Colors of the Brush – Top 15 Movies with Best Cinematography

What is Cinematography? The cinematography is nothing but the managing vision of the movie in collaboration with other key members. As a cinematographer, you have people who can fire you including the writer, the producer, and even the director. However, it is important for a cinematographer to put significant resources in the film and be synchronized with the key cast as well. You need to understand the visions and their needs to help them in the best way you can. The most important collaborator with the cinematographer is the director and therefore there are few things about them that you should know. Most of the films that became quite popular have elements more than just a traditional set and the reason behind them is the cinematographer. There will be a lot of people who would help the cinematographer in establishing a brilliant movie and that includes a production designer, the assistant director, the costume artist, the make-up artist, the sound director as well.

That being said, Cinematography is a skill and the art of capturing the movies just with a camera. It is not about film or the point but it is about working with the lighting, using different kinds of camera angles, movements and effects just to capture what’s happening in order to give the right kind of impact. For example, if you are talking about a fight scene, you can use the shaky camera and if you want to give a bird’s eye perspective, you can use the camera that is flying above the ground. Therefore, this is where the cinematographer comes into picture which is why the cinematographers have different styles working on the profound films. Therefore, here’s a list of Movies with Best Cinematography.

Movies with Best Cinematography:

#1 THE REVENANT (2015):

Emmanuel Chivo Lubezki has faced many challenges with the movie, The Revenant. But the thing is that he did not give up. Therefore, he won his first Academy Award for the same as he created the illusion of Ryan Stone’s journey (played by Sandra Bullock) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity as well. He managed to return to the podium this year with Birdman, directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. While all the films that he has cinematographer for have managed to stand out, the biggest challenge came when he worked for ‘The Revenant’. The movie is shot in freezing conditions and it has only used natural which was shot in freezing conditions and used only natural light. Based on a story written in the 1800s, it is about Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who was left to die in extremely harsh climatic conditions. The film is known internationally for its difficult and long shoot in the countries of Argentina and Canada.

“We wanted to make a movie that was immersive and visceral,” he notes. “The idea of using natural light came because we wanted the audience to feel, I hope, that this stuff is really happening.”

An interesting thing about Revenant is that it has been shot under natural lighting conditions like never before. Only 10% of the light in the movie is artificial and because of his collaborations with other people, he also managed to use few strategies. Revenant is the first movie where there are no scenes with outside and exterior lighting except for one scene where there is a campfire. The night where the wind is causing an extreme pulse for the distraction, he said they were to arrange a bunch of light bulbs to create the cushion of light. According to Lubezki, he has originally planned to shoot the entire picture on the film but after making few tests, he realized that this format can’t be adapted because one can’t capture the exact sensitivity of the movie with the techniques. Therefore, he used the Arri Alexa with lenses ranging from 12mm to 21mm to shoot the scenes. Give the film a visit and you will know!

#2 APOCALYPSE NOW (1979):

Apocalypse Now is a film which showcases the most amusing light work that I have seen in the film. The cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro has won an Oscar for this film and if you have watched it, you will know why. The night scenes where the boats arrive at the Do Lung Bridge is one of those amazing scenes that have the low key lighting. The illumination in this scene almost goes pitch black and then turns to white as the explosions and flares go through the scene. The lighting scenario in the movie has the potential to add a depth to the story as Captain Willard looks to struggle in determining what’s actually going on at the bridge. The reason this movie is known to have the best cinematography is that everything in this movie appears to be chaotic because of the extreme lighting which synchronizes and compliments the emotional element of the movie. Another scene where the movie proves to have the best lighting is while Willard talks with Col. Kurtz. The cinematographer has used no fill light and as a result at first, Kurtz is shown in darkness except for the backlight that only shows us the shaved head of him at first. This kind of creates a thrill and also a highlighting vision in the movie. As they both prolong to converse more, we will be shown the face of Kurtz but only being slowly revealed to Willard where only the left half of the face is lit. Here, no fill is used in the movie, not even the eye light. While people said that Coppola has managed to demand it from Storaro with the help of Brando in order to hide the Brando’s weight; the scenario here created a new lighting that is almost difficult to achieve. Especially, during those periods which is why it not only looked beautiful but it accentuated the sinister of the movie and created a jungle kind of madness.

