As quoted by Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles once said, “A long-playing full shot is what always separates the men from the boys.” In other words, the film director who can pull off a scene in a single shot is a true master. With Welles’ background in theater, it’s not surprising that his theory of film should include long takes and deep focus as opposed to quick cutting. So the statement has a self-serving flavor to it. The choice of words also, ironically, plays into what has become a common criticism of long takes as a filmmaking strategy; namely, that the artistic flexing involved in them is mere macho bombast. If a technique calls too much attention to itself, the film’s story suffers. There’s more to a great work of art than demonstrable difficulty of execution.
All that being said, I’ve enjoyed the gumption (at the very least) behind elaborate long takes for as long as I’ve been paying attention to film style. There really is something to be said for a sustained image and sustained performances, without the safety net of alternate angles. Lest we forget, these shots don’t require a moving camera to be impressive, either. Some of the shots I list below track all over creation, but others are static, relying entirely on the force of the actors in the frame. This latter kind of shot doesn’t often appear on lists of “best” or “favorite” long takes. Googling those words reveals a depressingly small number of common examples, several of which I just had to include myself.
For the purposes of the list, I defined a long take as a shot that lasts for two minutes or longer. That might not sound very long, but according to my very limited exploration this week, it’s a relative rarity. In terms of average shot length, Hollywood movies have indeed gotten more frenetic in the last few decades: in the Golden Age, the average take could be from ten to fifteen seconds long, whereas now, it tends to be between three and eight. In such a climate, a shot that goes on for even one minute is going to stick out like a sore thumb. Hence the criticism against long takes in mainstream cinema: they’re so out of whack with standard practice that they can’t help but be showy. Global art-house directors, on the other hand, tend to use long takes much more regularly. (A list I recently put up on Letterboxd illustrates this point.)
Relying mostly on memory, I found it pretty easy to limit myself to twenty-five choices. Some of my favorite shots had to be eliminated due to my arbitrary rules. (The shot in Shaun of the Dead of the title character walking to and from a convenience store appears to clock in at just a fraction of a second below two minutes, according to my Blu-ray ticker. Tragic.) I also decided that scenes I’d already listed on top 25s in years past shouldn’t be repeated, so the first shots of Halloween and Touch of Evil, and the last shot of Magnolia, didn’t make this list either. And of course, there are some widely celebrated examples, from Goodfellas to The Player to Gravity, that I didn’t feel any particular need to include, despite loving all those movies. Finally, I selected only one shot per movie. Undoubtedly, I’ll be rethinking these choices, and later remembering incredible shots that I failed to include, for the foreseeable future.
25. Baby Driver (2017) — “Harlem Shuffle” (2:44)
- Director of Photography: Bill Pope
- Director: Edgar Wright
Baby’s (Ansel Elgort) iPod-aided trip to the coffee shop on behalf of his partners in crime is a giddy exercise in style. You don’t get more attention-grabbing than this, what with the graffiti that matches the lyrics to the Bob & Earl song on the soundtrack. It’s all timed to maniacal perfection.
24. Dont Look Back (1967) — “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (2:14)
- Directors of Photography: Howard Alk, Jones Alk, Ed Emshwiller & D.A. Pennebaker
- Director: D.A. Pennebaker
This one is almost too iconic to include, but it’s still a great deal of fun. One of the early forerunners of the modern music video, the opening segment to Pennebaker’s documentary about Bob Dylan has the singer flipping flashcards instead of lip-syncing. Often imitated, but seldom with Allen Ginsberg in the background.
23. Mystery Train (1989) — “That’s Just the Way My Face Is” (2:55)
- Director of Photography: Robby Müller
- Director: Jim Jarmusch
Japanese tourists Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) sit on the floor of a Memphis motel room. Mitsuko tries to cheer Jun up by making various funny faces, smearing his mouth with her lipstick, and lighting his cigarette by holding the lighter between her toes. It seems to work.
22. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) — “Bathroom” (3:00)
- Director of Photography: Liao Pen-jung
- Director: Tsai Ming-liang
A scene of silent, stationary cruising, blankly comical as in the best of Tsai’s work. Three men stand at a bank of urinals in the foreground, and another man exits a stall and starts washing his hands in the background. Finally, yet another man enters the bathroom to collect a pack of cigarettes that had been perched in the foreground the whole time.
21. Cemetery of Splendor (2015) — “Confused About Love” (2:14)
- Director of Photography: Diego García
- Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
What makes Apichatpong such an unusual filmmaker is that, while this long take does include camera movement, it’s both minimal and entirely natural. Two women, one a medium currently channeling a spirit, muse about the recent and ancient past while walking in a wooded park. They observe two pairs of sculptures: a pair of lovers embracing on a bench, and, as the camera pans right, a pair of skeletons on a second bench in the same pose.
