Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki is a brilliant cinematographer whose work has helped shape the landscape of modern cinematic photography. During his 32-year career, Lubezki has worked with such greats as Mike Nichols, Joel and Ethan Coen, Terrence Malick, and Michael Mann, as well as technology-defying directors such as Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. He even worked alongside Martin Scorsese as a camera operator on The Rolling Stones documentary Shine a Light, alongside Robert Richardson.
Lubezki’s latest project reunites him with Iñárritu for a brooding, intense historical epic about fur trapper Hugo Glass. Although the movie itself receives a somewhat mixed reception, Lubezki’s photography alone is worth the price of admission, as we noted in our yearly cinematography wrap-up. Before checking out The Revenant when it opens wide this Friday, we’ve selected some of our favorites in his illustrious filmography, each exquisite in their own unique ways. Please enjoy below, and suggest your own favorites in the comments.
Like Water For Chocolate (Alfonso Arau)
A lively adaptation of the popular Mexican novel, Like Water For Chocolate flaunts its bewitching visuals and charming narrative diversions, reveling in a dream-like sense of wonder. Sharing thematic sensibilities with Lubezki’s later work on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, we follow Tita (Bottle Rocket‘s Lumi Cavazos), a young Mexican woman living under the imposed rule of her mother. Tita is forbidden to marry Pedro, the man of her dreams, who instead weds Tita’s sister. She’s left to remain a humble cook and servant, taking care of her domineering mother until her death. On her sister’s wedding day, Tita weeps into the cake batter, which causes those who eat it to fall under a sudden spell of melancholia. It isn’t long before Tita realizes the depths of the powers she can wield with her supernatural cooking. This is a warm and hopeful film, and Lubezki’s cinematography mirrors these uplifting emotions, bestowing events with a golden, sunset-like color palette.
Reality Bites (Ben Stiller)
Lubezki’s first taste of Hollywood was Ben Stiller‘s directorial debut, Reality Bites, which follows four directionless twenty-somethings fumbling through their first year of adulthood. As dated as the surface details of its early-90s setting may seem, the film cleverly taps into the chaos and fear of the world of post-academia. Working with Stiller was a unique and tricky experience for the cinematographer. Lubezki admits in a Hitfix Oral History of the film that he did not find the script particularly funny. Looking back, the strongest and most resonant comedic moments arise from the charismatic performances of its leads, who together share a warm onscreen chemistry. Lubezki’s visual approach to dry comedy was relatively simple: “I never like comedies that are lit to be funny. It’s not the light that is funny.” Mixing lo-fi video footage with ethereally hazy shots of Houston, Texas allowed Lubezki to capture the essence of those times. Though this wasn’t a period film upon its release, it certainly is now, thus cementing Reality Bites as a truthful snapshot of ’90s culture.
The Birdcage (Mike Nichols)
Following his more frequent collaborations with Alfonso Cuarón and Alfonso Arau, The Birdcage might seem like a mainstream diversion for Lubezki. With Reality Bites under his belt, Lubezki’s second brush with Hollywood was a more assured and confident work. The film opens with a long sweeping shot moving across Miami’s South Beach and into the titular club, where the camera moves through the dance floor and even onto the stage for close ups. Not necessarily as accomplished as the infamous Goodfellas Copacabana dolly, but Nichols and Lubezki’s visual ambitions are towering ones. The shot consisted of three separate takes, with cuts digitally hidden — a technique Lubezki still employs as recently as in Birdman and The Revenant. It’s truly thrilling to see each successive attempt at this technique improve its sophistication, the subtleties and complexities deepening with each passing film.
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)
Working with a visual auteur such as Tim Burton must be like a gift to a cinematographer, gaining the chance to lovingly explore moody and atmospheric landscapes dripping with rich detail. Lubezki paints the film in a ghostly gray pallor, each citizen of Sleepy Hollow pale white and cloaked in a thick layer of fog. Ever-present iconography of the damned — picturesque scarecrows, jack-o’-lanterns, and various other spooky, antiquated artifacts of Halloween — subtly blanket the film. Every inch of Sleepy Hollow feels steeped in Gothic aura and dread as Ichabod Crane attempts to solve the mystery of the Headless Horseman. Crane’s numerous flashback dream sequences are the most gorgeous in the film, eye-catching excuses for Lubezki and Burton to crank up the visual flourishes all the way to eleven. It’s an impressively made film, which has surprisingly aged rather well.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Niels Mueller)
The doomed assassination attempt on Richard Nixon by a man named Sam Byck (spelled Bicke in the movie) is an oft-forgotten chapter in U.S. history. It’s another story of a lone assassin who seemed so normal to his oblivious friends and neighbors. Mueller‘s 2004 film feels as relevant today as it ever did. The disenfranchised little guy hellbent on capturing the American dream at any violent cost remains an ever-present archetype in contemporary society. Lubezki’s camera continually catches Bicke (Sean Penn, in a tortured and mournful performance) in close-up, always underlining the protagonist’s carelessness and ineptitude. Like witnessing a car wreck in slow motion, the film’s impending violence feels as foreboding and cautionary as anything I’ve ever seen. Bicke is as out of his depth as a father as he is as a salesman or political assassin, the horizon ever unsteady as Lubezki’s hand-held camera catches his downcast eyes and menacing expression.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (Brad Silberling)
A cheerfully morbid and irreverent adaptation of Daniel Handler‘s macabre fairy tale series invokes the same magical tones as Like Water For Chocolate and Sleepy Hollow, yet adds a goofy, playful edge to the material. After a grisly fire takes the lives of their loving parents, the Baudelaire children become wealthy orphans, transferred into the care of the possibly murderous Count Olaf, played by a deliriously unhinged Jim Carrey. Hungry for their inheritance, Olaf concocts one horrific plan after another, attempting to kill these children once and for all. It’s a fine rejoinder to the belief that cinematography cannot add to comedy, for the film continually surprises us with lovingly executed sight gags that enhance its colorful and vividly depicted world.It’s almost a shame that the film’s core audience is likely too young to fully appreciate Lubezki’s work in all of its nuances.
