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The Best Cinematography of 2018

Written by on December 17, 2018 


“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. 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.

Araby (Leonardo Feliciano)


An epic travelogue of Sisyphean proportions zeroing in on the beguilingly ordinary, meandering life of a Brazilian ex-con trying to make ends meet by working any job imaginable, Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans’ Araby features several stunning vistas of the Brazilian South, but Leonardo Feliciano’s cinematography crafts a lot more than a travelogue. Alternating the lush palettes of the sprawling Brazilian countryside with the darker, grittier looks of factories and steel mills, Feliciano’s Tati-esque rift between urban and rural conjures a whole mode of existence – gracing Araby with a lyrical and ecumenical tone. – Leonardo G.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Bruno Delbonnel)


With their latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens made a number of seeming career-shifting decisions. Chief among these was their choice to shoot on digital for the first time, collaborating with returning Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. The results are ravishing, imbuing each of the six Western tales’ settings with its own defined look, while still drawing out a visual clarity that suits the elegiac, examining tone of the film at large; even more than usual, the visages register as strongly as the vistas. – Ryan S.

Burning (Hong Kyung-pyo)


Shot with beautiful attention to space and color, Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning floats between medium-close and medium-wide compositions seen through regular Bong Joon-Ho cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo’s shallow focus prime lenses; producing a uniquely enigmatic subjectivity to the images that emerges as we slowly sink into the protagonist’s worldview, accumulating his financial discontent and male resentments under the guise of a Hitchcockian murder mystery, and are eventually incriminated in his voyeurism and (spoiler?) eventual destruction. As pure—and icky—a formal experience as 2018 had to offer. – Josh L.

Cocote (Roman Kasseroller)


Marooned between the urban and rural, religion and modernity, Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias’ Cocote is a tale of dichotomies, which billow to life in DOP Roman Kasseroller’s juxtapositions between the still city life of Dominican gardener Alberto and the ancestral world of his hometown, where he will return to mourn and avenge his father’s death. Static and black-and-white shots leave room for a lush palette and more free-floating camerawork in this hypnotic tale of homecoming and belonging. – Leonardo G.

Cold War (Lukasz Zal)


Cinematographer Łukasz Żal was originally the camera operator on Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2014 Oscar winner Ida until he stepped in when the original DoP fell ill. It may rank as one of the great serendipitous moments of the decade (no offense, Ryszard Lenczewski). For Cold War, Żal had six months to perfect the black-and-white, 4:3 framing of Ida and delivers something richer, more varied, captured by digital Alexa cameras but graded to mimic the depth that 35mm gives to darkness. Depth is the key to the film’s photography, contrasting sharply-focused close-ups against icy landscapes and cruel cities, as if to heighten the intensity of Wiktor and Zula’s on-off relationship against the oppressive history in which they live. Żal says he’s influenced by the photography of American Ralph Gibson; but with the film’s static shots I thought more of painters, of the loneliness of Edward Hopper and, especially in the pastoral scenes, of Caspar David Friedrich, who richly combined landscapes with religious imagery–think of the movie’s devastating final scene. Cold War movements are primarily accentuated by music–folk, big band, or jazz. According to myth, Mozart said, “music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” In Cold War, that silence is the movie’s stunning photography. – Ed F.

The Favourite (Robbie Ryan)


A rollicking, endlessly quotable and ruthless portrait of royal excesses at the early-18th-century court of Queen Anne, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is a joy for the eyes, courtesy of cinematographer Robbie Ryan (of Andrea Arnold, The Meyerowitz Stories – New and Selected, Slow West, and I, Daniel Blake fame), who here alternates camera spins and fisheye lenses, capturing some stupefying interiors and the distorted perspective of solitary royals populating them – mirroring, to some degree, the visual experiments Lanthimos had toyed with in The Killing of A Sacred Deer. – Leonardo G.

First Man (Linus Sandgren)


Damien Chazelle finally found the perfect material for himself in First Man, documenting the tangible procedure and emotional will of technicians. He and cinematographer Linus Sandgren primarily film in soft, grain-y 16mm film and extremely tight compositions, suffocating us in Neil’s obsession while maintaining a subtle sensitivity that indicates the emotional yearning giving it life. Kitchen sink domesticity eventually gives way to horrifying, white-knuckle flight sequences (as thrilling as they are disorienting and shaky) of sweating boys hurtling through space at ungodly speeds, nothing but rickety aluminum separating life and death, all before the big IMAX-photographed moon landing sequence, which with its abrupt entrance and attention to visual detail (as well as emotional POV) is myth-making as tangible and delicate as we can hope to see on the big screen. – Josh L.

First Reformed (Alexander Dynan)


A culmination and exaltation of Paul Schrader’s decades-long fascination with Christian guilt and lonely, isolated men; First Reformed stands out in his career for how formally committed he is to containing it in his theory of “transcendental style” (to which he credits Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer in his book). Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan film in a beautifully spare, stripped down mise-en-scène and Academy ratio that recalls the existential priests of cinema’s past—particularly Diary of a Country Priest and Winter’s Light—and a sharp, digital photography, drawing a captivating visual contradiction that, combined with the static framing and patient editing meant to leave room for physical and spiritual meditation on behalf of the audience, creates a feeling of lost time and space as the melancholy and violent psychosis of Schrader’s Taxi Driver (or Rolling Thunder) slowly infects the film. – Josh L.

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