18. Post Tenebras Lux (2012)
Mexico has been coming up with some very interesting visuals in the past few years, and this is yet another example of that. Notably influenced by fellow Mexican Emmanuel Lubezki and his collaborations with Terrence Mallick, comes director Carlos Reygadas. His regular DP is Alexis Zabe and, luckily so: Zabe does a great job, particularly in this film, by mixing the lyrical and the plain odd as if they belonged together. The long-take style so typical of Reygadas can be seen here again with his taste for first-time actors. He has admitted that people ask him: “Is it just a collection of images?”
The fact that it is filled with natural beauty, astounding shots of a jungle, the sea, etc., doesn’t mean that it’s supposed to be light and less dramatic. It wraps around our mind until we fully understand the complexity of what we’re seeing. Whenever there’s an exterior scene, the edges around the screen are blurred – and somehow it appears as if it’s extremely meaningful to the story.
19. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The first thing anyone notices about this film, in a way that surely distinguishes itself from all other films on this list, is its truly unique color palette, a washed out effect plastered in the entire film. Thanks to DP Bruno Delbonnel, the visuals tell the story of exactly how Llewyn sees the world. There’s so much emphasis on the visualization points that it’s almost as if the rest is only a consequence of it. The representation of loneliness and helplessness is in the lack of light, and everything else seems as if folk music was a picture.
The acclaimed DP, most known for his work on “Amélie”, personally wanted to have something sad throughout the film, so he chose to use the same light to light both the actor and the set, making it constantly fall off to darkness, keeping the fill levels at a minimum.
It’s kind of a testament to Roger Deakins, the Coen’s regular cinematographer, but with a psychological angle that adjusts to the directors’ iconic humor and mannerisms without actually communicating much with him about it.
20. The Master (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA for short) has admitted his wish to recreate the look of classic films such as “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest”, therefore testing some Panavision equipment (65mm cameras) for this film, when eventually it all started coming together very clearly to him.
The format fit the story, and it seems the film was shot in a “let’s keep trying” way – which worked until it was almost finished. For longer, more intimate sequences, PTA and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. confirmed filming in 35mm, trying to delicately juggle between formats without being too noticeable.
The use of film almost automatically means greater image area and emotional depth on the screen, drawing viewers further into the story. It’s an all-around gorgeous movie, wonderfully using a color palette straight from 1950s America, and the montage rhythm couldn’t be more tumultuous and narrative driven.
21. Ida (2013)
This film is a beautiful puzzle right from the start. Pawel Pawlikowski and his usual cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski tell the story of a nun through black and white photography, perfectly adapted to the spirituality portrayed. Despite being shot on video, every other detail is designed to achieve a silent film feel, with a mood and images so beautiful that one can easily get lost in them. They managed to capture the main character with incredible fluidity through camera work, advantageous lighting and framing, and meaningful focus on contrast – almost a study-case of the latter, actually.
It’s a rich film, quiet but intense, incredibly emotional and a breakthrough when it comes to experimenting with aesthetics from the 1950s and 1960s – which make perfect sense in this particular film. The handheld camera, persistence in close-ups and breathtaking imagery make for an overall masterful work, one that will easily stun any kind of viewer.
22. Oh Boy / A Coffee in Berlin (2012)
This German film, seriously reminiscent of “Frances Ha” from thematic components to the black and white, tells the story of Niko, who dropped out of law school yet still accepts his father’s funding without informing him he’s no longer being schooled. It features some issues from the younger generation, irresponsibilities and uncertainties regarding the future.
Cinematographer Philipp Kirsamer films Berlin in its urban glory, making Niko seem incredibly lost among an endless flux of people, busses, trains, subways, while making it obvious that it is a city in transition. The modernities and buildings contrast with empty spots and constant constructions, making it the perfect metaphor for Niko’s struggles in building something for himself while he slowly matures.
Aiming at current realities, such as financial dependence and general frustration, Kirsamer and director Gerster move the camera as if it is the very representation of Niko’s emotional states – whenever Niko’s moving fast towards something, the camera can hardly keep up with him. Being quintessentially indie, it’s not surprising how much critical acclaim it got in Germany, and it’s certainly one of their best in the last few years.
23. Upstream Color (2013)
The first thing anyone should know about this film is that it was written, directed, produced, edited, composed, designed and cast by Shane Carruth. He also co-stars in it. It’s the ultimate indie film, portraying one person’s view in almost every aspect, including distribution.
Not implying that he was great in every one of his “jobs”, he did make a powerful intimate film, both puzzling and straightforward. This visionary created a language that doesn’t abide by any specific rules: the narrative may be intense and obvious, but then the shot selection is connected to sound, with a very narrow depth of field and an unlikely representation of nature.
The characters are complex and uncertain, but the cinematography draws us so close that it’s impossible to not try to understand it as a whole. While being an apparently subjective experience, it’s densely layered without relying much on dialogue. The obsession with color, textures and movements recall a drug-trip, flawed and mesmerizing.
24. Pina (2011)
This eccentic work of art is unlike anything else on this list. In a representation of dance and the power of performances, Wim Wenders, Hélène Lovart and Jörg Widmer accomplish a sort of theatrical cinematography that is ultimately jaw-dropping, to say the least.
Everything is wonderfully choreographed, and Wenders makes everyone else who’s directed dance films look bad. Through the use of unique cinematic techniques, mind-boggling close-ups and POV shots, every frame seems to complement the next, with graceful cutting from one piece to the other.
Experimenting with 3D cinematography further underlines his meticulous work in terms of space usage and the physical depth implied – this results in one of the best uses of 3D technology, innovative while extremely appropriate. A whole new experience, relying mostly on visuals, and impossible to miss amongst any of the most stunning recent films.
25. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
This perverse vampire film is unlike any other, and the cinematography is haunting, making it a visual delight. It relies on the bizarre – being a gothic romance – and French DP Yorick Le Saux (“I Am Love”) gives aesthetic cohesion through composition and costuming, and exceptionally in the camera work.
Being one of the most celebrated cinematographers in the world, Le Saux brings power through guitars, as Tom Hiddleston plays a dead rock star, and manages to make Tilda Swinton look as fashionably dark as possible.
The director, Jim Jarmusch, usually goes for self-indulgent throws at society, making fun of it, but this is almost an ode to his tendency for minimalism, pure and simple while still being tender and spooky at the same time. Adding music and art to the equation only makes it more visually alluring, while still featuring a cynical tone. It throws all vampire movies into a corner, disarmingly poetic and freakishly fascinating.
Author Bio: Alex Gandra is a Portuguese writer and filmmaker.She graduated this year in New Communication Technologies from the University of Aveiro and is currently in a master’s degree in Digital Audiovisual. She spends too much time in cafés writing scripts and other kinds of texts you can find at medium.com/@gandra_le. She’s also writing a book she hopes to finish some day.