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Nothing draws the attention of cinephiles quite like a long, unbroken take of a shot. When a film masterfully executes an unbroken moving one-take shot, it forever belongs to the canon of film history. Some films, even ones going back to the 1940s, are built around a framework of the whole movie being done in one long take. While an impressive visual feat, films like Rope, Birdman, and 1917 are not entirely executed in one take. In these cases, the wholly unbroken nature of the films is an illusion. The list of films below feature authentic long shots with no cuts, and you’ll be thinking about how in the world these shots were composed for days.
Director: Martin Scorsese
No film captures the feeling of living the life of luxury and excess quite like Martin Scorsese’s beloved masterpiece, and this famous real-time three-minute tracking shot of Henry (Ray Liotta) and Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) entering the Copacabana nightclub through the underground exit and the kitchen is the thesis of the film. The shot is the summation of the cinematic euphoria that is Goodfellas. From a surface level perspective, it is simply breathtaking to watch, from the “Then He Kissed Me” needle drop to the exquisite level of detail onscreen. From a deeper reading of the sequence, it explains the basis of the film’s core idea, that these characters obtain all their luxuries and riches by going through the back in various illicit means. Like the rest of the film, the viewer can enjoy this one-take Steadicam shot for leisurely entertainment or for critical analysis.
The Player (1992)
Director: Robert Altman
This scathing satire on Hollywood and the absurdity of filmmaking from Robert Altman was a triumph for the great director. The film’s opening scene, an unbroken 8-minute shot laying out the characters and plot motivations of the entire film in an Altman-esque assemblage of a community, is equally dazzling and naturalistic. Because the dialogue and intrigue of filmmaking is so rich in this sequence, including a hilarious exchange between Buck Henry playing himself pitching Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) on a sequel to The Graduate, it’s plausible to not consciously register that this is all occurring in one long take. In many ways, this is the ideal long shot, where it is not about the flex of an athletic feat of filmmaking, but rather, to serve the world and characters of the film.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
One of the masters of cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky, was always pushing the boundaries of what a camera could pull off. His penultimate film tells a story of a Russian poet’s voyage to Italy to interview a composer, and instead comes across a supposed prophetic figure who tells the poet how the world can be saved from apocalypse. This harrowing unbroken shot follows the protagonist in his trial of a local superstition, in which he carries a lit candle through a drained mineral pool. The shot, lasting about 9 minutes and 20 seconds, is dedicated to showing the character’s desperation to keep the candle lit, and is a perfect demonstration of how drawn he is to the mythical ways of life. The scene is void of any score. All that is heard is diegetic sounds (footsteps, heavy breathing), emphasizing the importance of the candle.
Director: Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen is an expert at forcing his viewers to sit through gut-wrenching and brutal scenes for great dramatic effect. He immediately established himself with a whopping 16-minute one-take shot in his feature film debut. The scene is an agonizing standoff between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham, with the former fighting to death as the leader of a hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison. While many famous unbroken shots are stuffed with hundreds of extras and set pieces, they will never be quite as effective as one-takes such as this when the effect of claustrophobia and uneasiness is employed. When all that you can look at is the despair of Fassbender’s character, the potential of a static camera is fully realized.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
If any director can rest on the laurels of the long unbroken shot, it is Alfonso Cuarón and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. This Oscar-winning hit introduces the audience to the dangers of outer space with a 17-minute one-take shot showing the two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney doing maintenance on their ship before all hell breaks loose, and they are abandoned in the middle of space. This sequence is the ultimate demonstration of the film’s visual language, using the physics and emptiness of space as the driving power behind the tension.
Russian Ark (2002)
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
After four attempts, Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov pulled off the near-impossible: directed a film entirely in real time and unbroken for 1 hour and 37 minutes. This film, while set in one location, is not necessarily rigged in favor of producing a long-take movie. The immaculate nature of the film is enhanced with a sense of intensity behind the camera that is palpable onscreen, with the viewer in awe of how this could be pulled off. Sure, the film could have easily been a stage play instead, but Sokurov’s monumental feat is a perfect encapsulation as to why cinema is the most powerful art form alive.
Director: Mike Figgis
In an experimental piece of filmmaking about a woman’s paranoia over her partner’s adultery during a movie production, four simultaneous screens appear on-screen that track the connected narrative for an unbroken 1 hour and 39 minutes. Pushing the boldness of the film even further, Figgis shot each of the four perspectives at the same time. A savvy use of the soundtrack guides the viewer in which quadrant they should direct their attention towards in a given moment. This film is exclusively about the effect of the all-encompassing long take, as the story is purposefully straightforward in order to execute the trick. This is an experiment that a viewer can intellectually appreciate, but never wholly enjoy, at least on the initial viewing, which is understandable considering the overload of action appearing onscreen.
Director: Sebastian Schipper
At last, we have reached the crown jewel of athletic filmmaking. This Spanish film from Sebastian Schipper currently holds the record for longest continuous unbroken shot at 2 hours and 18 minutes, the film’s entire runtime. The film, with a loose-operating script calling for heavy actor improvisation, is certainly modeled to placate this cinematic flex. While the plot is minimal, following a young woman and her dangerous night out with friends, the film has enough going on to be engaged with the action onscreen and not just the mesmerizing camera work. It uses familiar genre sensibilities to make viewers hang around, and in turn, to see if the unbroken shot can keep up for this long.
If there is a through line between all of these incredible feats of filmmaking, it’s that there needs to be something of value behind these shots. They need to enhance the story or characters, or else these shots are all flash and no substance.