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25 Films With the Best Cinematography of the 21st Century, From ‘Tree of Life’ to ‘In the Mood for Love’

IndieWire's staff digs through 17 years of cinematic images to find the best films shot by masters of the craft.

5. “Far From Heaven” (2002)

"Far From Heaven"

“Far From Heaven”

Todd Haynes has thrown cinematographer Ed Lachman some difficult challenges over the course of their collaborations, but nothing tops their attempts to mirror the iconic imagery of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas (“All That Heaven Allows”) — which were captured by the great Russell Metty on the Universal soundstage using three strip technicolor — while shooting on location in New Jersey.  Lachman, a technical wizard who does his homework, somehow nailed the look of an overhead grid light scheme (despite working with 10-foot domestic ceilings), a dazzling saturated color palette (despite the limitation of 2002 film stock) and even found a way to control the sun to give the exteriors a backlot feel.  Lachman – the rare DP who found his way to film via fine arts – isn’t simply a photographic chameleon, but an artist. As with Sirk, the surface beauty serves as a form of repression with frames that literally imprison the characters battling racism, sexism and homophobia, while painting their emotional states with jaw-dropping color schemes.

If the experiment of “Far From Heaven” was to discover if the heightened emotional state of ’50s style melodrama could still work on a modern audience, the answer came back as a resounding “Yes!”

But only if Lachman’s shooting it. –CO

4. “The Immigrant

James Gray’s transportive drama is not nothing, and neither is Darius Khondji’s cinematography. Though curiously unsung on this side of the Atlantic — his sole Oscar nod came for “Evita” despite the fact that he’s also lensed the likes of “Seven,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “Amour” — Khondji has been consistently exceptional for some time now. He’s never been better than he was on “The Immigrant,” however, bringing the grimy milieu of 1920s New York to life in a way that both disenchants and enraptures. For most, the American Dream is just that — a fantasy rather than reality, and one that’s rarely looked more tempting than it does here. —Micheal Nordine

3. “In the Mood for Love” (2000)

Wong Kar-Wai’s devastating love story details a chaste, illicit affair of the heart between two people whose spouses are meeting in secret as well. A cinematographic collaboration between Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan, and Ping Bin Lee*, their work becomes the visual equivalent of a whisper, providing stolen glimpses into an unconventional courtship. Set four decades before it was made, “In the Mood for Love” has a timeless quality, laser-focused on emotion. Lingering on hands and hovering around corners, there’s a secretiveness to the camerawork that echoes Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan delicate dance. There’s danger and passion in the shadow and smoke, all filtered through an assured, gently gliding frame that’s selective in its gaze. –SG

2. “Tree of Life” (2011)

A visual poem told with light. Whereas “The New World” found cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki adding an important new layer to Terence Malick’s language, “Tree” is where the director convinces his DP to let loose and react to the moment and light in real-time. There is always an element of spirituality to Malick’s work, along with an awareness that human existence is a spec of dusk in the vast span of the universe. It’s a theme blatantly explored in this film – including cutaways to scenes involving the creation of the universe – but it’s best expressed in the way Lubezki chases the light and creates portraits of a family in an endless struggle between life and death. The approach to imagery is not new for Malick, but the virtuoso camerawork brings his fixation on the ache of being alive to profound new heights. –CO

1.  “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

It often seems like the whole damn world wants Roger Deakins to win an Oscar already; one could argue that the reason he didn’t get one in 2007 was because he was nominated for two different movies and wound up splitting the vote. While “No Country for Old Men” is as gorgeously shot as any of Deakins’ collaborations with the Coen Brothers, his work on “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” stands out among the most impressive body of work of any cinematographer working today. As gorgeous to behold as it is dolorous to contemplate, Andrew Dominik’s elegiac Western has the look of a faded photograph — blurred at the edges, hazy with age, yet still vivid in its textural details. The train-robbery sequence may be the most arresting, but every frame of the film is worth putting in an actual frame and hanging on the wall. —MN

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