There’s nothing I don’t love or admire or respect or appreciate about the filmmaking process. I’m fascinated by it all. If I was to crudely rank each part of the process strictly based on personal inspiration, then cinematography would rank extremely high for me.
I’m a complete and utter film addict, there’s no question. And for me to try and articulate how completely taken I can be by a camera angle or tracking shot, or how inexplicably moved I can become based on lighting and shadows, would be to fail my loyal readers. I simply can’t explain the full impact that cinematography has over me.
Superb cinematography makes great films masterful, and bad films bearable. Here is a list of my favorite directors of photography – men who have moved me to tears, based simply on what they can do with a lens.
If you’ve enjoyed the look of most any Coen brothers film since 1991, Roger Deakins is largely to thank. The richness of the monochrome in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the rising vanilla sky behind Josh Brolin running for his life in No Country for Old Men, the sepia-infused warms of O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Deakins is an utter master of color and mood.
Take, for instance, the shot of Andy Dufresne walking into Shawshank State Penitentiary for the first time. He looks up as the camera tracks his point of view, catching the dark, imposing tower entrance of the prison. There’s nothing good behind those doors, and Deakins’ eye makes us acutely aware of that.
|The Man Who Wasn't There|
Barton Fink (1991)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Hurricane (1999)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2001)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Revolutionary Road (2008)
A Serious Man (2009)
Really, who doesn’t love a good Paul Thomas Anderson tracking shot? Following Luis Guzmán through his club in the opening of Boogie Nights, tracking Michael Bowen as he walks through the hallways of a news studio in Magnolia, running with Ciarán Hinds as he rescues little H.W. in There Will Be Blood – the man has a steady hand that can work cinematic wonders.
In addition to his tracking shots, Elswit can be gritty (Syriana), smooth (Good Night, and Good Luck, Michael Clayton) and ballsy (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) with equal amounts of ingenuity.
|There Will Be Blood|
Boogie Nights (1997)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
Michael Clayton (2007)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Town (2010)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Conrad L. Hall
Hall was a huge presence in the emergence of America’s cinematic freedom in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, capturing the inhumane heat endured by the prisoners in Cool Hand Luke, winning an Oscar for shooting Newman and Redford jumping off a cliff in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, having rain reflect off glass to make it look like Robert Blake is crying in In Cold Blood, and so on.
And although he largely vanished in the ‘80s, Hall proved that he had no intention of going out quietly, lensing the one-two punch of American Beauty and Road to Perdition. Both films are shot to perfection, the former a lesson in minimalist resourcefulness, the latter a perfect example of period shooting. He justly won Oscars for both, the second posthumously. That’s one hell of a swan song.
|Road to Perdition|
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In Cold Blood (1967)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Day of the Locust (1975)
Marathon Man (1976)
A Civil Action (1998)
American Beauty (1999)
Road to Perdition (2002)
By now, the name Steven Spielberg is so synonymous with Janusz Kaminski that it’s impossible to imagine what a current Spielberg film would look like if shot through other eyes.
Kaminski is the modern master of light. He uses lights, smoke, and shadows to propel the story, occasionally drowning a scene completely out in bright, white light. It shouldn’t work, but when you watch certain sequences from Minority Report, Munich, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and so on, it’s impossible to envision the scenes shot any other way. While Schindler’s List represents arguably the most well known black and white style of contemporary cinema, and Saving Private Ryan redefined the use of Steadicam, Kaminski deserves to be remembered for his entire body of impressive work. Which, I suspect, he will be.
|Saving Private Ryan|
Schindler’s List (1993)
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Minority Report (2002)
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
My favorite living cinematographer has got to be Emmanuel Lubezki. And am justifying that label based on four films he’s shot: Ali, Children and Men, The New World and The Tree of Life.
In Ali, Lubezki switched from 35MM to digital seamlessly, going as far as to invent a tiny digital camera for the close-ups during the fight scenes. The result is the best-looking boxing film since Raging Bull. The cinematography in Children of Men speaks for itself, boasting a handful of the best extended takes ever put on film (which admittedly are achieved through sneaky digital editing). But it is his collaborations with Terrence Malick that make Lubezki so invaluable. In The New World, the fluid camera feels almost like its own character, in The Tree of Life, the camera is its own character.
To be concise, The Tree of Life is one of the very best films ever shot. Period. The fact that Lubezki didn’t win an Oscar for his work on that film is inexcusable.
|The Tree of Life|
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
The New World (2005)
Children of Men (2006)
The Tree of Life (2011)
Without hesitation, Sven Nykvist is my favorite cinematographer of all time. His frequent collaborations with Ingmar Bergman mark one of the most fruitful cinematic working relationships in the history of the medium. Thank God these two were inseparable, because we have a lifetime to reap the benefits.
