I mean what else can one say? It’s called the moving image for a reason. Cinema does not exist with the exposed light of a shot burning itself onto the physical film in itself and it is always worth it to recognize the personal responsible of that essential piece of the medium. For they’re also resemble for the visual language and the frequent beauty of those examples in the medium.
And of course, I’m sure most people would not be all that surprised by my selections based on knowing how my tastes are: monochromatic, sharp lines, tangible textures, neon heat, and solid blocks of color. And honestly because I’m boring and certain cinematographers are pretty fucking popular, it is safe to let you know that the usual suspects are going to pop in for an appearance. Still I hope you do find some surpise in my declaration of…
The Best Shot Movies of the 2010s
Disqualified on Account of Having No Credited Cinematographer but Absolutely Amongst the Best: Phantom Thread
Disqualified on Account of Being Animated Movies but Absolutely Worthy of Consideration: Rango, The Garden of Words, Your Name., Incredibles 2, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Weathering with You
35. Roger Deakins – Skyfall (2012)
And lookie here, we have one of those usual suspects showing up right from the start. I would have never expected somebody like Deakins to be attached to a freaking James Bond movie, but the result is as expected: the best looking James Bond, one of the most gorgeous popcorn movies ever. And to be fair, it’s not any deeper that digital eye candy but for a franchise that is dedicated to providing lavish visual porn of exotic locations, it carries Skyfall among its most lavish. And even when it’s not trying to show off the globe-trotting, that silhouetted fight in Shanghai’s night skies against neon lights separated by glass is just *chef’s kiss*.
34. Elisha Christian – Columbus (2017)
Admittedly I didn’t fall as in love with this movie as most of the film circles, but I did find myself falling in love with the way Christian captures the geometry of Columbus as a location into something visually transformative. He does happen to have his work leavened by the fact that he’s shooting in one of the most architecturally interesting places in the country, but frankly capturing beautiful subjects still yields that beauty and in all honesty I may not have considered Columbus such a place if I hadn’t encountered this film. I do expect that when I visit the city, it won’t live up to edifice feelings.
33. Mihai Mălaimaire Jr. – The Master (2012)
It is more than a little bit frustrating that I arbitrarily disqualified Phantom Thread but this film does just as well to visually belong to an entirely different time than the one in which it is produced. Talking full charge of the 65mm film stock to provide the sort of empty landscape-as-psychology that fit into the uncertainty of its protagonist and retain a softness of a cod-Rockwellian time without needing to drown it in nostalgic colors, Mălaimaire’s work here is an excellent continuation of a more interesting visual direction for Paul Thomas Anderson’s period pieces. And watching this in 70mm (in a double feature with Phantom Thread) was an incredible experience of intense clarity, the only instance in which I was interested in rewatching.
32. Emmanuel Lubezki – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
“It’s just a gimmick”, you will say about that extended long-take cinematography. But it’s a gimmick that the best living cinematographer of the 21st Century is particularly well suited complete to its most effective and it’s honestly the most psychologically compelling part of the movie, eschewing the concept of plausible space to let incidents blur. Plus I’m really impressed by how they find the space to still play with color and lighting without hiding how artificial and staged it all is.
31. Łukasz Źal & Rysznard Lenczewski – Ida (2013)
It’s a chilly movie about the confines a woman is finding herself to be subjected to for her imminent life. So what if it picks the most obvious ways to visually portray that? The 1.37:1 35mm boxiness does just as well to trap our characters, but Źal and Lenczewski are also able to frame things within that aspect ratio with a firm impression that matches the sobriety of the black and white photography. A sobriety that lends itself to the chilliness of the tale without stealing the film from the rest of the collaborators.
30. Jasper Wolf – Monos (2019)
Sure, it’s ostensibly cloudy and stormy landscope shots in the mountains and overly close textures in the rainforest and musty underwater shots from a river and the gorgeousness with which it brings witness to these things is enough to make it an all-timer for me, but it’s also the way those shots feel dense in physical attributes, no matter what scale the shot is. And all of these to subjectively jump within the eyes of these child soldiers with a real presence.
