Alright. We admit that it’s tough, if not impossible, for us to say what shots you noticed in a film and what shots you didn’t, but this list is about highlighting some of the most beautiful images in film over the last 20 years or so; images that are not usually the iconic images from the film. All too often, films are viewed as the sum of their individual parts, which is fine when you’re looking to name the Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But that method leads people to overlook some of the components that make a great film. Considering that films are moving pictures, we tend to consider motion, action, and tracking shots as the very best the cinema has to offer. However, there are countless stills and single shots from films that capture an incredible amount of detail. This list is not only designed to put a spotlight on the best of those shots, but we’ve focused on the less-than-iconic shots, the shots that don’t often pop out of the people’s minds when they think about these films.
There’s a good argument to be made that every film can be narrowed down to one single frame or, at least, that every film can be represented by a single shot. For the most part, the images we selected are great representations of the films they’re taken from, but they’re each different for what they signify. Sure, many of them are single frame metaphors for the film as a whole, but some are representative of the type of filming strategy in the film. Some are just really gorgeous. We’re doing our part to change how these images are recognized. There may be better shots within each film than the ones we selected, but these are the shots that we feel deserve more of your attention. Here are 15 Incredible Shots in Film That You Might Have Missed.
15. Jenny And The House – Forrest Gump
The scene in Forrest Gump that has Jenny throwing rocks at her old home to release some of her anger toward her abusive father, is an iconic scene to be sure. However, we want to highlight the still frame of her slumped over in front of her old home. This is right as Forrest says, “Sometimes, there aren’t enough rocks” if you need help positioning yourself in the film. The shot is obviously beautiful, but there is a lot being said here—the symmetry of a broken down and slumped over Jenny sitting in the dirt in her white dress, while behind her looms the broken-down house and the dead and broken trees. There are plenty of interpretations available here but the framing of the shot shows that Jenny is a product of her environment. Even when dressed up and moved on, she finds her way back here, broken down in the dirt in front of the broken-down home she was raised in.
14. The Burning Heart – Schindler’s List
The girl in red gets a lot of attention when thinking of a single shot in Schindler’s List, but there’s another frame that might be even more powerful in the film. The burning heart scene is textbook film-making strategy with an additional twist. The reaction shot is a classic technique that allows a filmmaker to show something happening and a character reacting to it all at once. It tells the audience how the character feels without saying anything. Steven Spielberg is a huge fan of reflection shots. In almost every one of his films, he uses some variation of it. The Burning Heart scene from Schindler’s List is a classic reaction/reflection scene except that we also see a visual representation of the fire outside reflected in the heart of Oskar Schindler. So now we have the image of his facial reaction and the burning in his heart. It’s masterful.
13. Fighting The Father – Creed
Creed got a lot of attention from the Rocky crowd and the lovers of sports dramas. Pretty much anyone who loves film, loves this movie. But there were a few shots in the movie that went overlooked and under-appreciated for what they did. Take this shot, for example, the shot of Adonis practicing while the fight between Rocky and Apollo is projected behind him. There’s not much we can add to what the director of photography for the film, Maryse Alberti, said so we’ll just leave you with this: “The movie talks about Adonis having to make his own legacy, to get out from underneath the name of Creed and make it his own. For this shot, I had to find a projector that could produce the clarity and intensity of light to record it. Home projectors look very cute but they don’t have the power necessary for a camera to record. So we had to bring in a big projector and cheat a little bit to show that this young man is immersed in the idea of boxing. That’s what he wants his life to be, and the ghost of his father is right on top of him. He fights the image of his father in trying to find his own path.”
12. Owl And Its Prey – Her
The image of the owl on the electronic billboard from Her could be easily missed if you blinked. The message or metaphor here is simple but incredibly important in the film. With a multitude of screens around him, the main character is unaware of the large owl looming behind him, seemingly about to grasp him in its talons. This image mirrors the way that Joaquin Phoenix‘s character is consumed by technology and how the manufacturers of technology prey on isolated and lonely individuals such as him.
11. Bloody Cotton – Django Unchained
It might be stretch to say that the blood-spattered cotton from Django Unchained went unnoticed, but in the grand scheme of Quentin Tarantino‘s films, Django Unchained as a whole, this scene in particular can be lost. The image immediately brings to mind the blood that was spilled for the cotton trade. Director of photography on the film, Robert Richardson, said of the shot, “I believe the image speaks magnificently to Quentin’s perspective on slavery as well as a portrait of what style Django Unchained is about to release. Jackson Pollock immediately surfaces to my mind, but Jackson Pollock magnified through a visceral if not near-porn*graphic eye. It’s less abstract but equally expressionistic. And it’s interesting if you compare it with the final explosion of Candie’s mansion; the explosion might be seen to represent the collapse or comedown of false idols and the cotton emblematic of the first shot fired towards that demise.”
10. The Look – Nightcrawler
Nightcrawler has a healthy following of fans who believe that the film is far greater than what most people see in it. This is good. We love the film and could point to a few underrated shots in it. The one we want to highlight here is pretty simple. It’s a shot of Lou Bloom’s feature of Rick dying. There on the TV, Rick is dying and the shot is framed by two people falling in love. The shot is great to show how desensitized we are to death and dying and there are multiple layers at work. How can two people fall in love while they watch someone die? How can we, the audience, watch two people fall in love while someone dies on camera? It’s media violence and our disassociation from it all in one frame.
9. The Hospital – Cemetery Of Splendour
Since change plays such a large role in Cemetery of Splendour, it may seem a bit odd to select a still from the film, but if that’s what it takes to get this film on this list, we’ll do it. The film is about soldiers inflicted with a strange sleeping sickness. They are treated with lights that change throughout the scenes in the film, and represent the journey in a way. The lights on their own are utterly hypnotic and captivating, and this single shot captures the beauty of the hospital and these lights in the most basic sense. Since this is such a powerful film that will not get the audiences it deserves because it is a foreign film, we felt it necessary to honor it in any way we could.
