Every virtuoso filmmaker knows that to get the audience’s attention: the longer the uncut shot the better. The one take shot is really a filmmaker’s rite of passage to show off his cinematic chops, and these next examples are nothing short of exemplary.
From back in the day classics, to modern blockbuster examples, these one take shots are breathtaking and raw to their core. The criteria for this list is the most influential and sought after take that truly encapsulates the film’s theme or group of characters, the more enhanced it is. While some of these examples might have a slight edit or two, we’re willing to overlook that criteria for the sake of the overall momentum the scene builds upon.
Here are The 14 Best Single Takes in Movies.
14. Creed – Addonis vs. Leo
A classic example of genre switch-ups, the Rocky franchise started out as a slow building drama that slowly metamorphosed into an action extravaganza. The “why” of the climactic showdowns was eventually overshadowed by the “how.” By the third entry the audience was only invested in the punches being thrown in the ring, and while they were enjoyable, they didn’t have as much of an emotional impact as they did a physical.
Director Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky spinoff Creed is a return to form for the franchise, which understands that investment in the characters need to be set up in order for a satisfying payoff. Coogler and his choreography team also understand how to construct a powerful fight cinematically. The showdown between Adonis Creed and Leo Sporino is breathtakingly shot in one glorious take that encompasses the first full two rounds of the brawl. Coogler weaves and circles the camera around the fighters, transporting the viewer ringside to see every punch land. The audience is right in the middle of the action with Adonis as he weaves and bobs to achieve his first professional victory, all set to a pulse-pounding score that perfectly captures the intensity.
With his technical expertise assured, we can’t wait to see what Ryan Coogler brings to the table for his Black Panther movie next year, especially now that it’s been announced that he’ll be reteaming with Adonis Creed himself, Michael B. Jordan.
13. The Protector – Lobby Fight
Tony Jaa is one of the most impressive martial arts actors working in the industry today. His work in films like Ong-bak have given him international success, and gave him roles in major blockbusters like last year’s Furious 7. While there are countless examples of Jaa’s impressive fighting style and choreography, the most impressive is from his 2005 film titled The Protector.
Jaa plays Kham, a man who travels to Australia to search for his missing elephant. The story here is secondary, it is merely a catalyst to show off what Jaa does best: fighting. That fighting is captured beautifully in one particular 4 minute brawl, which is all filmed in one impressive take. Jaa throws people off balconies, cracks their arms, and parkours across hotel lobbies in an amazing display of skill. While most fight sequences use quick cuts as a method to mask how fast the punches are really coming, this scene in The Protector all plays out in real time, giving it a certain weight that is all too hard to come by in martial arts films.
12. Weekend – Traffic Jam
Celebrated by film buffs all around the world, French director Jean-Luc Godard is renowned for employing revolutionary camera techniques, especially in his earlier work. His 1967 dark comedy Weekend remains a staple for cinema enthusiasts for his slow pacing and ability to play against common film conventions. As the film begins we are introduced to our sociopathic characters who are journeying on a road trip, but end up getting delayed by a severe traffic jam.
Just over 7 minutes in length, Godard takes us along for the ride as he moves and inches his camera along the cars that are at a standstill. While this might become monotonous under anyone else’s direction, Godard constantly keeps the viewer engaged. A man and a child are seen throwing a ball to one another between cars, lamas and chickens are observed from trucks, a horse and buggy are spilling out their cargo, a man who is towing his boat sets its sails in his downtime, and an old couple are playing chess right on the gravel. All the while a jarring sound of car horns are heard ringing out as the pedestrians try and communicate with one another.
In this one sequence Godard depicts all the nuances of European life. The amount of detail and time that was used to set up the traffic jam is astounding, and begs to be viewed by modern audiences who are particularity interested in longer takes.
11. Panic Room – Burglary Intro
Just like a songwriter, a great filmmaker creates a style all their own that is immediately recognizable to the audience. David Fincher definitely has a certain style by effortlessly blending CGI with real life action in tracking shots, using it in both Fight Club and Seven. In 2002 he used the technique yet again in his thriller Panic Room, but this time much more effectively and subtlety than his past endeavors.
Panic Room stars Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart as a mother and daughter whose home is broken into by a gang of burglars played by Jared Leto and Forest Whitaker. The introduction shot of the thieves is when Fincher uses his one take as he circles around the house capturing the each moment in their precise time. Taking advantage of computer generated effects, the camera dips through keyholes and coffee pots, travels down hallways, and lifts through different floors of the house as the burglars try and find a way in.
While it’s not one solid take, it is both visually and narratively impressive, not to mention unique to Fincher. Let’s hope he brings the same level of creativity to his upcoming thriller series Mindhunter starring Charlize Theron.
10. Snake Eyes – Making a Bet
Director Brian De Palma starts his 1998 thriller Snake Eyes off with a bang that unfortunately morphs into a whisper. As we are introduced to our protagonist, shady police detective Rick Santoro, and the cast of supporting players, De Palma gets up close and personal by creating what appears to be just over 12 minutes of one continuous shot.
