Friday, April 18, 2014

Top 10 Movies Directed by Cinematographers

The road of cinematographers becoming film directors is a bumpy one. For every director of photography (DP) who directs a great film, there are three who deliver subpar films and instinctually revert back to cinematography. In the wake of Oscar-winning DP, Wally Pfister, releasing his first directed film, Transcendence, I thought it’d be fun to list a few of the DPs who’ve successfully crossed over to the director’s chair.

Note: Directors who shoot their own films were not considered.

10. Ernest R. Dickerson – Surviving the Game (1994)

Dickerson’s notable works as a DP: She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X

I love any opportunity to talk about Surviving the Game. The film is about a handful of wealthy men (who are all played by amazing character actors) who lure a bum (Ice-T) to their weekend cabin and spend the next few days hunting him. The film is an absurd action romp fully aware of what it is. And sure, while Dickerson as a director is better known for his film debut, Juice, and his subsequent work on shows like The Wire, The Walking Dead and Dexter, his finest effort as a film director will, for me, always be Surviving the Game.

9. Nicolas Roeg – Witches (1990)

Roeg’s notable works as a DP: Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Casino Royale (all as second unit)

I loved Witches when I was a kid. Loved, loved, loved it. When I see a frame from this film, I’m five years old again, sitting anxiously in front of the TV, watching as a boy (who has been turned into a mouse, naturally) tries to outrun the grasp of a bunch of evil witches. Witches is as creepy and fun as kid-themed fantasy films get. I mean, my God, just look at that makeup (namely, that chin). Priceless.

8. Ronald Neame – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Neame’s notable works as a DP: In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, One of Our Aircraft is Missing

Neame had a remarkable tenure with the film business. Initially breaking in as a cinematographer, Neame evolved to an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and finally a talented director. And while Tunes of Glory may be more acclaimed, and The Poseidon Adventure certainly more popular, my favorite Neame film is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The film is about a young, determined teacher (Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for her performance) who uses untraditional methods to get through to her students. It’s a film we’ve all seen dozens of times over, but the fact that Jean Brodie was one of the first, and thereby most influential, certainly speaks to its appeal.

7. Rodrigo García – Nine Lives (2005)

Notable works as a DP: Four Rooms, Gia, Body Shots

Apparently, giving up cinematography was the best decision Rodrigo García ever made. In 1999, he ceased worked as a DP and has since developed a prolific and routinely excellent career(s) as a film director, and developer, creator and executive producer of more than a dozen TV shows. My favorite García show is the American version of HBO’s In Treatment, which remains one of the best, most criminally ignored series I’ve ever seen. But his best feature film has to be the wonderful anthology, Nine Lives. The movie is essentially nine short films (each shot in one long take), that showcases a woman in disarray. I broke down each segment here, but in short, Nine Lives is a fascinating display of technical proficiency and emotional collapse.

6. Jan de Bont – Speed (1994)

De Bont’s notable works as a DP: Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Basic Instinct

I hadn’t seen Speed in years, but last month, just for the hell of it, I decided to give it a fresh spin. And although it is completely over the top and laughably geographically inaccurate, it is inarguably one of the best action films ever made. While De Bont’s subsequent work as a director fell flat, nothing will take away from the impact of Speed. I honestly love everything about it.

5. Nicolas Roeg – Performance (1970)

Roeg’s first film as a director (which he co-directed with Donald Cammell) is the raw and classic exploitation film, Performance. After a risky hit goes down, gangster Chas (James Fox) changes his identity and moves in as a house guest to a former rocker named Turner (Mick Jagger, acting for the first time). Chas and Turner’s relationship is… interesting, to say the least. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll dominate their time together, making for one of the most significant British films of the ‘70s.

4. Jack Cardiff – Sons and Lovers (1960)

Cardiff’s notable works as a DP: Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The African Queen, Fanny

Sons and Lovers is one of those films that I’m stunned was even able to get made. The film is a rather bold retelling of the Oedipus story, in which an insanely manipulative mother controls every aspect of her son’s life. Wendy Hiller as the mother is a sheer force of nature, prohibiting her son, Paul (Trevor Howard) from having any kind of sexual relationship. When Paul finally elects to fight back, irreversible havoc is wrecked. The film is a little dangerous today, so for 1960, I can’t imagine the stir it caused.

