Melinda Sue Gordon
Hoyt van Hoytema’s always-unique sense of color palette — creating hues we haven’t seen on screen before, but yet feel so natural — and ability to create shallow focus inside the incredible depth of IMAX make the brutal film visually appealing without feeling stylized or adorned. The large format has never been used for anything like what Nolan is doing with “Dunkirk;” Hoytema’s role in crafting an immersive, visceral battle experience from such a powerful tool can’t be underestimated.
Photo Courtesy of MACRO, photo by Steve Dietl.
If there was one film this year that could have easily been ruined by its cinematography, it was “Mudbound.” Set in Mississippi of the 1940s, Dee Rees clear-eyed look at the messiness of race is as much about today; cinematographer Rachel Morrison smartly avoided the golden-hued nostalgia of a traditional prestige Oscar film. And yet this film is visually stunning, as Morrison finds the beauty and truth grounded in the film’s landscape and humanity.
That is not to say this is simply naturalistic work — images this sculpted don’t come easily from shooting in cramped, windowless sharecropper homes or under the harsh summer southern light. Morrison also pulls off giving the film an effective period feel while shooting digitally and without leaning on the saturation dial or heavy filters.
That Morrison threaded this needle and produced such a striking film is remarkable. The thought that maybe she could be the one to go through the Marvel meat grinder and emerge with a film that isn’t flat is another reason “Black Panther” can’t get here soon enough.
There are few things more innovative and exciting in the world of film than the way Ed Lachman and Todd Haynes shoot their period films. The collaborators don’t just try to capture the look of the movies of that era; they adapt their visual language, which in the case of “Wonderstruck” meant both the black-and-white silent film of the late 1920s and the grit of 1970s color film.
Lachman’s forensic approach to his prep — learning and accessing (or simulating) the tools and mode of production of the eras — resulted in color footage that practically looks like stock footage from the ‘70s it’s so authentic, while the sweeping visual poetry of the black-and-white cinematography is a reminder Lachman can do stunningly beautiful work any damn time he wants. But that’s not Lachman’s game. Like Haynes, he is on a never-ending quest to explore the mystery of the medium and put himself in situations where he is constantly finding new ways to use it.
2. “Blade Runner 2049”
When you try to take apart the visual elements of “Blade Runner 2049” — the visual effects, the composited backdrops, the holograms — it might seem reasonable to ask where Roger Deakins’ cinematography stops and digital wizardry begins. Except, to even look at “Blade Runner” that way is to misunderstand Deakins’ contribution or the nature of his collaboration with Denis Villeneuve.
After the director figured out the rules of his world, he began working with his great cinematographer to determine how they would visually build it. Beyond the jaw-dropping and inspired light and color — orange sulfur haze, silver winter light, amorphous liquid light of Jared Leto’s lair, the endless little pockets that give depth to vast noir exteriors — this was a film that leaned heavily on Deakins’ particular skill set. Thanks to his exhaustive pre-planning and control over the image, you can’t really separate the visual effects layer. Everything is perfectly unified in a world that — not unlike Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth’s masterful work in the original “Blade Runner” — is built and defined by light.
1. “The Beguiled”
The most beautifully shot film of the year was “The Beguiled,” but pretty images are not what good cinematography is about. So much of Sofia Coppola’s half southern gothic-half Civil War-era world is wrapped in a thick, hazy atmosphere that brings us inside the interior of a group of women cut off from the rest of the world during wartime. The porcelain skin, the gauzy grey exterior dripping with humidity, the warmth of the candlelight tapering off into celluloid black, the way natural light enters the house and glistens on Colin Farrell’s skin — Philippe Le Sourd’s lighting creates textures you can practically feel. Combined with his and Coppola’s use of the camera, a sexually charged hyperreality develops beneath the women’s genteel exterior.
Le Sourd’s approach to his lighting is classical, but his execution is simply jaw-dropping as the female gaze has never looked so sensually beautiful. We haven’t seen nearly enough of the French cinematographer’s work, but the doses we’ve gotten — most notably, Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” — he paints with such incredibly bold strokes that yet are so organic to the world he creates.