20. La Ronde (1951) — “The Personification of Your Desire to Know Everything” (5:04)
- Director of Photography: Christian Matras
- Director: Max Ophuls
Befitting the title, this is a circular tracking shot, kicking off the roundelay of stories by introducing Anton Walbrook’s omnipresent tour guide. He moves from a small stage, to a film set, to a credible nineteenth-century street, to (of course) a merry-go-round, before passing the film along to Simone Signoret.
19. The Trial (1962) — “I’ve Quite Enough On My Hands With This Trunk” (3:36)
- Director of Photography: Edmond Richard
- Director: Orson Welles
Welles makes my list with this darkly comic scene, in which a woman with a leg brace (Suzanne Flon) drags a heavy trunk across a field. Franz Kafka’s Josef K. (Anthony Perkins), while carrying a cake box, tries in vain to help her and gets his tongue tied in knots trying to understand the situation into which he’s stumbled.
18. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) — “I’m Beginning to Think She’s Screwy” (2:42)
- Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
- Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
As Karin (Hanna Schygulla) leafs through a book in bed, Petra (Margit Carstensen) calls for her unspeaking house servant Marlene (Irm Hermann) to fetch her shoes. Petra is in the background of the shot, and Marlene appears in the foreground, kneeling to pick up the shoes. Her decision, which I will never forget as long as I live, is to take the path of least resistance.
17. Syndromes and a Century (2006) — “Vent” (2:25)
- Director of Photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
- Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Not for the last time on this list does the scene involve a hospital. One of the most mysteriously beautiful shots of Apichatpong’s career involves a smoky basement room and a vent protruding from the ceiling. As the camera curls toward the vent, the vent starts sucking up the smoke.
16. Strange Days (1995) — “Robbery” (3:14)
- Director of Photography: Matthew F. Leonetti
- Director: Kathryn Bigelow
This is a perfect match of visual technique to the science-fiction concept of the plot. The camera takes on a first-person point of view during a robbery, from the preparatory car ride to the rooftop escape afterwards. The most impressive element is the breakneck speed of the whole thing, as the camera bounds up flights of stairs and believably swivels like a human head.
15. Sátántangó (1994) — “The Owl” (2:53)
- Director of Photography: Gábor Medvigy
- Director: Béla Tarr
A group of uprooted peasants ponder their future, their words echoing off the walls of their dilapidated shelter. The shot in question is very simple, tracking slowly forward in the direction of a small creature in the distance. I cherish the experience of wondering exactly what type of creature it is, and then finding out.
14. Hard Boiled (1992) — “Hospital Shootout” (2:42)
- Director of Photography: Wong Wing-hang
- Director: John Woo
Police officers Tequila (Chow Yun-fat) and Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) join forces in a hospital overrun with gangsters. While patients (including newborn infants) are evacuated, the two men move down corridors and into an elevator. It’s a stunning feat of choreography.
13. News from Home (1977) — “Tracking Across Manhattan” (10:59)
- Directors of Photography: Babette Mangolte & Jim Asbell
- Director: Chantal Akerman
It’s an incredibly simple premise: a camera hanging out the side window of a car traveling down one of New York’s straight stretches of street. The soundtrack is almost silent, without any of the voiceover of letters from Akerman’s mother that can be found elsewhere in the film. The extended lateral camera movement is a crucial element in Akerman’s filmography from this point on.
12. Pride & Prejudice (2005) — “We Are All Fools in Love” (2:55)
- Director of Photography: Roman Osin
- Director: Joe Wright
When I first saw this movie, in the theater, I didn’t yet know how to look for such things as long takes. I was still in the unseasoned, “let it wash over you” stage of movie-watching. Later, as I familiarized myself with Wright, I came to understand the show-stopping tracking shot as a calling card of his. This one, showing Lizzy Bennet (Keira Knightley) and her sisters navigating a ball, is gorgeous.
11. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) — “The Price of Everything Rose, Except of Human Beings” (3:15)
- Director of Photography: Georges Perinal
- Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Anton Walbrook makes a second appearance on this list with a shot that earns its place thanks largely to his performance. A German seeking to emigrate to England as the Second World War begins, Walbrook’s character Theo fills in the tragic details of his life since the last time we saw him. The camera quietly pulls in at just the right moment.
