Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity begins with a 17-minute-long take. The news put Gravity right up at the top of my “most anticipated” list, because I love long takes. When I’m up late at night, I’m thinking about amazing long takes I’ve seen or how other films could have been better if they’d used long takes. So it made sense that I should list some of my favorites.
So without further ado, here are eight of the best long takes ever made.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is one of the best films ever made. It also has one of the best long takes ever made. An entire dinner conversation takes place while Otilia, the film’s protagonist, is forced to wrestle with what has been happening to her (and it’s pretty bad; you should see the movie). It’s an amazing shot in the midst of a sea of amazing shots, many of them also quite long. Mungiu’s newest film, Beyond the Hills, likewise has some really amazing long takes, including one that is extremely similar to the one above.
Children of Men
It’s kind of hard to pick a favorite long take in Children of Men, but I’m going with this one. Why? Because a long time ago I saw a “making of” trailer that focused on this shot, and the work they did to make it happen, with a free-spinning camera-car contraption thing, is truly amazing. There is at least one masked cut in there (when Clive Owen gets out of the car), but can you tell? No. Impressive stuff.
The reason this shot is really awesome is because of its demonstration of the film’s famous use of deep focus. I mean, the camera moves around and about the house, and little Charles Foster Kane is in focus way outside the window the entire time. Nowadays, that may not be so impressive, but back then? That’s some crazy stuff right here.
I had heard about this scene long before I saw it. I was told that it was the best shootout in a movie ever and that it would change my life and all kinds of other hype-filled things. But when I saw it, it somehow exceeded my expectations. I knew it was long, but I kept expecting it to cut. And it didn’t. It just kept going and going. There’s a reason that John Woo is a household name (among households that are fans of ’80s Hong Kong cinema).
My favorite shot on this list is the least complicated. This 17 1/2-minute-long static shot essentially breaks Steve McQueen’s debut Hunger into two parts: its first, tense, crazy prison horrors, and the second, a calm, meditative look at a man dying of starvation. Shame also has some excellent long takes, but I’m begrudgingly keeping this list to one shot per director.
Fun fact: I have hugged Choi Min-Sik, star of Oldboy and many other excellent films. It was kind of terrifying meeting him at first, in part because I had watched this scene before. He takes on 15 dudes with a hammer. (More worrying was his performance in the brilliant I Saw the Devil, but it was all unsettling.) Turns out, he’s basically the nicest person ever and he doesn’t like violence. Go figure.
(There’s another great long-take fight scene in Yakuza Weapon, which is unfortunately not on YouTube, but I highly recommend checking that one out as well. And when you do, remember that actor Tak Sakaguchi did it with a broken neck.)
Rope tried to do a one-take movie long before that was technically possible. There are a few obvious cuts in Rope, but much of the film is done in single takes that are the length of a roll of film. When the camera is about to run out, it moves behind someone’s back or a wall or something that will black it out, and then the camera will reemerge with a fresh roll of film (but the audio plays over it all to mask the cut even further). The film itself isn’t one of Hitchcock’s best, but it’s certainly one of his most fascinating.
One shot. Ninety-six minutes. Whoa.