9. Weekend (2011)
Relying on handheld camera movements, director Andrew Haigh and director of photography Ula Pontikos use a fly-on-the wall technique that manages to perfectly capture intimacy. What makes it stunning is just how easily it seems that the viewer is spying on the characters, like intruders of extremely private moments and conversations. Some angles are obstructed, there are images of the surroundings and seemingly unimportant shots that make for a more realistic atmosphere.
The low budget aesthetic, being shot with a Canon 5D, offers some limitations such as noise and inconsistent light, but it’s not distracting and it adds up very well with the simple and naturalistic color palette, and particularly well with the chosen shooting style – which does the often hard job of complementing such a passionate and powerful content. This is even more worth noting when you have in mind such low production costs.
10. The Grandmaster (2013)
A journey that took 3 years, directed by Wong Kar Wai with the help of French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd – who made it into a constantly vivacious arty picture in every scene. Whether it was a calm scene, a lingering one – so common in Wong Kar Wai’s films – or an exhilarating fight, it was every bit of remarkable. This wasn’t easy to achieve, as the DP had to go to China to work on the film, having to carry a translator around set all the time and ignoring the fact that there was no script for him.
It’s specially hard when you want to properly capture martial arts in the way Le Sourd did, perfect timings and using certain elements to create shadows and movements, that deeply impacted the story. There were also interesting things to consider, such as fight choreographies, mixing slow with high speed, and giving out the feel that it’s a Wong Kar Wai film even with a different-than-usual cinematographer. His universe and his influence are present and it’s a great representation of why he’s so good.
11. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The result of yet another collaboration between Robert Yeoman, ASC, and director Wes Anderson: there’s the obligatory illustrative style that stylistically combines theatre and cinema with complex tales, while being compositionally specific about every shot. Obviously, one could also mention other recent works of these two, such as Moonrise Kingdom (2011), but The Grand Budapest deals with a whole different set of visual experimentations.
For example, there’s a variety of aspect ratios to consider, most notably the Academy ratio (4:3) used in all of the 1930’s scenes of the film, an almost square frame; the panorama-like format known from other Anderson films, used in the 1960s scenes; and the most common format in use today, the 1.85:1 ratio, for scenes taking place in the 1980s.
Also interesting features are the use of analog for most of the film’s action, natural light whenever possible, and lamps. The main use of a single camera only brings more relevance to the long dolly moves and swish pans so familiar in Anderson’s work and, of course, you can’t miss the unbelievable color palette.
12. Nebraska (2013)
From the beginning of production on this film, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael wanted it to be in black and white. Being a character-driven film, there was a need to make it as visually unique and interesting as possible, so at first he thought of shooting in B&W 35mm film. This didn’t work out because, as wonderfully as it would look, shooting in black-and-white is still seen in several markets as antiquated. He skirted this by first testing color stocks and digital cameras with the help of his colorist, in order to make it as similar as possible to the Kodak film aesthetic.
Shot on location across the American Midwest added sensitivity, but it’s consistency that makes it truly unique. Having always envisioned “Nebraska” in black and white, the responsible filmmakers’ only real excuse for this was that some stills are better in monochrome,and the story and landscapes “lend themselves to black and white”, according to Papamichael. Some interesting choices that worked and perfectly captured the feel of the film.
13. Life of Pi (2012)
This technical marvel considered by many the most beautiful film of 2012 does very little in terms of actual pure cinematography. While it was unfilmable, Ang Lee made sure it only appeared so, with overwhelming achievements in computer animation and making it a visually stunning film to say the least.
The entire experience is more of a visual wonder than anything else, so it’s a natural contender here. The film’s most unique creation, the tiger, was completely brought by computer-generated effects. Lee knows exactly how to work new ground and still take the most advantage of it, always knowing how and when to employ jaw-dropping CGI, letting the camera float below the surface of water as if it is also lost in the ocean. This gift to photography and computer animation is as good as it gets in the 2010s, and still a must-see.
14. Elena (2011)
Andrey Zvyagintsev, one of the best filmmakers to come out of Russia, made “Elena” his finest creation to date. Strikingly different, this bittersweet and comic representation of the spiritual and moral corruption in present-day Russia is excelled with the help of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman.
Besides strong content and serious commentaries on modern Russian life, the chosen elements placed throughout the film are filled with unmistakable metaphors, mostly representing survival at any cost. The camera seems to constantly hover the scene, watching, and the aesthetic seems to favor the ambient sounds, a stylization of quiet moments that is typically associated with Russian cinema. Arguably one of the most stunning film experiences in 2011.
15. Only God Forgives (2013)
Director Nicolas Winding Refn seems to give priority to the atmosphere and style over matter, being one of those films able to divide an audience completely. The most peculiar aspect of it is probably how much it feels like someone’s constantly taking a photograph in each scene, with perfect lighting and even actors’ positions, making for a dazzling composition.
Larry Smith does his second collaboration with Refn as his cinematographer, and brings out specific elements that are becoming more relatable to him: the one-light-set-up, gorgeous use of on-set lights, theatrical ambient, strong shadows and, specifically, colored filters on light.
Red gels filter various scenes in order to recreate Bangkok – along with blue – coexisting in neon bright scenery and vibrating with the city’s violence and eroticism. Take note of Smith’s signature lense care: soft borders and transitions, warmer skin tones and, of course, all with the octagonal iris.
16. Spring Breakers (2012)
The extreme talents in charge of this ironic testament to postmodern times are cinematographer Benoit Debie and director Harmony Korine. Korine found in Debie – also responsible for the hyperrealist “Enter the Void” (2009) – someone who could perfectly depict the degradation of culture.
The bubblegum, candy and colorfully insane tone worked wonders in representing the theme of the film: a culture of surfaces. Benoit Debie’s camerawork further portrayed this through a variety of filmstocks and formats, slow-motions and dubstep-infused shots.
Even though the music, the strong connections to pop depravity and the rawness of some of the footage make a strong impact on viewers, the overall visually ravishing sequences are almost a character in the film. As shocking and violent as the narrative, the pink neon glow and balaclavas stay with us even after the film ends.
17. Stoker (2013)
South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first English-language film presents us with another example of why the filmmaker likes dark narratives and mysterious characters, making them as clean and stylish as possible. With usual collaborator Chung Chung-hoon, who first worked with Park in “Oldboy”, they managed to place little lights in order to keep from having totally dark areas, controlling contrast mainly on set and trying to stick coloring to the basics in order to get as much advantage possible when editing.
By creating an unsettling and overall disturbing environment, the story becomes what we see, even despite the strong hints of symbolism and Hitchcock-influences. The camera work, overflowing with dynamic, and the groundbreaking cinematography are incredibly haunting: everything related to it makes “Stoker” an unforgettable twisted family drama, whose main problem is that it demands full attention in order to connect the dots. While not being as good as other Park Chan-wook films, it’s still beautiful entertainment.