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The Best Cinematography of 2016

Written by on December 28, 2016 

Green Room and 20th Century Women (Sean Porter)

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A struggling punk band find themselves trapped in the back room of a dingy club by white supremacists after witnessing a brutal murder. The sleekly chilling feel of Jeremy Saulnier’s punksploitation thrill-ride Green Room owes a great debt to the work of cinematographer Sean Porter, whose camera places the audience at ground zero to watch the horror unfold. According to Porter’s interview with Filmmaker Magazine, though the green room set was built in a Portland warehouse, Porter and Saulnier rarely took advantage of the flyaway set components, trapping the audience inside the environment with the characters: “We didn’t cheat.” Even the club environment transforms over the course of the narrative, floors busted open and lights smashed. The film never feels mired by its single location conceit, visually reinventing itself again and again as the bodies amass. Indeed, Porter’s genre versatility should be noted, as he also lensed Mike Mills’ recent release 20th Century Women — with a bright, vibrant palette, nearly the opposite end of the spectrum from Saulnier’s thriller.  – Tony H.

Hail, Caesar! (Roger Deakins)

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Hail, Caesar! is, if not one among the best Coen brothers movies, at least one of the best-looking. Photographed beautifully by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the directors’ loving tribute to the golden age of Hollywood is captivating and quite lovely to look at. The playful cinematography also helps highlight the comical lunacy of the film’s antics and its quirky characters – for example, notice how convincing the movie-within-a-movie sequences are, such as the lush costume epic that George Clooney’s oafish character takes part in, or the low contrast Deakins uses during clips of the western film dailies. Even the main storyline, a mystery following Josh Brolin’s studio exec as he tries to figure out who kidnapped his big studio star, feels suitably noir-ish. Deakins’ first movie to be captured on celluloid since True GritCaesar is at once an affectionate parody of and tribute to a bygone era, and certainly one of the better-looking films of 2016. – John U.

The Handmaiden (Chung Chung-hoon)

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At this point, Park Chan-wook‘s films are synonymous with a gorgeous aesthetic. His latest, the twisted and sensual The Handmaiden, is perhaps his finest accomplishment in this regard. Reteaming with long-time cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, the film is a flurry of evocative colors and lush settings. “I have a special affection for films shot with old anamorphic lenses, plus my cinematographer had an interest in combining an old-style lens with a new digital camera,” Park Chan-wook tells The Upcoming. “The look that it creates is quite unique, and it seemed appropriate to the period setting of the film.” Indeed, one can easily get lost in the visual palette, and we can only imagine the results if this was filmed in 3D, as originally intended. – Jordan R.

Hell or High Water (Giles Nuttgens)

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From its captivating and confident opening shot, it is clear that David Mackenizie’s crime drama Hell or High Water stands out among its peers in many ways. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens has a sharp eye for dusty landscapes and rusty trucks that accentuate the film’s harsh Texan landscape, and never forgets the human figures at the center. The film’s feeling of raw, genuine atmosphere — partially achieved through daylight exteriors and natural light — lends a terribly needed authenticity to the proceedings. It must also be noted that its style of shooting car sequences, namely the first instance, is captivatingly visceral. After brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (a pitch-perfect Ben Foster) rob a bank, there’s a hard cut to their old blue car peeling down the road and past the camera. The camera whip-pans around with the vehicle, then does something miraculous: it begins gliding momentously toward their car, and then, seemingly, attaches to the driver door. It is now clear Foster is actually driving the car, and that they are on a real road. Their dialogue begins with this shot, and that’s when it hits you: these are real people, in real situations, and you’re in for one hell of a ride. Bonus: the combination of Pine and Foster sharing a beer during golden hour on their porch, then cutting to the two horsing around in front of rolling Texan planes as the sun disappears, is an evocative and stunning depiction of brotherhood.  – Mike M.

Jackie and Elle (Stéphane Fontaine)

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Jackie opens on Natalie Portman’s face, and it’s an image the viewer gets accustomed to while watching Pablo Larraín’s latest offering. In fact, by my watch, we see just one thing that Portman’s former first lady does not: a scene showing Lyndon B. Johnson and his inner circle witnessing the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald on a TV screen in the White House. It’s a significant image, one that vibes with the film’s slippery conspiratorial tone, but an anomaly nonetheless. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine is more interested in jarring the viewer, disorientating his audience with stark close-ups and shallow focus. In a way, Jackie‘s look recalls that of László Nemes’ recent Oscar winner Son of Saul. That might sound like a flippant comparison, but it could go some way in explaining the film’s gut punch of nausea, anxiety, and claustrophobia, as if the Oval Office’s curved wall was slowly closing in. A frequent collaborator of Jacques Audiard, Fontaine is currently enjoying a landmark year shooting defiant women thanks to the success of both this film and Paul Verhoeven’s similarly incomparable Elle. Taking cues from Mica Levi’s deteriorating string section, his camera wobbles as the former first lady‘s mind wobbles, before both, quite thrillingly, regain a foothold. Despite all the panic, the image always returns to Portman’s stoic, beautiful, sharply featured face: a fascinating façade in a film fascinated with façade. – Rory O.

Julieta (Jean-Claude Larrieu)

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Julieta marks a return to form in more ways than one for Pedro Almodóvar, and one of the most significant areas is with the sumptuous cinematography from first-time collaborator Jean-Claude Larrieu. Capturing the reddest red and yellowest yellows one’s eyes have ever witnessed, Almodóvar’s latest is an involving melodrama in the best possible sense, and its 1.85:1 aspect ratio depicts it all in ravishing style. – Jordan R.

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Declan Quinn)

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Bringing stellar cinematography to a film is a feat in its own right, but double that down when it comes a documentary and then double that down when we’re talking about capturing a live concert. After doing so for Talking Heads, Jonathan Demme has pulled it off again, this time with the help of his recent go-to DP Declan Quinn, with Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. Rather than letting the music take center stage, Demme and crew create a symphony of movement through their camerawork with more than a few of the most jaw-dropping compositions of the year. It’s a shame this one was released straight-to-Netflix, as it would’ve been quite the theatrical experience. – Jordan R.

Kaili Blues (Wang Tianxing)

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No, Kaili Blues is not like nothing you’ve seen before; the film is instead reminiscent of modern Asian masters – from Wong to Hou to Apichatpong, with a bit of Tsai in its ever-present sense of decay – in a way that tips the hat while making Bi Gan and Wang Tianxing‘s lovely, mysterious images its own. Pair that sensuality with a very long take that isn’t afraid to be a bit ostentatious, and certain familiarities don’t matter – as a complete package, it truly is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. – Nick N.

Knight of Cups (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (Paul Atkins)

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It’s not only the overlap in director, nor the possible sharing of specific natural locations. When seen together, it’s clear that Terrence Malick‘s Knight of Cups and Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience pose many of the same questions, chief among them the dividing point between natural and artificial – and, perhaps most crucially of all, why those borders should even matter. While Paul Atkins‘ work on the latter latter mostly offers beautiful, National Geographic-like images of nature and, on occasion, industry, the former (with help of Emmanuel Lubezki) takes our everyday world and does the seemingly impossible: renders just about anything, from skyscrapers to tables, absolutely strange, gliding around actors as if they’re creatures to observe rather than relate with. Malick in the contemporary world continues reaping immense benefits. – Nick N.

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