When we consider the film experience, cinematography as a storytelling tool is one of many roles that draw us in and dazzle our senses. Consider the choices and collaboration between the director of photography and the director, for example. Everything from lighting to framing, and (not to get too technical) the type of equipment used to film a movie affect the overall feel the flick aims to portray.
Sometimes, films with such great cinematography and set design are even good enough to watch in silence, no dialogue necessary. On a similar thread, read on for 20 striking films whose cinematography will change the way you see the world.
Two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black, and one white, struggle to cultivate the unforgiving landscape around them, and their inner worlds. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison's work enhances the manual and emotional labor (and mud) with a color palette reminiscent of the Farm Security Administration photographers, writes one Time magazine review.
Director: Dee Rees
Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison
Available on: Netflix
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, everything is just slightly outside the pale of normality, a suggestion of the inevitable collapse of one family's perceived perfection and the illusion of safey—that is, until it becomes full-on nightmarish. Take, for example, the young woman who leans somewhat unnaturally against a lone, large oak tree as she performs, in a tone of total seriousness, a breathy rendition of Katy Perry's "Firework" for a one-man audience.
The film is mood-driven, intellectual, experimental, strange, quirky, and—rest assured—beyond entertaining, following a cookie-cutter family that's thrown off course when the father mentors a young, odd boy who quickly becomes obsessed with him and his family. The whole universe of the movie seems to mimic the father's monotone, bizarrely affectless demeanor, even when the kids start getting sick in an apparent act of revenge.
There are also many clever shots and camera angles that give the audience a bird's eye view—everybody is playing God now, and even you, the viewer, are implicated in what's about to unfold. Behind all the beauty, there's something truly sinister and ugly, which is unsurprising, given the title of the film.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cinematographer: Thimios Bakatakis
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Jamal's motherless youth in the Mumbai slums were shot on location, and we jump back and forth to present-day Jamal awash in bright, artificial lights as he vies for a life-changing amount of prize money in the hot seat of India's popular game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Viewers' moods shift with the scenes and themes explored, like the filters used in the film; a darker, bluish sheen magnifies corruption, while natural light highlights nostalgia and innocence.
Director: Danny Boyle
Cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle
Not only is every shot indescribably striking, but Moonlight captures a sense of place unlike any other; feel the humidity rising in every shot, a nod to both the oppressive heat of Miami, Florida, but also the tension and oppression the protagonist experiences throughout the film. Grappling with issues of identity formation and belonging amid adversity, it follows Chiron as he grows up and navigates his sexuality and finds mentorship and love from unconventional figures.
Though there are many moments of heartbreak and alienation, Moonlight will leave you triumphant, thanks to the small gestures of empathy and revealing representations of all sorts of love, both romantic and sexual, parental and platonic, along with the challenge to establish self-love when we can't seem to find it externally.
For the wordsmiths… "I should have cried too much. Sometimes I feel like I'm just gonna turn into drops."
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cinematographer: James Laxton
Cold War (2018)
In the world of cinematography, Cold War's striking lighting work makes the black and white film all the more captivating. “In Poland, there was no color in those days, in those years. Everything was black and white,” Łukasz Żal, Cold War's Director of Photography, said to Film School Rejects, in an interview. Over the course of a decade in Postwar Europe, we follow a love story between Wiktor and Zula amidst political turmoil and fateful circumstance.
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cinematographer: Łukasz Żal
Available on: Amazon
Hidden Figures (2016)
To transport viewers to 1960's NASA and illuminate the African American women who played a pivotal role during the height of America's space program, cinematographer Mandy Walker told The Hollywood Reporter she worked with director Ted Melfi to create a modern, Kodachrome look. They drew inspiration from period news footage, documentaries, and big name photographers. Regarding Space Task Force, character Katherine's work site, and the only set built for Hidden Figures, Walker tells the magazine, "... it's big, airy and bright but with less color. In that room, with all the guys and white shirts, we wanted Katherine to stand out like a jewel in a beautiful green dress."
Director: Theodore Melfi
Cinematographer: Mandy Walker
A Single Man (2009)
With fashion designer Tom Ford directing, A Single Man is endlessly stylish, with a particular attention to aesthetics and beauty. Thematically, it spotlights a professor living in Los Angeles during the early 1960s as he attempts to maintain his daily routine after the sudden and tragic loss of his young partner.
Taking place over the course of a single day, we get a glimpse into the inner world of an aging gay man living in Los Angeles. The New Yorker describes it as "slowed by its own beauty," which sure, could read like a bad thing, depending on what you're looking for. It's meditative, thoughtful, moving, and bursting with style inspiration.
Director: Tom Ford
Cinematographer: Eduard Grau
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
To give viewers of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a disorienting sense between protagonist Joel's (Jim Carey) reality and memory of romantic interest Clementine (Kate Winslet), director of photography Ellen Kuras combined available light with unconventional transitions to depict everything from flashbacks, to dreams, and nightmares. It's a classic love story, with many twists.
Director: Michel Gondry
Cinematographer: Ellen Kuras
American Beauty (1999)
Similar to many of the films released in 1999, this movie explores the male gaze and the sexualization of teenage femininity as well as the simultaneity of dystopia and beauty in a banal suburban existence. As expected with such complex yet accessible themes about the tensions that arose in the new millennium, expect to pause this movie every two seconds just to take in the captivating cinematography.
