The Best Cinematographic Achievements in Film, dated 9/5/08

A while back I began noticing that I stopped viewing the natural world around me as I once did. I started looking at things, really looking at things - trees, ditches, fields, snow-covered flora - and began imagining them in different ways. Slowly my appreciation became deeper, in a twister sort of way it's no longer a simple matter of "this is nice looking", it's now "this is beautiful, it would look gorgeous on film. How might I film this?" An occupational hazard, I suppose. I'm not really a cinematographer - technically speaking of the three short films I've taken part in in the last year, I only photographed two of them, and only one of them I can say I really had a sense of what I was filming - it's more the sense I've been given since giving myself an education in cinematography slightly more in depth than the one I've been given twice in two different schools. I like my own self-imposed knowledge better because it meant watching all the movies that get roped in together as the best. I'm not saying that these estimations are incorrect, I just happen to think looking beyond the same five films in every summation is always a good idea. For example, in looking at the humbling work of master photographer Nestor Almendros, the film he gets most credit for is undoubtedly Days of Heaven. While I agree that the work is unrivaled in it's technique, I think more can be gained watching his first feature film La Collectioneusse, a film done without a single electrician or industrial light. I think the greatest feature of cinematography is that a film needn't be good to have rich photography. For example I greatly admire Roger Deakins work (on every one of his films, but especially) on The Village and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two films greatly wanting in other areas. I will say that I have favorites, those who have honed their craft into the purest of art forms, but the other redeeming feature of the field is that a novice can do just as beautiful work as a seasoned professional. Look at Mihai Malaimare Jr., who cut his teeth on three short films in his native Romania before taking on the dubious Youth Without Youth, a film that couldn't look more beautiful if the cast were all greek nudes. I think it's probably all the more impressive when Cinematographers can make as splendid use of shadow in Black and White film as shades and hues in color film. The Third Man (nay, the whole Noir genre) would be nothing without the work of it's light and shadow men. Imagine Detour, M, The Lady From Shanghai, or Kiss Me Deadly without their notorious shadowplay. Cinematography is often responsible for a film's most striking aspects. Picture a less competent man than Frederick Elmes behind the lens of David Lynch's flooring Blue Velvet, or someone with less experience in the expressionist movement than wunderkind Fritz Arno Wagner filming the famous stair sequence in Nosferatu, or most terrifying, imagine if David Lean had hired anyone other than cinematographer Freddie Young when filming Lawrence of Arabia, someone who wouldn't have had the resources to get ahold of a 482mm lens to film Omar Sharif's awe-inspiring entrance. I shudder to think. Below are my fifty favorite instances of cinematography in feature length films and their accompanying cinematographers, or really what I think are the most technically accomplished/beautifully filmed movies of all time. I've given descriptions of the top ten, as reading descriptions of fifty films might get as repetitive as writing them. How many synonyms are there for gorgeous, anyway?

1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Roger Deakins

This film has something of a mixed reputation. I personally think it a bit heavy-handed and melodramatic at times and I think it could have done without the prosaic voice over narration, but one thing is absolutely without question: the movie is stunning to watch. Right from the start when we see the James Gang knocking over a train, while Brad Pitt strides past the steam of the locomotive, while the light from the passenger cars douses the bandits in gold, while the dark wood of the cars clashes with the shining metal of firearms, while the silhouettes of every member of the gang closes in on the brightly lit train cars. It's amazing and Roger Deakins made sure to fill every frame of the film with otherworldly beauty. While director Andrew Dominik's tribute to the westerns of Anthony Mann and Samuel Fuller lingers in the past, Deakins makes a showing for the age of technology. The leads in their eccentric costumes standing like pillars of marble in the blazing scenery Deakins photographs. The blue-hued snowy landscapes, the dusky fields and farms of James' hometown, the exquisite dinner scenes we're drawn into. The film's screenplay may lack subtlety, but Deakin's photography needs none.

2. The Double Life Of Veronique – Slawomir Idziak
Anyone who's seen Amelie is in the dark if they haven't seen The Double Life Of Veronique. Bruno Delbonnel employs much the same tricks and color schemes as Slawomir Idziak did in 1991, but without the porcelain skin tones or constancy of the light quality. Idziak delivers what is probably the most colorful non-technicolor film before the advent of digital editing. The colors of this film, deep, alluring greens and almost erotic reds run throughout unexplained, but never unwanted. Idziak manages to bring to life Director Krzysztof Kieslowski's intimate compositions and manage to make slightly extraordinary things look unabashedly enchanting. He certainly succeeds in making Irene Jacob look like the most beautiful woman on earth twice in one film. Between Kieslowski's fairy tale screenplay and Idziak's super-saturated colors, this film is something of a minor miracle; the most romantic movie ever made.

3. La Collectioneusse – Nestor Almendros
Almendros will forever be immortalized as one of cinema's greatest eyes, but he'll rarely get the credit he deserves for his best work. His work with Barbet Schroeder and Eric Rohmer far outshines his work in America in almost every case. With the aforementioned exception of Days of Heaven, his best work was done in France. This film, his first, is the deceptively simple tale of one man's struggle to conquer his feelings for a promiscuous girl as she learns to settle down. I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit that I was a little too preoccupied with Almendros' camera work to pay close attention to the story (the ending's happy, if memory serves). At times Almendros had ony two pieces of equipment while working on La Collectioneusse, a 35mm camera and a particularly bright bedside light (the bulb was intentionally replaced with something industrial grade). The rest of the time he had natural light and reflective surfaces. Any given still from this movie could easily be mistaken for some lofty Renoir-esque painting. He'd may have gotten cleverer, but his work never got more flawless than it did on his first feature.

4. Children of Men – Emmanuel Lubezki
Ok, so it's no secret in the film world that this movie is brilliant. As my friend Lizzy said after her first viewing "I wasn't expecting much, but...". The movie really didn't scream "genius" when it made it's pitiful rounds of American multiplexes and so expectations were all but erased by the time it hit DVD, but it was cinephiles who had the last laugh. This movie is, and I don't mean to hyperbolize, the most technically exceptional movie ever made, where live film is concerned. Emmanuel Lubezki, hands down my favorite cinematographer, manages to revolutionize the real-time tracking shot while still doing wonders with he and director Alfonso Cuarón's trademark green hues. His active lens makes sick situations frighteningly real and all the more nauseating; his camera seems to trigger the release of endorphins, like a rollercoaster, because when the ending titles began flashing, I couldn't help but feel both mildly ill and like I needed to see it again; it was all I could talk about for days. Lubezki's greens are a favorite of mine (you'll notice his name five times more on the list) and they're subdued just enough here not to take center stage like they do in Cuarón's earlier work, but they still manage to catch the eye despite the chaos that consumes the frame. Lubezki and his crew should have been given nobel prizes for their work on this film; not just because they manage to stay on a battle for 6:18 without ever making it obvious that cuts are being snuck in, but for making the most horrific things in the world look so vivid and unforgettable. If viewers never forget what they see, they may just act accordingly later in life.

5. Autumn Sonata – Sven Nykvist

I'd seen a few of Nykvist's collaborations with Ingmar Bergman before I saw Autumn Sonata, but I had no idea just how well the two men understood each other. I don't know that there's a team that had such insight into the world of the other anywhere else in the annals of film history. I suppose Greg Tolland and Orson Welles came close, as do Cuarón and Lubezki, but the difference between any other teaming and this one, Bergman's entire life came out of Nykvist's camera. So when Bergman makes a film with an Autumnal motif, Nykvist came through beautifully. The movie looks effectively like the fall has come to life in Liv Ullmann's house. The faded pastel colors and rich outdoor scenery are truly remarkable and as someone who admires Autumn more than any other season, this is a wonderful thing.

6. The New World – Emmanuel Lubezki
If you paused any given second of The New World and squinted, you'd think you were staring at an oil painting. Lubezki outdoes himself at his better-than-reality camera work, and easily steps into Nestor Almendros' shoes as the undisputed master of natural light photography. There's one scene in particular that comes to mind when I consider Lubezki's work in this movie; it's the last one in the film. Thanks to director Terrence Malick's set-up and romantic reverence for (almost deification of thanks to the camera work) of death, what we have is a scene that easily qualifies as transcendence, if we adhere to Paul Schraeder's definition. Lubezki manages to craft a convincing picture of heaven without ever leaving the realm of the living, which I call a job well done. He and Malick understand that death is not an end, so much as it is a celebration of the middle. With a good camera man, it's not hard to do so.

7. Last Of The Mohicans – Dante Spinotti

This movie is probably responsible for my appreciation of nature. It's why while riding in trains or cars I'm constantly tempted to get out and become part of my surroundings. Michael Mann's tribute to the ways of the Native American (as some kind of bastard Native American myself, I get to relate on more than one level to this movie), namely their constant graciousness toward the kind earth they live on. All you really need to understand the genius of this movie and of Dante Spinotti's lens; Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook run through the woods chasing after a buck. Their surroundings whir past them, occasionally giving us glimpses of the deep greens, browns, and blues of the woods. Finally they settle on a good spot to take the animal down. In a clearing, with water running through a small brook, rich foliage both living and dying, the sun nearly down, providing minimal light. There they claim their prey and then they give thanks, while all around returns to it's usual stillness and the beauty of the natural world is restored. These men do not top the food chain, they are merely one rung; nor do they stand out against their background, they are merely one piece of a sensational picture.

8. Sweet Movie - Pierre Lhomme

This movie is little known in the United States outside of the ravenous cineastes who hunger for each new Criterion release. This, friends, is a damn shame. The movie, a madcap fusion of political theory and sexual politics in the extreme, is made all the more poignant because the beauty of its most puzzling and challenging images is identical to that of its most serene. Take for example that a scene of two people copulating in a vat of sugar is just as clear and breath-taking as that of a long shot of a boat made out trinkets and political artifacts with Karl Marx as the figurehead tooling down a crowded canal. The movie's incendiary nature wouldn't be half as effective without Pierre Lhomme's beautification of every dirty detail, and this movie gets pretty dirty.

9. I Fidanzati - Lamberto Caimi

Black and White photography is easy to make look good, easy to look sloppy and incoherent, and hard to make perfect. Would you believe that one of the most mesmerizing sequences in the history of black and white film was shot by a first-time cinematographer. I guess technically I Fidanzati was Lamberto Caimi's third film, but his work on his first movie, Il Posto, was essentially identical to his work here. Ermanno Olmi's films, which were Caimi's first gigs, evolved out of work-place documentaries their factory produced, which were amazingly well-realized and insightful. Even more impressive was that the photography was just as impressive as anything that showed up in any of Fellini's films of the same period. The sequence I described earlier takes place about midway through the film. The protagonist walks from a beach to a tired-looking derrick nearby. It looks like a precursor to the kind of work Robert Elswitt would do in There Will Be Blood. The textural capabilities of black and white film are as pronounced as I've ever seen them.

10. Apocalypse Now – Vittorio Storaro

I once tried to explain to someone why I loved cinematography so much, using Apocalypse Now as a sort of exhibit A (my actual wording was fairly juvenile, but it was only to get my point across). I've often thought of the film as DP Vittorio Storaro's as much as director Francis Ford Coppola's because he's half the reason this movie is so outstanding. When Martin Sheen reads over Kurtz' dossier while "Satisfaction" blares on Clean's radio, there's nothing better. The contrast between Sheen's tanned, hairy skin, and the crystal blue waters below him have long symbolized the genius of the film; light vs. dark, American men vs. the natural world. The point becomes clearer minutes later when Robert Duvall's Air Mobile unit shreds the bejesus out of VC target zone so that he can surf a six foot peak. The overwhelming violence stood out to my friend, which is of course the point of an anti-war film. Another viewing or a little more knowledge of cinematography and she'd see that the reason anti-war films of this caliber work is because, like Children of Men, the violence is shrouded in so glorious a light, because that's how it appears to the men who make war and because that is how a clear picture is crafted. How do you make someone remember your anti-war message? You give them images they'll never forget - they can be violent, they can be troubling, but they can also be beautiful.

11. A Very Long Engagement - Bruno Delbonnel
12. Master & Commander: The Far Side Of The World: Russel Boyd
13. Birth - Harris Savides
14. The Thin Red Line – John Toll
15. Maitresse – Nestor Almendros
16. Down by Law – Robby Müller
17. Au Revoir Les Enfants - Renato Berta
18. The Third Man - Robert Krasker
19. Gate Of Flesh - Shigeyoshi Mine
20. Broken Flowers – Frederick Elmes
21. The Village – Roger Deakins
22. Lawrence Of Arabia – Freddie Young
23. Y Tu Mama Tambien – Emmanuel Lubezki
24. The Straight Story – Freddie Francis
25. Manhattan - Gordon Willis
26. Days Of Heaven – Nestor Almendros
27. Great Expectations – Emmannuel Lubezki
28. The Conformist – Vittorio Storaro
29. Sleepy Hollow – Emmannuel Lubezki
30. Contempt – Raoul Coutard
31. Cries & Whispers – Sven Nykvist
32. George Washington – Tim Orr
33. Youth Without Youth - Mihai Malaimare Jr.
34. Fargo – Roger Deakins
35. Brief Encounter - Robert Krasker
36. Blowup - Carlo Di Palma
37. Pierrot Le Fou – Raoul Coutard
38. McCabe & Mrs. Miller – Vilmos Zgismond
39. Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix – Slawomir Idziak
40. A Little Princess – Emmanuel Lubezki
41. Gosford Park – Andrew Dunn
42. There Will Be Blood – Robert Elswitt
43. Interiors - Gordon Willis
44. Port of Shadows - Eugen Schüfftan
45. Ivan's Childhood - Vadim Yusov
46. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie - Francisco Sempere
47. Blood For Dracula - Luigi Kuveiller
48. 28 Days Later – Anthony Dod Mantle
49. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Peter Pau
50. The Mission - Chris Menges


Sebastian said...

I'd have to agree with atleast all the ones hear that I've seen. I do, however, wonder as to how much thought you really put into ordering them after the first ten. I mean is it really just a list after that point or is it really in order?

Scøut said...

Well, yes when this was new I did. Shit, this is now no longer accurate, though. May be time for an update...