With the advancement of technology, cinematography took a giant leap around the turn of the century. Digital cameras with high-end configuration and state-of-the-art expansion in the domain of grading have redefined the grammar of image creation. Besides, various ultra-modern camera equipment have helped cinematographers create smooth, and immaculate camera work. These digital cameras have not only enabled filmmakers to create high-definition images with minimal resources but have altered the very nature of cinematic storytelling for the better. However, few filmmakers still prefer to shoot in film stocks for aesthetic as well as creative reasons. But one can hardly deny the fact that digital cameras have helped redefine the language of cinema. Here are 21 iconic shots of the 21st century that added a vital dimension to the narrative:
1. Amélie (2001)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel
The titular character of this French romantic comedy, Amélie (played by Audrey Tautou) is on a mission to bring happiness in the lives of others. Filmed with an innovative directorial finesse, Amélie has gone on to become a classic over the years. In this shot, she undertakes the effort to meticulously construct a letter. Amélie is framed in a medium shot and then the camera moves forward to her. As she begins her work the speed of the shot accelerates. And then the camera moves further close to her and the shot accelerates once again. The entire action is completed in a single shot without any cutaways or inserts. Yet, it rouses our curiosity and helps us understand the motive of the character. The red color palette brings our attention to the passion with which Amélie executes her mission.
2. Lagaan (2001)
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Cinematographer: Anil Mehta
The Oscar-nominated sports drama was significantly removed in style and storytelling from Hindi films of the decade gone by. In this shot, the protagonist Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) has formed his team of twelve cricket players to play against Captain Andrew Russell (Blackthorne). The long-shot captures all the members of the team within the frame and signifies their strong will and mettle. The warm earthy tone of the shot creates an environment of their collaboration and courage in accepting the challenge. The nuance of light and shade adds depth to the characters. The director-cinematographer duo have used slow motion to heighten the dramatic impact of the shot. All these cinematic elements make it one of the most iconic shots of this century.
3. The Pianist (2002)
Director: Roman Polanski
Cinematographer: Paweł Edelman
A WWII survival drama, The Pianist won the Academy award for Best Direction for its powerful and subtle exploration of the horrible phase of human history. In this shot from, the ghetto streets are empty. The doors of the building are open and the windows are smashed. The street is littered with torn mattresses and pillows. Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody) aimlessly walks down the street. He is unable to hold back tears. The hard light on his face indicates the adversaries he will have to now encounter on his own. As the camera captures his movements, it emphasizes the arduous journey of our protagonist. The feathers flying in the shot signal hope amidst bleakness. This particular shot highlights the havoc and emotional wreckage caused on the Jews by the holocaust. Without a word, the visuals speak of mayhem.
4. Uzak (2002)
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cinematographer: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s third outing Uzak is an exquisite and philosophical tale of loneliness that stresses the universal need for human companionship, loyalty and acceptance of life. In the final shot of the film, Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) is sitting alone by the docks. In the far background the ship sails. The frame is composed in a medium-long shot and focuses on the growing distance in the life of the protagonist due to his negligence towards others. The muted color palette adds a poetic charm to the shot and inquires into the nature and meaning of love. Mahmut is composed in the middle of the frame and appears as a small figure. The framing indicates that loneliness will now be a constant company in his life. Due to such meticulous precision in the mise-en-scène, Ceylan won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2002.
5. City of God (2002)
Directors: Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund
Cinematographer: César Charlone
One of the greatest cult crime dramas of this century, City of God begins in the midst of a scene. The armed gang members are chasing after an escaped chicken in a favela somewhere in the city of Brazil. As the path of the fowl is blocked by the protagonist Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), we notice a police vehicle halt in the background. Rocket is caught in between what appears to be a shootout in progress. The camera makes a 360-degree circular movement almost like a swish pan and transports the viewers to the favela of the 1960s. The technical flair as well the special effect used in this shot helps the viewer to marvel at the remarkable transition within the shot.
6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director: Ang Lee
Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
Brokeback Mountain is one of the most poignant queer love stories of the century. Ang Lee won the Best Director Academy Award for the sympathetic portrayal of a human relationship in the context of a social tragedy. In the final scene from the film, Ennis (Heath Ledger) hangs the two shirts next to the window on a hanger. He takes the postcard of Brokeback Mountain and tacks it on the wall right beside the shirts. The postcard is composed in an extreme close-up and implies that the Brokeback Mountain will occupy a place deep within Ennis’s psyche, forever. The color tone of the shot is muted and helps in the subtle depiction of human relationships. With a minimalistic approach, the shot focuses on the warmth of lost love and the immortality of a lifelong relationship between two male cowboys.
