Great cinematography holds meaning beyond its aesthetic value. We pick our favourite cinematography of the year, 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.
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
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