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The Best Cinematographers of the 21st Century, From Roger Deakins to Ellen Kuras

Looking at a cinematographer’s body of work reveals what aesthetic aspects are specific to the cinematographer and how they impact the storytelling of the films they’ve shot.

Ellen Kuras, Roger Deakins Bradford Young and Emmanuel Lubezki

Ellen Kuras, Roger Deakins, Bradford Young, and Emmanuel Lubezki

Netflix/Arri/Andrew Dosunmu/Shutterstock

The cinematography of an individual movie is oftentimes a difficult thing to judge, not only because it can be tough to separate the work of the cinematographer from the overall visual storytelling, but also because most viewers react to the look and style of a film through the lens of how we felt about the movie itself. Looking at a cinematographer’s body of work, however, can be a very different exercise, as it reveals what aesthetic aspects are specific to the cinematographer and how they impact the storytelling of the films they’ve shot.

When doing these lists, there is always a nagging feeling that we might be under-representing the great international filmmakers from around the world simply based on our own U.S.-centric viewing habits. The interesting thing about modern cinematography, though, is so many of great talents from around the world eventually feel the pull of Hollywood and the ability to work with bigger toys and paint on a bigger canvas. While this list does contain a few filmmakers who have never dipped their toes into an American-backed production, it is cluttered with DPs from around the globe – Sweden (Hoyte Van Hoytema), France (Maryse Alberti), Mexico (Emmanuel Lubezki, Rodrigo Prieto), South Korea (Chung Chung-hoon), and Australia (Greig Fraser) – who shoot for Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and Terrence Malick. Here’s who made our cut.

25. Agnès Godard

Agnes Godard Press Conference for New Currents Jury - 22th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), Korea - 13 Oct 2017French director Agnes Godard attends a press conference of the New Currents Jury the 22th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in Busan, South Korea, 13 October 2017. The BIFF runs from 12 to 21 October 2017, with 298 films from 75 countries to be screened.

Agnès Godard

JEON HEON-KYUN/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

The longtime collaboration between Agnès Godard and Claire Denis has resulted in some truly unforgettable and gorgeous films, including “Beau Travail” and “35 Shots of Rum,” as well as their first collaboration, “Chocolat.” Godard is always able to capture the full of range of emotions of Denis’ characters with full-bodied, warm colors, and even the blood-soaked scenes in “Trouble Every Day” are fused with such rich beauty that it is impossible to look away. Godard avoids a baroque style, but creates arresting images with incredible intimacy achieved through light and color. There’s a poetry in Denis and Godard’s lingering, almost hypnotic use of the camera – which Barry Jenkins and James Laxton came closest to emulating in their “Moonlight” – which builds a poetic and emotional relationship between viewer and character. –Jamie Righetti 

24. Wally Pfister

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885694af) Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Leonardo Dicaprio, Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan Inception - 2010 Director: Christopher Nolan Warner Bros USA/UK On/Off Set

Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Leonardo Dicaprio, Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan on the set of “Inception”

Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

23. Philippe Le Sourd

DP Philippe Le Sourd on the set of "The Beguiled"

DP Philippe Le Sourd on the set of “The Beguiled”

Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

You might not think “The Beguiled” and “The Grandmaster” have much in common, but they do share one incredible gift: Philippe Le Sourd’s breathtaking cinematography. Le Sourd’s muted colors and soft lighting bring two different worlds and eras to life, where every smell and texture feels realized and familiar. Each shot in “The Beguiled” is imbued with Sofia Coppola’s quiet, soft femininity, thanks to the lazy summer light trickling into the stifling silence of the sprawling mansion. Le Sourd earned an Oscar nomination for his work on “The Grandmaster,” Wong Kar-wai’s Ip Man epic, and one glimpse of Ziyi Zhang delicately framed in snow or Tony Leung fighting in the rain makes it clear why. —JR

22. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Call Me By Your Name

“Call Me by Your Name”

With Mukdeeprom’s budding collaboration with Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”), the Thai DP is a name that for many is just now appearing on the scene, but the reality is he’s been one of the hardest working cameraman in his homeland for awhile, most notably through his collaborations with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The best known of their collaborations, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,“ is just one example of the unique, evocative, and slightly magical imagery the cinematographer has been able to pull from the lush Thai landscape. With “Call My by Your Name,” Mukdeeprom moved to the contrasting world of the dry Northern Italian summer, which he captured in such a way that you could feel sun on and air on the characters’ skin. Now, imagine it was actually a torrential downpour 28 of the 34 shooting days and you start to understand Mukdeeprom’s wizardry. It will be fascinating to see what new layer of magic Mukdeeprom will unlock next with his and Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria” – the ultimate playground for expression through bold use of color and light. –Chris O’Falt

21. Robert Richardson

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Richardson on the set of “The Hateful Eight”

Shutterstock

That the three movies Robert Richardson has won Academy Awards for shooting barely scratch the surface of his formidable body of work speaks to how immensely talented he is. In addition to “Hugo,” “The Aviator,” and “JFK,” Richardson has lensed each of Quentin Tarantino’s films since “Kill Bill” (earning Oscar nods for “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained,” and “The Hateful Eight”); everyone excited for the upcoming “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” became even more so when it was announced that the two will be collaborating once again. His work is vivid and precise, and surely contributes to Tarantino’s rightful insistence that his movies be shot on film and seen on the biggest screen possible. —Michael Nordine

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