The Greatest Cinematography of All Time


movie film

I make no apology for it: I love breathtakingly gorgeous movies. I love swooning, rapturous, intoxicatingly beautiful films. While that usually means a concert of photogenic actors, lush music, and exotic locations, the key soloist is often the guy behind the camera, the “I” with the “eye.”

An early ambition of mine was to be a cinematographer, and I can still remember poring over the boxes of yellowed vintage copies of American Cinematographer gifted to me by a retired film crew member. (The wonderful, irrepressible Johnny Monroe — who went on to own the now-sadly closed Footlights theater poster gallery in Ashland, OR.)

My early ambitions skewed me towards lush, beautiful films, and to this day I will see a movie as much because of who photographed it as because of who directed, wrote, or starred in it. Some will see any movie with George Clooney in it. I’ll see any movie shot by Christopher Doyle.

So here follows a highly personal, unauthoritative list of films (in color — later a B&W list) of the most beautiful movies ever shot, in order of release date. If you haven’t yet broken down and bought a widescreen HD TV and blu-ray player, you’ll want to to see this great films as they were meant to be seen.

Black Narcissus (1947) — Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

shot from Black Narcissus (1947)

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Set in a convent in the Himalayas, Black Narcissus is a stunning example of how studios, sets and matte paintings can create a hallucinatory, vivid alternate reality. This is a haunting film where the psychological drama reaches a visual fever pitch. The colors and compositions are simply stunning. Photographed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”400″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZRzcLK1Ar0[/youtube]

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Vertigo (1958) — Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Cinematography by Robert Burks.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

Kim Novak in Vertigo

 

One of the most memorable moviegoing experiences of my life was seeing Vertigo restored to its original 70mm glory at the Broadway theater in Portland, OR. My sainted mother drove me (14 yrs. old at the time) & assorted siblings an hour from Salem to Portland to see it and, of course, the projector duly broke down.

vertigo-dvd

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So we waited almost four hours for the theater to fix the projector and it was beyond worth it. I would have waited much longer just to have watched the scene at Elaine’s restaurant. The crushed red velvet of the wall and Kim Novak’s lustrous blonde hair, every strand delineated in luscious 70mm, remain the most 3-D effects I’ve ever seen in a movie. (The photo above, in fimsy 72px per inch, does not do it justice, believe me.)

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962) —dir. David Lean, photographed by Freddie Francis.

lawrence

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The crystalline 50th anniversary Blu-Ray release of arguably the greatest film of all time should also put to rest any questions that it also features the greatest cinematography of all time. Bonus for cinematography geeks: the Blu-Ray comes with a frame of the original 70mm print!

Swoon.

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The Conformist (1970) Dir. by Bernardo Bertolucci, photographed by Vittorio Storaro

conformist

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Of all the films lensed by the legendary Vittorio Storaro (including Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor), The Conformist (Il Conformista in Italian) is my personal favorite. The complexity of the compositions and lighting match the complexity of the storytelling, which features a fragmented story told in shifting layers of time.

The Conformist in many ways tries to answer Citizen Kane‘s challenge to filmmaking to be narratively intricate, thematically complicated, and simply gorgeous to look at. Like Citizen Kane, The Conformist still feels ahead of its time.

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Godfather Part II (1974) — Dir. by Francis Ford Coppola, photographed by Gordon Willis.

godfather

godfather-blu-ray

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Gordon Willis has often said in interviews that a primary inspiration for the rich chiaroscuro of The Godfather series was the paintings of Italian master, Caravaggio. It is a testament to the greatness of the first two Godfather films that they earn comparison with the deepness, darkness, and profound humanity of Caravaggio’s paintings — it is hard to imagine this series being half as effective without the stark, shadowy beauty of Willis’s vision.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”400″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PyZCU2vpi8[/youtube]

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Barry London (1975) — Dir. Stanley Kubrick, photographed by John Alcott.

Barry-Lyndon

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Every single frame of this film could me mounted on the wall as a painting.

It is typical of Kubrick’s obsessive working methods that he had NASA develop special lenses so he could shoot by candlelight. A wonderful case of technical innovation used to make film resemble Old Master rococo paintings.

(Check out my review of this film.)

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Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) — Dir. Peter Weir, photographed by Russell Boyd.

picnic

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Peter Weir has an amazing eye, and many of his films could be included on this list: Witness, Dead Poets Society, or Master & Commander.

But I’m going to have to go with Picnic at Hanging Rock, which features cinematography swooningly lush enough to match the marvelous use of Beethoven on the soundtrack. The quote from Poe at the beginning of the movie — “All that we see and seem, is but a dream within a dream” — is an appropriate epitaph for such a dreamy-looking film.

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In the Mood for Love (2000) — Dir. Wong Kar Wai, photographed by Christopher Doyle.

 in-the-mood-for-love

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click here to order the blu-ray from Amazon

People tend to think of directors as “auteurs,” putting their personal stamp on the films they make, but Wong Kar Wai can’t really be discussed without including Christopher Doyle, his cinematographer, in the conversation. The man is an absolute genius.

In the Mood for Love is a rapturously Romantic film, one of the more hypnotic cinematic experiences of my lifetime.

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The Fall (2006) — Dir. Tarsem Singh, cinematography by Colin Watkinson

the-fall

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Part of The Fall‘s stunning visual appeal is its concert of set design (often real locations from all around the world) and the incredible costumes of Eiko Ishioka.

But the cinematography by Colin Watkinson should have its due: it’s simply eye-popping.

The Fall is a visual spectacle, and earns extra points for clearly being Tarsem’s valentine to cinema.

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The Tree of Life (2011) — Dr. Terrence Malick, photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki

Tree of Life

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Almost any Malick could be on this list (Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line as close runners-up), but Tree of Life feels like a kind of summa for Malick.

As Max Ophuls once said of Carl Dreyer, it’s like Malick has never seen another movie before (except maybe 2001: a space odyssey). He treats film more like poetry or a symphony.

And if Malick is God of this film (not such a stretch, given the cosmic scope of this movie), then Lubezki is Mozart, God’s secretary, transcribing heavenly beauty into heavenly images.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”400″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXRYA1dxP_0[/youtube]