“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.
All These Sleepless Nights (Michal Marczak, Maciej Twardowski)
Using the combination of a Steadicam and computerized gimbal, Michal Marczak and Maciej Twardowski float in and out of crowded dance floors, house parties, lush gardens, and sun-kissed beaches, all in a way that would make Emmanuel Lubezki proud. Coupled with a near-constant soundtrack of the latest in electronic and pop (as well as a Polish version of Pocahontas‘ “Colors of the Wind”), one could mistake any scene from this as a music video, but as a whole it forms something cohesive. One of the most interesting formal choices is a noticeable excursion into home video-esque footage for the film’s most intimate moments, as if we’re entering our protagonist’s mind for the the first time, separated from the glossy sheen that occupies the rest of life. – Jordan R.
Beach Rats (Hélène Louvart)
Shot by French cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Pina, The Wonders) in 16mm, Beach Rats continues the level of Claire Denis-esque physicality found in Hittman’s debut. In one of many striking shots, they capture the group of boys with their heads out of the frame. As their bodies move through streets, there’s a viscerality that’s manifested in this mob, which includes Jesse (Anton Selyaninov), Nick (Frank Hakaj) and Alexei (David Ivanov), a group that Frankie feels emotionally a step outside from. As his cruising leads to his these two identities converging, the plotting can feel more schematic, but it’s nonetheless stimulating thanks to Hittman’s vivid style. – Jordan R.
The Beguiled (Philippe Le Sourd)
Shooting in New Orleans, Coppola and her production team — including The Grandmaster cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd — have created a fully realized world of eroticism, humidity, and Southern Gothic atmosphere. The characters are simply engulfed by it, almost to the point that even the twisted willow trees appear to be reaching out to grab them. Indeed, it is a far more beautiful work than Siegel’s original. – Rory O.
Blade Runner 2049 (Roger Deakins)
As divisive and austere as its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is loved by some and shrugged at by just as many. But if there’s one element of Denis Villeneuve’s film upon which everyone agrees, it’s the gorgeous and haunting cinematography of Roger Deakins. Stepping beyond the tropes of Ridley Scott’s film, Deakins intentionally avoided looking back at Jordan Cronenweth’s work on the original, in favor of crafting his own textured and tangible vision of the future. Fused with Dennis Gassner’s Brutalist architecture-influenced production design, Deakins’ layered and arresting use of lighting, combined with an ever-shifting color palette, executed with surgical precision, results in one of the most visually dynamic and unforgettable cinematic experiences of the year, if not the decade. – Tony H.
Call Me By Your Name (Sayombhu Mukdeeprom)
Lucidly shot by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s frequent cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Call Me By Your Name is most fascinated with the allure and seduction of the human form. The opening credits, which display photographs of famous Italian sculptures, foreshadow the physical presence of our leads, particularly Hammer’s Olivier. Guadagnino is director who clearly loves his actors and superbly conveys this through his perspective. As Elio gazes upon him, he frames Oliver, who is almost always shirtless sporting short shorts, from a low angle as he dances and swims, his imposing sexuality towering over the frame and disarming Elio. – Jordan R.
Columbus (Elisha Christian)
This film gently revolves between several different modes, approaching its namesake city either through the cold, resentful eyes of John Cho’s Jin, the optimistic view of Haley Lu Richardson’s Casey, or a combination of both when the two are together. A small city in the middle of nowhere which also happens to host a wealth of beautiful architecture, it represents home and beauty for Casey and a chain for Jin, shackling him to his father. Elisha Christian’s lens works with both their points of view, often at the same time, presenting various Columbus landmarks at a chilly distance which also lets you take in their Modernist goodness. – Dan S.
A Cure for Wellness (Bojan Bazelli)
In A Cure for Wellness, director Gore Verbinski uses the genre and setting — the spa is located in a castle on a mountain top at the foot of the Alps — to flex his visual acumen to maximum effect. Trailers used the overwrought “visionary” descriptor for Verbinski, but it is hard to argue with the title given the look of this film, shot Bojan Bazelli (The Lone Ranger, Pete’s Dragon). Hardly a scene goes by without at least two immediately striking shots, and these perception-arresting images serve as the more visceral drive underneath the plot’s creaky forward momentum. – Brian R.
Dunkirk (Hoyte van Hoytema)
Calling back to Eisensteinian visual grammar while melding his strict sensibilities with modern experimental panache, Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema pack every frame of Dunkirk with tactile, pulse-pounding motion. A film about how time and survival are intricately linked, Dunkirk’s lens focuses on the facility of boots crushing sand or the wings of a plane cutting through air to illustrate the delicate, often random dance of life and death. Balancing the automation of these vessels of survival is the study of faces, a striking reminder of how war is chalk full of individual human beings. – Mike M.
