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The Best Cinematography of the 21st Century

From "Tree of Life" to "In the Mood for Love," IndieWire ranks the 40 films with the Best Cinematography of last 20 years.

32. “Black Swan” (2010)

Darren Aronofsky and Matthew Libatique were the enthusiastic film school collaborators who gravitated toward bold uses of form, ready to try every cinematic trick in the book to build the formally exciting worlds of “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and “The Fountain.” But it was with “Black Swan,” and after a collaboration spent apart – Aronofsky would shoot “The Wrestler” with Maryse Alberti, while Libatique tried his had a big budget studio filmmaking – that the men would reunite to create something that retained their exciting, gut-punch approach to the filmmaking process, but was far more classical and refined.

Right from the opening shot, Libatique’s lighting and camera captures the film’s visual duality. As Natalie Portman dances under spotlight, an evolving chiaroscuro lighting and camerawork starts to reveals the horror that lies beneath her elegant movements. For the stage and rehearsal ballet scenes, Libatique leaned into the tools and lighting schemes of the stage to combine a stark, almost black-and-white documentary look with the sweeping fantasy and horror of the film’s alternate states.

But it’s in his handheld work with Portman that Libatique created a unique subjectivity that grounds the film. In the small apartment locations, the wide-lensed camera is perfectly in sync with Portman’s fragile emotional state, moving in a way that creates a palpable psychological space. The slightly underexposed 16mm footage adds a a grainy texture to the sense we’re peering into a gray, uneasy void where the psychological uncertainty of the movie lies. —CO
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31. “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011)

A group of men search for a buried body, as they’re led through small towns and the Turkish landscape by a suspect who was apparently too drunk to recall the murder. This theme of an elusive search for truth is hauntingly brought to life in every frame of director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki’s metaphysical noir. The imagery of Ceylan’s slow cinema approach evokes the stark void of Antonioni, the hypnotic atmosphere of Tarkovsky, and the melancholic widescreen landscape of Sergio Leone (whose “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in America” are referenced by the film’s title). As the men share deeply personal details, and secrets become revealed, the realism of the story is engulfed by landscape and compositions that add a sense of darkness and despair to the proceedings. Remarkably, Tiryaki created such strong, all-encompassing (often wide shot) imagery using 1080 HDCAM camera (Sony F35 CineAlta 1080) and extremely rudimentary lighting; each composition is given the care and exactness of a well-balanced painting. —CO
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30. “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
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29. “Ida” (2014)

While black and white photography is a pure reflection of light, the reality is that too many recent black-and-white films make little effort to actually sculpt that light. The black and white just masks bland, flat imagery. “Ida” is the exact opposite, as co-cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal paint their story of a young nun in light. As the young protagonist is confronted with the knowledge her parents were Jewish and her eyes opened to a new world around her, the lighting design perfectly captures the feelings she won’t speak. The cinematography manages to be both gorgeous and natural, never overwhelming this small, intimate film. —CO
Stream on Amazon via Fandor or MUBI; rent or buy on Amazon.

28. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road,” dreamed up on an airplane and realized by a 70-year-old director 35 years after his feature debut with the original “Mad Max,” does not follow any formula that any studio executive would recognize. To shoot his vision of a non-stop action movie, “a silent movie with sound,” George Miller pulled great Australian cinematographer John Seale out of retirement for this Oscar-nominated achievement. They followed some western tropes, substituting wheels for horses and pitting adversaries against each other in an endless desert, but zagged away from imitative post-apocalyptic cliches by saturating the color palette of the ground and sky, avoiding the junkyard look of other dystopian landscapes. They looked for beauty with their multiple digital cameras shooting over 120 days.

Two stunning sequences involve digital enhancement. One is the massive dust storm that envelops the swarm of warring vehicles, which get lost in a swirling dreamy CGI haze. The other is out on the wide desert (shot in Namibia) on an eery blue night with shining stars. Like 40s and 50s westerns, they shot it day for night, with light glistening on hair, skin and eyes. —AT
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27. “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. —CO
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26. “City of God” (2002)

"City of God"

“City of God”

César Charlone has been the cinematic eye for Fernando Meirelles on four projects, including the director’s portion of the anthology film “Rio, I Love You,” but their first collaboration is still their best and most vital work. “City of God” sets the bar high for handheld cinematography. The energy Charlone gives each tracking shot or hectic pan is so charged and kinetic that the movie’s cinematographer creates much of Meirelles’ boiling tension. What’s so incredible about the look of “City of God” is how none of the handheld shots distract from the vivid colors of the setting. The heat of the film’s Rio de Janeiro backdrop simmers in Charlone’s sweltering reds and oranges, and he fills the towns and suburbs with such rich palettes that the film is able to create a whole world of living, breathing culture on the fly. Handheld cinematography can be divisive, but “City of God” proves just how dynamic breaking the camera free can be. –ZS
Stream on Hulu via HBO Max; stream on Amazon via HBO; rent or buy on Amazon.

25. “The New World” (2005)

When Terry met Chivo all was right in the world. Over the past decade and change, Emmanuel Lubezki and Terrence Malick’s collaboration has been defined by how each has pushed the other’s talent to new heights. With their first collaboration, the DP had a profound influence on his director. Lubezki’s nimble camera movement gives Malick’s images a distinctly ephemeral feel, while at the same time syncing up with the characters to capture strong emotional beats. In a film about man’s relationship to nature – westerners struggling to bend it to their will versus Native Americans’ ability to live in harmony with the Earth – Lubezki transforms the exteriors into expressive sets in which the new world can be both lush and foreboding. —CO
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