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The Best Cinematography of 2018

Written by on December 17, 2018 

The Rider (Joshua James Richards)

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Chloe Zhao previously worked with cinematographer Joshua James Richards on her impressive debut, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and are together again for her latest, The Rider, a western drama set in the badlands of South Dakota shot with an uncanny verisimilitude that places the project as a unique hybrid of fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. Every character is portrayed by a non-actor, including the film’s titular protagonist, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a real-life Lakota Sioux rodeo star whose family in the film are also played by his actual relatives. As the film’s plot is largely based off Jandreau’s own life, including the severe head trauma his character struggles with, Zhao and Richards distance themselves from traditional fiction film techniques and allow the performers to improvise and add their own creative input. The result has Richards’ digital cinematography appear crisp and exacting while the character interactions, dialogue, staging, blocking, et al are convincingly naturalistic and often indistinguishable from reality. – Kyle P.

Skate Kitchen (Shabier Kirchner)

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One of a handful of skateboarding films this year, Skate Kitchen is the only one set in New York City and the cinematography takes full advantage of its vast locale. Whether it is the sun-kissed skate parks our leads call their newfound home or their adventures through the busy streets of Manhattan, there’s an intimate eye fixated on their impressive skills. Through this stellar cinematography from Shabier Kirchner, the feel of freedom also sells precisely why this group of girls have dedicated their life to this particular passion. It’ll also make you want to hop on a skateboard yourself, regardless of how ill-advised that may be. – Jordan R.

A Star Is Born (Matthew Libatique)

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At the risk of deferring entirely to another’s words, I will say that my conversation with cinematographer Matthew Libatique elucidates much of what makes Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut so impressive a coming-out and promising a signal. In short: there are, more or less, no boring shots through A Star Is Born‘s not-slight runtime, the more hazardous likes of exposition and shot-reverse conversation still lit in a way that exemplifies this movie’s visual plurality, and what a blessing for narrative as well-trod as this ascension through fame. If you’re going to make a movie about fame, it helps when Libatique knows why to study an actor’s face. – Nick N.

The Wild Boys (Pascale Granel)

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While Guy Maddin didn’t have a new narrative feature this year, we got a cum-splattered dose of his phantasmagorical style with Bertrand Mandico’s feature-length debut The Wild Boys. The nearly unclassifiable coming-of-age, gender-fluid riff on Lord of the Flies is a mind-bending odyssey. With cinematography that plunges you into sea voyages and paradise locales, all with an eerie storybook feel, it was just named the best film of 2018 by Cahiers du cinéma, and the honor was richly deserved. – Jordan R.

Wildlife (Diego Garcia)

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In a film full of astute directorial choices, one of Paul Dano’s best was hiring cinematographer Diego Garcia. Following his extraordinary work in Neon Bull and Cemetery of Splendor, the DP brings a pristine look to the midwestern landscapes that are the backdrop of this tale of marital strife and newfound independence. With Dano learning a thing or two from his collaborators Kelly Reinhardt and Ang Lee, there’s not a frame of Wildlife that doesn’t bring a sense of picturesque Americana, even if everything around our protagonist is crumbling. – Jordan R.

You Were Never Really Here (Thomas Townend)

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“35…34….33…” counts down Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov) in her head, a post-traumatic behavior allowing her to disassociate from the unspeakable abuse she endures. The camera slowly inches toward her face, gradually coming into deep focus as she returns to cognizance. Streaks of blown-out lights creep across the frame, back to their sources. “One.” Moments earlier, Nina’s would-be savior, ex-military Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), rampaged through an underage bordello hidden inside a Murray Hill brownstone, brutally dispatching those who stood in his way with a ball-peen hammer—captured in a disorienting, non-linear sequence of surveillance feeds, with Rosie & The Originals’ “Angel Baby” emanating from somewhere within the complex. Lynne Ramsay and cinematographer Thomas Townend craft indelible imagery left and right in You Were Never Really Here, but what makes them truly unforgettable is how each composition is treated so crucially, with a sense of finesse and clarity that perfectly complements the film’s core character study. Though the subject matter is provocative, it’s apparent Ramsay and Townend are formally interested in sensitively exploring the reverberating consequences of violence and abuse instead of reveling in their immediate, sensorial horror. – Kyle P.

Zama (Rui Poças)

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The films of Lucrecia Martel are many things: provocative, trenchant, personal. Funny though? Not usually. However, it’s perfectly applicable to her masterpiece, Zama, a satire on Spanish colonialism with no jokes, save for perhaps the great cosmic prank that is the tormentous existence of the eponymous Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Martel dives headfirst into adapting Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel according to her sensibilities. Fortunately, cinematographer Rui Poças seems to be on the same page as her. By turns cerebrally terrifying in its depiction of a colonizer’s spiral into madness and bitterly humorous in its disdain for the absurdities of imperial hierarchy and etiquette, Poças manages to walk the line without allowing the compositions to slip completely into either horror or humor. As a result, Zama exudes a peculiar uneasiness that keeps you in white-knuckle suspense and on the verge of laughter in equal measure. – Kyle P.

Honorable Mentions

There’s more beauty to be found in other 2018 offerings, including the work of Rob Hardy in Annihilation, Lol Crawley in Vox Lux, Magnus Nordenhof Jønck in Lean on Pete, Agnès Godard in Let the Sunshine In, Sean Bobbitt in Widows, and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom in Suspiria, as well as both Hong Sang-soo films: Jinkeun Lee (Claire’s Camera) and Hyung-ku Kim (The Day After). A special mention also goes to Abbas Kiarostami’s in 24 Frames, which radically has one rethinking the craft of cinematography altogether.

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