The Florida Project (Alexis Zabe)
There are surely few sweeter delights in this troubling world of ours than seeing Willem Dafoe politely escort a group of storks off a motel driveway. It is, perhaps, the best of a number of striking visual flourishes in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, an aesthetically rich film that sees the writer-director (along with cinematographer Alexis Zabe) switch from the saturated and much-celebrated iPhone camerawork utilized for his last film Tangerine to the crackle and unmistakable warmth of celluloid. – Rory O.
A Ghost Story (Andrew Droz Palermo)
Most times that a film attempts to use cinematography to inhabit the perspective of its characters, the result is a shaky-cam mess that muddles more than it clarifies. A Ghost Story, though, is about a departed spirit frozen in place and dragged upon by time, and as such the Andrew Droz Palermo’s camera likewise finds itself frozen. Mounted in a single space, pivoting slowly, unblinkingly observing the steady thrum of passing time. The colors are de-saturated to a point, drained of life much as our protagonist has been. The pacing of each moment is slow, so that when our protagonist loses composure and the camera makes even the barest of moves, it comes as a cosmic shock. This is a slow, meditative movie, and the camera makes sure to let the audience feel that. – Brian R.
Good Time (Sean Price Williams)
The stalwart DP of the New York independent scene, Sean Price Williams had a banner year, with invaluable contributions to no less than three excellent films. With Good Time, he turned in his finest work to date. Shooting for the first time on 35mm, he used a dizzying array of searing neons in order to convey the breakneck intensity of Josh and Benny Safdie’s nocturnal journey through New York City. Alternating between intimate close-ups and startlingly sweeping tracking shots, the film moves through numerous modes and palettes while all cohering under a single, finely tuned texture. – Ryan S.
Kékszakállú (Diego Poleri and Fernando Lockett)
Cinematographers Diego Poleri and Fernando Lockett impeccably design every image of Kékszakállú, aesthetically pleasing because of their mathematically crafted perfection while simultaneously suffocating at times for the same reasons. Bodies, frozen stiff, fit into their surroundings like puzzle pieces: teenagers dive into water and become a part of that space while others recline on staircases, or are framed between background tiles. Upper class Argentinian architecture is all-consuming. Likewise, bodies don’t really fit with other bodies, and everybody seems to exist solely on their own — an early scene between lovers should feel intimate but instead feels unnatural and awkward, as they literally lie on top of each other. Kékszakállú is not without its sense of humor. – Jason O.
Lady Bird (Sam Levy)
After working under Harris Savides for many years, in the past decade, Sam Levy has emerged to bring a distinct visual style to the face of American independent film. With his collaborations with Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, While We’re Young, Mistress America), and more, there’s a energetic dexterity and understated beauty to his images that is among the finest of his contemporaries. One of his finest works is Lady Bird, which gives the feel of being in a warm-colored memory, ideal for the story of adolescence. Read my interview with him as he discusses his process. – Jordan R.
The Lost City of Z and Okja (Darius Khondji)
Proving his range like no other cinematographer this year, Darius Khondji shot both James Gray’s radiant The Lost City of Z, which feels like a film from a lost era thanks to his 35mm cinematography and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, the most dazzling, kinetic of all of the summer’s blockbusters. Even if you didn’t get a chance to see Gray’s film in 35mm or Bong’s film in a theater, Khondji’s prowess shines through in every frame of each. – Jordan R.
mother! (Matthew Libatique)
Regardless of your opinion of mother!–and, unlike the vast majority of 2017 films, you certainly had an opinion–one of the film’s most powerful aspects is its cinematography. Shot by Darren Aronofsky’s frequent cinematographer Matthew Libatique with just three types of shots (singles on our lead, over-the-shoulder, and point-of-view), his camera claustrophobically traps you with Jennifer Lawrence’s character as this relationship/social drama turns into something else entirely. With the film’s expanded, crazy scope comes a fluid, almost balletic movement to the camerawork that forces your utmost attention. It’s also a testament that just because you can do a single take, doesn’t mean it’s the most effective way to tell your story. – Jordan R.
Mimosas (Mauro Herce)
Mimosas has the imagery of westerns, such as those by John Ford, and perhaps the postmodern offerings of Jauja and Far from Men, along with the sense of a road movie between three unorthodox individuals, with changing attitudes to peoples and cultures. And, in the final third, it turns into a curious rescue mission, when their party stumbles into the terrain of Islamic militants, although these scenes are far less action-thriller than a further reflection on religious themes in various dimensions. That last twenty minutes also have grand jumps in space and time, as if one stumbled into a Terrence Malick feature, although fans of British artist Ben Rivers will recognize shots from his recent work The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, which was made alongside Laxe’s film. – Ed F.