#3 THE NEW WORLD (2005):

Terrence Malick entirely relies on Emmanuel Lubezki for this movie, because he knows that the cinematography of this movie is extensive. He did the work equally amazing as he did in the Tree of Life, where the usage of natural light has appalled the audience.

According to him, “natural light is more complex than artificial light and once you master it, it is hard to go back and illuminate a scene artificially”.

He did a profound job with the blockers and the bouncers that he made people think that in order to make a story, a brilliant audiovisual, one has to serve it with the best cinematography possible. He used the best costume designs, the best set colors, the best camera lenses, movements throughout the film stock and he saw only through the trough light in many of the scenes which is why the format is used in a different way. Throughout the film, Lubezky has managed to seek the backlight and in the shots where the sun is low and quite in the horizon, he managed to pull off some really beautiful shots while playing with it. One of the beautiful things he did in the movie is that he positioned the actors between the sun and the camera in order to avoid the silhouettes and shadows forming from the light. However, every time one of the characters in the frame move, you can see the light flaring and spilling and in some areas, overexpose the frames as well. In the indoor shots, the backlight is made extreme and therefore, he used windows and doors as the light sources and the actors are produced as dark silhouettes. He made the indoor shooting a bit complicated and as well as architecturally different so that they didn’t have to waste time in moving the lights by shooting at the same location again and again and all over again.

#4 THE TREE OF LIFE (2011):

The Tree of Life can be tagged as one of the most artful and beautiful pictures that have contended for the Oscars. Again, a Terrence Malick’s film, this movie is about the nature and the pleasure of growing up in Texas. The film contains a layer of the 1970s juxtaposed on it for some reason and as the cinematographer pokes us with the statement that we are not accepting the abstraction and the ambiguity of the contemporary world without native touch.

“Life is not filled with instant answers and neither are Terry’s movies,” Lubezki insists. “It seems to irritate lots of people. Some even left the theater because they had a hard time understanding the movie. This reminds me of all the movies that I loved [in the ’70s] where we left the theater and discussed and disagreed. We carried the experience out into the open. Things were not over explained and you went out with your friends after and tried to either make sense of something or talk about a certain emotion or the parts that you didn’t understand that reminded you of your youth.”

On a different note, Lubezki says that he is so pleased to know that a lot of people have willingly accepted ‘The Tree of Life’. The movie contains nothing but lots and lots of trees and then the preoccupations as well making the movie visually pure, rich and at times, risky as well. The language of the film used is not very far from the language of theatre and is aesthetically closed to the music. The movie might be abstract but is completely narrative.

“What is really hard is to create the moment,” he continues. “We were lucky to be there as it unfolded. That to me is the magic of Terry. This is such a departure. The other thing is that it’s very stressful. You can be shooting for several hours and are not sure if you’ve got the beats that feel naturalistic and have the emotion that Terry’s looking for — and that’s scary.”

Therefore, everything in this movie feels less rehearsed and more classical and experimental. In a nutshell, this movie is all about capturing the magic and the movement which is easier to say, but a lot difficult to be done. I mean, how can someone capture a moment which is not existing?

#5 THE SACRIFICE (1986):

Sven Nykvist has a brief view of the Tarkovsky and his methods. This Russian direction has many scenes that run for say around 8-9 minutes as a rule. In this scenes, it’s not only the camera that movies but it should be in the constant movement, where a particular shot is usually established. Therefore, if you see the movie silence, you see that there are a large number of long and close-up shots that are usually cut. Tarkovsky is one of those directors who love to make everything complex. He devotes his time and effort in building an atmosphere in the frame which is why his movies are interesting both from the artist as well as the technical point of view. They usually take a lot of time to come out, which is why things are too complex with him. One of the other important things about the silence is that the cinematography stays in fine wavelength with the plot.

