The gravitational pull that exists between great directors and great cinematographers is natural. Many of the best pairings throughout film history have been project based, with the director or producer picking a cinematographer to achieve a specific look for a particular film. There’s a difference between providing a talented cinematographer with the perfect platform to apply their skills and a director-cinematographer collaboration that elevates the work of both artists, regardless of material.
This list is less about identifying the best looking films of the era – although many are here – and more about celebrating collaborations that have allowed many of the best filmmakers working today to fully express themselves on the big screen.
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, DP: Robert Elswit
The first time Paul Thomas Anderson did not work with Elswitt – “The Master,” shot by Mihai Mălaimare Jr. – the results were (thankfully) great, but it’s fascinating that the director would choose to take on DP duties himself when Elswit was unavailable for his new film “The Phantom Thread.” Likely, it speaks to how Anderson is both incredibly precise about his imagery and unwilling to compromise his unorthodox process for achieving both his shots and performances. To put it another way: Anderson is a difficult assignment for a DP – he constantly changes things up on set and has a compulsive need for sharpness and detail from anamorphic lenses on a roaming camera; he refuses to use color correction and other digital manipulation in post. It is easy to understand why it might be difficult for him to break in a new cinematographer. Ultimately, this speaks to how Elswit has always been the perfect conduit for Anderson’s distinctly celluloid style and the key roll he played in helping the once-young auteur to not only establish the look of his films, but deliver such high quality versions of Anderson’s vision. When discussing PTA’s amazing body of work, not enough attention is paid to the truly vital role Elswit has played in their creation.
Films: “There Will Be Blood,” “Punch Drunk Love,” ”Inherent Vice,” ”Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights.”
Dir: Andrea Arnold, DP: Robbie Ryan
The poetic realism of Andrea Arnold has always been different from her American indie counterparts – specifically the way they capture a collection of handheld, ephemeral moments that are then cobbled together in the editing room. Arnold’s films may feel improvisational, but there is a rigid structure to her work. Production for Arnold becomes a process of injecting her stories with a spontaneity as she works with her cast to find emotional realism, which is often achieved by giving them the freedom of movement. It’s a process that is impossible to separate from the visceral force of Robbie Ryan’s camera. No narrow staircase, muddy English countryside or cramped van inhibits Ryan, who sucks up the energy that Arnold and her cast create on set. He also doesn’t inhibit their process, but rather is the master of found light and finding expressive frames to create the perfect texture and feel for each of the varied cinematic worlds Arnold has created.
Films: “American Honey,” “Fish Tank,” “Red Road,” “Withering Heights.”
Dir: Darren Aronofsky, DP: Matthew Libatique
There are certain aesthetic elements that define an Aronofsky film – specifically the handheld camera and grainy 16mm imagery – that are most commonly associated with a run–and–gun filmmaking approach. In reality, starting with their first feature collaboration on “Pi,” Libatique and Aronofsky have produced incredibly sculpted and well-crafted films that are sometimes purposefully ugly. Libatique understands how to access the essence of the gritty filmmaking Aronofsky loves with a precise visual language the director demands. The DP is also always up for whatever new challenge the director introduces into their process. The best example might be their most recent collaboration, “mother!,” in which the duo had to meticulously map out the constantly moving subjective camera that sticks with Jennifer Lawrence as her character moves through a house descending into a fever dream of chaos and destruction.
Films: “mother!,” “Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain,” “Noah,” “Pi.”
Dir: Park Chan-wook, DP: Chung Chung-hoon
The more Chung works without Park Chan-wook — “It” being the latest example — the more obvious his role in establishing Park’s style gets. The DP’s ability to find and create color and warmth in darkness has always been a perfect fit the playfully sinister films of Park. Together, the South Korean duo have created some of the most unique and exciting films of the last 15 years, but it was on last year’s “The Handmaiden” where Chung’s work was fully showcased. The lighting is lush, with flashes of erotic intensity, but could quickly ooze the ominous sense of bad men lurking in the shadows. It’s in this wide-ranging palette of the film’s evocative imagery that Park is able to unfurl yet another unexpected yarn that effortlessly goes in so many different directions.
Films: “The Handmaiden,” “Stoker, “Oldboy,” “Lady Vengeance,” “Thirst.”
Dir: The Coen Brothers, DP: Roger Deakins
In many ways the slick, light-touch of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfield – who went on become successful comedy director in his own right – was the perfect DP to help establish the Coen Brothers with their first three low–budget features. But it was when Deakins brought cinematic gravitas to the Coens’ sandbox with “Barton Fink” that the international film world started to take the smart-ass brothers seriously (“Barton Fink” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes). Under Deakins, the Brothers’ lens choice tightened and their language sharpened, as they were soon able to deliver the same layered approach to visual storytelling that had always been present in their screenplays. Deakins helped them quickly access the genre and Hollywood references their films were in conversation with and not with a wink-and-a-nod, but rather with their own unique look and style. When Roger Ebert famously compared watching “Fargo” to attending a great film festival, it highlighted how the trio were able to shift gears and mix genres, humor and tragedy, in a way that felt organic. The Coens have long since passed the point where they rely on Deakins, but the palette and richness he brings to a comedy like “Hail Caesar” remains a rare movie-going treat.
Films: “Hail, Caesar!,” “No Country for Old Men,” “True Grit,” “A Serious Man,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “Barton Fink.”