29. David Gallego – Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Ostensibly you’d expect some visual distinguishing between time periods for cinematography this precise but what I’m impressed is how Gallego and Ciro Guerra opted to just give enough work to sharp black-and-white to make it rich and reflective, but let one look fit onto the film entirely. Which is just as well to help with hazy dreaminess of it all, making the two time periods blend into each other in a very disorienting way.
28. Rui Poças – Tabu (2012)
One of my favorite things for black-and-white photography to do – as you’ll probably see more examples in this list – is to focus its apparent visual monotony to surprise us with sudden turns of texture and Poças clearly took the variety of Tabu as a cinematic concept for license to use lighting and medium and prevent any consistency in the most impressively loopy way. It’s basically the opposite of what Gallego did with Embrace of the Serpent and I suppose it’s the extreme dynamic of it all that attracts me.
27. Fabrice Aragno – Goodbye to Language (2014)
Speaking of dynamic… why don’t we add 3D to the mix of visual media dissection? Honestly, you do not get to do the things that Aragno and Godard put together in Goodbye to Language without a sense of playful innovation. And fortunately because they found the most overt ways possible to join us in on the fun, taking every possible opportunity to crack 3D and digital video like a goddamned egg.
26. Łukasz Źal – Cold War (2018)
Źal’s return to work with Paweł Pawlikoski turns out to have been even better than Ida, despite exploring the exact same monochromatic black-and-white and aspect ratio that was used then. This time what’s really impressing upon me is how the frame is used in a way that calls attention to how open wide the rest of the composition is, particularly the blocking of the ostensible subject to be at the lower third so that we can watch a backdrop of people watching. Especially considering how much of this is involving music in a time of constant surveillance, so there are so many ways to fill up that space stressing that. And find ways it does.
25. Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki – El Mar La Mar (2017)
It doesn’t get much more textured than Bonnetta & Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar. Shot with 16mm to catch as much of the dry and harsh experience of the Sonoran desert, complete with the impression of damage to such film to make the movie feel like it hasn’t made it entirely through the same journey it’s trying to communicate intact. And yet in order to avoid feeling exploitative during the subject matter, it opts to allow the actual stories of those who live through the stresses of crossing over to the U.S. with patient darkness and a light cutting through or nighttime landscapes so that we can focus on the people at the center of the story, making the cinematographer as gracious as it is experiential.
24. Robby Baumgartner – Blindspotting (2018)
Translating the streets of Oakland into something like a cautionary nighttime fantasia turned occasional nightmare, defined specifically by what kind of lights are hitting our protagonists’ faces (specifically Daveed Diggs’) and what they indicate about the space they are in. Whether street lights, cop lights, porch lights, or industrial bright light, it plays enough against realism and plausible light sources that we don’t feel necessarily transported but we do feel like we are unexpectedly in the out as targets.
23. John Seale – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
It’s adopting the same color palette as any other popcorn film from the 21st Century to have any screentime in the desert: hot orange sands, cool teal skies (with a bonus of interrupting greens and dark blue nights). But y’know what, Seale and George Miller obviously weren’t ashamed that the way that the color timing amps up to 11. They’re also particularly happy to have that visual palette define the horizon lines in a way that gives this an epic sense of dimension to an ostensibly flat concept. Plus who can resist the manic way it captures these monstrous machines, shinny and chrome!
22. Christopher Blauvelt – Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
1.37:1? How about 1.33:1, sucker? The boxiest conventional aspect ratio you can go with and a welcome entrance into this period film stressing exactly the barren endlessness of the untamed Frontier West without romanticizing it. Instead, it feels husky, corpse-like, something to get lost in. Blauvelt’s lighting of the Western landscape is the kind of work that feels like the sole product of Meek’s Cutoff‘s modern production… showcasing every grain of sand to a degree that you can’t escape.
21. Edward Lachman – Carol (2015)
“How does a Douglas Sirk noir look?” I guess Lachman and Todd Haynes asked themselves. And they provided an excellent answer, finding ways to balance shadow with post-war visual designs – notably Art Deco, but it’s most various than that. Particularly the colors maintaining as much liveliness as possible without losing the moodiness. Because Carol is, above all, a visually moody film, so y’know… get that…
20. Yao Hung-i, Dong Jinsong, & David Chizallet – Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018)
I’m not even gonna front: 90% of this entry is because of that incredible 50-something minute 3D long-take with its sense of spacing and its floating quality that feels the closest I’ve ever come to my dreams represented by a film. But even before that gamechanger of a sequence, we get the meditative usage of focus to let having moving backgrounds give a hypnotizing quality and the usage of fogs and shafows in urban landscapes give it the visual vocabulary of neo-noir without the dark tone of a noir. Phenomenal visual work, anybody who didn’t see it in theaters in 3D missed out on an experience.
19. Lyle Vincent – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
I think the poster warned already about how the central character takes the form on screen of a solid black shape defined by her chador but Vincent makes sure that the inky blackness hits hard. This is done mostly by using the black-and-white cinematography to deepen the darkness of the Girl and let that hit against however much white background can be allowed in such a visually gloomy atmosphere. Gloomy, I do say, but still visually engaging.
18. Inti Briones – The Loneliest Planet (2011)
I know that I called The Master out for landscape-as-psychology (and I think Columbus engages in it as well), but Briones’ work on The Loneliest Planet is definitely a more appropriate usage of that material for the unfair fact that it succeeds in sinking me into the headspace of its characters more than either of those examples. But on top of that, it has a more beautiful subject as Briones’ command of textures allows us to be hit in the fact with the lush makeup of the Eastern European country.
17. Fejmi Daut & Samir Ljuma – Honeyland (2019)
It’s portraying a process that is not just quotidian but rough and uneasy and performed by people who do not have any glamour. And yet it’s all lovely to look at all the same, the Macedonian Mountains peeking in just enough sunlight to make the act look like magic against the pores of which it chisels from stone. And Daut & Ljuma (and their directors) are not afraid to also capture the life that Muratova lives in full intimacy, certainly a product of the generosity she performs throughout the film but also playing well enough off of the visual radiance in a mood setting way.
16. Harris Savides & Christopher Blauvelt – The Bling Ring (2013)
You want a film about shallow things, you gotta be willing to shoot in a shallow way. Savides’ last work – completed by Blauvelt when he died mid-production – is all too aware of how to bleach the imagery with hot brightness and let surfaces add to the visual detachment of it all. And yet, I’m just biding time before I talk about how incredible the little biome presentation of the glass house at night while the lead characters bust through rooms with flickering lights and touring motions, all presented in a slow and precise zoom that maintains a curiosity to what’s occurring like something out of Discovery Channel.
15. Bradford Young – Pariah (2011)
Honestly, practically everything Bradford Young shot this decade could qualify for this: the colors of Mother of George, the scale of Arrival, the age of Selma, the classicalism of A Most Violent Year (and anybody who tries to convince me that Young shot the underlit piece of shit that is Solo: A Star Wars Story gets a kick to the nuts). But at the end of it all, I had to hand it to the very start of his career and of the visual intelligence of Dee Rees. Her and Young end upwisely using the dichotomy between naturalistic lighting and abstract colorful splashes to let us know which state of emotions the titular character is and whether she has to put on an act for her strained home life or feeling free in the club with her friends and able to breathe. Either way, Young distinguishes this not only in the degree of the light, but whether the application called for is traditional or abstract and at the end of it all, it’s too exciting to witness to feel like the schematic it kind of is.
Plus, and it’s inarguably a part of the man’s identity, but Young just knows how to shoot black skin in a way that most other cinematographers are fucking clueless about. Real talk.
14. Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity (2013)
I would like to apologize to all the mean things I said about Avatar winning the Best Cinematography Oscar claiming that there needs to be a physical camera, which is of course reductive. And of course, that’s just to set the stage for praising the complete translation of Lubezki and Cuarón’s usual habits in lighting and camera movement to an entirely digital environment. It’s recognizable as their signature styles that it’s impossible to argue it wouldn’t look the exact same if it was shot on a physical set, except that it would of course lack the sense of boundlessness and weightlessness that Gravity gets away with. And with all of this shit, it absolutely leaves Avatar in the dust. It leaves James Cameron in the dust, y’all.
13. Roger Deakins – True Grit (2010)
I mean, Deakins’ best work of the 1990s (and also of his career and also potentially of color cinematography ever) was a Coen brothers movie. His best work of the 2000s was arguably a Coen brothers movie (and if it wasn’t, it was the second best). So it just goes to stand that the man’s best works of the 2010s will be a Coen brothers movie, the only part of the film that doesn’t feel like a disappointment. He takes the various seasons in which the journey of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn spans and lets them be amplified by the sort of mythic presentation that you don’t see Westerns receive anymore in this time of revisionism. Which probably explains how necessary it was to make sure this was shot on film, but I like to expect that the celluloid also maintains the sense of classicalism.
12. Mark Lee Ping Bin – The Assassin (2015)
Yet another instance of two things we’ve seen prior on this list: a utilization of 1.37:1 and a sense of transporting to the time period of a piece, partially getting to the latter by the wise application of the former. The rest of the way it gets there is by limiting the colors and angles that Lee Ping Bin evidently felt were appropriate to the setting of the story but using it judiciously to amplify the full beauty and sense of entrapment that the film could be capable of even at its most abstract.
11. Fred Kelemen – The Turin Horse (2011)
Admittedly, this isn’t necessarily something we haven’t seen before from Tarr Béla or Hranitsky Ágnes or Kelemen’s previous work with them: a bunch of sludgy thick black-and-white explored by patient tracking shots that become as cyclical as they are meditative. It’s been done for Sátántangó and it’s been done for Werckmeister Harmonies and if Tarr ever decides he was just kidding and returns to making movies, I’m sure it’ll be in the next one. But you know what? If it’s not broken, you don’t need to fix it and Kelemen’s muddy aesthetic for a muddy world feels just as appropriate for a story that is essentially about one man’s mental dive into darkness. And despite that moodiness in the muck, it’s impressive that Kelemen does find places to bring something gorgeous.
10. Sofiane El Fani – Timbuktu (2014)
You would expect that such a harsh and unpleasant premise would reject any sense of beauty lest it end up undercutting or aestheticizing the severity of its content. Instead, Abderrahmane Sissako trusts his cinematographer El Fani to allow all the desperate precision he’s capable of dictate just how sad and in turn upsetting it is that such visual landscapes are forced to be the sites of cruelty and violence. The lake sequence where we watch a man crawl away against the glittering sunlight on the shore from an immobile body was the moment where it was clear El Fani and Sissako knew exactly what to do to represent the tragedy of this land with unexpected and undeserved beauty.
9. Phillipe Le Sourd – The Beguiled (2017)
Wild that Le Sourd is able to take the steamy and humid basis of the Southern Gothic and let that showcase its adaptability to all the sorts of tones that this thriller would demand: the expressionist nightmares, the shady sexuality, the chilly chamber drama and so on that results in Sofia Coppola’s most unexpectedly pageant of rose-tinted feminine gloom, perfect for ennui of all occasion.
8. Mauro Pinheiro Jr. – Southwest (2011)
And now we introduce the murky dreaminess of black-and-white cinematography with something I’ve never seen before: a wide motherfucking frame. Like the widest I’ve ever seen, it is fucking 3.66:1 and I don’t know how Pinheiro and Eduardo Nunes decided that should be the case but y’know what? It adds to weird vibe of the visuals, it brings the principle of composition to an extreme sense of focus, it plays extremely well with pans and from all that, I think there’s no film out of the decade that had its images burned so deeply out of the idiosyncratic nature of their presentation.
7. Gökhan Tiryaki – Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
It can’t just be the digital nighttime photography. Tiryaki must be something of a wizard in the way that he’s able to use the gradations in darkness – only occasionally shaping the horizon with the headlights of police cars – to communicate that sense of fatigue and duration that defines the movie as an experience to begin with. I can’t think of well this must have been planned to get the exact state of the night that the darkness maps out so impressively well. I can’t even think by that point of how effectively that shadow and blackness establishes mood when combined with stuff as simple as candles illuminating faces or how it maintains an elegant sense of rustic beauty once the morning comes and lets us see everything clearly.
6. Emmanuel Lubezki – Knight of Cups (2015)
Cinematography unlike anything else I’ve ever seen by design. Terrence Malick went and got Lubezki to eschew his normal long-take style and pre-set beauty to go ahead and explore the other capabilities of video capture in 2015. Which is a roundabout way of saying Lubezki was given prosumer cameras, GoPros, beautiful women, and urban environments varying from Hollywood to Las Vegas and told to go fucking wild. And the result is that every shot delivers something unique to its particular tools from entirely orthodox angles that turns these streets and alleys into a totally fantastical landscape. And y’all slept on this way too hard so you don’t get any of this visual beauty.
5. Alfonso Cuarón & Galo Olivares – Roma (2018)
Whoever is responsible for the cinematography (and I see reason to believe both), it is the perfect balance of black-and-white softness and crispness to make the entire film feel like one singular memory but remove all the distance and make it feel present. And this time around, without his regular collaborator in Lubezki, there’s something about Cuarón’s personal approach to his signature long-take tableauxs to feel so much… slower. The movements feel like they are in no rush, wanting to take in as much of the length and scale of the moment as possible before we have to leave back to the real world.
4. Claire Mathon – Atlantics & Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
I could not pick just one, sue me. I am still highly intoxicated by the way that Claire Mathon has given us two of the decades’ best looking movies by different approaches: whether the intimacy by marshaling all the tools to craft an image of Portrait of a Lady on Fire or the translation of Dakar to a hazy ghost of a city. It’s just that the variety of the two are too arresting for me to commit to one of these films.
3. Dick Pope – Mr. Turner (2014)
It’s about a painter. It better damn well be gorgeously at the least, painterly at the most. It accomplishes the latter while using the wholly modern technology of digital cinematography to bring a sense of living history and tangible paint for fantastical landscape looks that play against the domestic earthy look of J.M.W. Turner’s domestic scenes. Which is y’know… very very appropriate but also transformative to take us from the unattractive scenes of a harsh life to the unreal scenes of a moment of visual inspiration.
2. Zach Kuperstein – The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
I swear, I promise this is the last black-and-white movies but I’m happy to commit to claiming that it is the best of them, despite probably being the least witnessed. It is… I’m sounding like a broken by this point… shockingly beautiful in how it brings out the wateriness of black imagery with very little lighting, only enough to portray lines that can define (not cut through) the blackness. And that beauty is shocking because of the grotesque horrors that it showing us, aestheticizing the gore and violence in such a way that makes it more affrontive than if they had just went with the overwhelming detail instead of obstructive shadow interrupted by the inky spurts. Which I’m guessing sounds like a horrible recommendation if you’re squeamish, but for someone like me fascinated by how imagery can be translated to a character’s mindset… it is excellent at giving us a bleak world as seen by a cold and analytical monster.
Emmanuel Lubezki – The Tree of Life (2011)
Obviously Knight of Cups is the more revolutionary collaboration between Lubezki and Malick, but the cigar absolutely belongs to the movie that reverently addresses light as something that can hardly be controlled or harnessed. Just patiently followed through the loving lens Lubezki gives Malick’s childhood home town or the faces that the light caresses or the inhabited through the translation of the windows and the halls and so on. It is the sort of classical naturalism that can yield warmth and claustrophobia depending on what the shot calls for and that it’s not even the second-best work of Lubezki’s career (fuck, it’s not even the best of his work with Malick – though it is the best overall film either person ever worked on) and yet snugly fits at the very top of the decade should hopefully indicate how at the tip of the iceberg the ecstatic visual poetics of this film are. Just go deeper from here.