Cinematography is not a competition, nor is it a beauty contest, so boiling the years best work down to a simple ranking wasn’t an easy task. 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. Afterwards a few additional prizes focused on films that opened doors and pointed to an exciting future of what is possible in the world of cinematography.
10. “Distant Constellation”
The setting for Shevaun Mizrahi’s documentary is a Turkish old age home, a worn institutional building that towers over a city being rebuilt below. Mizrahi, a one woman crew, transforms the building into an ethereal tower of winter light, which when joined with her elderly subjects’ memories has a haunting affect that lingers well after leaving the theater. The film captures what a resourceful filmmaker can accomplish with little — waiting for the light, staging the conversations in the pockets of warmth and color inside the institution, and using a low-fi camera to embody the intimacy and mutual affection she has shares with her subjects. “Memory” as a cinematic style has become an increasingly buzzy way to describe a film’s visual style, but Mizrahi has constructed a visual chamber to capture the ephemeral and spiritual nature of remembering one’s past.
The first portion of director Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” plays like a satisfying, if slightly ponderous, naturalistic slice-of-life film. But after the protagonists smoke weed and dance to the setting sun, in a truly wondrous scene, the film transitions into something more akin to author Haruki Murakami’s version of “Vertigo.” What’s remarkable about Kyung-pyo Hong’s cinematography is not that it perfectly mirrors this transition, but how organic it is to what is on screen. Scan the cinematographer’s credits and you’ll find films with impressionistic bold styles (“The Wailing,” “Snowpiercer”), but with “Burning” the thick atmosphere isn’t part of the film’s look, but motivated by location and natural light. The film’s mystery itself becomes a study of light and dark.
8. “We the Animals”
The skin, the color, the poetic warmth and intimacy of summer, “We the Animals” is quite simply the most wonderfully textured film of the year. What’s particularly remarkable about this 16mm Sundance film is that it in no way absorbs a painted on nostalgia, but rather is grounded in a poetic realism. The young first-time actors have freedom to move, the camera is handheld, but there’s nothing rough or raw about it. The wide-lenses frames have a proximity and immediacy, but camera breathes with a gliding bounce, more like an underwater dream than that pseudo documentary style that defines most handheld indies with a first-time cast. Cinematographer Zak Mulligan crafts summer light that feels distant, dappled, or fading – a good portion of this film feels like it was shoot those magical last three hours of a summer day. Next up for Mulligan is Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy,” which should be a canvas for more of the glorious same.
7. “If Beale Street Could Talk”
When it was announced that Barry Jenkins and James Laxton’s follow-up to “Moonlight” would be a Harlem-set period adaptation of James Baldwin, certain images popped into ones head based on their poetic, Asian-European art cinema approach to their previous Oscar winner. Except “Beale Street” was a film that defied expectation, with a visual language that some how has one foot in Hollywood’s 1950s technicolor melodrama and one foot in the realism of the great photographers who captured Harlem at its economic nadir. Laxton’s large format cinematography finds a boldness in the imagery that has the power of Baldwin’s words and the warm embrace of the protagonists’ love. Just as an example, take the incredible range of emotional expression the cinematographer finds in Fonny’s dilapidated garden studio/apartment – from the frozen-in-time intimacy of the first time the characters make love, to burning intensity of Fonny (Stephan James) lost in artistic inspiration, to the sobering darkness of Daniel’s (Brian Tyree Henry) remembrance, to the hopeful light of a child’s birth. Laxton’s dynamic imagery is finely tuned to how Jenkins’ direction wells with emotion and inspiration, yet is grounded in a very real sense of time and place.
6. “You Were Never Really Here”
Alison Cohen Rosa | Amazon Studios
In the trailer for “You Were Never Really Here,” one critic billed the film as a modern day “Taxi Driver,” a debatable distinction, except for how the sweltering, gritty New York streets become a tapestry of madness. With director Lynne Ramsay there’s always an ambiguous line of where her visual lyricism ends and cinematography begins, but on “You Were Never Really Here” she finds a true running mate in cinematographer Thomas Townend. For a film with very little actual camera movement, there’s a constant sense of unease and energy, and like with “Taxi Driver,” Townend and Ramsay create such a hallucinatory world that the the much-discussed underwater scene feels like a natural extension of, rather than a break from, what came beforehand.
