There are varying theories of thought that exist when it comes to discussing long takes in movies. Some see them as a cheap trick to impress the audience. Myself, I love a well done long take even if it is in an otherwise bad film. It showcases multiple layers of a film crew and production staff meticulously planning out and achieving something that does not seem logical. Good long takes can also be very static or slow, showing patience while actors are allowed to produce a great performance. These are my Top 10 One-Takes in Movies. I have excluded movies that are or basically are an entire single take. No “Birdman” or “Russian Ark” on this list.
10. Introducing Almost Every Character at Once (“Boogie Nights”):
Director Paul Thomas Anderson was officially on the map with a movie centered around the porn industry of all things. The film opens with a moment of black and then BAM!, “Boogie Nights” in giant neon lettering. Set to the tune of The Emotions classic song “Best of My Love”, the audience knows from the get go we’re in for a wild night. Going up and down the sidewalk both vertical and horizontally, the camera slowly makes its way down to the sidewalk with big-wig porn director Jack Horner walking into a nightclub. We follow him for a minute before the still uncut shot takes us through all parts of club, showing us most of the main characters in this ensemble piece at once. You’ve got the chubby latino club owner dying to get into porn, the black cowboy, roller girl, the cheesy sidekick, and of course the meant to be future porn star played by Mark Wahlberg. The underlying theme of “Boogie Nights” is about family. Introducing the core group all at once foreshadows that sentiment from the get-go.
9. Saving the Children (“Roma”):
Oscar winning director Alfonso Cuaron made a bold move when making his amazing film “Roma”. He decided to shoot in Black & White and also took double duty as the movie’s cinematographer. The story is a combination of both tragedy and hope. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, a poor woman who works for a wealthy family in Mexico City taking care of their four children. The family is mostly kind to her, but it is definitely a we’re rich and you’re poor sort of vibe. A personal tragedy happens in Cleo’s life involving a child that leaves her devastated. Then karma and redemption come full circle during a day at the beach. While accompanying the mother and children, Cleo sees the kids drowning, having been caught in an undertow. All in one uncut take, she rescues the kids she helped raise in heroic fashion.
8. Justifying Yourself to a Priest (“Hunger”):
It was clear director Steve McQueen was in business to make tough films after his debut “Hunger”. Based on the true story, the movie takes place in a Northern Ireland prison in 1981. Several IRA members are political prisoners thanks to the British government. Michael Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, a prisoner unafraid of lashing back at the oppressive guards, which he often pays for dearly. When it seems hope is lost, Sands and his fellow prisoners go on a hunger strike to bring national media attention to the cause. While most eventually cave, Sands is willing to die for what he believes is right. In a static 15-plus minute shot, the prison’s priest visits Sands and they talk out why this hunger strike could possibly be necessary. It is two excellent actors being allowed to show the true depths of their character’s soul without any movie trickery, and it is captivating.
7. Bringing Your Lady Into the Club (“Goodfellas”):
One thing I cannot stand in many gangster movies is the winey wife/girlfriend who’s mad about their significant other being a gangster. That’s my one issue with “The Godfather Part II” and Kay freaking out about Al Pacino, a character literally called Godfather, having people killed. Shut up! Either buy into the lifestyle or don’t marry a gangster, real simple. In “Goodfellas” Lorraine Bracco plays Karen Hill, wife of the notorious real life gangster Henry Hill. On their first date, Henry takes her to a ritzy nightclub. At first she is nervous as getting a table is hard and there is a line going out the door. Instead of waiting in line the couple cuts right through the line with Henry telling Karen ‘I like going this way. Better than waiting in line.’ From there we follow the characters as they make their way through every aspect of the club including the kitchen and waiting staff area before finally hitting the floor with a table being set up right in front to watch the performing act. Along the walk, Henry is tipping everyone a crisp 20 dollar bill. Overwhelmed but not stupid, she asks Henry what he does and he claims to be in construction. It takes one line to encapsulate this experience; “It sure doesn’t feel like you’re in construction.” And in an instant she is sold because this lifestyle sure is nice.
6. A Drunken Performance About the Universe (“Werckmeister Harmonies”):
Bela Tarr is one of the most abstract filmmakers in history. His films feel like a combination of a great painter like Picasso slammed together with the eloquent poems of Walt Whitman. Tarr is certainly out there, but if you allow yourself to let his work sink in it can be very rewarding. Most film nerds like me go for his masterpiece “Satantango” as his best piece. For me, nothing beats “Werckmeister Harmonies”. Impossible to explain and meant to be interpreted by every individual on their own, the 2000 art-house hit centers around a young man seeing a surge in aggressive behavior in his small Hungarian village when a strange circus group, and I emphasize strange, arrives. The main character played by Lars Rudolph is introduced during an elegant one-take opening with a bar owner trying to kick out all of the village drunks. Before they go, one man calls for Valuska to put on his signature performance. From there Valuska orchestrates a dance with the inebriated men whilst explaining how the sun, earth, and moon work and how hope is restored when the sun comes up and the fear when the moon creates an eclipse. It is sweet poetry and a perfect opening to this piece.
