“A cinematographer is a visual psychiatrist — moving an audience through a movie […] making them think the way you want them to think, painting pictures in the dark,” said the late, great Gordon Willis. As we continue our year-end coverage, one aspect we must highlight is, indeed, cinematography, among the most vital to the medium. From talented newcomers to seasoned professionals, we’ve rounded up the examples that have most impressed us this year. Check out our rundown below and, in the comments, let us know your favorite work.
Arrival (Bradford Young)
At this point, it would be unfair to call Bradford Young an up-and-coming cinematographer. While it’s an accurate description in terms of his relative years behind the camera, the caliber of his work already feels like one of the most accomplished in the genre. Ahead of a Han Solo prequel, he got his first taste with sci-fi thanks to Denis Villeneuve‘s Arrival. An ideal match for the director’s sensibilities, he brings a realistic lens to this otherworldly plot. One of my favorite touches is a motif that begins with the first shot: tilting the camera down to convey prioritizing the people in front of us rather than focusing beyond the stars. For more, read our interview with him here. – Jordan R.
A Bigger Splash (Yorick Le Saux)
With Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, Only Lovers Left Alive, and now A Bigger Splash, Yorick Le Saux is easily one of the most impressive cinematographers working on the international circuit. In something of a contrast from those earlier features, his contribution to Luca Guadagnino‘s latest picture is that it simply moves. With a cast as beautiful as the Sicilian island they are inhabiting, the DP photographs them with a sensuality missing in today’s American cinema. One only needs to view Ralph Fiennes rocking out to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” to get a sense of the dynamism Yorick Le Saux brings to this production. – Jordan R.
Cemetery of Splendor (Diego García)
The most surprising thing about Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s oeuvre is that it invites you to relax. The long-shot / extended-take aesthetic and lack of narrative urgency, to which first-time collaborator Diego Garciá acclimates readily, might sound intimidating, but the mingling of an unhurried temperament with his films’ natural environments is immensely calming, and has a way of flattening (but not nullifying) more troubling dramatic components. Those should be turned over later; in the meantime, Cemetery of Splendor is a modern master in total control. Major credit to García for so gently carrying us along the way. – Nick N.
Certain Women (Christopher Blauvelt)
The immense emotional spaces left unexplored between the characters of Certain Women are idyllically conveyed through the cinematography of Kelly Reichardt‘s latest feature. Shot on 16mm by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, there’s both a humbling vastness to the American Northwest landscapes and a quiet intimacy during the tender dialogue scenes. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen this triptych and it’s a grand testament that I can still recall virtually every frame. – Jordan R.
The Childhood of a Leader (Lol Crawley)
Scale — in terms of both narrative scope and ambition — can be forgivably small in a directors first feature. When ambitions and ideas get too big, the result can often times become unwieldy. Yet Brady Corbet, in his directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader, manages to take both grand thematic ideas and cold aesthetic choices (courtesy of DP Lol Crawley) and balance them perfectly. The result is a European influenced character piece that is both engrossing and horrifying, evoking Haneke without adopting his voice. Not an easy movie, and not a perfect film, it nonetheless announces Corbet as an aesthetic and cerebral storyteller to keep an eye on. – Brian R.
Cosmos (André Szankowski)
Where we draw the line between director Andrzej Żuławski and cinematographer André Szankowski‘s individual contributions changes the conversation about their partnership, but I’ll just say this: more than a procession of truly lush and varied images, the movements in and between shots make Cosmos perhaps the year’s most intelligently photographed film, full stop – at least the one whose director-cinematographer pairing I’d most gladly see embark on a film twice its length. Thinking you’ve started going crazy hardly ever feels so good. – Nick N.
Disorder (Georges Lechaptois)
A psychological drama that goes to substantial lengths to visually convey the headspace of its lead, Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) — a PTSD-afflicted ex-soldier who is the bodyguard to a wife (Diane Kruger) and son of a wealthy businessman on a work trip — Disorder is one of this year’s most impressive feats in cinematography. As shot by Georges Lechaptois, his claustrophobic vision tracks Schoenarts’ physicality with a unnerving touch as the threat of terror creeps around every frame. When matched with the enveloping sound design, Alice Winocour‘s latest drama is not easily shaken. – Jordan R.
Embrace of the Serpent (David Gallego)
In Embrace of the Serpent, the character of Karmakate fully believes in a more abstract, ancient way of living. In this sense, Guerra’s approach is reminiscent of an earthier version of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s singular aesthetic. That’s not to say that ghosts lie at the fringe of the frame as observers, but rather that history and lore is a fluidly visible sensation that courses through each frame, informing the overall journey. Dreams aren’t just a gateway into the spiritual world; they’re a compass for an equally surreal terrestrial place. The jungle is not a place to travel through, but a place to submit. David Gallego’s camerawork throughout is deeply evocative, sinking into the endless quiet of the jungle and the contrasting chaos of its inhabitants with long tracking and dolly shots. – Michael S.
The Fits (Paul Yee)
The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer‘s visually arresting debut feature, hums with a stunning vibrancy and elegance rarely found in films dominated by so many interior locations. Cinematographer Paul Yee collaborated with Holmer on early music videos before gaining his first film credit as DP on The Fits. Yee delivers dazzling work in scenes often shot in a single take, following 10-year-old boxer-turned-dancer Toni (Royalty Hightower) who witnesses an outbreak of unexplained seizures spread through her entire dance troupe. The expressive scenes of dance rehearsal feel as hypnotically kinetic as the boxing sequences, Hightower’s slight frame ever amplified by Yee’s widescreen compositions. Hightower is in nearly every shot of The Fits, her piercing gaze locked on Yee’s lens in gorgeously vast, 2.39:1 widescreen. One of the film’s best moments even goes unnoticed in the background — that is, until Yee and Holmer finally allow your eye to be drawn to this hidden detail in a chilling reveal. There are few films as fiercely original as The Fits, and Yee’s camerawork is an essential element of that originality. – Tony H.
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