Welcome to "Top 10 Shots", our weekly column to get together, look at some gorgeous visuals, and reminisce about great cinematic gems past and present, so if you haven't seen this week's central film, I warn of SPOILERS and urge you to come back once you've seen the film. "The Avengers" is out today, coming out to much anticipation from the geek and normal community of cinemagoers. It's rather firmly in position to become a juggernaut at the box office, so it's a no-brainer to do something that mindfully attaches. For quite some time, I believed that to ideally be the previous Marvel installments. But I ran into something of a roadblock while going back into the Marvel canon. This may come as no surprise to anybody, but the Marvel superhero films aren't all the brilliantly shot in terms of singular visual wonders.
Despite having such a great cinematographer as Matthew Libatique on "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2", Jon Favreau simply didn't have any direction for what the films were about. They looked good, but nothing stuck out as expressionist as "Black Swan". "The Incredible Hulk" was quite obviously a dull action fest with no visual inclinations. "Thor" is an absolute visual feast, but mostly in terms of concept art. Some shots stuck out, but it would be too greatly in that film's favor. And "Captain America" was a damn good time and all, but Joe Johnston has never been one to inflect major strokes of intelligence into his films.
So my thoughts went briefly back to Joss Whedon's "Serenity" before dismissing that quickly in favor of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. I'd be biting my teeth into "We Need to Talk About Kevin" if it were only out on DVD sooner. But it seemed about time for me to take a look at "Atonement", one of the cinematography giants of 2007, of which I will no doubt get into all five eventually. But to simply take a moment with "Atonement", the film is absolutely gorgeous, very much in establishing an aesthetic that works throughout the entire feature. It was a tough nut to crack ten shots that soared above the rest in terms of wonder and intent. I hope you enjoy the evidence I found of this film's power!
10. The Moments They Have
"Atonement" is a film of sweeping visuals, deep hues, and powerful symbolism, but on occasion it is the simplest of gestures that have the greatest of impacts. Landing on the midsection of the film, after the genteel first act of the film, but not yet moved on towards the devastation of the latter half. In the context of the film, everything has pretty much already happened, and there's nothing really to be done about Cecilia and Robbie's circumstances. Their relationship is on the verge of collapse, with reality bearing in on them, but they won't let it. There's nothing visually magnificent about this shot, but the quiet nudge of sweetness and comfort keeps this dim spark lit.
9. Field of Corpses
It's rather difficult to find our footing with some of the time slips that happen in the film, taking us to different places and telling us rather simply where we are. Somehow words just don't do justice to a situation until a simple visual cue gives literal context to it. Leave it to McGarvey and Wright to figure out the most sinking and powerful way of doing that, spanning out across a field as Robbie Turner realizes exactly what he and his group have stumbled upon. Several girls lying dead on the ground, almost asleep, which is all the more impactful that it's Robbie finding them. A world of death before him, and a man watching as it relentlessly happens.
8. Sting of Poison
If you ask me, Saoirse Ronan is positively the weakest of the three actresses who portray Briony Tallis. She's still phenomenal, but only at the start of her career, and she won't get a real grip of that until her next venture with Joe Wright, "Hanna". So it makes sense that the strongest visual cue in her respect doesn't really involve her at all, but does offer an overt use of symbolism. The events that occur sadly throughout the rest of the film show how truly poisonous the vision of a young girl can be. Nobody questions it, however foggy it may be. You see a bee. You kill it. You don't question what the bee does, or how it causes flowers to bloom. It's a really deep and biting bit visual cue.
7. If the Red Weren't Behind Me
The Briony Tallis we see later in the film one who has begun to realize the full impact of what she's done, and she's certainly not the slightest bit happy about it. It seems all of that has derailed her existence, and the plans she had have been shelved in favor of doing penance for her act of selfishness. Obvious though it may be, the shot of Briony accompanying a confused soldier on the brink of death made powerful use of an emotional scene. The boy isn't going to make it, and doesn't bare his soul in his last moments. Though he asks that she bare hers. I'm a sucker for the obvious, and her scars and guilt have never been more bare. Or maybe it's just Romola Garai who brings out the paleness in her palette.
