There were so many incredibly shot films this year that narrowing it down to 10 wasn’t easy. What follows is not an attempt the highlight the best-looking movies of the year, but the ones that used cinematography most effectively in building expressive, cinematic worlds. This list embraces exploration of form, creative use of limitations, and overcoming challenges with craft and innovation. Often, the awards-season narrative for below-the-line talent is scale and the most obvious use of craft; here, the focus is how form can be used to elicit emotion and tell a story. These are 10 films that do that exceeding well.
10. “A Ghost Story”
Andrew Droz Palermo
A movie made with a small group of friends, shot in small house over a small number of days, is not supposed to be this visually big. But just like David Lowery’s film itself, cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo finds incredible depth and beauty in the simplicity of “A Ghost Story.” The film is a meditation on time, which Palermo matches with atmosphere-filled images that evoke mystery, loneliness, and classical elegance that can feel like a memory.
The frames Palermo and Lowery find with their wide-lensed 4×3 frame are never confined by the limited space, but anchored in a position in which the act of eating pie or playing a song is utterly captivating. As the film moves through time, the cinematography shifts and helps tell the story that moves from elliptical, to “Blade Runner” dystopia, to a window to the past. It’s a remarkable accomplishment and 2017’s best example of what can accomplished when talented filmmakers embrace their limitations and fearlessly try something that scares them a little.
9. “The Shape of Water”
The cinematography choices in “The Shape of Water” are interesting and unexpected. For a fairy tale that is so sincere and hopeful, cinematographer Dan Laustsen and Guillermo del Toro’s decision to keep the monochromatic, “Twilight Zone”-approach to lighting — the film was originally slated to be black-and-white — gives the film a mysterious feel and highlights the darkness that lay in the American ideal of 1962.
And yet out of the shadows, Laustsen’s bright key light shines on the magic of Elisa’s world — the movie theater below her apartment, the water romance in the bathroom, and the silent-movie star grace of Sally Hawkins. While del Toro designed every movement for a camera that literally never stops, the fact that the sweeping and intricate movements never call attention to themselves and are always perfectly timed is a credit to Laustsen and his crew’s precision.
8. “All These Sleepless Nights”
Collaborating with his two leads, Michal Marczak created a cinematic portrait of restless youth that feels more closely related to the French New Wave than a documentary. Cinematography is such a big part of Marczak’s process; his journeys into the endless-party worlds either has a destination and specific time of day where the light is evocative, or he’d show up early to create the proper lighting himself. Few have taken advantage of the increased light sensitivity of relatively inexpensive digital cameras quite like Marczak. Once at an event, Marczak is not there to document; he uses a camera rig he built himself to create and find expressive ephemeral moments as he builds his narrative.
When it comes to creating incredible, almost beautiful, images out of sinister darkness, there is no cinematographer quite like Chung-hoon Chung. His ability to find warmth and color in shadow always fit the duality of his frequent collaborator, director Park Chan-wook (“The Handmaiden,” “Old Boy”). To see him employ it in a mainstream horror film like “It” is incredibly exciting. The DP’s low-key lighting is unique; there is detail, depth and mystery in Chung’s darkness that never turns completely black. That’s put to tremendous use in “It” as Pennywise draws the film’s young protagonists, and the audience, into the unknown world beneath the town.
6. “Call Me By Your Name”
Photo by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
No film this year derived more from a distinct sense of place than “Call Me By Your Name.” Director Luca Guadagnino relocated André Aciman’s story to his hometown of Crema in Lombardy because he saw the love story in terms of how the region’s landscape and architecture looked and felt in the dry summer light. His collaboration with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom captures the poetic essence of Italian summer in 1983, and it serves as the emotional underpinning of Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) story.
Except it wasn’t that simple. That light and feel wasn’t present during a once-in-a-century summer of torrential rain, and Mukdeeprom had to recreate the sunlight virtually every day, working around impossible and unpredictable conditions, to somehow deliver Guadagnino’s vision. It’s a magic trick that makes us only that much more excited to see what Mukdeeprom and Guadagnino have in store for “Suspiria.”