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Films With the Best Cinematography of the 21st Century, From ‘Tree of Life’ to ‘In the Mood for Love’

IndieWire's staff digs through 17 years of cinematic images to find the best films shot by masters of the craft.

Cinematography is tough to judge on its own merits, because it can be hard to extract it from the other powers of great visual storytelling. At the same time, every beautiful movie shows the signature of a talented director of photography as much as a filmmaker. In the process of considering the finest cinematographic achievements of this decade, this list includes on gorgeous films that — in some cases — achieve more on the level of cinematography than anything else. The past two decades have found the craft of cinematography making extraordinary advances on the level of digital technologies and other innovations, but at the end of the day, these particulars matter less than the sheer impression left by the images and movements captured by cinematographers operating at the peak of their abilities. Here are some of the best examples from this young century.

25. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007)

Ever since “Schindler’s List” Janusz Kaminski has been known as Spielberg’s go-to DP, but it was on this far smaller film by painter Julian Schnabel that the great Polish cinematographer created his most emotionally resonant and powerful images. The film is small in scope, told from the point-of-view of a man in the prime of his life who, after a stroke, is left completely paralyzed except for his left eyelid. Kaminski uses a wide variety of different techniques – playing with shutter angles, frame rates and digital effects – to make the images feel as if they are the product of the protagonist’s obscured vision. But the film is more than visual gimmickry; while Schnabel is best known as a painter, on “Diving Bell,” it was Kaminski holding the brush. Each image carries with it the heightened emotional state of a character clinging to his humanity – each glimpse or memory tinged with a powerful glimpse of hope, desperation and loss. Never has cinematography been used to express subjectivity with subtle touches, transforming a nifty visual conceit into a remarkable piece of art. –Chris O’Falt

24. “There Will Be Blood” (2007)

One always gets the sense that Robert Elswit and Paul Thomas Anderson learn from each other during the process of making a film together, not just how to lens something, but where to look, what to see, what not to see. It’s been enough (for the director, at least) that they’re not reteaming on Anderson’s latest, which he reportedly shot himself, but what a fruitful marriage it was. Elswit has long proven himself able to do anything, from blockbusters of the “Mission: Impossible” stripe to gonzo period comedies like “Inherent Vice,” but his sharpness always marks his work. And the darkness, too, rising most masterfully (and monstrously) in Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece, “There Will Be Blood.” An intimate character drama writ on large, epic-scale, Elswit’s camera is just as comfortable capturing a glistening, enraged Daniel Day-Lewis as it is a sweeping vista of American West promise. The darkness glows, and it consumes. –Kate Erbland

23. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)

When we talk about the magic of “Eternal Sunshine,” it is often about the chocolate-and-peanut butter-like combination of writer Charlie Kaufman’s inventive narrative insanity and director Michel Gondry’s ephemeral visual poetry. However, it’s Ellen Kuras’ cinematography that serves as the glue holding the two together. On a very practical level, Kuras’ lighting serves as vital exposition – clearly delineating the different dimensions and supplying inventive transitions – which allows the complex science fiction device to melt into the background and the metaphysical poetry to rise to the top. In a film about the erasing of memories, the lighting itself has a fragility in its washed-out beauty that creates a visual texture. The result not only mirrors the film’s themes; it becomes the primary storytelling device. Kuras creates a film that’s both intimate and otherworldly at once. –CO

22. “Silence” (2016)

Mexican DP Rodrigo Prieto first joined forces with Martin Scorsese on “Wolf of Wall Street,” but their collaboration reached new heights on “Silence.” When you watch the powerful religious/period drama, the distinct palette and stark imagery is striking, even for a Scorsese film, but not altogether surprising considering the careful planning that goes into each his films. But Prieto created the film’s sculpted look under impossible conditions. Juggling rough locations under constantly changing and harsh weather conditions, Prieto somehow controls the elements by making fog, nature, the sea and the sunlight into the tools of his outdoor studio. –CO

21. “The Handmaiden” (2016)

Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and Park Chan-wook have collaborated since 2003 (“Old Boy”) to create some of the most unique cinematic works of the century, but it’s with “The Handmaiden” that Chung’s work is allowed to really shine. His camera always moves with a divine sense of purpose — Park knows how to wring any space for every ounce of its potential drama — but Chung’s lighting has never been more measured or exact. The night scenes are coated in a luminous gray haze that haunts the estate with the ghosts of Lady Hideko’s discarded relatives, and the sex scenes are soaked in a supple warmth that actively resists the blankness of pornography; there’s an honesty to these images that lets Park shoot a 69 while still keeping it 100. –DE

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