6. Wish You Were Here
To say that "Atonement" isn't a bit of a tease would be something of a misnomer, because even the ending of the film is a sort of cruel tease. Throughout the plight of the film, Robbie is tormented by a world gone by, and lives made painfully impossible. The recurring shot of Keira Knightley's silhouette, back to the camera and face towards the sea, is one that is obviously gorgeous. The blue tones are quite sweeping, and luring us irrecoverably in. It's a beautiful vision, but given the pang of the fact that it is so unreachable. Like a painting on the wall, wishing you well while you're away, but secretly taunting.
5. Night has Passed
And this shot is almost a precise companion piece to that previous image. Robbie is in a state of exile, perfectly juxtaposed without seeing what's happened in the years since. Lost from sight, but nobody really cares, this shot pervades into the wide opened spaces. The inside is given the illusion of outside, quite artfully so, and we see a sunken Robbie, standing battered amongst overgrown grass, as the mist rises. It is specifically not sunset, but sunrise. The night has been dark, but there's a spring of hope. Things can get better, and there's always that hope that something will light the way.
4. The Cage I Chose
Romola Garai is the only Briony Tallis who was utterly robbed of an Oscar nomination in 2008, and for the life of me I can't understand why. Her portion of the film is near undeniably the strongest avenue of the film's exploration of her. Her penance of doing work in support of war victims is one chosen to get her closer to her sister. It's no mistake that there is a shot that tells her story staggeringly, rather than prettily. Briony works as a nurse scrubbing bedframes, piled up massively upon each other, as if to be cagelike. She's trapped, but with consent, as one consents to shut their mind down in sleep. Her ambitions at rest, but not her body, mind, or heart.
3. Keep on Spinning Along
"Atonement" is a love story of sorts, but there's an extreme ache that comes from its juxtaposition against World War 2. As they arrive at the beach, not to salvation, but to a beach extending beyond the horizon with men battered, bruised, but not entirely broken, all of this sinks in. Shown through the guise of a single take, we span unyielding across a different battlefield, one where life hangs equally in the balance, and we see the convergence of hundreds of sorrow filled stories, some that may have positive conclusions. The ferris wheel on the horizon, keeping on turning, either bringing comfort, or just making you sick.
2. Come Back to Me
I'm not so entirely sure if this shot came twice in "Atonement", but it made a magnificent deal of impact due to a slight flail of editing. As Robbie fights for his survival, and grieves deeply from the pain of the experiences life has unduly dealt him, we return to the moment where this all started. The last moment he saw Cecilia at that place they lived. But it's not coming back, but quite literally returning, in reverse. The smoke seems to go back to the place where it came from, but what gives this moment its sinking impact is the fact that it has already happened. We've already seen what occurs, and it can't be stopped. It's impossibly heartbreaking and gorgeous, most absolutely in the lighting of Knightley's face.
1. If Only We Could
If I'm stretching for every other shot of the film, I am absolutely not straining my resources for this one, which is an absolute marvel of cinematic beauty. I do mean that quite literally, since Robbie's traverses through the beach wreckage bring him to the cinema, but it's yet another taunt. As we see a pair of lovers on the screen, Robbie relents to his own circumstances. Life is cruel, hurtful, and just plain unfair. Isn't it so perfect to believe that love can find a way in the movies, and by the end of the film, "Atonement" does. But it's a lie, and in this moment of extreme grief, Robbie know it. All that is gorgeous in the world, that we wish could be, simply cannot.
So, what do you think of my picks, and what are yours? Comment below!
HINT FOR NEXT WEEK'S (TENTATIVE) FILM: Mandrake's Root