“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 22 examples that have most impressed us this year. Check out our rundown below and, in the comments, let us know your favorite work.
Amour Fou (Martin Gschlacht)
As if Dreyer had been sprung into the 21st century, Amour Fou stands with feet in formally classical and aesthetically modern doors — as rigid in composition as it is lucid in palette. Writer-director Jessica Hausner and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht have created a world in which it seems nothing will escape, making those moments of visual discord — an object in the lower corner of a frame, the slight movements and expressions from secondary players — surprising, yet a recurring and consistent symbol of how its story will progress. If the comparison to one of the greatest filmmakers who’s ever lived is common among discussions of this new feature, consider that a sign of how strongly it can evoke works of such significance. – Nick N.
The Assassin (Ping Bin Lee)
Meticulous in its detail, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s mesmerizing martial arts masterpiece is undoubtedly one of the most visually striking films of the year. The meditative pacing in combination with impeccable mise-en-scène creates something more akin to viewing a painting or ornate ancient scroll than a traditional movie. And with each scene unfurling like a new tableau, the expert lensing of DP Mark Lee Ping Bing (shooting on 35mm film) elevates the artistry of every other element. Whether it’s allowing us to observe characters through layers of thinly veiled curtains or watch the fog slowly encroach a majestic mountain, The Assassin is a truly breathtaking experience. – Raffi A.
Blackhat (Stuart Dryburgh)
Michael Mann is the current reigning champion of digital cinematography, and working with Stuart Dryburgh on Blackhat makes the reasons why very clear. From the unparallelled nighttime photography, to the way that Mann captures the open expanses that his characters occupy, there is a quality to the lighting of this film that is unmatched. Similarly, Mann uses the freedom and versatility of digital to create a greater sense of immediacy and presence. In a thriller, these qualities combine to create a film in which the cinematography is just as important as the score. – Brian R.
By the Sea (Christian Berger)
Visually inspired by the work of Michelangelo Antonioni and crossed with a commercial for a luxury product, the bright spot of the occasionally sexy, ultimately quite dull By the Sea is Christian Berger’s cinematography. (Read our interview with him here.) When shooting in Malta, which fills in for a seaside community in Italy, writer-director Angelina Jolie Pitt turned to a frequent collaborator of Michael Haneke. Rich in its long takes, observing our couple as they observe, in search of inspiration in the community and through a sexy young couple next door – Berger has crafted a classically beautiful picture, even if the motivation for what he lenses isn’t always as confident or assured as his frames. – John F.
Carol (Edward Lachman)
From its very opening shot, which sees the camera pull away from the, literal, gutter (encompassing the film’s mission of giving “forbidden love” a voice), it becomes clear that everything in Carol has a purpose. There is not a single element within the frame that isn’t trying to say something, and the fact that this is captured with such subtlety and beauty is thanks to Edward Lachman’s miraculous camerawork. Shooting behind windowpanes on rainy days, or inside the perfume-and-whiskey-laden intimacy of a roadside motel, Lachman’s camera creates unique worlds were the heroines can live out their fantasies and sorrows. There are also multiple nods to division, doorframes and soft camera moves that resemble one of Carol’s caresses. Like Haynes, Lachman is a meticulous observer, who dissects without ever losing his ability to become awestruck. – Jose S.
The Duke of Burgundy (Nicholas D. Knowland)
Amongst the most evidently lavish cinematography of the year, The Duke of Burgundy is a sumptuous spectacle, proving just how varied one can shoot mostly a single location and the few players amongst it. While its ravishing homage to Daisies and Mothlight, in which a flurry of butterflies fill the screen, is indeed an impressive peak, there’s not a moment in which Nicholas D. Knowland‘s cinematography fails to captivate. As the relationship deepens on screen, we can sense its evolution thanks to the increased usage of reflections and refractions, causing an emotional swirl like no other film achieved this year. – Jordan R.