10. Before Sunrise (1995) — “It’s Q & A Time” (5:59)
- Director of Photography: Lee Daniel
- Director: Richard Linklater
Another simple visual concept here: Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) ride on a streetcar, and the camera observes their conversation in a static two-shot. The whole film is one long conversation, but to the best of my knowledge this is the only one rendered in one take. Céline’s complaint about Americans gushing over her French cuteness whenever she does anything and Jesse’s questions about the logistics of universal reincarnation are standouts.
9. A Star Is Born (1954) — “Love Isn’t Enough” (3:08)
- Director of Photography: Sam Leavitt
- Director: George Cukor
Cukor was especially gifted at holding a shot for an extended period of time, letting the emotions of a scene unfold naturally. Seated in her dressing room, Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) finally allows all her grief and terror over Norman Maine’s (James Mason) alcoholism to spill out of her. Words can’t do justice to the shuddering impact of Garland’s performance.
8. The Sacrifice (1986) — “The Burning House” (6:11)
- Director of Photography: Sven Nykvist
- Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
I need to revisit The Mirror someday. Perhaps this scene is simply a bigger (but not necessarily better) version of that earlier film’s immolation scene. Still, this is an awesome sight, an entire house going up in flames in real time, as the assembled cast rushes around in despair in front of it.
7. Stray Dogs (2013) — “Stares” (13:44)
- Directors of Photography: Liao Pen-jung, Lu Ching-hsin & Shong Woon-chong
- Director: Tsai Ming-liang
This scene is the capstone of Tsai Ming-liang’s career, the fullest expression of his gifts as a master of flamboyant slowness. No, the camera does not move once it’s settled, and for the most part, neither do the characters. One of them, played by Chen Shiang-chyi, positively blew my mind with her extended stillness, broken only by the faintest weeping as she stares at, we finally learn after thirteen-plus minutes, a wall mural. I don’t think I can explain why I don’t find this shot boring.
6. Children of Men (2006) — “War Zone” (6:20)
- Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
- Director: Alfonso Cuarón
I wasn’t quite ready to reckon with long takes in 2006, either, but eventually I figured it out. This one, the last of a few in the film, is especially attention-grabbing, with its splashes of blood on the camera lens. Theo (Clive Owen) goes through a very recognizable hell to rescue Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her newborn infant, the only infant in the world.
5. Nostalghia (1983) — “Candle” (9:07)
- Director of Photography: Giuseppe Lanci
- Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Nostalghia might be my least favorite Tarkovsky film overall, but this particular scene at the end is still terrific. Simple in conception, like so many others on this list, it follows the main character (Oleg Yankovsky) through a few failed attempts at carrying a lit candle from one end of a drained pool to the other. Whenever the wind blows it out, he has to start over.
4. Journey to the West (2014) — “Stairs” (14:05)
- Director of Photography: Antoine Héberlé
- Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Journey to the West is really more of an exercise than a proper film, but, again, it displays the kind of slowness that I just eat right up. Lee Kang-sheng spends the film dressed as a Buddhist monk walking all around Marseilles, France. Walking extremely slowly, I might add. In this shot, he takes his time down a public staircase as a wide variety of people pass by, politely allowing him his space. The way the lighting works in this shot is just entrancing.
3. I Am Cuba (1964) — “Pool Party” (3:22)
- Director of Photography: Sergey Urusevsky
- Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
I truly can’t get enough of the wide-angle brilliance of the black-and-white photography in this film. The funeral procession scene later in the film is cited more often, and I admit it’s an even greater technical feat. But I find this one more fun, traveling from a rooftop beauty contest, down to a pool, and finally under the water with the shimmering swimmers.
2. Atonement (2007) — “Dunkirk” (5:06)
- Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey
- Director: Joe Wright
This was probably the moment I was first enthralled by a long tracking shot, and it hasn’t lost any of its power. Complex and harrowing, the shot weaves among the three principal characters and captures little moments among the multitude stranded on the beach. While the mood is generally somber, there’s still room for a wide variety of reactions to the situation, including despair, rage, insanity and fortitude. No daring rescues are in sight.
1. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) — “Ransacking the Hospital” (7:51)
- Directors of Photography: Miklós Gurbán, Erwin Lanzensberger, Gábor Medvigy, Emil Novák, Patrick de Ranter & Rob Tregenza
- Directors: Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky
This is a breathtaking, yet muted shot, an extended look at mob fury. The stately camera follows as crazed men throw patients out of beds, flip over night tables, and generally tear the place apart. What finally makes them stop is best not spoiled, but suffice it to say that the stark black-and-white imagery is suddenly dominated by blinding white. This whole scene has something of a “Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria from Fantasia” feel to it, and I adored it immediately. Typically, it’s hard to pick any one shot from a Tarr film for a list like this, but the hospital scene, arriving nearly three-quarters into Werckmeister Harmonies, stands alone.