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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

20. Chung Chung-hoon

“The Handmaiden”

You might not know Chung Chung-hoon by name, but you know his work. After establishing himself as a favorite collaborator of Park Chan-wook on films like “Oldboy,” “Stoker,” and the especially gorgeous “The Handmaiden,” the South Korean cinematographer has taken his craft to America in recent years. Chung made the otherwise execrable “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” a treat to look at and is also responsible for the terrifying visuals of “It: Chapter One”; that he won’t be returning for the sequel is to that film’s discredit. Few are as capable of making disturbing subject matter so visually appealing, eliciting discomfort and awe all at once — you might want to turn away, but you’re compelled to keep watching. —MN

19. Matthew Libatique

DP Matthew Libatique on the set of "mother!"

DP Matthew Libatique on the set of “mother!”

Matthew Libatique’s work behind the camera in the 21st century is defined by his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky. Libatique’s claustrophobic eye has helped create cinematic moments in “Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan,” and “mother!” so intense that it’s impossible to shake them. His disorientating camera movements in the latter two are especially jaw-dropping. Libatique is a master planner when it comes to the choreography of his camera, which makes his movements’ unpredictable menace all the more of a miracle. Libatique has also become a favorite of Spike Lee (“Inside Man,” “Chi-Raq”) this century and has Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” and the Tom Hardy-starring “Venom” lined up for the fall. –ZS

18. Rachel Morrison

"Mudbound" DP Rachel Morrison

“Mudbound” DP Rachel Morrison

David Bomba

While Morrison’s best-known films (“Black Panther,” “Mudbound,” “Fruitvale Station”) have offered fresh perspectives that modern movies desperately need, there is a distinctly classical aspect to her cinematography. And we’re not simply talking about the way she put a fresh spin on the 16mm direct cinema of the 1960s for Ryan Coogler in “Fruitvale,” or somehow translated the feel of Depression-era WPA photography into color digital cinematography for Dee Rees in “Mudbound.” There’s a rich contrast and deep black in Morrison’s work that perfectly grounds her cinematography in the drama of her films, while circumventing the modern trickery of a look that is manufactured rather than photographed. Meanwhile, having come up as a documentary cameraperson, she has an incredible ability to be emotionally responsive with the camera to her actor’s movements and emotions. At this stage in her career, Morrison might not have quite as a deep a resume as some of the cinematographers on this list, but her work is the terra firma of modern cinematography. –CO

17. Greig Fraser

Greig Fraser and Garth Davis shooting “Lion”

Photo By Mark Rogers, Weinstein Co

For a generation of filmmakers that has a natural aversion to adding too much artificial lighting, but shuns the visual ordinariness of taking a documentary-like approach to cinematography, Fraser has become the poster boy of what a cinematographer should be. The DP has an incredible ability to create and find striking imagery that pulls from locations and that perfectly serves the story, while giving each of his films – from “Bright Star” to “Killing Them Softly” – its own distinct, but grounded look. Always flexible, Fraser can go run-and-gun to grab a time sensitive shot of a military-base in “Zero Dark Thirty,” or a crowded Calcutta train station in “Lion,” yet never does anything ever feel as if it’s not part of the well-sculpted whole. Usually, for a cinematographer with this type of skill set, it means he makes a certain type of movie, but what is most exciting about Fraser is he has proven he can even make a “Star Wars” film (“Rogue One”) feel grounded. –CO

16. Mark Lee Ping-Bing

Mark Lee Ping-Bing

Mark Lee Ping-Bing

MoMa

In his great collaborations with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Mark Lee Ping-Bing (who is also often credited as Ping Bin Lee) changed Taiwanese cinema and ushered in a New Wave that took films out of the stodgy studio limitations and into a newfound naturalism. The cinematographer is a master at embracing the sunlight and low light of real locations, as the 10 historical films he has made with Hou are imbued with as much beauty as any ornate period film produced in a studio. In career that is now in its fourth decade, Lee’s work has branched out tremendously by working with a range of very different directors like Tran Anh Hung and Wong Kar Wai (Lee shot a good portion of “In the Mood for Love”) and in a handful of different countries (“Renoir”). Very recently, Lee even made the switch to digital – strongly believing the quality to be vastly inferior until now – and proved with “The Assassin” the natural beauty he was known for was hardly celluloid based. –CO

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