Far From the Madding Crowd (Charlotte Bruus Christensen)
Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy‘s novel, is one of the most painterly films of the year. Shot by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who previously collaborated with Vinterberg on The Hunt and My Good Enemy, it’s expectedly lush and pastoral, but its view of the weather and the land is also elemental without necessarily feeling poetic. There have been plenty of films that use the seasons to indicate a sea change in the mood of onscreen characters. Madding Crowd’s change of seasons is unique in that it feels oppressively matter-of-fact. Just as the story pushes forward, grinding against the idealistic visions of its characters, there is a parallel brutality to the weather. Winter doesn’t just arrive, but becomes a state of mind as the characters forge through their own frazzled lives in search of some type of personal peace. And the summer is a mere respite, a hint of an optimistic future that will soon be trampled. – Michael S.
The Forbidden Room (Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron and Benjamin Kasulke)
Admittedly, half of my thought process while watching this film ran along the lines of, “Boy, that must have taken a long time to make.” This is not the most conducive for appreciating anything as visually and textually dense as Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s work, but it’s ultimately to the credit of cinematographers Benjamin Kasulke and Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron, as well as the large post-production team who helped translate HD footage into something that looks like it was dragged across pavement after decades of being poorly preserved. (Read my interview with the directors to get a better sense of the process.) What they’ve done is nothing short of a masterstroke: turning potentially inaccessible material into something that’s endlessly viewable. No two of The Forbidden Room’s images look precisely the same, and such is their imprint that you’ll remember many of them for a long time to come. – Nick N.
Hard to Be a God (Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko)
Aleksei German‘s stunningly sprawling and, yes, revolting masterpiece Hard to Be a God visually assaults audiences like a jolie laide sucker-punch. Don Rumata, an Earth scientist travels to another planet nearly identical to our own except for the fact that they never progressed past the Dark Ages. Artists and educators are being executed en masse as this alien society violently rejects any notion of enlightenment. Cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko may well have encountered a bigger, muckier uphill battle than any other on this list. Their camera boundlessly roves, employing endless tracking shots following Rumata around the geography of this downward-spiraling planet. The locals peer at the audience, dangling fish and severed chicken feet in front of the camera’s lens, cramping into confined spaces which force everyone to bump, trip, and shove. The mounting details become overwhelming, endowing the tone with a sense of claustrophobia as the haunting black-and-white photography continues to scour across this rotten, bubbling landscape. – Tony H.
The Hateful Eight (Robert Richardson)
Seen in the optimal setting — 70mm projection on a big screen, of course — this is a work that unspools slowly and surely, the patience of its images syncing perfectly with the level of detail brought by shooting formats (this also includes the use of a 2.76 aspect ratio) and Quentin Tarantino’s masterful staging. His fourth collaboration with Robert Richardson embraces the theater-like quality of this material, doing more to highlight the entrances and exits of players than their brutal actions, nor shying away from any artificiality in effects or the environment. (There’s truly nothing like that top-down lighting!) However unfortunate it is that said setting will only become more of a rarity the further we get from its release, The Hateful Eight’s composition and tempo should survive any format. – Nick N.
Jauja (Timo Salminen)
Early on in Lisandro Alonso’s spiritual walkabout, Jauja, a character says something to the effect of “I love the desert, the way it fills me.” That statement could serve as a thesis for the entire look of the film. Shot by Timo Salminen and Alonso in postcard perfect 4:3, Jauja is a film of coursing sensuality. The terrain isn’t just a backdrop, but its own journey of demanding, metronomic textures. The landscapes are glacial in such a way that even the characters need to pause to process their enormity and immovability. These compositions don’t require tricky angles or the use of a roving camera. Rather, they’re nearly always perversely symmetrical in a way that only compounds their hypnotism and apparent sense of infinity. In the same way that the landscape becomes littered with spatial mirages for the existentially tormented lead played by Viggo Mortensen, the film’s thematic and formal concerns begin to break down into their own unreality until it’s a wonder that the whole experience wasn’t entirely imagined. – Michael S.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (Sean Porter)
Tracking a futile journey, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is often a bleak experience, and cinematographer Sean Porter brings a distinct sense of loneliness and iciness to the frame. Shot in wide aspect ratio of 2.35:1, we’re able to see as much of Kumiko’s strange new world as possible, while director David Zellner genuinely gives us room to breath and be enveloped by her psychological state. Full of indelible imagery, including a precursor to her fate (a flickering VHS tape on display, the remnants of which later get sucked down a drain) and, pictured above, a solitary figure drifting into the frozen horizon, Kumiko is not a film one will soon forget, much in part to the cinematography. – Jordan R.