A personal motto of mine is “It is never too late.”, says Sven Nykvist. Many, as they reach the age of sixty start to feel as if they are at the end of themselves, the official retirement age is fast approaching. Thanks and goodbye. But, those of us who are freelance and rather independent often do not think along those lines. Creativity surely doesn’t cease at a certain age. Many artists, composers, authors, and filmmakers are still active will into their eighties—not to mention actors and actresses. The fact is that I received some of my most exciting assignments, and did some of my best movies, at an age usually associated with retirement. It began with Andrej Tarkovskij’s The Sacrifice, 1985, and continued the following year with Philip Kaufman’s film adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, followed by some years of cooperation with Woody Allen.

#6 LORD JIM (1965):

When you start ranting and raving about the films that are inexplicably not received well on their first release, Lord Jim stands first in the list. There is something entirely inexplicable about the movie that this epic gets stalled between the old-fashioned thriller and a psychological failure full of cowardice. Despite the fact that this movie has happened before four decades, it lacks the detailing of few things and also fails to address few issues but however, the things together form a plodding mess and strange performances. However, at all the points in the film, we see Lawrence giving a sullen performance but that kind of makes us intrigued about the movie because of the complexity that the character contains in this movie. The character he is playing itself should represent the questionable behavioral traits that he does instead of portraying a definite range of behavior. As a result, throughout the movie we see him tortured and it is beautifully displayed by the cinematographer with the background effects, the set designs, the costumes and the camera movements. The cinematographer and the director in this movie try to keep the haunted psyche of the character up and as a result, we see a lot of unusual scenes in the film that we don’t actually see. Especially, when he deserts a ship that he thought is thinking, this psyche is represented through various things and this exactly is why this film is listed as one of the Movies with Best Cinematography. Because of the cinematography, the movie contains, the story turns out to be nervy heroic content which worked better instead of a flat narrative. Lord Jim is a movie that is well made with constant pushing of variation and cowardice in a pack, making it distant from other characters.

#7 The Legend (1963):

The staging of the movie makes sense where the camera stays attentive in the entire movie to the hunter’s emotions and the movement. As Ciccio connects to the old holdings and the ancestry of Fabrizio and Calogero; the movie starts pivoting over the unifying landscape of the plot. Here, we see the rabbit jarring over the scape as it bisects initially the frame and then we see the shift in both the camera and the conversation done brilliantly. The best thing about the film is when Fabrizio strokes the pest distractedly but with a slain. The significance that the rabbit holds is explained through the cinematography in this film.

“While sympathetic fingers were still stroking that poor snout, the animal gave a last quiver and died; Don Fabrizio and Don Ciccio had had their bit of fun, the former not only the pleasure of killing but also the comfort of compassion.”

The Leopard, as a film gives us moments where we see Garibaldi landing, the invasion of Sicily, the subsequence of modernization and unification in Italy and all of that through the lens of a Salina family. We can see the art dwelling when the first shot opens back in 1860 where a soldier’s corpse is shown in the Salina garden and the film closes in 1862 with the introduction of Angelica in an extended ball. The news of this capture of Garibaldi is shown beautifully in the middle of the film and also the establishment of new Italian kingdom as well. On a whole, the film contained two very important threads, one is the exhaustion of Fabrizio and the other is the indicative nobility and the modernity of the era and then the rise of Tancredi as well; making the film spectacular on a whole.

#8 BLACK NARCISSUS (1947):

Jack Cardiff has been tagged as one of the greatest cinematographers of the studio era. It’s his work, his improvisation with colors that made him profound after watching many films in black and white. People started using the world ‘painterly’ in order to describe his work but only making that the Cardiff is 100% apt. This self-taught artist used many masters like the Vermeer in creating the light as a model on stage. He has a more grounded color palette when compared to his other contemporaries, but the muted beauty in the Technicolor made him stand out among them. Black Narcissus, made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is the finest example of that through which he has almost created a mystical world full of mountains just in the backlot of the studio. The movie is about a group of nuns who somehow loses their self-control and gets mesmerized by the Himalayan beauties. This movie is indeed very difficult to pull off, especially during that period when the technology is not improved much but the hysteria of the characters is displayed in a beautiful way that they are motivated by the atmosphere and in one word, the film entirely is made at the hands of Cardiff as the nuns go through the spiritual crisis and become tangible to the world. One should credit the cinematographer abundantly, as we see the images that have the potential to transport the audience directly into the cinematic world that you almost feel like you’re sitting on the edge between the Earth and the heaven.

