Great cinematography holds meaning beyond its aesthetic value. We pick our favourite cinematography of the year, including Thelma, Beach Rats, and A Quiet Passion, and explain why the images have purpose. Read the rest of our best of the year content here.
Every craft is crucial to a film’s success, yet cinematographers, or DPs (Directors of Photography), seem only to get their due credit on movies that call for a flashy, highly stylised visual language. Our picks of the ten films with the best cinematography in 2017 are dictated by the way these stylistic choices serve the storytelling and contribute to the experience of the film as a whole — pretty pictures alone are not enough.
Beach Rats (dir. Eliza Hittman, DP Hélène Louvart)
Frankie (Harris Dickinson), the protagonist of Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, barely speaks, instead experiencing the world through watching and touching. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart grants us access to his headspace by emphasising the tactile and the physical in the way she shoots the film. Frankie interacts with his friends in a physical way, whether through sports or play-fighting, and Louvart captures their bodies in motion, almost like a dance where every move is part of a learned language of communication. Surreptitiously, Frankie explores his sexual desires for other men, on the internet, and in furtive encounters. The way the light hits the skin of his partners, and the way he hides his own face under the shadows of his baseball cap, are key to understanding how he experiences the world.
Hittman and Louvart were inspired as much by selfies and the Facebook aesthetic as they were by the sculptural nature of the male body. Louvart’s roving handheld camera provides the intimacy and on-the-fly feel of a candid photograph. And the way she frames hands, arms, torsos, legs, and groups of bodies together, finds poetry in the male form; we feel why Frankie is himself so drawn to these bodies. There’s something almost grungy about the handheld, digital camera, too: it evokes the lower class milieu in which Frankie finds himself — just outside of the city, where masculinity is tightly regulated, and deviations from the norm aren’t accepted. And yet Louvart finds the beauty, even if just in fleeting moments, in this rough life: the beauty of the fireworks that dominate the final sequence of the film suggests hope, and that there’s a bigger world elsewhere for Frankie. – Alex Heeney
Call Me by Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino, DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom)
Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver’s (Armie Hammer) romance unfolds in one of the most idyllic settings imaginable: summer in Northern Italy. DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom had a lot to work with already, but he draws each sensory elements out in the frame even further. Sun drenches everything, from food to bare skin, making it all look irresistibly alluring. The sparkling water, fresh fruit, and vivid green grass feel tangibly aromatic.
Almost the entire film is shots in wides. Close ups hold the same earth-shaking significance that those moments hold for the characters, because they stand out so starkly from the loose, casual, all-encompassing framing of the rest of the film. Elio and Oliver often share the frame, and we can observe the entirety of both their bodies as they develop a physical language with each other. The wides and deep focus also nostalgically link their romance to a specific time and place, by connecting Elio’s and Oliver’s relationship to their surroundings.
We don’t just watch the movie; we feel what it’s like to be there. When we look back on it, we don’t only remember the characters and their connection in isolation, but also the beautiful vistas they cycled through together, and the feeling of heat on skin that Mukdeeprom’s images manage to simulate.'CMBYN DP Mukdeeprom had a lot to work with already, but he draws each sensory elements out in the frame even further.'Click To Tweet
Grainy, tactile 35mm photography gives texture to the images, and creates a sense of nostalgia; it seems unfathomable that these frames have been newly created. They feel like they’ve existed as a memory for decades, and have gained a look of lived-in, dog-eared maturity after years of being turned over and over inside somebody’s head — just as Elio will spend the rest of his life replaying his relationship with Oliver in his head.
While this nostalgic layer is mostly transparent enough that it doesn’t take away from our ability to live in the moment with Elio, there are a few points in the film where we’re asked to notice it. When Elio sits outside at dusk, agonising over Oliver’s absence and awaiting his return, his face is clouded by a flickering silver haze — a malfunction in the film negative that Mukdeeprom and Guadagnino decided to keep for the way it evokes a clouded memory. Mukdeeprom also slips his camera in and out of focus during two moments of physical and emotional intimacy between Elio and Oliver. Looking back in the future, these are the moments Elio would most like to return to, but they’re memories he can’t quite grasp. – Orla Smith
Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, DP Hoyte Van Hoytema)
DP Hoyte Van Hoytema and director Christopher Nolan have only collaborated on two films to date, but their work is already more visually rich than Nolan’s previous films shot by Wally Pfister. Pfister’s lighting was bold, striking, but too polished and artificial to be affecting; Hoytema’s images are soulful.
During high tension set pieces, the camera keeps us in the characters’ claustrophobic headspaces by staying trained on their faces and not showing their pursuers, making us share in their uncertainty and terror. When we break out of this frantic headspace for a landscape shot, the sweeping scale of the panorama is breathtaking and cinematic. Shot on IMAX 70mm cameras that capture the enormity of the mass of soldiers on the beaches in detail, the audience is instilled with a sense of dread at the seeming impossibility of the evacuation.'Hoytema’s photography for DUNKIRK renders epic-scale sets and a high stakes story with gentler beauty, using colour to find emotion in the frame.'Click To Tweet
Like his work on Interstellar, Hoytema’s photography for Nolan’s Dunkirk renders epic-scale sets and a high stakes story with gentler beauty, using colour to find emotion in the frame, rather than Pfister’s harsh, vacuous lighting. The film is dominated by a limited colour palette of blues and greys. However, in the final minutes of the film, in which most of the soldiers return home and start to take in the enormity of their experience on the battlefield, Hoytema lets some colour in. Hans Zimmer’s music swells, and we watch as airforce pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) lands his plane on the beach; snatches of violet make their way into the frame, as the breathless tension finally lets up and makes way for more stirring emotion. – OS
The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker, DP Alexis Zabe)
The dayglow pastels of Sean Baker’s latest film are a big part of what makes its vision of childhood so seductive at first — surrounded by such a beautiful mess of sunny colours, the aggravation from life’s discontentments cannot stick for long.
In the film’s final act, as everything starts falling apart for the characters, the optimistic air of these carefree colours reveals itself to be little more than an illusion, these pretty buildings standing in total indifference to the fate of those who live amongst them.'In the final act of THE FLORIDA PROJECT, the optimistic air of the film's carefree colours reveals itself to be little more than an illusion.'Click To Tweet
Contrasting beautiful surroundings with sad stories is not exactly an uncommon trope in cinema — Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence provides one of the best examples, with the bright flowers that first seemed so welcoming now symbolising all the unfairness of a life bound by the limitations of class. But this contrast feels even more meaningful and cruel in The Florida Project because, as misguided as these characters are, it is hard not to feel like the beauty of their environment played a part in their complacency — the bright and optimistic colours a total deception, conning them into a false sense of security. – Elena Lazic
God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee, DP Joshua James Richards)
Set on a farm in the British countryside, Francis Lee’s feature debut looked at first like yet another grim and gritty British drama, shot on location in Yorkshire with handheld camera. It is exactly that, but also so much more.
Young farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) does start the film as the typical angry young man stuck in a difficult economic situation, his emotions bottled up and unclear. Everything changes when he meets farmhand Georghe (Alec Secareanu), though: Johnny progressively opens up, and lets himself be vulnerable. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards excels both at showing the young man as an elusive figure in a barren landscape, and at catching every little gesture and look that constitutes the boys’ burgeoning romance. – EL
Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, DP Sam Levy)
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird forgoes traditional narrative structure for episodic storytelling — each episode a seemingly low-key event that together add up to a monumental year in Lady Bird’s (Saoirse Ronan) life. The unassuming images that DP Sam Levy creates might seem insignificant at the time, but just like Lady Bird, we will look back on these people, and this place, and realise how just beautiful they were.
Levy’s compositions are simple, but he makes the spaces that Lady Bird inhabits feel lived in. Lady Bird may long to leave her family home behind, but the soft lighting and warm, varied colours show it to be a comforting place. Wide shots with deep focus capture the clutter in her living room and the posters that decorate her bedroom walls. The wides also depict Lady Bird’s relationships and her environment in a frank and familiar way, showing how multiple characters relate to each other in a single frame — even when not all of them are active in the scene. – OS
My Cousin Rachel (dir. Roger Michell, DP Mike Eley)
Perhaps one of the best surprises at the cinema this year, Roger Michell’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel brings genuine emotional resonance to the bonkers twists and turns of the source material. As Philip (Sam Claflin) learns more and more about his beautiful older cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his feelings for her brutally and swiftly shift back and forth between disdain and hatred, lust and regret.
The carefully constructed but boldly expressive compositions carry us through these intense feelings with unexpected success and ease. What could have been a relatively entertaining but cheap melodrama is, in the hands of cinematographer Mike Eley and Notting Hill director Michell, a gorgeously atmospheric, morbid, and sexy adaptation that beautifully respects and imaginatively builds upon its source material. – EL
Nocturama (dir. Bertrand Bonello, DP Léo Hinston)
Ostensibly a film about young French terrorists setting off bombs across Paris, Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama is not the gritty urban thriller its synopsis suggests. In place of menacing-looking men, hand-held camera, frenetic editing, and dark tones, the film has beautiful teens, fixed shots, long takes, and warm colours — the visual style of a teen comedy-drama.
Yet these teenagers are nothing like the emotional wrecks that typically populate teen movies: fearless and determined, their confidence is translated to the screen in the almost unnaturally stilted acting of the cast, the long takes, and the carefully composed shots that lull the viewer into a strangely comfortable contemplation.'In place of menacing-looking men, hand-held camera, and dark tones, NOCTURAMA has beautiful teens, fixed shots, and warm colours — the visual style of a teen comedy-drama.'Click To Tweet
From this serenity and quiet, the film then becomes almost unbearably terrifying — but no less hypnotic — when the carefully laid plans of the teenagers start to derail: mistakes and emotions do not fit within their disaffected frame of mind, and each incongruous element cuts into the serenity of the cinematography with shocking violence. As the sense of peace and order begins to crumble, and the teenagers themselves become terrified, what looked like wisdom and control on their part is revealed to be nothing more than a blinkered and mistaken perception of reality.
The film puts a strong emphasis on the fact that these kids only comprehend the world through the medium of television and digital platforms, and adopts this same apathetic visual language of empty spaces, clean surfaces and meaningless signifiers. Calculating and cold, the teenagers’ grasp on reality is limited to concepts and images, and they do not realise the gravity of what they have done until it is too late. The explosion of violence at the end of the film recalls the iconic final sequence from Bonnie and Clyde: violence and death suddenly become much more than a plot point in the narrative of their lives. – EL
A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies, DP Florian Hoffmeister)
When I think about the films cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister has shot for Terence Davies — The Deep Blue Sea and A Quiet Passion — the first thing that comes to my mind is the way they’re lit. In The Deep Blue Sea, it’s the flickering light from the fire on Hester’s face, showing us just how miserable she is, her hope as fragile as the flame. In A Quiet Passion, it’s the way the white light streams through the windows and onto Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), who became more and more of a recluse as she grew older, never experiencing that light except through a window (windows, after all, are key images in all of Davies’ films). And it’s the intimacy of the candlelight by which Dickinson writes her poetry at night, when it’s quiet enough for her to think and she won’t be disturbing anyone.
When I spoke to Davies about making A Quiet Passion, he insisted that “the costumes have got to look as though they wear them”. But like the costumes, which have to be lived in so as to reveal character, the lighting is also crucial to establishing character and mood. Even when Emily’s home becomes a prison of her own making, the light is still bright, as her intellect and art are still in full bloom; by contrast, her brother’s oppressive home is dark and dank. – AH
Thelma (dir. Joachim Trier, DP Jakob Ihre)
After making three realist dramas on 35 mm together, Norwegian director Joachim Trier and Swedish cinematographer Jakob Ihre joined forces again on supernatural thriller Thelma — their first collaboration to be shot digitally. As the story of a young woman coming of age and coming to terms with her loving but toxic relationship with her parents, Thelma did not require Ihre and Trier to stray too far from their naturalist roots: the lighting is still very naturalistic, and the camera doesn’t draw attention to itself during major emotional moments. But Thelma is also their first genre film together, which freed them to play with bolder, more fantastical images.
That these two seeming extremes — the realistic and the fantastical — fit together perfectly in the film is a tribute to Ihre’s skill as a cinematographer and the closeness of his collaboration with Trier. Many of the choices they made to create a sensation of unease were very subtle: although they shot with anamorphic lenses, they picked some that only created a slight distortion, and the zooms they used followed a straight line rather than something flashier.'In THELMA, Ihre and Trier regularly make the simple, unadorned human face just as cinematic as their fantastical set pieces.'Click To Tweet
I was wowed by the beauty of the scenes shot at the gorgeous Oslo Opera House — a beautiful building, rendered all the more iconic for its role in a central set piece. Sequences showing Thelma trapped underwater, alone in a vast deep blue emptiness, felt dream-like, their eerie beauty evocative and hugely memorable. Shots from above — what Trier refers to as the “gaze from another place” — still stick in my mind, like our introduction to Thelma as an adult, in which we watch people scuttling like ants across a university courtyard for quite some time before Thelma even enters the frame.
And yet Ihre and Trier also regularly make the simple, unadorned human face just as cinematic. The most emotionally powerful scenes in the film centre around performances in medium shots: Thelma and her crush Anja looking out at Oslo from a balcony; Thelma resting her head on her father’s shoulder; Thelma and Anja lying in bed together in the morning light. These seemingly simple setups, not nearly as technically complex as the sequences requiring strobe lights or special effects, are just as memorable, beautiful, and crucial to the film’s storytelling and its combination of the everyday and the supernatural. – AH