5. “The Favourite”
Director Andrea Arnold tells the story of when she was a still inexperienced director setting up her first shot working with cinematographer Robbie Ryan on one of her early shorts. It was a fairly tight shot of her actor moving quickly from the second floor to the first. As she was walked through the shot it hit her like a ton of bricks — this meant Ryan would need to run backwards, downstairs, holding a 35mm camera. Ryan didn’t bat an eye, and neither did Arnold for the next decade as she created an unique brand of kinetic visual poetry with Ryan behind the camera.
For “The Favourite” director Yorgos Lanthimos wanted to create period film set in opulence of Queen Anne’s castle, except they’d be using no cinema lights, no flags or bounce to shape the natural light, he’d be shooting with gaudy 6 and 10mm wide-angle lenses, and his animated camera would run, stop on a dime, and swish pan with precision and personality at a moment’s notice and without a steadicam. Again, no problem. That Ryan turned in a film so gorgeous, without being ornate, and capturing (if not unlocking) Lanthimos vision is one of the marvels of 2018 filmmaking. No cinematographer working today delivers, without fuss, natural light cinematography and camera movement with physicality quite like Ryan.
4. “The Isle of Dogs”
Lost in the amazement that Wes Anderson in 2018 is still dedicated to the painstaking work of translating his unique vision in stop-motion animation is that each of these frames has to be lit. While many have highlighted the clear reference and influence of Kurosawa and Welles on “Isle of Dogs,” few have mentioned how cinematographer Tristan Oliver crafted such incredible deep focus images. In the desaturated film, uncharacteristically so for Anderson, Oliver’s lighting is filled with contrast and shadow to create (by far) the most expressive and detailed cinematography in a Anderson film. It’s also the moodiest and most nuanced lighting of 2018.
3. “Annihilation” & “Mission Impossible: Fallout”
Hollywood studios, psst. Over here. I don’t know how to break it to you, but your films look like shit.
All this technology and these incredible magic making tools are great, but we are long passed the point that they should be fully and seamlessly integrated into your storytelling. In fact, they basically were integrated by the time of the first “Lord of the Rings,” and if you watch the incredibly cinematic output of the new “Star Wars” films under the Kathleen Kennedy (who figured this out with Spielberg decades ago), it’s obvious there exists a work flow that can work today as well. It’s not a binary choice, visual effects and big action are actually better when your cinematographer is at the center of your workflow.
Paramount had both the best studio sci-fi and action films of 2018, both of which also happened to have the best cinematography. They also had the same cinematographer: Rob Hardy. From the other-worldliness of the shimmer and saturation in Area X (“Annihilation”) to the halo jump in “Mission Impossible,” Hardy used big budget resources to seamlessly integrate the fantastic with photo-realism. His images are striking, visceral, atmospheric and completely at the service of directors delivering high octane genre.
2. “Cold War”
Living in a world of color TV and movies there is something innately cinematic about a black and white movie. Yet, from a cinematography standpoint, black and white doesn’t necessarily elevate the lighting, it reveals it – all we have is light, white to black and all the shades between. Black and white images can be quickly exposed as flat, overly lit, or just off. Conversely, in the case of “Cold War,” the black and white reveals one of the single greatest lit movies of the last decade.
In many ways “Cold War” is a better showcase for cinematographer Lukasz Zal than “Ida,” the previous black and white film he shot for director Pawel Pawlikowski and which earned him a co-cinematography Oscar nomination. For “Cold War,” Pawlikowski and Zal dial up the contrast, while elevating the camera so it can see deeper into evocative spaces and locations. The film also came with months of prep in which the two collaborators carefully designed longer shots in which the visual story telling is boiled down to its essentials – each reframe, each movement a dramatic storytelling beat, and Zal’s precise lighting and use of compositional depth emphasizing and shaping the moment.
Drab Cold War Germany during the winter. Pick a color to describe “Suspiria” and you’d say gray. In the digital era this type of desaturated movie is all too often accomplished with a turn of the dial in post, crushing the life and soul of the image.
That’s not “Suspiria,” and it’s certainly not cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who with this film clearly establishes himself as one of a handful of the best DoPs working today. Within the film’s narrow palette is a tour de force of exquisitely sculpted cinematography – vivid, almost opulent imagery, with rich layer piled upon rich layer: the porcelain skin-tone, the symphony of muted colors, the silver wintery light. All of which seamlessly transitions into alternate dimensions, like the noir-ish undefined space in the corridors, the theatricality of the Volk performance, the ethereal nightmares and well, that ending.