#9 IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000):

No filmmaker in this entire world could have captured such intense emotion and sense of mood as they have done in this film. It contains the finest expression of texture, color, and light and it doesn’t have the interiors of the repression in the frame, on even for a minute. However, the characters are repressed in contrast and everything is so beautifully visualized as a result in this movie. The director has employed three cinematographers altogether including Pung Leung Kwan, Wong, and Mark Lee Ping-bin to get the best in his movie. As a result, every glance and gesture in this movie is highlighted and for most of the film, it contains. The haze and the sensuality caused by smoke and the light makes that there is a hidden emotion in the movie that can only be felt but not touched.

#10 BLADE RUNNER (1982):

Jordan Cronenweth will forever be praised for doing such a unique task as he made Blade Runner. This movie is not something creative, but is very complex and is entirely new. Grounded in the reality, this is one of those movies that has the convention and at the same time, it will take you to the tangible existence of the story. Oh, let’s not talk about it! As a cinematographer, it’s the first time that he went inventive and really bold that you can see the usage of unconventional light sources which are not used in his previous films. The movie contained neon, fluorescent and xenon lights as well which can create the light of the future, altogether. Also, the unusual source lighting also helped especially with the usage of Xenons. If you have watched the recent version of Blade Runner, it’s pretty much, a more modified version of the previous version creating broader shifts with unmotivated searchlights.  One can simply call the Blade Runner, a revolution as the lighting design it contained also manages to activate a layer which is unknown and which is beyond the set itself. As the lights start credencing into the scenes, we see that there is a different kind of sense that controls our eyes for the unknown forces and pushing us into a dystopian world. Also, the lighting in the film has been noir, with respect to the directional light and as a result, it managed to create darker and sharper areas in the frame. But with the addition of more lights than the typical noir, this film has become gigantic. If you see the scenes, you can see that there are numerous pockets of lights and shadows in the settings and as the textures emerge from the pockets, the light hits the smoke, the neon glow, and the rain; taking you to an entirely different world altogether. Therefore, more than half of the credit for the film’s success goes to the futuristic set it contains and the backdrops that almost felt real. Roger Deakins, who won the Oscar for the Blade Runner 2049 also was inspired by Cronenweth’s cinematography which opened a new path for this modern lighting.

#11 SE7EN (1995):

If you have watched many neo-noir films, a thing you should know about them is that the lighting in these films is highly associated with the blacks and whites. Darius Khondji who worked with David Fincher for this film has managed to elevate the low key lighting with the incredibly inventive waves and somehow managed to deliver the images that captured the thematic and bleak atmosphere of this darkest film. The thing about David Fincher is that he chooses to narrate the stories with respect to a single character and therefore, the color palette plays a crucial role. Therefore, this movie had the desaturation as well as the green tinge applied over the frames and somehow still managed to give us the warmth and the light softness. The silver retention that he has used in this film, gave the satisfying blacks to the modern cinematography where he pulled the rich mid-tones and gave the film, a glow as the heart and the hope. His dim light matches the humanity of the lead character who tries to confront the evil. Apart from that, the bleakness the movie has achieved in this digital era either through the sophisticated LUT or by turning the dial created despair in people making it analogous, textural and extremely beautiful.

