Our All-Time Favorite Long Takes In Movies

Every week in /Answers, we attempt to answer a new pop culture-related question. This week's edition asks "What is your favorite long take in movie history?" As always, we have submissions from the /Film writing crew and podcast team, along with a special guest. This week, we are joined by Life director Daniel Espinosa.

If there's a long, uninterrupted shot that really blows your mind, please send your thoughts to slashfilmpitches@gmail.com for a chance to be featured on the site. Find our favorite long shots below!

Daniel Espinosa: Touch of Evil and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

Touch of Evil, man. Can't get around it. It's also noir. It's so effortlessly done. Then you go to Goodfellas, of course, but Touch of Evil makes you go, "How the fuck did they do that?" Imagine how big the cameras were back then. They were huge.

Another great oner, one I admire a lot, is from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. [...] It's great. The whole movie is just oners. It's like 18. Every scene is a oner. Sometimes the oner is not that pretentious, you know, it's just two persons in a room. The way they move around is what makes it feel like a dynamic shot. It never changes its position. To do that is just mind-boggling.

(Read our full interview with Espinosa here.)

Jeff Cannata: Annie Hall – "Jew Eat?"

There are many flashy one-takes in cinema history. Incredible action scenes that dazzle with choreography that seems to go on and on; brooding. Tension-filled tracking shots that linger on characters and maintain anxiety. Amazing how-did-they-do-that flourishes that spin and soar over a scene, or follow beyond apparent borders to draw us in. I love and admire all of these.

But my favorite – the closest to heart – is a shot that does none of this.  It is simple and weird and brilliant. It is in Annie Hall, one of my 3 favorite films of all time, and it is the scene when Alvy SInger and Rob are walking down the street in New York and Alvy is complaining about perceived anti-semitism.  It's the famous, "Jew eat?" conversation. The camera sits on the sidewalk, waiting for them as they walk. We hear the conversation before we ever see who is talking. We hear it as if we are right there next to them.  They don't sound far away or approaching – they are present, clear as day, but not visible.  Eventually we see the two figures in the distance, far down the street. Still the camera stays put. Waiting. A static, patient shot. Finally they make to the camera and then, as they get perfectly framed and about to pass, the camera joins them, moving, tracking with them down the street.

It is such a brilliant, unexpected move. The viewer is forced to wait and then surprised to be with them. It is as if we are coming along for this interesting, funny conversation, as if we, the curious eavesdroppers, are allowed to tag along.  I love how quirky and bold this choice is, how it makes me feel as the viewer. Say what you will about Woody Allen the man, but I adore his films – this one above all – and this shot has never left my mind since the first moment I saw it.

Christopher Stipp: Goodfellas – The Copacabana

It's tough to find visual weight for many of the films we watch as viewers – our protagonists often live in a world that is completely their own. But in that Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas, we were given the feeling of what it truly feels like to be the lead character, and how the doors literally open for him as he walks through them.

With all the technical logistics that went into this moment (eight takes in all and then they broke for lunch), it's easy to admire the technique and simply forget how it fits in perfectly to Henry Hill's persona. Everything Hill commands from the moment he walks onto the street with his lady around his arm falls into place because that's the kind of control he possesses. There are no doors he cannot walk through and there isn't anything that will stop him from going where he ultimately knows he wants to be: front and center. It's so elegant in its masterfully blocked movements that it doesn't feel like a visual gimmick. It's Hill personified. Always in motion, always moving...until he isn't.

Peter Sciretta: Gravity - The Opening Scene

For my favorite action scene, I already wrote about the car attack scene in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men. I've always been a huge fan of long-take tracking shots, which seem to have become more popular in the mainstream over the last few years. There are so many great ones, from Cuarón, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and so many others.

To keep things a bit different, I'll go with a different Cuarón's film: Gravity. The opening sequence is such a masterclass in filmmaking. It sets up the characters, the geography, the physics of the world, and then throws them all in your face just minutes later after, using the presentation to escalate the tension. I nearly had a panic attack watching this movie. And yes, I realize this sequence is not a traditional one-shot sequence as its composed of many different layers of live-action and computer generated visual effects. However, the experience of the one continuous shot, and the the filmmaking behind it, is too impressive to care otherwise.

Jack Giroux: Happy-Go-Lucky – The Ending

Mike Leigh's final long shot lets you soak up every second of a moving conclusion. The long shot doesn't ever pull you out of the ending, either, making you think, "Gee, I wonder how they did that," or, "Yes, I, too, have seen Goodfellas." Over the course of the three-minute shot, the camera – which invisibly goes from a camera on a boat tracking Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) to a finishing crane shot – is graceful, not intrusive.
It's not the technical feat that leaves my mouth hanging open in wonder, though; it's Poppy, and how Leigh captures her beautiful spirit in the final long shot. Even when the crane goes higher and Poppy paddles further away, she's still absolutely radiant. The last shot is as warm and as full as life as Poppy.
Happy-Go-Lucky's long shot features one of my favorite happy endings, in which no amazing, life-altering event occurs. It's a character simply enjoying a lovely day with a friend, which is a beautiful and happy enough ending for Poppy and Leigh. I didn't see Happy-Go-Lucky until only a year or so ago, but I haven't let go of the feeling the final long shot left me with, and I hope it never goes away.


Jacob Hall: Hunger – The Conversation

For the bulk of its running time, Hunger reflects director Steve McQueen's background as a video artist. The story of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, who starved to death while leading a hunger strike in 1981, is told without much dialogue and without the rhythm of a Hollywood movie. It glides between moments, resting on haunting images, its camera hungry (pardon the pun) for sights and sounds that elict visceral and haunting reactions in the audience. It's very much an experimental movie, one that values total immersion over a guiding hand. It's spellbinding.