The take is started as Santoro, played by a usual off-the-wall Nicolas Cage, meanders around the Atlantic City casino he works in. Everyone around him is getting ready for a big title fight taking place in the stadium. As Rick sets everything in place, the camera follows him like a silent friend everywhere he goes. Cage does what he does best here, hamming up the performance, waving his arms and hoop and hollering like a teenager at a pep rally. While the scene is actually 3 major takes edited cleverly to appear as one shot, it is still an impressive feat by De Palma.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t deliver anything of real substance after this first remarkable shot. Roger Ebert called it “the worst kind of bad film: the kind that gets you all worked up and then lets you down, instead of just being lousy from the first shot.” Too bad De Palma couldn’t keep that momentum going from this first breathtaking scene.
9. The Shining – Danny’s Tricycle
Nobody was more of a filmmaking perfectionist than Stanley Kubrick. Years later and his films are still being marveled at by film enthusiasts for his stunning attention to detail. A true visual storyteller, Kubrick would create awe inspiring shots that changed the game for future film directors to come.
No doubt among his various famous shots, one of the most iconic is the Steadicam tracking shot of Danny Lloyd in The Shining. Created by Garrett Brown in the early 70s, the Steadicam allows the camera operator to follow the actor or action while avoiding all the jostles and shakes of a normal handheld camera. Here, Kubrick employs it as his actor Danny Lloyd rides his toy bike all around the Overlook Hotel. It gives the audience the eerie feeling that something is following Danny, and it builds the tension perfectly as soon as something bad does happen to the character.
8. Gravity – Meteor Shower
Winner of 7 Oscars, including 2 for cinematography and directing, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a feast for the eyes. It’s quality filmmaking at its best, offering the viewer something new we’ve never seen in a theater before. Outer space epics have certainly paved the way for filming techniques, such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Cuarón’s sci-fi journey will almost definitely be included in the discussion thanks to an enormous one shot take that sets up the entire premise of Gravity.
As the astronauts in the film journey outside to try and mend their space ship, they are suddenly hit be a surprise meteor wave. The large debris rips their ship into pieces, and kills all but one survivor who drifts in space aimlessly, struggling to stay alive. The action is all captured in one shot that effortlessly displays all of the events to the viewer. While obviously not all one continuous take with the inclusion of CGI and computer visuals, this shot is still visually impressive and Cuarón more than deserves the praise that he gets for it.
7. Birdman – Riggan’s Production
Like Cuarón’s work above, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ambitious project Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is obviously not one continuous take. There are numerous cuts throughout the indie drama that are presented as one giant tracking shot, and while some may say that’s cheating, it is still visually impressive, to say the least.
The idea of filming an entire movie in one take is one that dates back some years. Alfred Hitchcock once had this vision when filming Rope. However, since film reels only allowed 10 minutes of space, he had to shoot his entire movie in 10 pieces, each 10 minutes in length, and edited them together. Today the resources are much more fluid, and Iñárritu uses this to his advantage by creating some of the most mesmerizing sequences put to film.
Birdman’s camera follows its lead actor, Michael Keaton, as his production goes further and further into the tubes, capturing the man’s desperation and dwindling determination. The camera work in Birdman is nothing short of stellar, even if it isn’t one solid long cut. It doesn’t hurt that Iñárritu had one of the best cinematographers in the game right now, Emmanuel Lubezki, working by his side during the project.
6. Atonement – Dunkirk Scene
With his recent flop Pan being crowned one of the worst films of last year, you would never guess that director Joe Wright once provided one of the most striking tracking shots in film. Teaming up with frequent collaborator Keira Knightley and Professor X himself, James McAvoy, in 2007, Wright made the drama/romance Atonement, a love story intertwined around a misguided lie that shapes the future for the film’s characters.
While the story and performances in Atonement are all praise worthy, the best thing about it is how it is shot. The camera work around the bright colors in the town houses are beautifully striking, but the standout moment is the continuous shot Wright uses to chronicle the events at Dunkirk. It is striking to see the vast choreography that is put into most of these shots. Here Wright is not only dealing with the timing of actors, but also huge set pieces like a sailboat beached on land or a swinging carnival ride.
5. Hard Boiled – Hospital Shootout
Jon Woo must certainly be in the realm of discussion when talking about stylized cinema violence. His early films are almost all staples of the genre, but Hard Boiled is a movie that contains not just 1, but 3 of the best gunfights in cinema history. All worthy of praise, the last and most intense gunfight in a hospital reigns supreme as one of the best action shots ever put to film, and it was mostly all done in just one take.
Woo’s camera follows our two heroes, played by Yun-Fat Chow and Tony Chiu Wai Leung, as they pace through hallways, shotgun blasting bad guys with a kill count that rivals Die Hard and The Terminator combined. Everything is notched up to 11 as henchmen are shot upwards of 10 times a piece, debris flying everywhere with bullet holes riddling every square inch of space.