#12 The GODFATHER I & II (1972-1974):

It’s hard for a person to not empathize with the Paramount pictures who almost had a heart attack when they saw the footage of ‘The Godfather’ opening sequence. There wasn’t a cinematographer who has challenged in the entire film history, the way Gordon Wills did to look in the dark. The first part contains the existential noir lighting that explores the world of shadows and there is a strong directional light giving a new definition to the parts of the frame. The cinematographer has managed to work with the incredible frames and the extraordinary staging by Francis Ford Coppola, where things have seemed to be called into the question with exposure and as well as the basic lighting linked with Renaissance paintings showing the art moment that any movie has been made till that point. Wills was more than just the ‘Prince of Darkness’, the nickname that the film industry has given to him. Therefore, we see it extremely changing during the first two parts of the movies. The shift throughout the movie is clearly shown as we see the Kodachrome color palette of the wedding to the sun-drenched story of Michael to the immigration tale of Vito Corleone, shot in technicolor creating arrays of incredible looks, making both the films iconic.

#13 BARRY LYNDON (1975):

There are many technical and concrete reasons why this movie has been brilliant. The movie has a hypnotic beauty about the movie, where the usage of 70mm, the NASA lens, and the candles are used to light up the night scenes. Because of the brilliant period locations of the movie, Kubrick has managed to come up with seemingly endless shoots that strive for the perfection along with the precise compositions as well. Putting it in a nutshell, what made the movie awesome is the simple naturalism highly elevated by the technology along with the formalism undermining the artistry of Kubrick and John Alcott as well. Achieving the single source light along with the grand interiors is one of the reasons why there is a beauty that has been photographed extremely, especially in the wide shots. Alcott needed to manufacture Kubrick’s light and it also required immense testing as well. He illuminated the tableau shots in order to mirror the paintings using the tracing paper as well as the mini lights. He also excelled in capturing misty Ireland with a picture-perfect clarity that it almost bypassed the era’s diffused lighting. His ability to enter with the audience has a thing to do with the film’s slowness and because of the incredible frames that are added, Alcott did a wonderful job altogether.

#14 THE CONFORMIST (1970):

Most of the people who have watched this film, call Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography as nothing less than a dream. But I have never heard that anyone’s dream to be this good. As a cinematographer, Storaro tried to catch the expressionist views of Bernardo Bertolucci in this movie by using different colors. This combo of the director and the cameraman has created a paradise for the audience. The film is actually set back in 1936, where everything is structured around a car ride and showing us the fascists and as well as the anti-fascists too. There are a lot of beautiful killings in the movie that would come up amazingly and therefore, you can see a lot of flashbacks, betrayals, and other stuff as well. Storaro somehow managed to paint the glorious sets with distinct hues and as well as different tones that can capture the leaking of the soul. While the scenes are set in Rome and are muted, with the harshness of the lighting schemes we see Marcello highly betraying himself with lush, welcoming warmth and at times; the saturated color as well; expressed in color and light. Therefore, this movie is nothing less than a historic achievement altogether.

#15 DAYS OF HEAVEN (1972):

The entire credit of Days of Heaven goes to Nestor Almendros, for making a movie which is so excellent. The entire movie looks like it has been shot in some magical hour of the day where there is perfect light and nothing else. You can see the time passing in every moment and the ephemeral beauty is that most of the movie is filmed amidst the Texas landscapes. Therefore, you can see a certain character about the film along with the voice over given by Linda Manz and the magical score by Ennio Morricone.

Following his 17-year disappearance after “Heaven,” the film world came to understand that there was a larger poetry that was being told with a musicality of movement and light. Malick returned in the late ’90s a mysterious legend and an even looser filmmaker, but seeing the gorgeous and disciplined imagery of Almendros carefully pieced together around a more cohesive narrative, it remains the crowning achievement of Malick’s ability to tell stories with light.

A thing about this film is that it has been largely dismissed as an experiment when it comes to the photographic beauty without people actually realizing what’s happening in here. In a nutshell, this movie is nothing less than a poetry just with the musicality of light and movement together. The disciplined and the systematic imagery of Almendros will amuse you with the role they play in building this cohesive narrative. With this movie, you can see how one can narrate story with the help of light.

Wrapping up, watch all these movies with the amusing screenplay and get yourself a free education about the cinematography.

 

Jeevana Mounika
 

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