Macbeth (Adam Arkapaw)
When adapting perhaps one of William Shakespeare’s best-known and most-performed works, Justin Kurzel had no trouble giving it another reason to be told. Reteaming with his Snowtown cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, he paints Macbeth in a vibrant hellscape in which the skies feel soaked with blood as smoke fills the frame’s lungs. While Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard feel born to play their respective roles, captivating with each utterance of dialogue, it is Arkapaw’s bold approach that makes us feel emphatically trapped in this singular world. – Jordan R.
Mad Max: Fury Road (John Seale)
Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t have the glorious long takes you might expect in a film from which people savor the cinematography. In a way, that is by design, for there is a hidden element to what is being shown that is almost overshadowed by the wondrous editing. But an editor can’t make up a shot that doesn’t exist. So cinematographer John Seale (read our interview with him here) is responsible for giving editor Margaret Sixel over 480 hours of footage to work with. And chief among the imperatives handed down by director and mastermind George Miller was that the focus of the camera be in the center of the frame. This allows quick cuts and rapid pacing to create the frenetic energy the film lives off, and which manages to keep the audience from getting lost while still causing them to barely breathe. The fight scene by the War Rig with Max and Furiosa will be endlessly examined in the future, and already has plenty of videos on YouTube to help further the point: it showcases the center-framing that Seale pulled off brilliantly. Technology has allowed Seale and his crew to use small, destructible cameras to get in close, but it is the fact that this entire audacious film was shot with as many practical / “real” sets and effects as possible to showcases the brilliance of the action. A rich tapestry has been woven by Mad Max: Fury Road, and the documenterian of it all was the brilliant John Seale. – Bill G.
The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Despite most of the conversation surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio and his various on-set ordeals, Emmanuel Lubezki is irrefutably the star of The Revenant, capturing the unspoiled back country with a brisk, arresting touch. From the first action set piece, we’re immersed in the feral surroundings. A calm, patient shot moving across a brook, presenting the title, and curving up to Glass on the hunt serenely places us into his environment. When transitioning back to the camp, we meet only a few of the frontiersman in an unbroken take before an arrow bolts out of the woods, striking a man through the chest. Native Americans descend down from the hills surrounding the camp, with Lubezki’s camera hovering in and out of trees and freshly deceased bodies during the clash. In this thrilling opener, one is struck by the rare level of scale and immediacy on display. The majority of shots to follow — from vast vistas of snow-touched mountains to torches illuminating the darkness of a forest — are jaw-dropping. There’s even a glimmer of subtle optimism in visual cues, such as light peeking through the background in a moment of ultimate retribution. If you’re going to see this one, do it on the biggest screen imaginable. – Jordan R.
Sicario (Roger Deakins)
From the opening moments to the closing shot, Sicario makes the strongest case yet for Roger Deakins deserving an Oscar – an already obvious observation made all the more gobsmacking due to the fact that he never has. The quality of light in this film is such that you can see the motes wafting through it, can feel the motion of bodies through it. Not just for show, the intensity of the light throughout the film acts as a barometer of moral certainty. Growing from incandescent bright to blood-twilight, Deakins modulates each scene to provide the most brilliant backdrop while at the same time offering up subtle commentary and accompaniment. – Brian R.
Slow West (Robbie Ryan)
Slow West has a strange, beguiling tone that could be hard to parse if it weren’t for the lovely cinematography acting as a signpost to its true intent. From the gently lit forests to the nearly glowing sea of golden wheat that surrounds the storybook house on the prairie, the fairy tale nature of the story comes through. The world of the film is suffused with a kind of illumination that dispels any idea that this might be the kind of post-modern western that wishes to dirty up the myth of the old west. Robbie Ryan takes the heart of this story and uses it to light up the screen. – Brian R.
