10. Inland Empire (2006)
Many will disagree with me, but Lynch’s use of consumer-grade digital photography perfectly highlights the fever dream aspect of Inland Empire. Lynch shot the film with the Sony DSR-PD150 (which only costs $500 today), giving Inland Empire a grainy rawness that is absolutely appropriate for the material. After shooting Inland Empire, Lynch said he’d never shoot another movie using actual film. Wonder if that’ll be the case for the upcoming season of Twin Peaks?
9. Go (1999)
For the Vegas car chase scene alone. Set to a remixed version of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride,” the thrilling chase set in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip is one of my all-time favorite car chases. Liman wisely lets the town act as its own character, routinely cutting to the glitz and glamor of the Strip as the cars whiz by. There’s a visual fluidity to this sequence that makes it feel alive.
8. Sin City (2005)
Like Sin City or not, Robert Rodriguez did visual wonders with this film. And sure, special effects deserve much of the credit, but there is plenty of basic, old school camera trickery in Sin City that is worthy of praise. For further reading, check out the Making-Of special features for this film. They prove how much of a technical master Rodriguez really is.
7. 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
Peter Hyams has shot many of his own films, but his best accomplishment as a cinematographer was the follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. And sure, Hyams obviously had a flawless template to work off of, given that 2001 is one of the most impressive looking films ever shot. But 2010 manages to technically stand on its own, while paying homage to the classic it’s representing.
6. Death Proof (2006)
Again, Tarantino’s work as the DP on Death Proof deserves praise for its astonishing car chase alone. I love a lot about the look of this film (the long diner take is a lot of fun), but that car chase is a showstopper. No visual effects, no stunt doubles – only badass babes, a psycho killer, and two very bitchin’ muscle cars. Hold tight.
5. American History X (1998)
Most notably, there’s the gorgeous juxtaposition between the rich black and white flashbacks, and the vibrant color sequences. But moreover, Kaye’s photography in American History X is a great lesson in framing and proper use of slow motion. You can just tell Kaye spent a lot of time making sure this film looked great. (Note: an honorable mention needs to be given to Kaye’s photography of his abortion documentary, Lake of Fire. There are things in that film that you can never unsee, and Kaye was there to capture every moment of it.)
4. Walkabout (1971)
The barren landscapes, the harsh sun against the bright blue sky, the bodies in silhouette amidst the setting sun – Roeg captured the Australian Outback with such isolated beauty in Walkabout. Perhaps Roger Ebert summed up Roeg’s Walkabout photography best. “His cinematography makes the desert seem a mystical place, a place for visions,” Ebert said. “So that the whole film becomes mystical, a dream, and the suicides which frame it set the boundaries of reality.”
3. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
The early boxing scene in Killer’s Kiss is visually remarkable. Kubrick chose to shoot the entire fight from low angles, with the camera placed outside of the ring, as if the audience is a cornerman watching the fight. Then, without warning, Kubrick cuts into the ring and takes the POV of the main protagonist right as he’s knocked down. The camera falls to the ground and pans up at the bright lights above the ring, just as the ref comes into frame and begins counting down. The whole thing is gorgeous. And that’s just one scene in the film. Kubrick does many interesting things with full focus framing, shadows, contrast, reflections and, of course, centered compositions. To watch Killer’s Kiss is to witness a master flex his unique talent for the very first time.
2. Upstream Color (2013)
Every aspect of Shane Carruth’s work in Upstream Color is worth celebrating, including its skillful cinematography. The graceful movement of the camera, the mirrored compositions, the use of vivid colors, the hot white exposure – it all expertly services the unique material. It’s as if the camera is indeed its own character in the film; that’s how in sync it is with the story. Upstream Color is an endless source of inspiration for me. The cinematography is so confident and beautiful, I can watch this movie on mute and still be moved.
1. Traffic (2000)
Steven Soderbergh has lensed all of his films since 2000 under the pseudonym Peter Andrews. (Note: I only wanted to include one Peter Andrews film on this list, as a way to make room for other films.) And while I adore the aesthetic of all his work, Traffic will always be my favorite. There’s the shifting color scheme, for one, but beyond that, Traffic feels like a documentary. It’s raw, handheld photography is part of why the film works so well. It makes you feel like you’re right there – on the impoverished streets of Detroit, or in a torture chamber in Mexico, or on a sun-bleached playground in San Diego – witnessing the worst of the human condition. Traffic is one of the films that made me realize, for certain, that I wanted to be a filmmaker. The cinematography is much to thank for that.
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