3. Barry Sonnenfeld – Get Shorty (1995)

Sonnenfeld’s notable works as a DP: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Misery

Get Shorty is one of the great films about contemporary show business. It’s so confident and aware of what it’s doing; from its lacerating dry humor, to its sudden, hilarious violence. When Sonnenfeld was casting the film, he had a hell of a time finding his lead, Chili Palmer. It was Danny DeVito who recommended John Travolta, as DeVito was producing both Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. The result is one of the greatest one-two punches in Hollywood comeback history. Travolta carries Get Shorty, but damn if he doesn’t have ace material to work with.  

2. Sven Nykvist – The Ox (1991)

Nykvist’s notable works as a DP: Winter Light, Persona, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander

Sven Nykvist is my favorite cinematographer of all time. His flawless and fruitful collaboration with Ingmar Bergman produced some of the best (and best looking) films ever made. Sadly, Nykvist’s work as a director wasn’t nearly as revered. But he did reach directorial greatness with his final film, a devastating character study about the consequences of desperation. The Ox is about a man who kills an ox that doesn’t belong to him, all in an effort to save his family from starvation. Co-starring Bergman regulars Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, The Ox is essential viewing for fans and students of the Bergman school of filmmaking.

1. Nicolas Roeg – Don’t Look Now (1973)

Honestly, this post could’ve been solely dedicated to Nicolas Roeg. In addition to his films listed above, Walkabout, Insignificance, and The Man Who Fell to Earth all deserve mention here. But in an effort to share the wealth (and, yes, bask in the greatest that is Surviving the Game), I chose to limit myself to just three Roeg films. And I saved the best for last: the splendid psychological thriller, Don’t Look Now, which remains one of the best films about the emotional anguish that consumes a couple after they lose a child. You’ve likely heard of the film’s infamous sex scene, which cross cuts Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie making love with them getting ready for dinner. But there is far more to discover here. Don’t Look Now is a seminal art house film that continues to inspire talented filmmakers. It’s a staple of ‘70s cinema, and a fine example of the greatness that can occur when someone decides to step out from behind the lens, and control all aspects of a film production.


  1. Great list! I've only seen 5 of these films, but I'll try to catch up on them! Funny you should mention Wally Pfister, since from what I've seen from some reviews, it is isn't all that good. I try not to let them influence me though, I guess I'll wait until the movie is released here.

    Also, have you seen the trailer for Foxcatcher yet? I think it looks great, especially Carell. Let me know what you think of it!

    1. Thanks Aditya! I'm getting word that Transcendence isn't very good either, which is such a bummer. Bit I too will hold judgement until I see it. Who knows, maybe we'll enjoy it.

      I actually won't be watching the trailer for Foxcatcher. I try to avoid trailers if at all possible, and I REALLY want to see that film, so hopefully I can steer clear of the trailer!

    2. Ah ok, I respect that :) I tried doing that once, but I really couldn't help myself.

      I think the trailer for the new Clint Eastwood film, Jersey Boys, came out as well. I am kind of cautious about it (Eastwood + musical = ???) but I remain hopeful!

    3. Now that one I DID watch, and it kills me to agree with you here. I am such a Clint Eastwood fan, but I can't help be cautious for this one as well. I really hope it works out.

  2. I didn't know Rodrigo Garcia had been a cinematographer. I like his directorial work, though, and particularly "Mother and Child".

    As an aside, it was his father - the great novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez - who died yesterday. Many don't make that association.

    1. I really like Mother and Child as well. So sad about Marquez's passing. What a truly immense talent that man was.

  3. For me, it would Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout and The Man Who Fell to Earth plus, Zhang Yimou's Not One Less, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers since Yimou was a cinematographer for Chen Kaige early in his career..

    The films in that list I've seen are Speed, Witches, Get Shorty, and the very underrated Surviving the Game.

    1. I guess great minds think alike. I hadn't read your comment at the time I made mine.

    2. I did think about including Zhang Yimou's Hero because, yes, of course it is a better film than, say, Surviving the Game and even Witches. But when it was all said and done, I loved having Surviving the Game on the same list as The Ox and Sons and Lovers. Still, Zhang Yimou is a damn talented filmmaker.