8. The Tent – Melancholia
The final shot of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia isn’t necessarily unnoticed, but the film itself might be overlooked amidst the flurry of activity and beauty we’ve seen recently from von Trier. In this shot, not much needs to be said about it. The cast is sitting in their small man-made tent awaiting their doom. That’s really all there is to it, but it looks fantastic. Manuel Alberto Claro, the director of photography on the film, said of the shot, “The plan was always to finish the film with that shot. We actually storyboarded it before finding the location. In the end, the VFX guys had to stitch it together from many different plates to create the perfect setting. They made a small-scale 2D model of the magic cave and the actors, which they used for the explosions. In the editing, it turned out to be too static before the impact, so we re-shot Charlotte moving in despair and inserted her into the shot. This was during sound editing, a few weeks before finishing the movie.” We don’t want to shun the shot because it’s aided by VFX either. It doesn’t matter how the image is created as long as it works.
7. The Pool’s Reflection – Deer Hunter
The fact that Vilmos Zsigmond was nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards for his part in Deer Hunter, made this shot much more recognizable, but you’d be surprised at how many people haven’t actually seen this film. Either way, some might argue that this mountain shot is one of the most iconic in the film, but we beg to differ. Most people probably couldn’t even point out the movie this is from. Although, we admit it is tough to pinpoint because there are no identifiable characters in the shot. Still, it deserves to be here. The heavy symbolism with the mountain and the pool reflection is a powerful image. The split almost seems to give us two men, one climbing a mountain and another walking into the underworld. This mirroring plays an important role in the controversial film as the main characters try to cope with the consequences of war.
6. The Silhouette – The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Roger Deakins might be the best cinematographer in the industry. He captures some of the most beautiful shots and does so in a way that allows them to speak as if they’re part of the script. Here, we see Jesse James approaching the train in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He’s obscured by the shadows, but he still looks imposing. In a way, this image is representative of the image we all have of Jesse James, the mystery man in our minds. Most of us don’t really know anything about him except for what we see here in this shot.
5. The Girl With The Umbrella – Pleasantville
Pleasantville just doesn’t get enough love. Perhaps, we’re suckers for nostalgic cinema, but this movie is amazing. Not only do we get that amazing feel-good 50’s film, but we get a smart and critical film as well. There are a few really significant shots in the film, most of them contrasting the bright and booming new colors with the bleak black and white. We felt the umbrella shot was best because of how picturesque it is, showing us almost the opposite of what we would expect. A colorful woman with an umbrella seems to be shielding away the black and white like it’s rain. The contrast against the backdrop is so stark that it’s like food for your eyes. Brilliant!
4. Picking Flowers – It Follows
Honestly, we debated which shot to include from It Follows. The film is such a visual wonderland, we could have thrown a dartboard at the…wait, that wouldn’t work. Still, the film is gorgeous and it’s even better that it’s a horror film. We selected the flower-picking shot for a number of reasons. Mainly, we selected it because it is perfectly representative of the film. First, Jay’s picking a flower as if to show us the loss of her own innocence. Remember that this is moment right before she is gagged with a chloroform rag. Jay’s hands are also in the shot which is important because closeups of hands symbolize intimacy in the film. They give us a personal perspective and put us in Jay’s spot. Here, she is still carefree and feeling in love while the guy behind her is preparing to pass on his ailment onto her. It’s a perversion of the standard flower-picking scene. There’s an element of random selection here too. Ack! There’s just so much. It’s simple. Yes, but it’s one of the best.
3. The Church – Spotlight
Even though Spotlight got a lot of love (deservedly), the beautiful shots in the film were not the focal point. It was the script and the cast, which were both insanely strong. But there were some mind-blowing perspective shots in this film all camouflaged in with the film trying not to take any attention away from the story and the incredible cast. But look at this image above. The giant church looming in the background, dwarfing the characters on the balcony. This just perfectly encapsulates the battle going on within the film. The director of photography on Spotlight, Masanobu Takayanagi, said that they got a few different shots from this angle but the director chose this shot because “the church is a powerful image.” Yes. Yes, it is.
2. The Hanged Man – True Grit
Fans of True Grit will recognize this shot. Hell, this shot might be the most recognizable in the entire film, which is cheating in a way. But the Coen Brothers‘ True Grit remake didn’t get the love it deserved. Yeah, it brought in plenty of accolades, but the fact that people don’t recognize it as a cinematic masterpiece is a crime in our eyes. Take the hanged man for example. For this shot, the filmmakers sought out trees standing on their own, but when they came across this sparse wooded area, they felt it was perfect. There’s the death mirrored in the trees, but the image itself is just incredible. The extreme height of the hanging tree is astounding. It makes no practical sense to hang someone so high except to be seen from a great distance and to require great difficulty to take the body down. Really, we just love the depth of this image.
1. In The Corner – The Wrestler
The Wrestler is an amazing film on so many levels. But of all the iconic shots in the film, we felt that this one doesn’t get the attention it deserves. There’s a lot going on here. Maryse Alberti, the director of photography, said that the shot was intended to be more complicated but they “decided to leave the camera in the back of the room with Mickey very small in the frame with his back to us.” This shot effectively establishes “the isolation of the character.” There’s also the obvious stark contrast between the classroom and youth with the aged and worn-down wrestler. Rather than in the corner of a wrestling ring, he’s in the corner of this classroom. It’s bright and colorful, but it’s also depressing and foreboding.