Nocturama (Leo Hinstin)
In Nocturama, Bertrand Bonello and his up-and-coming DP Léo Hinstin trace the fragmented perspectives of an eerily desolate Paris leading up to a series of premeditated terror attacks perpetrated by a group of young radicals who proceed to retreat to the labyrinthine, elegantly composed capitalist paradise of the film’s main setting: Paris’ Le Bon Marché. Eventually, the luxury shopping center’s consumerist allure gives way to a multitiered purgatory where its seemingly infinite floors and spatial dislocation emphasize the dirgelike madness that ensues. Bonello’s masterful mise-en-scène dwarfs the protagonists for the first half of the film as their physical stature pales in contrast to the towering structures of authority and wealth that they seek to destroy, forcing them to largely stick to the underground. Later, when in the mall, the mise-en-scène begins to make them seem larger than life with designer brand clothing and accessories and recreational electronics all within reach; all for the taking. Their descent into Dionysian decadence and, ultimately, desperation is more telling of each character than any of their subversive acts against the state as the faceless mannequins they lift their exotic threads off of come to reflect their own indiscriminate vanity better than any mirror possibly could. – Kyle P.
The Ornithologist (Rui Poças)
One of the most formally distinct films of the year, João Pedro Rodrigues brings us on a beguiling journey like no other in The Ornithologist. Shot by Rui Poças, he films bodies, birds, and the beauty of the surroundings with a rigid, but warm eye, making the adventure an endlessly transfixing one. The sexually-charged narrative is only heightened by this approach to images, one that lingers more than naturally expected as our fascination (and fear) becomes intertwined with that of the protagonist. – Jordan R.
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
In an uncredited collaboration with his camera team, Anderson delivers far more restrained visual work than one might except given the occasional pageantry on display. Luminous but tempered with a beguiling harshness, the pyrotechnics are less in individual shot compositions than the ways they contribute to the larger rhythms and the emotional place of these characters. One of the most memorable shots comes late in the film as Alma is forced to fade into the background. She watches Woodcock working as the camera slowly pans, only enough to keep her at the fringe of the frame. It’s these recurring moments that consistently remind the viewer that there’s room for more than one person in this story. – Michael S.
A Quiet Passion (Florian Hoffmeister)
Having previously worked together on 2011’s The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies reunites with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister as they inventively dramatize the life of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), a modest woman born into wealth and a gifted poet, contending with the expectations each role faces in late 19th century American society. A Quiet Passion follows Dickinson from her early years as a defiant young student at a female seminary, troubled by prevalent thoughts of death (with muted tones of color used to reflect her melancholy), to her later years in solitude, still as witty and charismatic as she is wistful and recalcitrant. Dickinson, her family, and their Amherst homestead are photographed in sensuous detail, evoking the pre-industrial era of rural Massachusetts and highlighting the serene beauty of Dickinson’s surroundings that continuously resound despite her morbid fixations and the indifferent march of time. Nothing better illustrates the comprehensive effects of time passing than a breathtaking sequence that bridges the early and later years of the Dickinsons where Davies and Hoffmeister place each family member in tableaux and gently dolly-in, each one of them aging right before our very eyes as the camera draws closer. As a result, the harsh passage of time is not just seen, it can be profoundly felt. – Kyle P.
Song to Song (Emmanuel Lubezki)
At this point no one should be surprised to see an Emmanuel Lubezki film on this list, especially when it’s one that is directed by Terrence Malick. The two men’s signature styles complement one another in a way that very few collaborations can hope to mirror. With his gliding camera and love of natural lighting, Lubezki perfectly captures the airy, unmoored sensation of the Austin music scene, where this love triangle is set. The most captivating part of Lubezki’s work here is the way in which the tone conveyed shifts from dreamy to nightmarish while maintaining aesthetic consistency. It is a testament to his work, and his symbiotic relationship with and understanding of Malick’s story and intention. – Brian R.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Steve Yedlin)
Rian Johnson met Steve Yedlin when he was 18, and now, only a little over a decade after Brick, they’ve continued their collaboration, this time on a Star Wars feature. The Last Jedi evolves the candy-colored visual language J.J. Abrams brought with the first installment in this new trilogy, creating a darker palette fitting for the story. That’s not to say Yedlin and team don’t have room for vibrancy, with no shortage of red-splashed interiors, costuming, and exteriors. Perhaps most commendable of all is that when looking at Johnson and Yedlin’s previous work, The Last Jedi feels very much in step rather than slavishly following what George Lucas and team laid out. As with any example of great cinematography, this idea of forging new territory also extends to the narrative ideas put forth. – Jordan R.
Wonderstruck (Ed Lachman)
After collaborating in career-best work for Carol, Todd Haynes and Ed Lachman once again reunited for Wonderstruck, which boasted an even great challenge from a cinematography standpoint. Gliding between the two eras it captures — 1927 and 1977 New York City — one can sense the pure joy Lachman and crew have in recreating both these time periods and also embracing the visual style of both. Whether it’s shooting Julianne Moore as a Lillian Gish-type in a silent feature or roaming the sweaty summer days of the Big Apple streets, there’s a heightened, almost avant-garde approach to the images, ideal for a fantastical children’s tale. – Jordan R.
What was your favorite cinematography this year?