  4. I'm afraid I haven't seen 5 of these 10 films, and of the 5 I have seen I was less than enthused by 2 of them. That leaves The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Get Shorty, and the film I said to myself when I saw this post title - "If Jan de Bont and Speed aren't on this list then I'm going to raise a stink."

    Zhang Yimou was a cinematographer at first, but none of his films in that role have really made much impact in the U.S. so he's pretty much known as only a director here (i.e. Raise the Red Lantern, The Road Home, Hero, House of Flying Daggers).

    1. You gotta love Speed. Movie is such a damn rush. It's funny though, having lived in LA for a while now, it's hilarious how insanely false the geography of that movie is. The biggest one probably being when the bus blows up at the airport. In the background is a huge, gorgeous mountain. It's a great shot, but anyone who's been to LAX knows there isn't a mountain of that size for dozens and dozens of miles away. Just funny to me.

  5. I'd completely forgotten about about Surviving the Game until this post, but I really dug that film as a 7-year-old kid. It's probably due for a revisit. I agree with a lot of your list, particularly the Jan de Bont and Sonnenfeld picks. Too bad both their careers have gone to pot. Rodrigo Garcia, meanwhile, is criminally underrated. The last film of his I saw, Mother and Child, was very good. I skipped Albert Nobbs, however, because it reeked of stuffy period biopic.

    Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool would probably top my personal list, although the rest of his directing career didn't live up to that watershed moment. Going back to the old studio system, Rudolph Mate (D.O.A., When Worlds Collide) also got his start as a cinematographer.

    I'm surprised there aren't more cinematographers who've tried their hand at directing. I'd love to see what some distinctive DP's like Deakins, Lubezki and Robert Richardson would do when given the reins of their own productions.

    1. You know what's funny about Barry Sonnenfeld? He literally, no bullshit, thinks he's one of the greatest directors of the medium. Ever. I recently listened to him on the Kevin Pollak podcast and wow... the man is so unapologetically elitist, it's insane. At some point, he actually says that "Men in Black 3 is the best looking 3D film ever shot."

      Anyway, I agree that his career has fallen off drastically.

      I wish more DPs tried directing as well, but I think they don't because so many of their colleagues have tried and delivered rather bad films. Gordon Willis, Nykvist (pre-The Ox, and now Wally Pfister...) all great DPs who proved that directing a movie is goddamn difficult. Still, I too would love to see what those guys you mentioned could cook up.

    2. Sonnenfeld actually said that. I saw that film. It just looks.... eh.... Sonnenfeld is a moron. He should've just stayed at his original profession.

    3. I swear to God he said that. I was stunned. At first I thought he was joking but, nope. Insane.

  6. I've only watched The Witches and Speed from this (yaay 90s!?) but I do LOVE the latter! I still think it's one of the best action movies I have ever seen. I was too big a Roald Dahl snob to like the adaptation of The Witches :P

    1. Oh is The Witches an unfaithful adaptation? I've never read the book, but man, I loved that damn movie as a kid. And yay - go Speed!

  7. I've only seen...ONE OF THESE!!!

    OMG, I have a lot of films to see! The Ox really intrigues me. You always have the best ideas for lists. Great and interesting top ten!

    1. Thanks buddy! The Ox is a very good, very slow little film. If you're a fan of Bergman, you'll probably enjoy it. But it's certainly not for everyone, you know?

      Glad you dig the list!

  8. I've only seen two Roeg films so far (Don't Look Now and Bad Timing) but have actually been underwhelmed by them. I feel like I had such high expectations for the former that I was let down by what it actually was while the latter film I just felt was too long. Maybe I should give them another go?
    Also I will really have to track down The Ox after reading this. I've only seen the poster for it before but your description really makes me want to see it.

    1. You know, what initially drew me to Don't Look Now was Steven Soderbergh saying that it was the primary influence over his career as a filmmaker. So when I finally sat down and watched it, I was expecting inarguable greatness, which I ultimately did not see. Years later, I revisited it and appreciated it much more. Funny how that happens.

      The Ox is rather difficult to track down (I saw it in a Swedish film course in college), but definitely worth the hunt.

  9. Brilliant idea for a list. I forgot some of these directors were ever cinematographers. Love the Don't Look Now, Speed, Nine Lives and Miss Brodie mentions.

    Nykvist is my favorite cinematographer too. Why have I never heard of The Ox before?! I MUST see it.