadland” is an undeniably gorgeous looking film and is likely the only film that will be nominated for the Oscar for Cinematography. It is a film that doesn’t necessarily need to rely on gimmicks for its strength. That being said, one of the many ways Chloe Zhao asks her audience to appreciate the vastness of nature and the isolation of her protagonist is through a well-executed tracking shot. The shot follows Frances McDormand as she navigates through her camp of fellow Nomads, passing cookfires and others chatting as the sun sets in the background. Finally, Frances pauses and looks around as in the distance a gang of motorcyclists drives by. The shot is relatively simple compared to some on this list, yet it communicates so much about the film’s protagonist. It demonstrates the isolation she feels from others in her community but also showcases the richness of nature. The shot is haunting enough that Searchlight used a portion of it as the film’s teaser trailer. It isn’t the showstopper that others on this list are, but it is undeniably effective.
7. “The Killing Of Two Lovers”
“The Killing of Two Lovers” is largely comprised of aggressively uncomfortable long-takes. Unlike most of the films on this list, the takes are static and may not be as technically impressive. That being said, the point is to A.) show the stagnation in the protagonist’s life B.) make the audience uncomfortable c) build suspense. The film’s many lingering tripod shots accomplish that goal admirably. Several build unease, but one in particular, late in the film, a wide shot depicting an attempt to launch model rockets in a field goes on and on, growing increasingly unsettling, even excruciating, until you’re on the edge of the seat expecting something terrible to occur. The film’s nerve-jangling sound design only adds to the effect.
6. “The Man Standing Next”
South Korea’s submission for Best International Film is a sleekly executed 70s-style political thriller. From the opening text, the film informs the audience the entire film will be building to the historical assassination of South Korea’s President. Given that doing so removes any surprise surrounding the act, the film needs to find other ways to make the film’s assassination climax stand out. It does so by staging the event in a 3+ minute long take. The initial act of violence is startling, but details like the protagonist slipping and falling into a puddle of spilled blood, showing he’s not a habitual killer, are what really bring it alive. The scene also boasts impressive technical craftsmanship, starting in a small room, moving out into the hallway, down the stairs, through the lobby, and out into the courtyard as a tracking shot. It is this scene’s mesmerizing intensity that causes the film to stick the landing.
5. “The Invisible Man”
“The Invisible Man” has several chilling moments where the camera lingers on one space for a lengthy period of time, allowing the viewer to notice something unsettling in the background. But the showstopping long-take is the film’s biggest action sequence, a hallway massacre in which an unseen force attacks hospital orderlies. The camera spins and tilts to match the arcs of the bodies as they are flung about, while the titular “Invisible Man” flickers in and out of existence. If there is any moment in the film that could land the film a visual effects Oscar nomination, it would be this one.
4. “The Vast Of Night”
I was tempted to rank “The Vast Of Night” even higher because what the crew on this indie sci-fi accomplished with a microscopic budget is frankly astonishing. The shot is more than 5 minutes long and essentially moves through the entire length of a small town, starting in a radio station, moving down roads and across cornfields, into a school gymnasium, through a basketball game, back out into the fields and back to the radio station again. As with many “one-take” shots, there were cheats the editors masked. It wasn’t actually one shot, but the effect is seamless. It’s entirely show-offy and unnecessary but it is so so cool and remains one of my favorite shots from the year…period.
Speaking of show-offy and unnecessary, unlike the “The Vast Of Night” filmmakers, the crew on Netflix’s “Extraction” had a massive budget to play with. They also cheated, masking several cuts. And there was really no reason to do this action sequence as a long take (it is more than 12 minutes long) other than to be able to say you did and generate conversation. But damn if the sequence isn’t cool. A tracking shot that covers entire city blocks, enters into cars, goes up stairs, out windows and more, capturing firefights and fistfights alike. There’s no way around it, unnecessary or not. It is just really, really cool.
2. “Pieces Of A Woman”
Unlike “Extraction” and “The Vast Of Night,” there is no cheating here. “Pieces Of A Woman” practically opens with this long take. It is more than 20 minutes long and so shocking and brutal that the film struggles to ever match that impact during the rest of its runtime. Traveling between multiple rooms and moving from wide to close up. Vanessa Kirby is riveting, as the camera almost never leaves her, expressing absolute anguish. Because of an unwillingness to “cheat,” it is less technically smooth than others on this list. But it also serves the story better and sets a tone for the film. None of the other long takes on the list hit me as hard emotionally except–
1. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Where to even start? It’s a static tripod shot. It’s so simple. A medium-close up on the protagonist’s face as she undergoes a series of questions, but the way the scene unfolds is beyond devastating. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always’s” title sequence is a prime example of a long take that serves the story. There’s no showing off of camera work here. This is just a moment that deliberately locks you into a torturous emotional situation. No shot in any film, long take, or otherwise this year has lingered with me the way this one has.
So those are the nine long takes I’ve seen this year ranked. Do you agree with my rankings? Are there other ones I didn’t include that stood out to you? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Will and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mavericksmovies