The Best Cinematography of the 21st Century

Chris O'Falt, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Zack Sharf, Anne Thompson, Steve Greene, Jude Dry and Michael Nordine
·8 min read

Editor’s note: This list was originally published in 2017, but it has been updated with 16 new entries and re-ranked.

Cinematography is tough to judge on its own merits, because it can be hard to extract it from the other powers of great visual storytelling. At the same time, every beautiful movie shows the signature of a talented director of photography as much as a filmmaker. In the process of considering the finest cinematographic achievements of this decade, this list includes on gorgeous films that — in some cases — achieve more on the level of cinematography than anything else.

The past two decades have found the craft of cinematography making extraordinary advances on the level of digital technologies and other innovations, but at the end of the day, these particulars matter less than the sheer impression left by the images and movements captured by cinematographers operating at the peak of their abilities. Here are some of the best examples from this young century.

40. “Silence” (2016)

Mexican DP Rodrigo Prieto first joined forces with Martin Scorsese on “Wolf of Wall Street,” but their collaboration reached new heights on “Silence.” When you watch the powerful religious/period drama, the distinct palette and stark imagery is striking, even for a Scorsese film, but not altogether surprising considering the careful planning that goes into each his films. But Prieto created the film’s sculpted look under impossible conditions. Juggling rough locations under constantly changing and harsh weather conditions, Prieto somehow controls the elements by making fog, nature, the sea and the sunlight into the tools of his outdoor studio. —CO

39. “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)

Guillermo del Toro’s longtime cinematographer Guillermo Navarro won a much-deserved Oscar for his work on the director’s alluring dark fantasy film. Navarro is as integral to del Toro’s movies as any fairy tale monster, lensing six films with his countrymen: “Cronos,” “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” and “Pacific Rim.” Navarro has also worked with Robert Rodriguez on a few films, and shot Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown.” A film so dependent on visuals to weave its dark yarn, the genius of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is in the delicate balance it strikes between lightness and darkness. Part childhood fable, part nightmare, Navarro steeps his images in deep blues and eerie yellows. Fluid camera movements guide the viewer seamlessly — and eerily — from the dark realm of fantasy into the cold light of reality. It’s an intoxicating effect —the images somehow wash over you like the roiling sea and strike the fear of god in you at the same time. –JD

38. “The Master” (2012)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Paul Thomas Anderson served as his own cinematographer on his latest untitled film (opening in December). Regardless of whether he’s working with regular DP Robert Elswit, or newcomer Mihai Malaimare Jr. on “The Master,” PTA is a filmmaker completely in charge of his precise images, even down to choosing the exact lenses needed to capture his vision. While for most directors, switching between digital and film hasn’t affected their work, Anderson’s photography has increasingly become specific to the texture, color and magic of celluloid.

For “The Master,” the move to 70mm was key, as Anderson cranks up the hallucinatory dial on his visuals to place us in the post-war haze of a veteran being entranced by a huckster. The ocean, the light, and the atmosphere are so present that we’re lulled into a beguiling dreamlike state. Every frame is an expressive photograph with sharp colors and period details that comes from what’s in the frame, rather than filters and post-production manipulation. These are images designed to implant themselves in your brain, which might explain why film’s reputation has grown exponentially since it was first released. —CO

37. “All These Sleepless Nights” (2017)

The best example of the new forms of storytelling and cinematic language that are possible with a new generation of light-sensitive, relatively inexpensive digital cameras. Collaborating with his two leads, director and co-cinematographer Michal Marczak created a cinematic portrait of restless youth that feels more closely related to the French New Wave than a documentary.