Burn After Reading (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Notable as one of the few films from Joel and Ethan Coen not photographed by their longtime collaborator Roger Deakins, Burn After Reading provided a huge opportunity for Lubezki. Working on the Coen brothers’ first original comedy since O Brother Where Art Thou? allowed Lubezki a chance to closely collaborate with incredible comedic performers at the top of their game. The film is a satire of both bureaucratic CIA politics and tragically vain fitness instructors, featuring gleefully over-the-top turns from Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton. The Washington Monument and other towering symbols of government creep in the background, firmly anchoring these protagonists in this stifling landscape. Lubezki frames the film as if it were The Bourne Identity, only without all that silly action and suspense. Perhaps not the finest work of the brothers’ career, but a minor Coen film is still far greater than a vast majority of contemporary cinematic fare.
Sólo con tu pareja, A Little Princess, Great Expectations, Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
Lubezki and his frequent collaborator Alfonso Cuarón have enjoyed one of the most enviable trajectories in modern cinema. They met in film school and nearly 30 years later, since Sólo con tu pareja and A Little Princess, they’re still working together, creating eye-popping and innovative images for the big screen. Their first English-language film, Great Expectations, a lush and dark adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, was a failure with audiences and critics alike. Despite this stumble, review after review cites Lubezki’s immaculate photography as the movie’s finest element. In 2001, they returned to Mexico for their most personal project, Y Tu Mamá También, which follows two horny teenage boys on a road trip with a sexy older woman. The film begins as a coming-of-age drama before shifting tones to deliver an emotional wallop of an ending.
Next, Lubezki won a Best Cinematography BAFTA for Children of Men, a dystopian sci-fi action spectacular for which he and Cuarón also received well-deserved Oscar nominations. The film’s action sequences are unparalleled, employing newly invented camera rigs and inspired visual techniques to allow the brutal flow of action to remain uninterrupted. A stunning technical achievement that may have helped prepare Lubezki and Cuarón for their next cinematic magic trick. Like masterful sleight of hand, Gravity is perfectly designed showmanship. Akin to a theme-park ride with A-list stars, the film is an exercise in suspense that would indeed make Alfred Hitchcock proud, perhaps even jealous. The film netted Academy Awards for both Lubezki and Cuarón, a wonderful moment for two artists who have shared so many experiences together.
The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick is a filmmaker who has always valued photogenic artistry over narrative thrust, content to let his stories and characters wash over the audience like a crashing wave. There are few directors who indulge in such visual splendor, his creative aphorism seemingly being beauty for the sake of beauty. For Lubezki, working with Malick was a perfect fit. Their first collaboration, The New World, was also an opportunity for him to shoot (at least partially) on 65mm. The film is a lucid historical drama depicting the relationship between Captain John Smith and Pocahontas at the forming of the Jamestown Colony. What results is graceful and hypnotic, like images found in a rusted and long-forgotten time capsule. Working as a team, Malick and Lubezki formed a series of rules for their photography, which they referred to as “the dogma.” Among the rules — which, according to American Cinematographer, include employing natural light and avoiding lens flares and primary colors in the frame — the most important for Lubezki is to never underexpose their images. “We want the blacks. We don’t like milky images.”
Their next work, The Tree of Life, is regarded by many (including us) as Malick’s masterpiece, a beauteous and evocatively personal reflection on family and childhood. Occasionally challenging but always visually energetic, the film received widespread praise from critics, hailing it as Malick’s return to form. Their next collaboration, To the Wonder, was less enthusiastically reviewed, although many still noted the loveliness of Lubezki’s photography. Its dreamy and rambling narrative follows two lovers who meet in Paris and then drift in and out of each others lives. Fans of their partnership should be in good spirits, as their next collaboration, Knight of Cups, opens in early 2016, and we specifically noted Lubezki’s involvement as its greatest asset. With even more films on the horizon, their shared dogma is alive and well, and continuing into the future.
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance and The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
The stylish and visually incandescent Birdman landed Academy Awards for both its director and, more deservedly so, Lubezki’s stunning cinematography. Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor famous for playing a superhero years ago, now attempting to revive his career with a serious turn on Broadway; this entertains every oddly memorable diversion Lubezki and Iñárritu can cram in there. The success of the narrative and character elements can be debated endlessly. It’s a film that celebrates the insanity of creativity, and, for that, I greatly admire it. Yet the success of Lubezki and Iñárritu’s visuals cannot be debated. Even in its early teaser-trailer form, many were already firm in its title as the most beautifully shot film of 2014. Dreamy details (e.g. as the endless strings of Christmas lights in the store, or two lovers kissing beneath the glow of the St. James Theatre marquee) offset Riggan’s surreal flights of imagination.
For their latest collaboration, we said in our yearly cinematography wrap-up, “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.”
What’s your favorite cinematography from Lubezki?