For Winter Light, Nykvist and Bergman sat in a church for days, keeping detailed track of how the sun lit the church during every minute of every day. He lit an entire scene in The Passion of Anna using just one candle, he made shadows sensual with Persona, and captured the color red in a way that’s impossible to shake in Cries and Whispers. I could go on (and on, and on) about the correlation of my love for film and Nykvist’s work, but I don’t want to take away from the other masters on this list.
Let me just say, I believe Sven Nykvist to be the very best at what he did. All things considered, he’s the most skilled man to ever step behind a camera.
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Winter Light (1963)
The Silence (1963)
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
The Passion of Anna (1969)
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Face to Face (1976)
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Another Woman (1988)
There are really two facets to Rodrigo Prieto’s work: the gritty, unshakable side (notably in the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu) and the lush, crisp side (evident in Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution and Broken Embraces).
No matter what kind of style he’s imploring, Prieto has a way of making the viewer feel like they’re in the setting of the film. Can’t you just smell that shitty prison Benicio Del Toro is stuck in in 21 Grams? Or the sweatiness of the club in Babel? Or the dampness of the dew-covered mountains in Brokeback?
I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but the fact that this man hasn’t won an Oscar is deplorable.
Amores Perros (2001)
8 Mile (2002)
25th Hour (2002)
21 Grams (2003)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Lust, Caution (2007)
Broken Embraces (2008)
Robert Richardson has got one hell of an impressive Rolodex, collaborating frequently with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. And if you look at the films he’s shot for those directors, you’ll see that there’s nothing really random going on here.
JFK, Natural Born Killers, Casino, Kill Bill, and others, all use a wide variety of colors, film stock, lenses, and so on, to tell their story. Hell, any guy who can pull off what Richardson did with Natural Born Killers deserves to be on this list. (Let’s also give credit to the fact that Richardson pulled off one of the very rare examples of non-flashy, gorgeous 3D with last year’s Hugo. Did it deserve to win the Oscar over The Tree of Life? No, don’t be silly… but it was still pretty to look at.)
|Kill Bill: Vol. 1|
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)
The Aviator (2004)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The most unconventional choice on my list is director Steven Soderbergh, whose been shooting most (but not all) of his films under the pseudonym Peter Andrews since Traffic.
One of the reasons I love Soderbergh so much, and why I will see anything he directs, no matter what it’s about, is because his command over the cinematic medium is so clearly evident, especially when he’s holding the camera. And believe you me, I love it all. I love the varied hues of Traffic, the stillness of Ocean’s Eleven, the dizziness of Ocean’s Twelve, the nostalgia of The Good German, the coldness of The Girlfriend Experience – everything. Let me put it this way: based on Traffic alone, I feel confident in listing Soderbergh here.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
K Street (2003)
Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
The Good German (2006)
The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
The Informant! (2009)
You cannot draft a list of the best cinematographers of all time without having Gregg Toland’s name on it. Why? Because Citizen Kane is the best-shot film of all time. This point can be argued, certainly, but at the end of the day, I’m unable to say that any film matches the aesthetic bravado of Orson Welles’ masterpiece. Essays have been written about Toland’s work on the film, documentaries have been dedicated to it, and films have been ripping from it for decades
I’ve always been marveled by Toland’s work on Citizen Kane, but I didn’t become enamored with it until I listened to Roger Ebert’s commentary on the Citizen Kane DVD. If you are a film fan of any regard, this is a commentary that should in no way go unheard.
In 1941, Citizen Kane changed the game. In 2012, it’s more impactful than ever. Toland is much to thank for this.
Wuthering Heights (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Gordon Willis, the master of the dark. When studio heads saw the first rushes of The Godfather, they took immediate action to have Francis Ford Coppola replaced as the film’s director, largely because they thought the film was too dark. Not tonally, literally dark. They were furious that half of Marlon Brando’s face was in silhouette, or that characters would go unseen for entire sequences of the film. Coppola stuck to his guns, and the result was some of the most revelatory work of cinematography ever put on film. After that, Willis became a household name. No wonder.
Frequent collaborator Woody Allen has said that Willis’ mantra was that it didn’t matter if you couldn’t see a face, it didn’t matter if half the room was pitch black, or if an actor was off camera. What mattered was the mood, the look and feel. Watch Allen’s Manhattan for evidence. It’s one of the finest-looking black and white films ever.
The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
All the President’s Men (1976)
Stardust Memories (1980)
A Few More I Love:
|The Third Man|
John Alcott (A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining)
Michael Ballhaus (The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Sleepers, The Departed)
Robert Burks (To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds)
Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull)
Robert Krasker (Brief Encounter, The Third Man)
Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, Tigerland, She Hate Me, Inside Man, The Fountain, Black Swan)
Asakazu Nakai (Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, High and Low, Ran)
Wally Pfister (Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception)
Harris Savides (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Zodiac, Margot at the Wedding, Somewhere)
Harris Savides (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Zodiac, Margot at the Wedding, Somewhere)
Dante Spinotti (Heat, The Insider, Public Enemies)
Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, Dick Tracey)
Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter)