December 7, 2017
The Best Cinematography Of 2017
It may surprise you to know that not all end-of-year lists are created equal: While we shove “Worst Films” around our plate like a kid forced to eat brussels sprouts, there are are others we jump at, and all points in between. Today it is our unalloyed pleasure, however, to bring you one of our absolute favorites, a rundown of the best of the year’s cinematography.
In recent years it feels like cinematographers have come more into the spotlight (sorry), and gained greater visibility, even in some cases personal fame, than ever before. But our list this year, while it features quite a few well-known names is also exciting for the number of new, emerging talents it features. It signals not so much a generational change in the profession, as an attitude shift, whereby with more exposure (damn, sorry there’s just no way to avoid these puns) the craft has attracted a wider and more diverse set of younger talents, who are in turn freshening things up. And considering Cinematography is famously one of the last Oscar categories never to have featured a single female nominee — let alone a winner — I think we can all agree it’s high time. Here are the 20 films from 2017 that we feel feature the very best that the noble art of cinematography has to offer — it’s been a delight revisiting, remembering and writing about them once again.
20. Rachel Morrison – “Mudbound”
She’s been on the verge of exploding for a while — we’ve had our eye on her since her terrific work on “Sound Of My Voice” — but Rachel Morrison is about to have a great 2018. She’s reteamed with her “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler for blockbuster “Black Panther,” which shows every sign of being the best-looking Marvel movie to date, and after picking up Cinematography honors from the NYFCC, may well become the first female DP nominated for an Oscar next month for her stellar work in Dee Rees’ “Mudbound.” The brutal period epic stands out for never quite looking like other period movies — its lightly sepia-toned depiction of the squalid farmland of the title feels more reminiscent of great photography of the post-war period than most other costume dramas (though there’s a little “Days Of Heaven” in there for sure), the landscape looming large over the characters. It might be the most naturalistic photography on this list, which is all the more impressive given that Morrison shot the film on digital rather than film (the ARRI Alexa Mini, albeit with some old Panavision lenses for that cinematic look). It’s the first collaboration between her and Rees (whose “Pariah” photographer Bradford Young was busy in a galaxy far, far away): we hope it won’t be the last.
19. Vittorio Storaro – “Wonder Wheel”
If you know even an ounce about cinematography, you know Italian Vittorio Storaro is a living legend who shot “Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor,” “Last Tango In Paris,” and many other stone cold classics. In recent years, he’s stayed far away from Hollywood, but he’s been coaxed back by the guy who directed “Annie Hall” for the nostalgic “Wonder Wheel.” Set in Coney Island, Brooklyn, Storaro’s lighting makes this Eugene O’Neill-meets-Greek tragedy pop off the screen with vibrant, exploding color, keying up the amusement park’s reputation as a playtime paradise back in its heyday. The director of “Manhattan,” grew up in and around Coney Island, and Storaro certainly captures the romanticized view many have about our youth. Moreover, while intentionally stagey, Storaro creates a fluid movement in and out of the sets—some of the most conspicuous, yet still organic motivated camera seen in a movie from the person who directed “Stardust Memories.” Taken in a vacuum, “Wonder Wheel,” is one of the most visually resplendent movies of the year, but if there’s one beef that keeps it lower on the list is that its bright orange (happy), blue (sad) color scheme gets a little old. Still, Storaro couldn’t frame a bad shot if he tried so “Wonder Wheel” ranks up there with all the other work from the greats who have shot films for the “Interiors” filmmaker, such as Gordon Willis, Vilmos Zsigmond, Sven Nykvist and more.
18. Nanu Segal – “The Levelling”
As part of a suddenly resurgent cinema that both celebrates and critiques the modern rural farming lifestyles of Britain (see also Clio Barnard’s “Dark River” and Francis Lee’s “God’s Own Country,” below) Hope Dickson Leach’s excellent “The Levelling” feels like it’s part of a movement that is also developing its own particular aesthetic. But here British DP Nanu Segal doesn’t just observe farmwork, livestock handling and suchlike, with unusually embedded, handheld authenticity, she also enhances the film’s more mysterious undercurrents with touches of the impressionistic, a kind of hedgerow surreal. As Ellie Kendrick‘s character strives, struggling with suspicion and guilt, to find out the details of her beloved brother’s death, the prosaic, realistic business of the failing, recently flooded farm goes on, all wellington boots and waterproofs. But there’s an undertow of the inexplicable, highlighted in beautiful, dark-hued interludes in which a hare swims through murky waters or a bright eyed rabbit nibbles in a nighttime field, that lend the story a noirish, haunted tinge. And so the cinematography places us squarely in the character’s mind, and we’re never sure, until the very end, if there is really something sinister in the secrets the old place holds, or whether the mystery is all in her head, as a kind of symptom of and distraction from, the grief she’s afraid to let herself feel.
17. Andrew Droz Palermo – “A Ghost Story”
In Andrei Tarkovsky‘s view, cinema is, famously, the art of “sculpting in time.” But this presents a unique challenge for a film like David Lowery’s enigmatic, experimental “A Ghost Story,” as its aim seems to be to present an unsculpted idea of time — a sense of its immensity and endless continuity. And as difficult a task as that is narratively, it’s also a big ask visually. Andrew Droz Palermo’s solution — and it’s a mark of his success that it’s difficult to imagine any other way to do it — is to treat the film’s loftier, metaphysical elements in exactly the same way as its more banal and potentially clumsy aspects, like the last-minute-Halloween-costume ghost that haunts the story. Everything, simply, is a matter of fact, whether it’s the detail of the ghost’s white sheet trailing across the floor, or a man hammering in a post in pioneer times. Visually, aside from its vignetted academy ratio, the film is ultra-low-key, often shot in crepuscular half-light, so that even when it’s full of people, it feels muted and slightly removed. That consistency means that whatever the concertina effect of the editing, where we can jump centuries in a millisecond or spend five minutes watching Rooney Mara grief-eat a pie in real time, we always remain in the same register of heartbroken curiosity about our relationship to time, and the tragedy that is the tininess of our short, rigid lifespans in comparison to the neverending elasticity of eternity.
16. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom – “Call Me By Your Name”
There was never any doubt that Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s ravishing work on Luca Guadagnino‘s delirious first-love story was going to loom large in our hearts when compiling this list. But if it’s a little lower than might have been expected that’s only because it feels like he was working with an almost unfair level of advantage: an Italian summer of chatty outdoor dinners, spontaneous nighttime swims, and lazing by the mossy garden splash pool, populated with actors as engagingly fresh-faced as Timothee Chalamet and as strikingly handsome as Armie Hammer. As much as “Call Me By Your Name” has going on under its sun-dappled, tanned skin, a great deal of what has made it such an enduring favorite is its romantic, golden portrayal of an impossibly aspirational lifestyle, and a great deal of that is thanks to Mukdeeprom (who also shot Miguel Gomes’ “Arabian Nights” triology as well as Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s “Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives“). The sensory immediacy of his photography is exceptional, how you can practically smell the grass, feel the cool water on your skin and taste the, er, peaches on your tongue and how all of those cues add up to an impression of first love not how it ever was for any of us, probably, but how we wish it could have been.