Mukdeeprom perfectly captures the essence of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, whose 1970s work with the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder embodied the spirit of the era director Luca Guadagnino was trying to channel, but made it his own. And like Ballhaus (“After Hours,” “Goodfellas”), Mukdeeprom’s ability to deliver this all with articulated camera movement and driving dolly shots is the stuff of a Scorsese movie.
MVP (Most Valuable Photography): “A Star Is Born”
The other films in this article are enhanced by the cinematography, with the DoPs etching an expressive layer from the story that goes beyond the performances and direction. In the case of “A Star Is Born,” cinematographer Matthew Libatique has created the very visual language and structure that allows this film to soar.
Think about the assignment itself: A first-time director (Bradley Cooper), who is not a musician, playing as a rock star who simultaneously is directing a real-life pop star (Lady Gaga) who doesn’t act. While Cooper is finding the performances, Libatique needed to create an unobtrusive shooting style that can bend to performance, yet that demands immediacy and intimacy — the film at times feeling like one long intense close-up. A master for the feel of a moving camera, with the ability to play radically different rhythms for everything from “mother! to “Iron Man,” Libatique plays quarterback on “Star” rotating different cameras with different lenses in and out during takes, avoiding cutting and changing setups. The movement of Gaga and Cooper, the emotional beats of the scenes, and the moving camera seem perfectly timed and choreographed. They aren’t, that’s all Libatique and his team finding the moment and frames as they feed off the performers.
The assignment only becomes harder when you consider the live real-life concert settings, but also the conceit that the camera never leaves the stage. Never are we in the crowd watching the concert, we are with our performers. The lights pointed at and aiming toward the camera (and performers) itself. And yet the film is seamless. Gaga walking out onto that amphitheatre stage for the first time to grab the mic and let “Shallow” rip feels visually organic, the natural culmination of the film’s intoxicating opening 30 minutes. To pull this all together, Libatique created a satisfying color story, first by grounding us in Cooper’s world cyan-reddish light, that arcs and changes as the two merge and fall apart.
I don’t know if the cinematography “A Star Is Born” itself belongs in the top 10, but what I do feel strongly about is if you remove Libatique’s work, “A Star Is Born” is a Best Song contender.
Honorable Mentions: “First Man” (DoP Linus Sandgren), “Happy as Lazzaro” (DoP Hélène Louvart), “Hereditary” (DoP Pawel Pogorzelski), “I Think We Are Alone Now” (DoP Reed Morano), “Old Man & the Gun” (DoP Joe Anderson), “The Sisters Brothers” (DoP Benoît Debie), “Widows” (DoP Sean Bobbitt), “Zama” (DoP Rui Poças).
What’s Next Awards
The following cinematographers explored the medium in exciting ways this year, pushing boundaries and opening the doors of filmmaking.
Exploring the Dark
Cinematographer Bradford Young (“Solo,” “Where Is Kyra?”): Digital isn’t film, for better or worse. For the better, the amount of visual information that is now in “the toe,” the lower-end of exposure is incredible. Making a David Fincher film look like an MGM musical, no one is exploring this digital darkness like Bradford Young. In “Where is Kyra?” Young does more with a light bulb than most cinematographers can do with unlimited time and equipment. That this exploration carried over to a “Star Wars” film (“Solo: A Star Wars”) boggles the mind, while exposing and testing (if not breaking) our dim movie chain projection. The boldest cinematographer working today.
Exploring Nonfiction Form
RaMell Ross (“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”): RaMell Ross embodies the literal role of a director of photography. A photographer-turned-filmmaker, Ross’ approach to his time based images breathed fresh air into nonfiction world. Each image is whole, meant to stand on its own, embodying the beauty, magic, truth and ambiguity he sees through his lens. It’s not coverage, it’s not capturing moments or footage meant to serve a larger narrative, it’s an interpretation of a moment by a thoughtful artist and a hell of a photographer.
Exploring New Compositions
“Roma”: Alfonso Cuaron is not the first director or cinematographer to shoot in large format, may it be 65mm film or a digital sensor of the same size. He is one of the first though to use the unique qualities of the format with wide angle lenses to capture what are essentially intimate moments with great depth of field and scope.
Taking advantage of how much wider lenses become on the large format (a tighter 50mm lens in the 65mm format captures the same field of vision as a wider 25mm lens in a 35mm format), Cuaron created images with an expansive field of vision and tremendous depth of field, but for intimate scenes and moments. The result is we have scope with immersive proximity, intimacy with objective distance. It’s a different cinematic experience being used in a unique way by a singular artist, but it’ll be interesting to see where others take it next.