“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 examples that have most impressed us this year. Check out our rundown below and, in the comments, let us know your favorite work.
Arrival (Bradford Young)
At this point, it would be unfair to call Bradford Young an up-and-coming cinematographer. While it’s an accurate description in terms of his relative years behind the camera, the caliber of his work already feels like one of the most accomplished in the genre. Ahead of a Han Solo prequel, he got his first taste with sci-fi thanks to Denis Villeneuve‘s Arrival. An ideal match for the director’s sensibilities, he brings a realistic lens to this otherworldly plot. One of my favorite touches is a motif that begins with the first shot: tilting the camera down to convey prioritizing the people in front of us rather than focusing beyond the stars. For more, read our interview with him here. – Jordan R.
A Bigger Splash (Yorick Le Saux)
With Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, Only Lovers Left Alive, and now A Bigger Splash, Yorick Le Saux is easily one of the most impressive cinematographers working on the international circuit. In something of a contrast from those earlier features, his contribution to Luca Guadagnino‘s latest picture is that it simply moves. With a cast as beautiful as the Sicilian island they are inhabiting, the DP photographs them with a sensuality missing in today’s American cinema. One only needs to view Ralph Fiennes rocking out to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” to get a sense of the dynamism Yorick Le Saux brings to this production. – Jordan R.
Cemetery of Splendor (Diego García)
The most surprising thing about Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s oeuvre is that it invites you to relax. The long-shot / extended-take aesthetic and lack of narrative urgency, to which first-time collaborator Diego Garciá acclimates readily, might sound intimidating, but the mingling of an unhurried temperament with his films’ natural environments is immensely calming, and has a way of flattening (but not nullifying) more troubling dramatic components. Those should be turned over later; in the meantime, Cemetery of Splendor is a modern master in total control. Major credit to García for so gently carrying us along the way. – Nick N.
Certain Women (Christopher Blauvelt)
The immense emotional spaces left unexplored between the characters of Certain Women are idyllically conveyed through the cinematography of Kelly Reichardt‘s latest feature. Shot on 16mm by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, there’s both a humbling vastness to the American Northwest landscapes and a quiet intimacy during the tender dialogue scenes. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen this triptych and it’s a grand testament that I can still recall virtually every frame. – Jordan R.
The Childhood of a Leader (Lol Crawley)
Scale — in terms of both narrative scope and ambition — can be forgivably small in a directors first feature. When ambitions and ideas get too big, the result can often times become unwieldy. Yet Brady Corbet, in his directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader, manages to take both grand thematic ideas and cold aesthetic choices (courtesy of DP Lol Crawley) and balance them perfectly. The result is a European influenced character piece that is both engrossing and horrifying, evoking Haneke without adopting his voice. Not an easy movie, and not a perfect film, it nonetheless announces Corbet as an aesthetic and cerebral storyteller to keep an eye on. – Brian R.
Cosmos (André Szankowski)
Where we draw the line between director Andrzej Żuławski and cinematographer André Szankowski‘s individual contributions changes the conversation about their partnership, but I’ll just say this: more than a procession of truly lush and varied images, the movements in and between shots make Cosmos perhaps the year’s most intelligently photographed film, full stop – at least the one whose director-cinematographer pairing I’d most gladly see embark on a film twice its length. Thinking you’ve started going crazy hardly ever feels so good. – Nick N.
Disorder (Georges Lechaptois)
A psychological drama that goes to substantial lengths to visually convey the headspace of its lead, Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) — a PTSD-afflicted ex-soldier who is the bodyguard to a wife (Diane Kruger) and son of a wealthy businessman on a work trip — Disorder is one of this year’s most impressive feats in cinematography. As shot by Georges Lechaptois, his claustrophobic vision tracks Schoenarts’ physicality with a unnerving touch as the threat of terror creeps around every frame. When matched with the enveloping sound design, Alice Winocour‘s latest drama is not easily shaken. – Jordan R.
Embrace of the Serpent (David Gallego)
In Embrace of the Serpent, the character of Karmakate fully believes in a more abstract, ancient way of living. In this sense, Guerra’s approach is reminiscent of an earthier version of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s singular aesthetic. That’s not to say that ghosts lie at the fringe of the frame as observers, but rather that history and lore is a fluidly visible sensation that courses through each frame, informing the overall journey. Dreams aren’t just a gateway into the spiritual world; they’re a compass for an equally surreal terrestrial place. The jungle is not a place to travel through, but a place to submit. David Gallego’s camerawork throughout is deeply evocative, sinking into the endless quiet of the jungle and the contrasting chaos of its inhabitants with long tracking and dolly shots. – Michael S.
The Fits (Paul Yee)
The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer‘s visually arresting debut feature, hums with a stunning vibrancy and elegance rarely found in films dominated by so many interior locations. Cinematographer Paul Yee collaborated with Holmer on early music videos before gaining his first film credit as DP on The Fits. Yee delivers dazzling work in scenes often shot in a single take, following 10-year-old boxer-turned-dancer Toni (Royalty Hightower) who witnesses an outbreak of unexplained seizures spread through her entire dance troupe. The expressive scenes of dance rehearsal feel as hypnotically kinetic as the boxing sequences, Hightower’s slight frame ever amplified by Yee’s widescreen compositions. Hightower is in nearly every shot of The Fits, her piercing gaze locked on Yee’s lens in gorgeously vast, 2.39:1 widescreen. One of the film’s best moments even goes unnoticed in the background — that is, until Yee and Holmer finally allow your eye to be drawn to this hidden detail in a chilling reveal. There are few films as fiercely original as The Fits, and Yee’s camerawork is an essential element of that originality. – Tony H.
Green Room and 20th Century Women (Sean Porter)
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)
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 Grit, Caesar 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
La La Land (Linus Sandgren)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Robert Eggers’ The 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?