5. The Worst Night of Her Life (“Irreversible”):
A PREFACE: THIS CLIP DOES NOT SHOW THE ENTIRE SCENE AS IT IS INCREDIBLY DISTURBING. Director Gasper Noe has been pushing the envelope his entire career. While I can respect most of his concepts, for me he goes too far to the point of trying to shock us just because why the hell not. It’s just cocky filmmaking. However, his best effort came with 2002’s “Irreversible”. Told in reverse, this is the story of a young man played by Vincent Cassel looking to kill the guy who raped his girlfriend who may now be his ex-girlfriend after a fight at a party. The girl played by Monica Bellucci storms out and wants to get home on the subway when she runs into a man beating a girl. After locking eyes with Bellucci his focus has turned. Threatening her with a switch blade, he brutally rapes her. All done in one take, Noe pulls absolutely zero punches and shows just how absolutely horrific the rape is. It is one of the top terrible things a human can possible do, and Noe wants you to see what it really looks like for those that will be fortunate enough to never experience such a thing.
4. Experiencing the Battlefield at Dunkirk (“Atonement”):
Director Edgar Wright did not set out to make a war movie when adapting the famous Britsh author Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement”. It is about true love being squandered by ignorance. A rich young lady, played by Kiera Knightly, living with her wealthy family in a castle, falls in love with a member of the help played by James MacAvoy. When the two are discovered getting it on in the library MacAvoy is accused of rape even though it was consensual and thus shipped off to WWII. In one of the most epic of shots, the young soldier and his friends arrive at the Dunkirk beach and witness a variety of scenes amongst the thousands of soldiers. Some are wounded, some have had their souls crushed, and some are singing songs. It is a beautiful ode to a small section of the brave soldiers who fought during the Great War.
3. Stairwell Battle (“Atomic Blonde”):
As a movie, “Atomic Blonde” was a total let-down. The trailer looked badass. A “John Wick” style action movie with a female star of the caliber of Charlize Theron. I’m in. Unfortunately the plot was convoluted and barely existent with supporting characters appearing as though they were phoning it in. This movie wants you to know how cool it is instead of just being cool. And yet, there is one sequence that absolutely stands up against any other action movie’s best in history. Trying to extract a target from a high-rise building, super-spy Charlize has to shoot and fight her way out down the stairs with multiple ‘Bad Hombres’ trying to take her down in the process. The violence is visceral and never ending with what had to have been multiple blood and bullet effects precisely choreographed and punches designed the way a director puts together a ballet. And yeah, that is really Charlize being thrown down a flight of stairs. No way of using a stunt double here which I’m sure had the producers sweating.
2. A Man With a Hammer Takes On Dozens of Thugs (“Oldboy”):
The crown for best ever one-take fight scenes has got to go to the 2003 smash hit out of South Korea that is “Oldboy”. Having been imprisoned for 15 years in a strange room for no reason he can determine, the main character Oh Dae-Su is suddenly released and on a rampage to find the answers as to why he lost 15 years of his life. After torturing a top crime boss for information, Oh Dae-Su comes out into the hall and it is filled with thugs armed with bats, chains, and knives ready to get down. In one uncut sequence with the camera simply moving horizontally, the man that has nothing but rage is happy to dispose of those standing in his way. Asian cinema is notorious for amazing action set-pieces. From the awesome Japanese Yakuza crime shootouts to the mesmerizing Kung-Fu battles in Chinese movies, these cultures know how to fight with an exquisite sense of beauty. “Oldboy” is the peak example of this.
1. A Car Ride Gone Totally Wrong (“Children of Men”):
Yep, this is the second time director Alfonso Cuaron is on this list. I could have had him three times (Opening of the movie “Gravity” anyone). But the top spot has to go to the chaotic car attack in “Children of Men”. Completely unexpected and smack-dab in the middle of the movie. this scene starts off as friendly banter amongst a rag-tag group of travelers attempting to make their way along a back road in a post-apocalyptic Great Britain. When the car is suddenly attacked by a bunch of thugs coming out of the surrounding forest area all hell breaks loose. The entire sequence is shot with one camera rotating around the inside of the car as things get worse and worse. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, along with the production team, created a custom rig that was placed over the car with the camera floating 360 degrees and forcing the actors to duck as it came around while also driving the car, getting shot at, and knocking over thugs on a bicycle in real time. With all of the blood, bullets, and car parts being destroyed there is no way to fake this. The mother of all one-takes.