7. Atonement (2007)
Director: Joe Wright
Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey
The Golden Globe winner for Best Drama Motion Picture, Atonement, is a romantic war drama set during 1930s England. The subtle handling of events where two lovers caught in trying and difficult times make it an epic story of compassion and misunderstanding. The evacuation of the Dunkirk, also known as Operation Dynamo, in the film, is captured in a single take shot that lasts for around five minutes. As the camera maneuvers through the vast expanse of the beach, the viewer witnesses the devastations that war has brought on mankind. The muted color palette adds a feeling of melancholy to the shot.
Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey don’t necessarily want to bring you onto the beach, they want to make you a voyeur to this grim moment in history. The long take has divided viewers, with detractors calling it a showboating act of technical prowess. The tracking shot is hardly subtle, but that’s the point. By being forced to observe what’s occurring, we begin to understand the soldiers’ experiences.
8. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
In this shot from the multiple Academy award-winning crime drama No Country for Old Men, Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, returns to the crime scene at night with water. As soon as he reaches the spot, he is chased by two unknown men in a truck. As Moss sprints for his life, the lights from the truck form a chiaroscuro and give a feel of the imminent danger. The chase underlines the theme of the film which is a cat-and-mouse game between the hunter and the hunted. The darkness in the shot reveals the peril and uncertainty in a situation when an individual is consumed by greed.
9. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
A period drama that begins in 1898, New Mexico, There Will Be Blood will always occupy its place in the history of cinema as an timeless tale of greed and over ambition. In the gas blowout shot from the film, men rush towards the blaze with a futile attempt to douse the monstrous flames. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) instructs his workers to tackle the accidental situation. But in reality, he is also a little confused. The sweeping camera movement captures the rustic terrain of Little Boston, California, with natural light. The shot stands out for creating a sense of suspense and capturing the urgency of the situation. As the black smoke fills the air it becomes evident of the presence of oil in the region and Daniel has made the right decision. The bright flame of the fires indicates his burning ambition.
Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor Academy Award for portraying a wrongful character with a combination of energy and spontaneity.
10. Hunger (2008)
Director: Steve McQueen
Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
Set in 1981, Hunger, is an unflinching detail of how the members of Irish Republican Army undergo inhuman atrocities unleashed upon them by the authorities of Northern Ireland’s Maze prison. In this shot from the film, police officials forcibly bathe one of the members Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) for staging a protest. As his battered body is carried back to the prison cell, the camera captures him from a low angle and expresses his helplessness. The hard yellowish-green light also gives a feeling of claustrophobia and imprisonment. The camera angle, color and intensity of light help bring out the flavor and authenticity of the period. The fluidity of his camera operation defines a style that illustrates the theme of brutality versus resistance in the film.
McQueen and Bobbitt bring lyricism and poetry in his tale of gritty violence with a visceral punch. McQueen won the Camera d’or at Cannes for his evocative depiction of the sufferings of the prisoners.
11. The Hurt Locker (2008)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The Hurt Locker is a great film, an intelligent film, a film shot clearly so that we know exactly who everybody is and where they are and what they’re doing and why. The camera work is at the service of the story. Bigelow knows that you can’t build suspense with shots lasting one or two seconds.”
In this shot from the film, as the bomb explodes one of the members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team loses his life in the line of duty. Dust spewing, blood splattering inside the helmet, a coarse cloud of debris — all create an ambience of precariousness. The subject is composed in a wide shot to capture the scale of damage the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) can do both to human lives and private properties. The slow-motion employed in the shots maximizes the impact of the explosion. The shot takes place within the first few minutes of the films’ opening and prepares viewers for a nail-biting war thriller.
12. Inception (2010)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cinematographer: Wally Pfister
With his science fiction action drama, Inception, Nolan has epitomised himself as the most iconistic auteur of world cinema who knows how to build intrigue and tease viewers’ imagination. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a secret agent who recruits an architecture student Ariadne (Elliot Page) and challenges her to create a maze. In this shot, she has learned how to build dreams and her creation surprises Dom. As the street bends in half and the buildings on either side fold in to form a cube-like structure it creates an imaginative space for the viewers. The mysterious beauty of the shot comes alive through the artful collaboration of camerawork and special effects. Inception creates an alternate world where the cinematography strives to redefine ways of designing an image bordering on reality and dreams.
13. Tree of Life (2011)
Director: Terrence Malick
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Terrence Malick’s experimental drama Tree of Life is a masterly cinematic creation that pushes the boundaries of creative thinking beyond imagination. In this shot from the film, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) imagines getting reunited with his family members. Captured using available natural light, the shot achieves a brilliance that enriches the narrative with tranquility and beauty. The aspect ratio of 1.85:1 also helps in framing the enormity of the space. The sweeping camera movement adds a lyricism to the shot. Whereas, the presence of light and shade lends it a poetic quality. As Lubezki describes, “Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance. We’re using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It’s meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume.”
14. Ida (2013)
Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Cinematographer: Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski
The Academy award-winning Polish drama Ida narrates the tale of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novice nun, who embarks on a journey of self-discovery. In this shot from the film, as she removes her hair clip and looks at the mirror, she breaks the fourth wall. Her staring directly at the camera allows the viewers to be in her position and not judge her for taking pleasure in some worldly sins and pleasures. The 4:3 aspect ratio holds our attention fixedly towards the character. The extra headroom within the shot provides the character space to cope with various situations of her life. The black and white image is used to create the post-Stalinist Poland in the early 1960s.
15. 12 Years A Slave (2013)
Director: Steve McQueen
Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
12 Years a Slave is an unapologetic and brutal account of the horrors of slavery in America during the 1850s. In this shot from the film, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is left hanging from a tree on his toes. From morning to evening, he remains fixed in the position. Nobody cares or dares to untie the knot. The frame is composed in a long shot and uses deep focus as it allows the viewers to participate in the suffering of the protagonist. The tone and color of the surroundings are bright and Solomon is darkly lit so that it evokes a feeling of horridness and disgust as vividly as possible. This shot in fact sums up the entire theme of the film where the tenacity of innocent life is tested time and again.
16. The Revenant (2015)
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
In the history of world cinema, The Revenant will always be remembered for creating an outstanding aural and visual landscape that transports viewers to a historical era of 1820s Dakota territory. In this shot from the film, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) has begun his arduous journey to avenge the death of his wife and child. In this extreme long shot, Hugh is a minuscule figure and the vastness of the surrounding symbolizes the enormity of his task. The color palette of the shot carries a bluish tone that highlights the resolve undertaken by the protagonist. The snow-capped surroundings also create an atmosphere that helps in underling the theme of salvation and retribution within the narrative. The tone of light and shade within the image gives a lyrical form to the shot.
17. Son of Saul (2015)
Director: László Nemes
Cinematographer: Mátyás Erdély
The Academy Award winning Hungarian drama Son of Saul, is a subtle drama that takes place in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. In this shot, which is also the climax of the film, Saul (Géza Röhrig) exchanges looks with a young peasant boy and smiles. Throughout his struggle within the film, the viewers have never seen him smiling. This is the first and last time we observe a smile curve his tired face. Saul is composed in a close-up with an aspect ratio of 4:3 that helps us observe the psychological changes within the character at close proximity. The muted color palette evokes a feeling of gloominess and dispiritedness of one of the darkest phases of mankind.
18. A Star is Born (2018)
Director: Bradley Cooper
Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
A Star Is Born is an emotional human drama that brings a kind of freshness to the genre by presenting a wholesome musical structure to the film. In this shot from the film, Jackson (Bradley Cooper) and Ally (Lady Gaga), for the first time perform together in front of a large audience. Both of them are illuminated by bright lights and the audiences are kept in semi-darkness so we can concentrate our attention on their performance. The subjects are framed in a medium shot and the audiences are shallowly focused, which further emphasizes the importance of the two characters within the frame. The greenish color tone in the frame evokes the feeling of liveliness, enthusiasm and positivity generated from the on-stage performance of the song ‘Shallow’.
19. Roma (2018)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cinematographer: Alfonso Cuarón
Cuarón’s visual poetry, Roma, unfolds the infinite possibilities of digital technology and creates a cinematic universe of nostalgia and memories. This iconic shot from the film takes place at the Tuxpan beach where the two children of Sofia, played by Marina de Tavira, escape a deadly situation. After the fateful event, the members of the family hug each other and cry. The subjects are composed in a medium-long shot and that provides them the space to cleanse the bitter memories from the past. The ray of light in the background from the setting sun is both an indication of a ray of hope and a new beginning. The use of black and white adds a feeling of genuineness and empathy within the shot.
20. Joker (2019)
Director: Todd Phillips
Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
Joker is a psychological crime drama that addresses mental health issues in a subtle and engaging manner. Todd’s remarkable directorial skills and Sher’s brilliant camera work in Joker helped bring to life the character’s inner world. In this shot from the film, the positioning of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is in the center of the frame and the imprint of Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) in the background indicates the inevitability of fate. Arthur has decided to shoot Murray and surprise as well shock the viewers of the talk show. The color of Arthur’s suit, a shade of red, symbolizes his lethal intention. The shot is also lit with bright light sources, which shows clarity in Arthur’s thoughts, even if it’s something evil.
21. Nomadland (2020)
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cinematographer: Joshua James Richards
Nomadland narrates the tale of Fern (Frances McDormand) who after losing her job due to the recession, begins to live as a nomad residing within the confines of her van. In the depiction of a National tragedy the film has raised concerns that are timeless and universal in their scope and appeal. In this shot, Fern is framed in the center of a long shot which indicates the struggle and difficult journey of her life. The vast horizon represents the long stretch of miles she has to cover to overcome her anxieties and unrest. The changing color of the sky at the sunset offers a glimmer of conviction and assurance in Fern‘s journey. One of the best movie shots in recent times, it’s captured with the available light which gives it a naturalistic feel, helping viewers identify with the character. Nomadland won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Direction and Actress.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.