The good news for the cinematography race is that theaters have reopened, which means that the full spectacle of “Dune” and “No Time to Die” can be experienced on the big screen. But they are not alone — this season also boasts the visual splendor of “The Power of the Dog,” the romanticized nostalgia of “The French Dispatch,” “Belfast,” and “West Side Story,” and the film noir intensity of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “Nightmare Alley.”
Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (Warner Bros.) is like a cerebral “Star Wars” meets “Lawrence of Arabia,” with its dangerous mix of politics and religion, centered around Timothée Chalamet’s messianic Paul Atreides. It was photographed in large format by Emmy-winning cinematographer Greig Fraser (“The Mandalorian”), who alternated between the digital Alexa LF and IMAX 65mm cameras (for Paul’s surreal dreams and visions on the harsh and desolate desert planet Arrakis, shot mainly in Jordan). Other environments include the autumnal-looking water planet Caladan and the goth-looking planet Giedi Prime, which makes for quite a diverse color palette. Fraser also took the unusual step of creating a Kodak 35mm negative and scanning it back digitally for a more analog experience in theaters.
For Daniel Craig’s swan song as James Bond in “No Time to Die” (MGM/United Artists Releasing) director Cary Fukunaga emphasized the emotional drama in wrapping up his complex arc. But the director envisioned it as a classical romantic adventure, punctuated by fierce global action. It was shot on Kodak film by Oscar-winner Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) in both 35mm and 65mm (including IMAX), a franchise first as far as large format. To ensure smooth transitions, entire sequences were shot in one format or another. The nearly 30-minute pre-credit sequence is remarkably versatile, going from a moment of horror on a frozen lake in Norway to the romance of ancient Italy, which goes horribly wrong with brutal violence. The rest of the movie follows Bond from Jamaica to London to Cuba to Norway to baddie Safin’s (Rami Malek) exotic concrete lair in an abandoned World War II island base between Japan and Russia. There’s nothing like an intimate close-up of Craig’s weary face in IMAX.
Jane Campion’s psychological western about toxic masculinity, “The Power of the Dog” (Netflix, from the Thomas Savage novel), pits two Montana cattle ranch brothers against one another living their family house in 1925: Benedict Cumberbatch’s sadistic Phil and Jesse Plemons’ sensitive George. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (“Zola”) shot large-format with the Alexa LF (and vintage anamorphic Ultra Panatar lenses) to take advantage of the vast landscapes in New Zealand, to capture the ensemble cast (including Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee) in single close-ups set against the beautiful landscape. The exteriors are bright and de-saturated, while the interiors of the ranch house, with its European-style wood design, have a dark, shadowy, foreboding.
Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (Searchlight), a collection of stories from the final issue of a “New Yorker”-style American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city, was shot on Kodak 35mm film in both color and black-and-white by go-to cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The anthology-like structure is divided into three stories: “The Concrete Masterpiece,” about a celebrated incarcerated artist (Benicio del Toro), “Revisions to a Manifesto,” about a journalist (Frances McDormand) profiling and becoming involved with a student revolutionary (Chalamet) during the May 68 occupation protests, and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” a crime drama involving a food journalist (Jeffrey Wright). For this love letter to journalism, Yeoman switches between color and monochromatic tones and different aspect ratios for striking contrast, often using dolly camera shots to connect scenes.
Black-and-white also infuses Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical “Belfast”(Focus), his childhood remembrance of growing up in Northern Belfast during the violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants in 1969, and Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (A24), adapted from Shakespeare’s “Scottish play,” starring Denzel Washington and McDormand. Branagh’s go-to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos went digital for the first time with the Alexa Mini LF to evoke a silky Hollywood look, in keeping with nine-year-old Buddy’s (Jude Hill) larger than life view of his family and the neighborhood, as he seeks refuge in movies and TV.
Coen, in going solo for the first time as director without brother Ethan, relied on five-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel to digitally convey the nightmarish look of German Expressionism along with the flattened, engraved-like quality of Danish master Carl Theodore Dreyer (“The Passion of Joan of Arc”). Heightened theatricality was their goal in generating stark contrasts and casting beams of light in hallways and up and down staircases, as part of production designer Stefan Dechant’s turn of the century, modernist-looking sets.
Guillermo del Toro tackles noir but without the obvious tropes for his reworking of “Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight), the ’40s psychological thriller, which finds carny grifter Bradley Cooper teaming up with various women (Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett) on his climb to high society for an ambitious nightclub scam. The director reunites go-to cinematographer Dan Laustsen (“The Shape of Water”) to conjure a colorful surrealism matched with classical Expressionism. The result is intended to add a level of mysticism to the trappings.
Steven Spielberg taps into the xenophobic zeitgeist by revisiting the celebrated “West Side Story” (20th Century Studios), in which star-crossed lovers Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) try to overcome the hatred between their street gang affiliations with the Sharks and Jets in 1957 to find love and unification in New York City. It’s Spielberg’s first musical (scripted by Tony Kushner, with David Newman adapting the Leonard Bernstein score accompanied by Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics). And he tapped longtime Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kamiński to shoot on Kodak 35mm film to convey a Technicolor vibe. And while the trailer emphasizes iconic shots, we’re anticipating more Puerto Rican authenticity and a more cinematic approach to the stylization.
Listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
Bruno Delbonnel (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”)
Greig Fraser (“Dune”)
Linus Sandgren (“No Time to Die”)
Ari Wegner (“The Power of the Dog”)
Haris Zambarloukos (“Belfast”)
José Luis Alcaine (“Parallel Mothers”)
Michael Bauman and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”)
Alice Brooks (“Tick Tick Boom,” “In the Heights”)
Daria D’Antonio (“The Hand of God”)
Drew Daniels (“Red Rocket”)
Ben Davis (“Eternals”)
Robert Elswit (“King Richard”)
Eduard Grau (“Passing”)
Janusz Kamiński (“West Side Story”)
Dan Laustsen (“Nightmare Alley”)
Hélène Louvart (“The Lost Daughter”)
Claire Mathon (“Spencer”)
Seamus McGarvey (“Cyrano”)
Kramer Morgenthau (“The Many Saints of Newark”)
Andrew Droz Palermo (“The Green Knight”)
Linus Sandgren (“Don’t Look Up”)
Dariusz Wolski (“House of Gucci,” “The Last Duel”)
Robert Yeoman (“The French Dispatch”)