10. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
The embedded clip below is a great example of how even the most impressive cinematography can’t save a weak story. Simply put, The Bonfire of the Vanities isn’t a good film, but Zsigmond’s involvement in it is outstanding.
The Crossing Guard is one of Zsigmond’s more intimate efforts. The film studies Jack Nicholson’s tormented face, finding vulnerability in his despair. This is often achieved via extreme close-up shots or distorted angles, but also in isolated master shots. The look of this film so expertly services the grim story contained in it.
The camera in The Long Goodbye is just as comfortable following the mumbling Philip Marlowe from afar as it is holding tight on him in close-up. It’s just as vivid exploring the sun-drenched beaches of L.A. as it is capturing a dank dive bar. I absolutely love the look of this film; one of the finest efforts from Zsigmond and Robert Altman’s fruitful collaboration.
Another flawed film by Brian De Palma, shot to utter perfection by Vilmos Zsigmond. The sepia palette and noir-like shadows immediately immerse us in the film’s 1940’s L.A. setting. While the bold angles and swift camera movements make the movie continuously fun to look at. At least The Black Dahlia has something going for it.
Sure, Heaven’s Gate has its flaws (I’ve warmed up to it a bit over the years), but there’s no faulting Zsigmond’s cinematography. Look how those two screencaps balance one other. One is a cramped interior, and the other is a vast exterior, yet they both feel equally large.
5. Blow Out (1981)
Here’s a fun compilation video of Zsigmond’s own work that explains why it must be listed here.
You can feel McCabe & Mrs. Miller. You can feel the snow-covered Old West, feel the dingy brothels, feel the nasty bourbon bars. The fog is thick of the air is heavy, all due to Zsigmond’s stunning work. My praise for the look of this film is limitless. It makes McCabe & Mrs. Miller exist in a way few films do.
Zsigmond won his only Oscar for lensing Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film is incredible to look at – constantly drowned out in fog, white hot light, fluorescent blues and bright oranges. And the climax is given that rare epic treatment that suits Zsigmond’s style perfectly.
In order to give Deliverance a prominent sense of dread, Zsigmond desaturated all the colors along the river, conveying a muted and eerie composition. This is such a ballsy move, but one that services the film so well. Many DPs use vivid color temperatures when they shoot (just compare those Close Encounters stills to these), but by muting the river, Zsigmond made the setting of Deliverance look less beautiful than it actually was. Of course that’s just one aspect of Deliverance’s cinematography worth mentioning. For further reading, here’s my visual breakdown of what helps make the film’s notorious rape scene so haunting.
Everything about the look of The Deer Hunter is perfect. The film rotates three dramatically different settings with equal weight. From the damp streets of a western Pennsylvania steel town to the vast and gorgeous landscapes where the men hunt deer to the sweaty and terrifying torture rooms of Vietnam. This is a rare film that is beautiful to look at, but terrifying to watch. The Deer Hunter has been one of my Top 5 Films of all time for years, thanks much in part to Vilmos Zsigmond’s contribution to it.
The Hired Hand (1971)
The Sugarland Express (1974)
The Rose (1979)
The River (1984)
Real Genius (1985)
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The Two Jakes (1990)
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
The Mists of Avalon (2001)
Life as a House (2001)
Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
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