Woo reportedly tried the sequence 6 different times, and the one with the best results is the one that ended up in the film. Albeit there is one brief cut at the 2:50 mark of the sequence, it’s nothing that can’t be mildly overlooked by the viewer, making this gunfight tracking shot a staple in action junkie history.
4. Oldboy – Hallway Brawl
Speaking of action scenes that changed the game, the fight scene in Oldboy might just be one of the most unique of the last 20 years. Chan-wook Park’s vicious story about revenge eating away at the characters is expertly written and acted, with the violence having something to say instead of becoming a needless shock-value add on.
The hero of the story isn’t really a hero, but more of a man pushed to the brink of his mental and physical threshold. Oh Dae-Su has been honing his fighting skills for the last 15 years in captivity, and when faced with a hallway of other former imprisoned fighters he puts his new found skills to the test. Armed with only a hammer, Oh takes the brawlers on all at once. The fight is captured in one glorious profile shot panned to the side of the hallway so that each blow and punch is brutally felt. The choreography that went into this sequence alone must have been painstaking as it is easily one of the more realistic brawls ever captured on film.
3. Boogie Nights – Nightclub Scene
Fresh off of his first feature length, Paul Thomas Anderson’s second film is a striking achievement for a filmmaker so young. Boogie Nights is a wonderfully crafted story about the rise of the porn industry filled with brilliant actors like Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham and John C. Riley. What really makes it a tour de force is Anderson’s sublime directional style which blends elements of Scorsese and Gilliam while retaining his sense of identity.
There’s a couple tracking shots sprinkled throughout this film that would make excellent candidates for this list, such as the pool party or Wild Bill’s leap off of the deep end. The one we’re going with however is the opening tracking shot through the streets of California to inside a hip dance club that introduces us to all of the characters and represents the movie’s entire tone.
Anderson takes us from the streets of L.A. where Burt Reynold’s Jack Horner and Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves casually enter a happening club filled with bright lights, cool music, and 70s fashion like bellbottoms and pinstriped shirts. Anderson twists the camera every which way setting up the excess and partying before landing on Mark Wahlberg who is on the outside looking in. It’s the perfect way to introduce us to Wahlberg’s character, who is begging for a taste of the good life.
2. Children of Men – Mad Dash to the Finish
While Gravity earned him an Oscar, this is the movie that put Alfonso Cuarón on the map. An adaptation of a novel by P.D. James, Children of Men is a glimpse into an apocalyptic future where humans have inexplicably lost the ability to reproduce. The mystery has confounded scientists and thrust every country into chaos creating mistrust among the ranks of citizens.
There is still hope however in Clare-Hope Ashitey’s character Kee, who is the first pregnant woman in 18 years. Former freedom fighter Theo, who is played by Clive Owen, is tasked with bringing Kee to the Human Project, an organization that could help unlock the infertility mystery. Towards the end of the second act, Theo and Kee attempt to make a break for freedom as the immigration camp they are in tears itself from the inside out. This is where Cuarón really pulls out the big guns.
Almost 12 minutes in length, the camera follows Theo on a mad dash to rescue Kee through madness and chaos. Bombs are exploded, bullets are fired, people are killed, and debris flying every which way, but somehow the camera manages to stay on Theo as he desperately tries to find his companion. The amount of work that had to go into such a shot is absolutely staggering as the camera travels across dirt roads, runs upstairs, and travels onto a bus. While there are undeniably subtle breaks in the shot, the pacing is unreal, and transports the viewer front and center in the action.
1. Goodfellas – Walk Through the Copa
This shot doesn’t have bombs dropping or bullets flying. It doesn’t have martial arts or huge glorious set pieces for eye candy. All that’s going on in this scene are two people buying their way into a club called the Copacabana, and that’s it. Yet somehow it is every bit as mesmerizing and hypnotic as the above entries and then some. Martin Scorsese’s legendary tracking shot from Goodfellas captures the essence of mobster life through Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, and the power he exudes through intimidation and money.
As he walks across the street with his girlfriend Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco, Hill is as confident as ever as he walks up to the side entrance of the club. There he subtly tips the doorman as the two enter the building. The camera follows them down the winding hallway ever intimate as they come across several more doormen and a couple making out in the hallway. They make their way into the kitchen, giving our characters some kind of familiarity with the scene as they finally make their way into the Copacabana. The camera follows as a special table is brought out and placed right in front of the stage for Henry and Karen.
While it might sound drab as ever, the scene exemplifies the kind of lifestyle Henry has been so accustomed to. He is unbound to rules or regulations. In his mind he is above waiting lists or lines, and exudes his power to get in front of the mob. The same can be said of his dangerous lifestyle, and Scorsese uses this scene to brilliantly portray it. While it isn’t action packed, it is entirely striking and worthy of our #1 spot of greatest uncut scenes of all time.
Honorable Mentions: Russian Ark, Serenity, Soy Cuba, Rope, Touch of Evil
Can you think of any other movies that should have been on this list? Should some of those honorable mentions have been bumped up? Let us know in the comments!