Director: Sam Mendes
Cinematographer: Conrad Hall
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Though it's considered a thriller, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn't too scary to watch if you're not normally drawn to the genre. It offers a fresh take on the horror genre, presenting the audience with one of the strongest female leads around, and the film could even be classified as a romance drama. It’s about a lonely vampire in the town of Bad City, which reeks of rot and decay (if you watch closely, you'll spot corpses in the periphery of many scenes), so you should expect some frightening elements.
But it also sheds light on contemporary power dynamics and gender inequality in an unconventional narrative.
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Cinematographer: Lyle Vincent
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
In this film adaptation, Kyoto's entertainment district in 1930s, pre-war Japan teemed with tea houses where Geisha would help businessmen entertain clients, and carry on more intimate affairs. Memoirs of a Geisha follows one young girl's transformation from poor villager to Kyoto's most prized Geisha, which is revealed to viewers through layered cinematography. Within the tea houses, the film's goal was "to create a dark, veiled world that would gradually be revealed," writes The American Cinematographer.
Director: Rob Marshall
Cinematographer: Dion Beebe
La La Land (2016)
Chasing a dream has arguably never been more vibrant than the endlessly colorful musical numbers of La La Land. As if the camera were part of the score itself, we dance and sing alongside aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) through sweeping dance scenes and spotlighted solos, shot on location.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Unlike many of the other films on this list, The Grand Budapest Hotel isn't a serious movie. In fact, it's beloved for its whimsy and wit. That's not to say the script and plotline aren't ambitious and gripping—it's just one of those movies you can literally watch on mute thanks to striking color palates, costumes, set designs, and cinematography.
Director: Wes Anderson
Cinematographer: Robert Yeoman
Tokyo Sonata (2008)
Shot by Japan's first female director of photography, Tokyo Sonata is a portrait of a family unraveling at the seams. When the paternal head of household loses his job, he desperately tries to hide it by donning a suit and tie in subsequent days. Through a series of medium and long shots, and warm, earthy tones, Tokyo Sonata explores themes of hope and shame.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cinematographer: Akiko Ashizawa
Available on: Amazon
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Brace yourselves: In the Mood for Love will quietly break your hearts. It's about two lonely neighbors, a young man and woman, who find solace in each other when they both start feeling increasingly suspicious and disconnected from their own partners.
It may sound like a familiar storyline, but what's so brilliant about it are all the visual cues that bring us inside the suffocatingly cramped apartment brimming with florals, shattered mirrors, and other conventional domestic symbols, reflecting the sense of simultaneous claustrophobia and distance.
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Cinematographer: Mark Lee Ping-bing, Kwan Pun Leung, and Christopher Doyle
The Neon Demon (2016)
There's a lot going on in this movie, and its almost exclusively communicated through visuals, whether it's through the symbolism of a mountain lion that ravages a seedy yet alluring Hollywood motel, through the blaring lights at a nightclub, the city lights twinkling in the distance while an ethereal Elle Fanning dances over the skyline from Griffith Park, or in sickeningly brightly lit studios during grotesque, dehumanizing photoshoots and castings.
If you like satires that border on campiness, you'll love this horror-meets-fashion film, and you'll want to pause the movie during each scene to really soak in the eerie beauty, loaded symbolism, gorgeous color palates, and covetable style.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cinematographer: Natasha Braier
To bring Philadelphia, the iconic setting of Creed, and the next iteration of blockbuster Rocky films to life, Director of Photography Maryse Alberti went light on set design, instead choosing to capture true to life vignettes around the city. From the gym, to kids riding around on bikes and Philly's murals, Alberti told Variety, "Not much production design was added. Maybe changing a few posters, but that’s all a real gym... The kids, the young men and one young woman on the bikes, are the real thing. They are in Philly and they ride those bikes. So we tried to find as much of the real Philly and the people as we could." Locations from the original Rocky movie, like Mickey's gym, and those stairs, offer viewers a throughline.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cinematographer: Maryse Alberti
The use of color, light, and depth in this movie give the viewer such an intimate connection with the characters and storyline. The celebratory scenes have beautiful flickering orbs of color and glitter while the painful ones are visually bleak and gritty, so it feels like a full sensory experience by taking us inside the emotional journey.
Indeed, Pariah goes beyond aesthetics alone. It follows an intelligent, curious, and confident young woman as she navigates her sexuality, and how she relates to the world. Watch this if you love family dramas and moving coming-of-age tales with seriously strong female leads.
Director: Dee Rees
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
Roma is a fluid film, shot in black and white. Vignettes, based on director and cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón's childhood memories from Mexico City in the early 1970s, have ample room to unfold. Long takes with minimal dialogue amble through protagonist Cleo's life as a family's housekeeper (Yalitza Aparicio); from daily cleaning, to caring for the family's young children, to the stoicism she projects through pivotal moments, like a non-committal romantic interest and pending motherhood.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cinematographer: Alfonso Cuarón
Available on: Netflix
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Loaded with metafiction, Nocturnal Animals is ostensibly about a woman reading the manuscript her ex-lover sent her over the course of the weekend, but then we step inside his screenplay (or her interpretation of it, anyway, which seems to mirror her parallel life—the one she would have lived had she chosen to spend her life with him rather than pursuing a life with a wealthy businessman in Malibu.)
Like the opening scene, which is simultaneously a grotesque critique and reaffirmation of American consumerism, you'll question the point of art, and whether or not we need it.
As indicated, this film works on multiple layers of reality and will have you wondering what the hell you just watched, and which storyline and characters you were actually supposed to get attached to and care about.
Director: Tom Ford
Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey