In this post, I take what I deem to be the 25 most impressively-shot films of the year and explain my reasoning for the choices as well as providing some info on what went into actually getting the desired look. I do this not only because I’m a nerd but also because I don’t think people always notice or care to consider how much work and artistry goes into making a film look a certain way. Even more stylistically muted films require careful decision-making to appear that way.
Each choice also includes an image from the movie that stood out to me. These are NOT my favorite 25 films of the year; these are the ones that impressed me the most photographically.
#25) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Shot by Ben Davis
I have my issues with Three Billboards as a story, but it’s undeniably a smartly shot film by Ben Davis, who’s probably most known for his work on a trio of Marvel films (Doctor Strange, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy). On top of successfully capturing the small-town feel the film required and framing some interesting scenes with the actual billboards in the background, Davis employed an old-school approach to most dialogue scenes, using two cameras (one focused on each actor) so the film could be cut with a shot-reverse shot pattern allowing some of the strongest images to be not of someone talking but of someone else subtly reacting to the talking. The scene that best shows this off is when Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff and Frances’ McDormand’s Mildred talk on the swingset. It was most powerful moment in the film, I just wish it didn’t happen so early on!
#24) Wonder Woman
Shot by Matthew Jensen
One of Jensen’s challenges was having to lens and light the film completely differently depending on if the scene was in Themsycira or WWI-era Europe without it looking like two entirely different movies. The grey & blue color palette crafted by Jensen, the digital artists, and director Patty Jenkins was key for the latter sequences, and also felt at home within the overall DCEU aesthetic (which, love or hate it, has a unique look of its own and deserves credit for that). For the already infamous “No Man’s Land” sequence, which asked for the camera to follow Diana as she runs through mud, Jensen rigged a skycam like you’d see on Monday Night Football so his camera could follow her movements through a giant set without being slowed down itself. Wonder Woman is the rare franchise film that manages to both fit into the franchise visually while also creating its own look. Jensen is coming back to shoot the sequel.
#23) Wind River
Shot by Ben Richardson
When discussing the potential look of the film with first-time director Taylor Sheridan, Richardson pointed to classic westerns as a jumping off point for how to frame this thriller shot in the snowy Utah countryside. A big part of that aesthetic is contrasting wide landscape shots with extreme close-ups, and Wind River certainly does that. For the close-ups, Richardson used a shoulder-cam and got right up in there with the actors. Another aspect Richardson has spoken about is using Zeiss lenses from the 90’s to shoot the film so he could get a look somewhere in between the classic westerns he was influenced by and technical perfection allowed by modern lenses. He certainly achieved that, I’d say.
Shot by Chung-Hoon Chung
Being a frequent collaborator of Park-chan Wook, it should come as no surprise that Chung is a master at using complex gaffing to light his images so that there’s real layering, even in darkness. That becomes very important in a film like It, which mostly takes place during the daylight but uses sewers and rooms in old houses to create darkness during that daylight. The opening sequence works so well, not playing comedically in any way, in large part due to Chung’s work. Lighting can make or break a horror film, probably more so than it can any other genre, and It is an achievement in lighting above all else. Not that the film doesn’t have other merits, but Chung’s work with his gaffer is the most impressive formal element of the movie.
#21) Lady Bird
Shot by Sam Levy
Sam Levy, through his work with Gerwig, Kelly Reichardt, and Noah Baumbach, has contributed as much to the look of dialogue-driven American independent film as anyone over the last decade. The key is obviously to craft beautiful images, but not in an overly-dramatic way where your shot composition distracts from the words the actors are saying. Levy, Gerwig, and editor Nick Houy spent a lot of time in pre-production planning the framing and blocking, with Levy saying they even shot-listed the entire script twice. In most scenes, the characters were framed slightly off-center, so not provide too cinematic of a look.
#20) Alien: Covenant
Shot by Dariusz Wolski
Wolski & Ridley Scott are a great team, and they did an exceptional job making Alien: Covenant look creepy during both interior and exterior scenes. The planet this time around is much prettier than the one in Prometheus. There are mountains and lakes and even wheat. But grey lens filtering keeps the environment bleek despite its beauty. Interiors on the ship are shot to emphasize reflections off the grey walls, and even as the film becomes a CGI action spectacle towards the end, Wolski’s palette is still there to ground the viewer. Wolski’s work can next be seen in Sicario 2: Soldado.
Shot by Rachel Morrison
If Rachel Morrison becomes the first female cinematographer ever nominated for an Oscar next week, it’ll be well-deserved. Her work on Mudbound carries a film that has a few narrative lulls, as the atmosphere of the WWII-era South feels natural throughout. Having a period piece look like it’s actually from its period is difficult without the film ultimately looking like it was touched up dramatically in post-production. Morrison accomplished her look not only through natural lighting, but by using low-contrast lenses from the 60’s & 70’s so the colors appeared to blend more naturally, giving a dirty look to a film that features a lot of, well, mud. Morrison recently shot Black Panther for Ryan Coogler.
Shot by John Mathieson
To design the look of Logan, director James Mangold had Mathieson look at both 70’s road movies and Clint Eastwood westerns. This is pretty easy to see watching the film and the way it’s lit by Mathieson. But one thing Mathieson insisted on was not shooting the fight scenes too close to the action, pointing at Gladiator for reference of how he wanted them to look. Using a medium-long lens and standing back a bit, Mathieson was able to capture the action so that nothing ever fell off the frame no matter how complex the stunt work was (and for Logan, it was quite complex, as the action sequences cut back on CGI and slow-motion in favor of wiring stunts to make the fights seem more real-world). It was also important for Mathieson to shoot scenes from lower angles considering a child was at the center of the action just as much as Logan himself was.
#17) A Ghost Story
Shot by Andrew Droz Palermo
Unique in both its 1.33:1 aspect ratio and precise photographic style that had little in-frame to play with, shooting A Ghost Story the way director David Lowery envisioned it certainly was a challenge for Palermo, and he nailed it. The cinematography changes as the film’s narrative does, continually creating an atmosphere that felt like the real protagonist for the story. Palermo achieved this by using various lenses throughout the film; some old, some new ones designed for digital photography. Made on a miniscule budget (just $100K), for interior scenes Palermo had to get the lighting he wanted by literally covering windows with different sheets and curtains. It’s extremely impressive how a film so small looks so big at times.
#16) Blade Runner 2049
Shot by Roger Deakins
While it’ll likely win him his long-deserved Oscar, I don’t think Blade Runner 2049 ranks amongst Roger Deakins’ finest work. But it’s still a film littered with gorgeous lighting and painterly shot composition in nearly every frame. Despite the film’s huge budget and epic look, Deakins went very low-tech to light the interior scenes. He literally made rings of different sizes out of wood and attached household lightbulbs to them, then hung them over the sets so to provide a different brightness at each vertical level of the shot. He’s spoken extensively about how, despite the film being the biggest production of his career and employing the most post-production VFX work, he doesn’t really consider any of that stuff while shooting, instead focusing on capturing the best images he can while on set and letting Villeneuve and the digital artists handle the rest. Deakins is a veteran cinematographer who may not care for CGI, but his images certainly provide great backdrops if CGI becomes necessary.
#15) The Beguiled
Shot by Philippe Le Sourd
Has another film ever made such perfect use of candlelight? Le Sourd and Sofia Coppola knew what they wanted for the interior scenes at night, and while it seems as simple as burning some candles, it’s not, because no cameras are designed to shoot candlelight. Le Sourd pull-processed the film negatives to reduced the depth of shadows from the actors. He also had PanaVision design a customer filter for the film so his images could look like portraits from the period. Shot composition was extra important for him here, because in nearly every scene that camera is stagnant and there’s minimal movement from the actors, so having everything perfect before you start rolling is a must.
#14) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Shot by Henry Braham
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was the first film to ever be shot on the RED Weapon 8K Vista Vision camera, ditching the Arri Alexa that Marvel usually insists on DoP’s using. In fact, the used camera was still a prototype when Braham and James Gunn decided that’s how they wanted to shoot the movie. I’m not the most well-versed in camera technology, but the RED 8K VV, which you can now purchase for $88,000, is special and groundbreaking because the full frame sensor technology inside the camera allows for extra-high resolution and color accuracy. This is essential for a film like Guardians, which quite possibly features the most extensive and colorful CGI seen yet. Shooting the actors and actual sets with this camera allows the digital artists to not have to compromise at all when they do their thing. Anything they can draw up they can put into the film. The result was a vibrantly shot blockbuster that can’t even be fully appreciated on home video because the tech required isn’t readily available. I hope you caught this in theatres.
Shot by Matthew Libatique
Regardless of your interpretation of or opinion on mother!, you can’t deny that Darren Aronofsky’s primary goal was to put the audience in the head of Jennifer Lawrence’s character. There are only three types of shots for the entire movie: shots on her where only she’s in focus, shots from over her shoulder connecting her to her surroundings, and point-of-view shots as if she was the camera. The result is something disorienting and engaging, even in the early parts of the film. The camera is on a closeup of Lawrence for 66 minutes of the film’s 121-minute runtime. Libatique is a longtime collaborator of Aronofsky’s (as is editor Andrew Weisblum), and their aggressive style is critical for these films that can often be narratively challenging.
#12) Beach Rats
Shot by Hélène Louvart
Boldly choosing to shoot the film on Super 16mm, director Eliza Hittman and Louvart set out to capture Brooklyn and Coney Island exteriors, as well as impoverished bedrooms, through grainy images populated with dramatic natural color. When they graded the film, they didn’t work on different colors specifically, instead just adjusting the overall brightness of the image so that everything looked authentic even as they tweaked things to make it prettier to the eye. Naturally, comparisons were drawn to James Laxton and Berry Jenkins’ work on Moonlight, another film shot on Super 16mm, but Beach Rats is a bit rawer in its look. Louvart has worked with some of the biggest names in global cinema (including Claire Denis, Agnes Varda, Wim Wenders, and Leos Carax) and it’s easy to see why she’s so sought after.
#11) Good Time
Shot by Sean Price Williams
Shooting on 35mm to capture the grittiness required through grain, but also with handheld super speeds to keep up with the kinetic action sequences, Williams did some of the most unique work of the year on Good Time. It’s a very colorful movie both naturally and artificially, and much of it is shot at night. Williams chose custom negatives for this that would emphasize the purple and blue and red and green and pink SkyPanel lights amidst the darkness. He got that “electro-acid” look the Safdie’s were going for.
#10) The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Shot by Thimios Bakatakis
Thimios and Yorgos Lanthimos continue to create gorgeous, disturbing imagery together. The film takes place in an unspectacular Cincinnati setting, but it’s shot to make it seem like a macabre dystopia. Many of the film’s key moments are shot through a glass surface. On top of the obvious thematic relevance this motif carries, it simply makes for some beautiful imagery. Another tactic I noticed upon rewatching the film is how brightly lit the family is, compared the dimming of Martin, the film’s antagonist. This is a big factor in Martin seeming so off and sinister even before he actually does anything.
#9) John Wick: Chapter 2
Shot by Dan Laustsen
The first of two Laustsen works on this list, John Wick 2 doubles down on the intricate shot composition of the first film, specifically during fight sequences. Laustsen insists on minimal camera movement during these sequences. He believes it makes the complex choreography stand out more. I tend to agree, as a lot of camera movement makes the fights look a little too perfect. This goes hand-in-hand with shooting wide and keeping everything in every frame, as we went over earlier with Logan. And of course there’s some beautiful lighting in the John Wick movies. My favorite sequence in the sequel, the fight in the catacombs beneath Rome, used Blue LED lighting not just to create pretty images but, as Laustsen has said, to add to the theme of melancholy John feels from being pulled back into the criminal underworld. I hope they make a hundred more of these movies. They are spectacular.
#8) Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Shot by Steve Yedlin
As Rian Johnson’s longtime DoP, Steve Yedlin has built a great working relationship with the director. There’s a level of trust that allows the two to create bold images, like Snoke’s Throne Room. The color red is obviously thematically important in Star Wars, but this took it to another level. Lit to emphasize reflection, with the red floor almost functioning as a mirror, contrasting perfectly with the all-black getup of Kylo Ren, Johnson & Yedlin (and production designer Rick Heinrichs) create what has already become one of the most lauded visual settings in a franchise full of them. When the fighting gets going, Yedlin foregoes the shaky-cam technique used in most modern action photography in favor of a sweeping single shot that allows the lightsaber choreography to feel like poetry. The entire film is a visual treat, but that scene is an all-timer.
#7) The Florida Project
Shot by Alexis Zabe
In The Florida Project, Alexis Zabe’s photography reinforces Sean Baker’s script in telling the story through the eyes of a child. The camera is usually angled up at adults, making them feel like giants, as they do to seven year-olds. The Magic Castle, which we know is a sleazy motel, is shot majestically. The framing makes the motel seem like a gigantic theme park. The pink and purple is almost frustratingly bright. The hallways and staircases seem endless. There’s an uncomfortable, powerful mood to this film; as what’s so often implied from the adults is depressing but what’s shown with the children is so energetic and beautiful. This is a difficult tone to capture. But Baker and Zabe do so, and the results are jarring.
#6) The Lost City of Z
Shot by Darius Khondji
James Gray choosing to shoot on-location in the jungle presented both a great challenge and opportunity for Khondji. On one hand, lighting everything is a lot tougher. On the other, he’s able to capture an intimacy with the environment you simply can’t from second-unit establishing shooting or studio work. Khondji actually shot early sequences on both film and digital as he wasn’t sure how firelight scenes would look, but he eventually settled on film. He used a wide variety of lenses and flashers for the movie, preferring to shoot close-ups with a customized PanaVision 50mm wide-angle lens that gave the desired focus without deforming the faces in any way as wide-angle lenses tend to. Khondji believed the film was about obsession, and he wanted his close-ups to follow suit. Khondji’s work plays a large part in a film made for a relatively small $30M looking like the $100M epic it wanted to be.
#5) War for the Planet of the Apes
Shot by Michael Seresin
When Matt Reeves took over the Apes franchise, he wanted to make darker films; not just thematically, but aesthetically as well. So he brought in Seresin (probably best known for shooting Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for Alfonso Cuaron). The ape characters in the film being played by actors in grey motion-capture suits, as opposed to just Andy Serkis and then fully-CG apes, allowed Seresin to light and lens the film during production as if there was no CGI at all. Seresin chose to shoot the film on Alexa 65’s, with that extra resolution giving the digital artists even more options when it came to getting the details of the apes right. Five cameras were used at a time on the main unit so they could shoot the expensive stunts from various angles instead of having to continually repeat them, then figuring out how it would play in post. Making this more impressive is that at times as many of four of those cameras would be moving. Seresin and Reeves did a great deal of work before filming even started, just planning and mapping out these shots.
#4) Call Me By Your Name
Shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Mukdeeprom, who has repeatedly said that when he shoots a film he doesn’t desire a certain look beforehand, instead preferring to go with whatever equipment the production can offer and letting the momentum of the shoot impact his decision-making, shot all of Call Me By Your Name with a single lens. He wanted it to feel like a vignette, one whole thematic piece. Capturing the sun-drenched look the film asked for was tougher than simply using natural light though, as it was raining for 28 days of the 34-day shoot. So Mukdeeprom tripled the amount of lights he originally ordered and positioned them (and the camera) higher so scenes could appear to be taking place on a sunny day even when they weren’t. He didn’t do much grading in post, as Luca Guadagnino was happy with the naturally colorful visual palette the design of the film provided. Maybe the cinematography here seems simple, but it’s far from that. This is a movie that threw challenges at Mukdeeprom, to which he responded with something beautiful.
Shot by Hoyte van Hoytema
Approaching IMAX with a new sense of intimacy considering the 65mm IMAX camera Dunkirk was shot on (for the land and air sequences, at least) weighs 54 pounds, Hoyte van Hoytema is surely in for his first Oscar nom. Hoyte used the very big and expensive camera to shoot close-ups, specifically inside the cockpit, destroying the stigma that IMAX photography is only worthwhile for big establishing shots from far away. Dunkirk was shot mostly with naturally light, which is different from how Hoyte shot Interstellar for Nolan, but fitting considering the number of real WWII vehicles and costumes this production used. Hoyte plays around with focus a lot on Dunkirk to make it feel epic but also intensely personal. The film as a whole is a miraculous technical achievement. The cinematography of course plays a big role in that.
#2) The Shape of Water
Shot by Dan Laustsen
The visual storytelling of Guillermo del Toro is incredibly detailed. His sets are dense and his ideas are ambitious. This, of course, requires exceptional cinematography. Laustsen certainly delivered on The Shape of Water. Shot with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and a budget of just $20M (tiny for a fantasy film that looks this great), Laustsen had some serious lighting challenges as the sheer size of the production, or lack thereof, greatly limited scaffolding options. So what he did was put most of the lighting in front of the camera, in the frame. Seriously, watch it again. Most of the light comes from bulbs you can see yourself. So what was originally a budgetary problem resulted in a unique, gorgeous look that brings the sets to life. I hope he wins the Oscar he’ll surely be nominated for.
#1) First They Killed My Father
Shot by Anthony Dod Mantle
For her devastating drama about children living amidst the genocide by the Khmer Rouge in 1970’s Cambodia, Angelina Jolie hired the great Anthony Dod Mantle. Shooting in 4K per Netflix’s request, Mantle used Steadicam for the extended takes moving around big sets with many extras, and handheld photography for more intimate moments close to the film’s 7 year-old protagonist. Jolie wanted some overhead shots as well, to give a sort of “God’s point of view” in certain scenes. Instead of using a crane, Mantle brought a drone team in from Thailand, allowing his camera to capture the sets from above while moving without disrupting anything being filmed. Mantle also has spoken a great deal about how much time went into color grading during post-production on this film, as the palette is huge and very different scene-to-scene. This is one of those movies that captures horror beautifully. It’s the strongest work of Mantle’s career and it’s a shame it hasn’t gotten the awards attention it deserves.