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12 Movies with the Best Color Cinematography of All-Time

Roger Deakins does incredible things with color in "Blade Runner 2049," but he's part of a longstanding tradition.

Days of Heaven

“Days of Heaven”

Blade Runner” (1982)

"Blade Runner" (1982)

“Blade Runner” (1982)

Screenshot

With “Blade Runner” cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth had an unique task – create something completely new, not grounded in any reality or movie convention that existed, but at the same time would feel grounded in the tangible reality of the story. The always bold and inventive DP came up with unconventional light sources that had not been used in films before – xenon, fluorescent and neon lights – to create the light of the future. The unusual source lighting – principally the Xenons – created broad directional shafts of light that were often unmotivated (meaning that they did not imitate real light sources) and were moving like search lights. Cronenweth’s lighting design served to activate a layer of the unknown that laid beyond the set. These lights lent credence to the sense that control was in the hand of unknown forces in this chaotic dystopian world.

Cronenweth’s lighting was noir in the sense that its strong, directional source light created sharp areas of darkness in the frame, but there were many more light sources than was typical of noir. The result was that it created numerous pockets of light and shadow in a single setting. The textures emerge from these pockets of light hitting thick smoke, rain and neon glow. The result was in the vast, futuristic set of “Blade Runner,” the film also had a texture and atmosphere that made the backdrops feel real.

While the gorgeous “Blade Runner 2049” might finally land cinematographer Roger Deakins his Oscar, it’s Cronenweth’s lighting that changed modern cinematography by creating something that was both remarkably new and stunning.

“Se7en” (1995)

"Se7en"

“Se7en”

Noir lighting is associated with black and white, but with “Se7en,” Darius Khondji elevated the low key lighting in incredibly inventive ways (those flashlights!) — and delivered images that captured the bleak atmosphere of what was visually and thematically David Fincher’s darkest film. In the green-tinged, desaturated world, Khondji still found warmth, that softness of light that defines his work. The unique silver retention process gave the film the most satisfying blacks in modern color cinematography, while he pulled richness from the mid-tones that gave the film its heart – a soft glow, the hope of a dim warm light to match the humanity of the characters confronting evil. In a digital era when bleakness is achieved by turning a dial or plugging in a sophisticated LUT, Khondji created despair in distinctly textural, analog and memorably beautiful fashion.

“In the Mood for Love” (2000)

“In the Mood for Love”

No filmmaker captures such an incredible sense of mood and feeling through an expressive use of color, texture and light as Wong Kar-wai, and never has the interior of his repressed characters ever been so perfectly visually realized as “In the the Mood for Love.” His collaboration with his powerhouse trio cinematographers – Wong regulars Christopher Doyle and Pung-Leung Kwan, accompanied by Mark Lee Ping-bin (best known for his great collaborations with Hou Hsiao-Hsien) – results in every minute gesture and glance being heightened with by the film’s distinctive red color palette, sensual light and smoky haze. There’s an intimacy and unspoken emotion in this film that not only can be felt, it seems like you can touch it.

“Tree of Life” (2011)

The Tree of Life

“The Tree of Life”

The best cinematography of the 21st century has been defined by the great Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in his collaborations with Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Malick. But Lubezki’s greatest work may have been the visual poem told with light that is “Tree of Life.” Whereas “The New World” found Lubezki adding an important new layer to Malick’s language, “Tree” is where the director convinces his DP to let loose and react to the moment in real time. There is always an element of spirituality to Malick’s work, along with an awareness that human existence is a spec of dusk in the vast span of the universe. It’s a theme blatantly explored in this film – including cutaways to scenes involving the creation of the universe – but it’s best expressed in the way Lubezki chases the light and creates portraits of a family in an endless struggle between the luminous soul of a mother (Jessica Chastain) and the destruction darkness of a father (Brad Pitt). The approach to imagery is not new for Malick, but the virtuoso camerawork brings his fixation on the ache of being alive to profound new heights.

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