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The Best Cinematography of 2016

Written by on December 28, 2016 

La La Land (Linus Sandgren)

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As lensed by Linus Sandgren, much of the joy in Damien Chazelle’s musical is thanks in part to the patience of its camera. Scenes often proceed through master shots, allowing romantic leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone to play off each other and build on the chemistry of each moment. And when the camera does move, it’s in the service of crescendo: pushing out on L.A. traffic during a choreographed dance number, diving into a pool to follow a spinning extra, rotating left to capture a perfect kiss. It’s meant to feel timeless, and it works. – Dan M.

Moonlight (James Laxton)

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A combination of environments as they exist – ask a Miami native about this vision of the city and they’ll gush, as if they’ve never really seen it on a big screen before – and many state-of-the-art post-production tools, Moonlight‘s images and their palettes are as much about the physical world as an externalization of the repressed self. While I don’t think it quite matches the artists who Barry Jenkins and DP James Laxton cite as their inspirations – Wong Kar-wai, Claire Denis, and Hou Hsiao-hsien come up more than anybody, and those are tall mountains to climb – that might be because their film is most interesting when taken as a different kind of independent American drama: one willing to play small-scale drama on a visually opulent front. Read our interview with Laxton here. – Nick N.

The Neon Demon (Natasha Braier)

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Shot for a mere $5 million, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon attains the dazzling look of a film ten times its budget thanks, in great part, to cinematographer Natasha Braier. As visually influenced by Alice in Wonderland as Dario Argento, The Neon Demon’s saturated color palate – deep ocean blues and candy-apple reds — shouldn’t come as a surprise. Collaborating with Braier, Winding Refn fearlessly pushed every visual element to its extreme, employing twisted and surreal surface details to shape his nightmare vision of the L.A. fashion scene. Braier told Indiewire earlier this summer that to prepare, the director screened a number of visually provocative films for her, including Scorpio Rising and A Clockwork Orange: “The reason he showed us these films was letting us know we would be going all the way, no matter how over-the-top.” Winding Refn and Braier’s finished product contains a polished lushness to contrast its undeniably bold, experimental style. While The Neon Demon confounded and polarized many critics, the vast majority agreed that if nothing else, the film is a gorgeous work of visual decadence. For more on this collaboration, read our interview with the director here. – Tony H.

Nocturnal Animals (Seamus McGarvey)

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That Seamus McGarvey is the man behind the camera in Tom Ford’s sophomore effort feels almost too good to be true. Every actor and actress here has never looked better in a suit or dress, surrounded by golden hues in West Texas or sharp tones in Los Angeles. That so much throughout this film looks too perfect to be believed, even in the most violent moments, is all part of the plan. It’s all a beautiful lie, wrapped and delivered in style. – Dan M.

One More Time with Feeling (Benoît Debie and Alwin H. Küchler)

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There is perhaps just one positive to Andrew Dominik‘s long-gestating Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde getting financially stalled: it allowed the Assassination of Jesses James director to create what’s not only one of the best films about grief, but one of this year’s most starkly beautiful documentaries. One More Time with Feeling, depicting Nick Cave‘s healing process after his son’s death and subsequent creation of a new album, Skeleton Tree, is captured in 3D and (mostly) black-and-white by greatly accomplished cinematographers Benoît Debie (Enter the Void, Spring Breakers) and Alwin H. Küchler (Sunshine, Morvern Callar). Their expertise was put to great use: David Fincher-esque sequences traveling through the recording studio are as transportive as conversations with Cave shot in static medium close-ups. – Jordan R.

Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)

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One of the most remarkable aspects of Silence‘s cinematography is how much it doesn’t feel like a Martin Scorsese film. A reteam with Wolf of Wall Street DP Rodrigo Prieto, truly showing his dexterity behind the camera, Silence is a lushly lensed ode to Japanese classics, but it’s strictly an homage. “Going back to the first Japanese film I saw, it was 1954 or ’55, it was on television, and it was called Ugetsu, which is Mizoguchi’s film,” Scorsese tells IMDb (via Screen Crush). “And the Mizoguchi films introduced me to Kurosawa and everyone else and I became obsessed really with Japanese film. I mean, there’s a sense of Japanese films — this was a long process as to how to approach the picture visually: what is in my mind? Are they Japanese films in my mind? If that’s the case, it’s not authentic. It has to be how I see it, not how I think Japanese cinema would look or a film shot about Japanese films in the 17th century would look.” – Jordan R.

Sunset Song (Michael McDonough)

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Even if Sunset Song is somewhat less impressionistic than director Terence Davies’ previous work, many compositions and gestures beyond just the easy-to-praise 70mm vistas, captured by Michael McDonough, feel destined to replay forever and ever in the mind; whether it be the camera hanging on Chris’ beaten brother even after the father has exited the frame, Chris and Ewan’s meet-cute (which is maybe the first ever in cinema history to feature hordes of sheep), or the silent-film-like animalism of Guthrie’s performance in the film’s concluding act. Or just perhaps the motif of Chris glancing at herself in the mirror throughout, seeing her naked now-adult body, or her in her wedding dress. – Ethan V.

Three (Cheng Siu-Keung and Hung Mo To)

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A sterile hospital building may not be the first choice to capture cinematic beauty, but Three proves that a film in the hands of Johnnie To means expectations will be upended. If cinematography is as much about camera placement and movement as visual quality, Three is a masterclass in the former. The best (perhaps only worthwhile) action movie of the year, this is the rare genre entry in which the intense build-up may impress more than the guns-blazing climax — itself a euphoric, sublimely executed bout of showmanship. – Jordan R.

The Witch (Jarin Blaschke)

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Robert EggersThe Witch is one of the most genuinely creepy and disturbing films I’ve seen in years, and this is in no small part due to its atmospheric cinematography by relative newcomer Jarin Blaschke (aided, too, by the wonderfully eerie soundtrack from Mark Korven). The movie, set in 17th-century New England, makes ample use of natural lighting, and when the dark settles in, it is as unnerving as you could imagine. Like the scariest of movies, The Witch is more frightening with what it doesn’t show us, leaving as much to the imagination as possible. There is one sequence, with the camera situated near the bed of a dying boy undergoing an apparent possession, that is spine-chillingly effective. Drenched in blacks and drained of saturation, the scene is visually exhausted and emotionally exhausting. Perhaps inspired by Kubrick’s longtime cinematographer John Alcott, whose work on The Shining is an obvious comparison here, Blaschke’s cinematography is as much a character in the film as anything else, and, in turn, The Witch is one of the most unforgettable horror films of the past decade. – John U.

As for honorable mentions, we’ll give shout-outs to American Honey, The Age of Shadows, The Eyes of My Mother, High-Rise, In the Shadow of Women, Krisha, Last Days in the Desert, Louder Than Bombs, Midnight Special,My Golden Days, Neon Bull, Paterson, and Rams, as well as Greig Fraser‘s double offering of Rogue One and Lion.

What was your favorite cinematography this year?

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