And then, late in the film Sands (played be a remarkable, pre-fame Michael Fassbender) is visited by Father Dominic Moran (a pre-Game of Thrones Liam Cunningham) and the two of them have a conversation. A long conversation. An important conversation. A conversation that lasts 24 real-time minutes. It's the only point in Hunger where McQueen lets his camera truly settle down – almost the entire conversation is depicted in a single, static profile shot of the two actors. It is the only point in Hunger where characters have a full-on conversation. It is the decision of a filmmaker that trusts his actors. It is a visual choice that says to the audience "Okay, it's time for you to pay attention to this."

Most long takes, by the very nature of their existence, call attention to themselves. They are using an incredible visual to make a point and make it loud and clear. In Hunger, McQueen taps into the immediacy and the terror of live theater. The lack of cuts act as a showcase for the actors in the frame. It's a keen visual choice, too. For the first and only time in the movie, McQueen films a scene that isn't haunted by dread. The moment these characters leave the room, things go back to hell. But here, they're safe (or rather, safe enough). And they're going to talk. And they are going to test one another in private. It is stunning, harrowing work.

When the film cuts to a close-up late in the scene, first of Fassbender's face for a key story and then to Cunningham's equally impactful reaction shot, it's as jarring as any moment of violence seen elsewhere in the movie. For nearly a half hour, we are lulled in a moment that feels all-to-real. When it reverts to cinema, it's like being slapped in the face.

Ben Pearson: The Protector – The Restaurant Fight

When cinephiles talk about long, unbroken shots (also known as "oners"), we often tend to be impressed by the physical movement of the camera through an environment. But for my entry, I want to focus less on the movement of the actual camera and more on the subject its capturing.

In 2005's The Protector (also known as Tom yum goong), Thai director Pracha Pinkaew sends his camera through a multi-level restaurant as actor and martial artist Tony Jaa fights his way through a gauntlet of 32 opponents in four minutes. And there's no digital stitching here, either: this is the real deal, as evidenced by Jaa getting visibly winded as the shot finally comes to a close. I'd be winded too if I had to parkour all over the damn place and bust skulls left and right. Over the course of a month, they production had to shoot this scene five different times until they got it right, due to stunt objects failing to break properly or timing issues with protective mats being put in place to catch stuntmen during those long falls through the railings. The camera smoothly captures the action and avoids any flashy movements, leaving the power of the scene to Jaa (who also choreographed the scene) and his stunt team.

Hoai-Tran Bui: Rope – The Whole Movie

Alfred Hitchcock took on the task of adapting a popular play and turned it into one of his most ambitious projects ever conceived. Rope was the first feature film to be shot in one "long take" — well, 10 long takes to be precise. Made in 1948, Hitchcock was limited by the amount of film that a camera magazine could shoot (about 10 minutes maximum) and the closed, claustrophobic set on which they filmed Rope. But thanks to movie magic and some tricks of choreography — crew members had to frequently shift furniture, props and sections of wall out of the way to allow the bulky Technicolor camera to swing about the set — Hitchcock achieved the illusion of one single, continuous take nearly 50 years before Birdman.

And master of suspense that he is, Hitchcock used this effect not just to mimic the setting in which you would watch a theater play. One brilliantly tense shot lingers on the antique chest in which the two hosts of an apartment party have hidden the body of the classmate they strangled; the chest takes up half the frame, while the partygoers theorizing about the missing classmate take up the other half. It's as winking as Hitchcock can get —  smug troll that he is — essentially teasing and torturing his audience while congratulating himself for it (that'a a compliment, of course).

Ethan Anderton: Shaun of the Dead – The Walk to the Shop

Director Edgar Wright has a style all his own, one that's usually fast-paced and full of cuts. But occasionally, he slows things down and lets a scene go on for an extended single take. Such is the case with this quiet but effective sequence from Shaun of the Dead. The sequence mirrors the same sequence earlier in the film, before zombies start to invade the city, but it brings some grisly details to Shaun's walk to the shop. The usual busy street is mostly abandoned and empty, there's a hole in the windshield that was being washed before, the trash pile is strewn all over, and finally, there are bloody hand prints on the refrigerator.

What I love about this sequence is that it's stylish without being in your face. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Wright perfectly employs the method of showing, not telling, the audience what's going on, letting them observe what's happening in the background of the entire shot. He also manages to make an ominous sequence funny by having Shaun be completely oblivious to everything that's happening around him. It's just one small piece of a film that is damn near perfect.

David Chen: Victoria – The Whole Movie

Long, continuous shots are best used when they serve a broader purpose in furthering the film's themes. In the case of Victoria, the shot is the movie, and it's used to great effect. Filmed in two-plus hours over the course of a single evening, Victoria is technically monumental in how it manages to tell a complexly choreographed story without ever cutting away. But more important than that is how the camerawork immerses you into Victoria's perspective. We feel the immediacy of her decisions and the thrill of taking part in this adventure. Likewise, the consequences of her actions hit harder as well.

Victoria left me with my jaw on the floor. It's a film where the cinematography was just as important as the story. And it showed me what is possible when a director commits to a singular idea.Children of Men

What do you think of our picks? What is your favorite "oner"? Talk about it in the comments below or email your personal answer (a paragraph or more) to slashfilmpitches@gmail.com with the subject title "Favorite Long Takes." Our favorite responses will be featured on the site in a future post!

And in case you missed any past editions of /Answers, here's a look back:

  • Comedies That Make Us Cry
  • Books That Should Be Adapted
  • Best Movie Musicals
  • Best Movie Creatures
  • Best Comic Book Movie
  • Most Uncomfortable Movie Scene
  • Best Action Scene or Sequence
  • Favorite Sports Movie