Son of Saul (Mátyás Erdély)
What helps make Son of Saul one of this year’s most brutal and absorbing films is the unflinchingly singular vision of its protagonist. Shot with a acute intensity by director László Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, the 35mm film is boxed into a 4:3 Academy ratio that creates the sensation of being trapped inside the head of Auschwitz prisoner Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig). While most of the atrocities appear in the periphery of Saul’s vision, usually obscured by a shallow depth of field, it actually makes them more intense and vivid as the imagination fills in the blank, proving unrelenting in its vision of hopelessness. – Raffi A.
Tangerine (Sean Baker and Radium Cheung)
Perhaps a tech company ought to pitch their next-generation smart phone’s no-doubt-improved camera as “Dogme 95, in your pocket.” This is the year of the cell phone video. Though typically thought of as that device to capture something in the moment (perhaps police brutality), the iPhone has proven it can hold its own against the Red in certain conditions. And while perfect for capturing a rough-and-ready aesthetic, storytellers have integrated the iPhone beyond just the found-footage film; director Catherine Hardwicke allegedly used the iPhone for a few shots in Miss You Already when nothing else would get quite close enough. Sean Baker’s brilliant Tangerine, filmed entirely on the iPhone 5s, captures the rough and lively world of transgendered street prostitutes on Christmas Eve in LA. Per No Film School, the team employed Moondog Labs, the FiLMic Pro app, and Stedicam Smothie to even out the artificial stabilizing effect you’ll find in even the most prestigious films, from last year’s Birdman to this year’s Mustang. The aesthetic – using the iPhone 5s in a way that gritty 16MM would have been used just 20 years ago – is fitting. Call it neo-realism in the age of the selfie — fitting for the multiple levels performances at the core of Tangerine. – John F.
Timbuktu (Sofian El Fani)
Timbuktu is set in one city held under siege by black flag Jihadists, but Abderrahmane Sissako and cinematographer Sofian El Fani’s compositions rarely feel like they’re even set in the same country. Set in the bustling cityscape and then the far reaches in the oceans of sand, Timbuktu’s visual language has a freeform grace that is entirely counter to its narrative concerns of a culture forced into submission. Characters are rarely confined, instead spread out over large landscapes that only enhance their smallness. And this being a story of a failure of communication and the universal subjects that unite us all, the camera snaps into a place with clarity whenever there is a conversation, picking a single framing position and just letting the conversation breathe unencumbered by narrative needs. Listening is the only time when people are truly important in the frame. That’s not to say that Timbuktu isn’t capable of breathtaking traditionally cinematic shots. A treetop-level long take watching a disturbance on the shoreline is astoundingly beautiful as a coda to the previous scene, and a sequence following along a pantomimed soccer game encompasses all of the emotional stakes of the entire film in a single image. But it’s Sissako and El Fani’s ability to communicate quiet strength that makes all of the disparate characters so compelling. Whether it’s visual signifiers like a majestic train dress or a lowered hijab, or the deliberate, steady glance of the film’s women, there’s a collective power of self that refuses to waver no matter what the circumstances become. – Michael S.
Tom at the Farm (André Turpin)
The peculiar, occasionally campy struggle at the center of Tom at the Farm is one that, despite being perhaps a few steps removed from reality, is fully enveloped in Xavier Dolan’s specific world, and helped by his commitment on a technical side. In playing with aspect ratios — something he went to the detrimental extreme with on his follow-up, Mommy, there utilizing the 1:1 format — he and cinematographer André Turpin break from the standard 1.85 ratio and go to a wider 2.35 scale during moments of claustrophobic intensity as Tom’s hunted by Francis. One of the many impressive sequences provides a bird’s-eye view of Tom returning to the farm, for the first time asserting his power and vividly switching the tone. – Jordan R.
Victoria (Sebastian Schipper)
Per se, single-shot films are hardly novel any longer. Even excluding sleight of hand à la Rope or Birdman’s digital suturing, there are plenty of films besides Russian Ark that solely consist of one unedited take, yet they were instantly forgotten because that was their only notable attribute. Victoria won’t suffer that fate and the reason is simple: it’s not merely impressive; it’s also intelligent, affecting, and thoroughly electrifying cinema. – Giovanni M.C.
What are your picks for the best cinematography of the year?