“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.
Gemini (Andrew Reed)
With cinematography by Aaron Katz’ go-to DP Andrew Reed, Gemini aesthetically evokes Los Angeles with a delicate old-school soft-focus glow that in turn calls back to its celebrity-enamored narrative. Fusing this dreamy camerawork with its wistful performances, a rhythmic synth soundtrack, and the general aura of its setting, Gemini is an irresistible experience that restages the Hitchcockian thriller in a social-media-obsessed contemporary landscape. – Jason O.
Happy as Lazzaro (Hélène Louvart)
With its Netflix release it means we sadly won’t get to see the gorgeous 16mm cinematography of Happy as Lazzaro in its projected form, but it’s still a marvel to behold digitally. From Beach Rats and Pina DP Hélène Louvart, who reteams with Alice Rohrwacher, the world of Lazzaro is one of tactility and dreamlike beauty with the feeling that anything can happen around the frame’s corners, even a time jump of decades, as does occur. The optimism of our protagonist is tied wonderfully with the cinematography, which evokes Rohrwacher’s passion for the majesty to behold all around us. – Jordan R.
If Beale Street Could Talk (James Laxton)
Continuing their collaboration since their film school days, cinematographer James Laxton and Barry Jenkins once again create one of lushest, most vibrant films of the year with If Beale Street Could Talk. Bringing the world of James Baldwin to the screen, their Harlem is one of bright beauty and swoon-worthy colors, a cacophony of visual delight to match the emotional exuberance of the story’s foundational romantic center. Along with the colorful palette, Laxton’s camera movement is something to behold, particularly in the film’s best scene as Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan James’ characters reconnect over a meal and we feel like we’re another member of the table as the frame gracefully glides back and forth. – Jordan R.
Madeline’s Madeline (Ashley Connor)
Placing us firmly yet freely in the head space of our conflicted protagonist, Ashley Connor’s cinematography in Madeline’s Madeline is some of the most visceral filmmaking of the year. As Josephine Decker dissects ideas of artistic vampirism, the camera bobs and weaves through space and time while Madeline confronts both the joys of performing and the uneasy feelings tied to the motivations behind her performance. Few movies this year felt like we were witnessing the future of indie filmmaking, but thanks to Connor’s intimate eye, Madeline’s Madeline was certainly one of them. – Jordan R.
Mandy (Benjamin Leob)
Mandy is manic and melancholic and majestic, a film as intent on breaking skulls as it is acknowledging the toll that loss takes on those left to stare at the ashes. As such, cinematographer Benjamin Leob shoots Mandy with striking counterpoints of lucid truths and hallucinogenic obscurities. Take the unmistakable anguish on Nicolas Cage’s face in extended takes of heartbreak alongside the strobing terrors and nightmarish pigments working in absolute harmony. It’s gentle and garish and extremely goddamn metal. – Mike M.
Milla (Robin Fresson and Mel Massadian)
The opening shot-reverse-shot of Milla breathtakingly sets the scene: It holds on a blurry huddled silhouette, before the film cuts, revealing an entangled couple lying in a car, foggy windshield behind them. Captured by director Valerie Massadian’s son Mel alongside DP Robin Fresson, the film’s eerie cinematography conveys the alienation from society that often comes with poverty, but not without simultaneously romanticizing the presence of love amidst a more dour reality. – Jason O.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Rob Hardy)
The aesthetic shape-shifting of the Mission: Impossible franchise is central to it’s longevity. Christopher McQuarrie’s decision to return behind the camera came with the caveat of directing the film as a different filmmaker, and in turn, a different crew. The result is one of the more intimate and exhilarating entries in the series. Rob Hardy’s lens keenly assures us that not only is the film’s star is at the heart of the practical derring-do, but is at peak performance. Whether jumping out of a plane (in a breathless fake one-er), or speeding through Paris, kissing cars. Hardy guarantees that audiences who came to watch Tom Cruise tempt fate will get their admission’s worth. – Conor O.
The Old Man & the Gun (Joe Anderson)
One of the few directors who can pull off homage without making it distractingly apparent, David Lowery’s perhaps most difficult feat yet in that regard is Old Man & the Gun. While it plays like a greatest hits and tribute to Robert Redford’s career, it never feels cloying or obvious in that regard (even when pulling in footage and images from his past films). Much of this success is owed to Joe Anderson’s cinematography, which gives a timeless, filmic feel to the heists and the in between moments of pondering a life’s legacy. There’s an effervescent touch to it all that sells the whole endeavor, from the first to the last frame. – Jordan R.
The Other Side of the Wind (Gary Graver)
While critics have lavished much of their praise for The Other Side of the Wind on the late master Orson Welles and his star/co-writer Oda Kodar, the creative contribution of cinematographer Gary Graver is undeniable when looking at the finished film. Working under difficult conditions, a limited budget, a start-and-stop shooting schedule, and a complex found-footage visual aesthetic, Graver and Welles captured a vivid and manic portrait of 1970s Hollywood by shooting on multiple film stocks, including 35mm, 16mm, and Super 8, in both color and black and white. Doing so, Graver and Welles endowed the film with a powerful sense of immediacy, not unlike raw news footage of a live event. – Tony H.
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
Clichés abound when bemoaning the absence of Netflix movies from the cinema, but Roma really begs to be seen on as big a screen as possible. Acting as his own DoP, director Alfonso Cuarón is as innovative as his regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, creating a visual style to his cinematic memory play that from the film’s opening scenes holds your gaze with its strange eccentricity. The blocking–the position of the camera in relation to its subject–makes the camera an ethereal character, panning left to right but regulated in movement, like a spirit observing the action in silence. Naturalistic lighting that inflects a domesticated appeal, ridding the black-and-white movie of the tropes of wispy romantic nostalgia (the film is set in the early 1970s). And Cuarón’s unswerving use of wide-angle lenses makes the intimate epic, and the familiar profound. – Ed F.
The Rider (Joshua James Richards)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
“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)
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.
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.