Cinematography is such a big part of Marczak’s process: His portraits of endless-party worlds often take place at times of day when the light is most evocative, and in some cases, he’d show up early with co-DoP Maciej Twardowski to create the proper lighting themselves. Once at an event, Marczak is not there to document; he uses the minuscule Sony AS7s and camera rig he built himself to create and find expressive ephemeral moments as he weaves through parties and builds his narrative. —CO

36. “Enter the Void” (2010)

John Alton wrote the invaluable “Painting with Light” (a title later borrowed for a gorgeous documentary about the craft) to explain how he created the low-key noir lighting schemes that changed Hollywood. One can only hope that one day Benoit Debie will write his own book titled “Painting with Color.” With the recent advent (and vast improvements) of adjustable, lightweight, and affordable-color LED lighting, Debie’s body of work over the last 20 years (which relied more on gels, filters, and practicals) has become one of the most influential in modern cinematography. Filmmakers, now equipped with an easy way to experiment and incorporate color into their own lighting, are increasingly studying Debie’s bold use of color in his collaborations with Harmony Korine (“Spring Breakers” and “The Beach Bum”) and Gaspar Noé (“Climax,” “Irreversible”), but it’s the experimental “Enter the Void” that often leaves them speechless.

The nylon-lit world of Tokyo at night, characters taking psychedelic drugs, and the story of a wounded dealer having a somewhat out-of-body experience — all of these elements give Noé and Debie license to create visual language of flashing, sometimes unstable images that feel like something new. Color is emotion, a state of mind, but also story itself. As with his Florida-set work with Korine, it’s not simply the color that Debie adds to the frame, but how he filters and captures the color and feel of the world in front of his lens, which creates a palette unlike anything we’ve seen before. —CO

35. “Neon Demon” (2016)

Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s visual concept of a colorful nightmare born out from the allure of fashion-magazine beauty is one of those ideas that sounds exciting and cool, but not so easy to pull off. Thankfully, cinematographer Natasha Braier – one of the most inventive, resourceful, and fearless DoPs working today – not only created the elegant sheen of high-priced fashion photography with a noirish undercurrent, she did so shooting on multiple locations and within the confines a rapid-paced, barebones $5 million shoot. Painting almost entirely with color and shadow, Brairer transforms recognizable Los Angeles into a stunning hellscape. —CO

34. “The Great Beauty” (2013)

Luca Bigazzi and director Paolo Sorrentino have had a long career together, collaborating on film (“Youth”) and TV (“The Young Pope”) alike. But their crowning visual achievement will likely be their 2013 collaboration on “The Great Beauty,” an aging man’s trip through the glitz and clubs of his own yesteryear. It’s a lush contrast between night and day, capturing sun-drenched Italian vistas and the fireworks-lit party scenes in the evening. The sweeping camerawork in the wide-scale celebrations is a tribute to movement and bodies below. Bigazzi emphasizes the stillness in the center of the frame as the lively chaos surrounds it. It’s a dazzling swirl of nature and the manmade, of simplicity and artifice. It’s unapologetic extravagance in film form. –SG

33. “Mudbound” (2017)

When watching the rich, classical elegance of “Mudbound” it is easy to forget how much the filmmaking team went beyond its means (a $9 million dollar production budget) in creating the gorgeous, sprawling period ensemble. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is impressive not only because of the limitations imposed on it, though.

Set in Mississippi of the 1940s, director Dee Rees’ clear-eyed look at the messiness of race is as much about today as our country’s past, leading Morrison to avoid the golden nostalgia of a traditional prestige Oscar play. Shooting digitally, the cinematographer captures the specificity of the era’s WPA photographers, like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who inspired the filmmaker’s approach. Morrison finds the humanity of this tragic story in its striking landscape.

Yet the visually stunning movie was the product of simply capturing natural light. Images this sculpted don’t come easily when shooting in cramped, windowless sharecropper homes or under the harsh summer light of the Deep South. Prior to “Mudbound,” Morrison had been one of the independent film world’s most exciting talents. With this film, she transcended that status and entered the A list. —CO

Launch Gallery: The Best Cinematography of the 21st Century: 'Pan's Labyrinth,' 'Children of Men,' and More

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