Our All-Time Favorite Long Takes in Movies

hunger

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!

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