April 29, 2016

12 Films That Have 'Perfect' Cinematography (According to Over 60 Critics)

What makes a cinematographer's work — the shaping of light, the framing of a shot, the movement of a camera — perfect?

Is it the way a DP uses the language of cinema? Is it the way they push the medium technologically? Or is it the way they use breathtaking compositions and color to transport us into a dream that goes by 24 frames per second? In an attempt to find some kind of common thread among the films most would consider to have "great" cinematography, Fandor's Scout Tafoya personally polled over 60 film critics and cinephiles, asking them to list 10 films that "feature their version of ideal or perfect photography." This is the result: 12 films that received the most votes.

https://vimeo.com/163008926

Here's the list from the video:

  1. Days of Heaven (DPs: Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler)
  2. Barry Lyndon (DP: John Alcott)
  3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (DP: Geoffrey Unsworth)
  4. Citizen Kane (DP: Gregg Toland)
  5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (DPs: Karl Struss and Charles Rosher)
  6. The Conformist (DP: Vittorio Storaro)
  7. The Red Shoes (DP: Jack Cardiff)
  8. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (DP: Vilmos Zsigmond)
  9. Night of the Hunter (DP: Stanley Cortez)
  10. Apocalypse Now (DP: Vittorio Storaro)
  11. The Magnificent Ambersons (DP Stanley Cortez)
  12. The Tree of LIfe (DP: Emmanuel Lubezki)

(You can go to Tafoya's blog post on Keyframe to check out a master list of all the films mentioned in the poll.)

The first thing that might strike you about the list is that it's actually quite varied in terms of genre, era, and style. The second thing is probably that Roger Deakins is nowhere in sight, though it might've come as no surprise to see DPs like Chivo Lubezki, Gregg Toland, and Vittorio Storaro on the list. The third thing is, of course, that the films you think have the best cinematography are not on the list.

Whether you consider your favorite DPs great because they invented new techniques like Toland, embrace the spectacle of the moving picture like Lubezki, or push the art form to new technological heights like Alcott, all great DPs somehow manage to quietly stitch us into the fabric of the story, using light and shadow and space and frames to both communicate and bewilder. I think we can all agree that there really is no definitive answer as to what makes cinematography perfect — because what is perfect cinematography anyway? What makes an image great? Though these terms may be obscure and difficult to define, the emotions they evoke are vivid — so much so, in fact, that sometimes we forget that all we're doing is sitting in front of a screen watching still images go by at 24 frames per second. Sometimes we forget that we're only dreaming.

What would be on your list of films with perfect cinematography? Let us know down in the comments!      

Your Comment

41 Comments

"Oooooh never going to give you up..."

Colin Watkinson/Tarsem Singh should be on the list for "The Fall".

April 29, 2016 at 6:05AM

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K W
270

I thought about that film as well, beautiful. Yeah, these things are so subjective. Still like reading others opinions though.

April 29, 2016 at 9:58AM

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Yeee! I love that film.

April 29, 2016 at 11:55AM

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Steven Bailey
Writer/Director/Composer
887

It’s pretty subjective. What about Tarkovski, Bergman and many others?

April 29, 2016 at 6:09AM

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Ivan (Fidel) Fedorych
Director, DP
106

Had the same thing in mind to ask.

April 29, 2016 at 6:17AM

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Aditya V Iyer
Cinematographer
116

Those are technically just the directors, no? But I agree that it's a surprise to not see their films on here. Fellini films too.

April 29, 2016 at 7:51AM

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Joshua Grodecki
Screenwriter/Cinematographer
90

Give the Fandor blog a read, those names start popping up.

April 29, 2016 at 9:54AM

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Zac A. Clark
1st AC & Cinematographer
1

A few come to mind. Sergey Urusevskiy for Soy Cuba and The Cranes Are Flying. Roger Deakins for Prisoners (and a number of others). Javier Aguirrezarobe for La madre muerta and Tierra.

April 29, 2016 at 7:03AM

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I think the cinematography on Knight of Cups is superior than The Tree of Life... maybe it's the best Lubezki's work. In my opinion, of course.

April 29, 2016 at 7:33AM, Edited April 29, 7:33AM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
1310

Isn't The Magnificent Ambersons directed by Orson Well?

April 29, 2016 at 10:31AM

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Douglas López
Photographer
81

Directed by Orson Welles, yes. But the director of cinematography is Stanley Cortez.

April 29, 2016 at 1:04PM

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Huh. These choices are by no means bad, obviously they are very good representations of cinematography. However, I can't help but think that many of these selections are about the "beauty" of the photography, and not as much about the compositions that that tell a clear and emotionally engaging story. Again, these are great selections, but I would say that there are other films that use cinematography more effectively to tell a visually compelling story. I just wonder if the DPs being polled were selecting their influences (or personal favorites) instead of looking at it more objectively, relying more on their knowledge and experience to make a less subjective choice. There are plenty of films I could list that contain some of my favorite cinematography. Does that mean I think they are the best? No.

April 29, 2016 at 11:59AM

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Doug Dabbs
Professor of Sequential Art
98

That's exactly why "Tree of Life" is not even that impressive. Framing & telling the story is not great there.

April 29, 2016 at 4:21PM

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Andy Tokarski
Director, Editor, Colorist
1306

Beauty photography? We all know that "light" is the crucial element in photography. Nestor Almendros made himself the remark that it was ironic that he had received an Oscar for a job (Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven) that did not need any (artificial) lights.. The film was shot at the magic hour which lasted only 20 minutes and Nestor was going blind so he made assistants take Polaroïd to check the scene with his thick glasses..
The mise-en-scène was very visual, the plot was revealed not by the actors but by the images (c'est énorme)...

Nestor Almendros thought that the make-up was suppose to make the actors look good not the Cinematography. He is one of the major DOP of the french "Nouvelle-Vague" and well known for his stylistic approach towards greater realism... Everything is in the composition.. the intérieur scènes are (rightly) underlit... At all levels that film desserves its place on the (top of the) list..
Cordialement

April 30, 2016 at 8:00PM

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toufek
Lighting cameraman
76

I reeeeeally could've done without the narration on that one.

April 29, 2016 at 2:53PM

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Russell Max Simon
Producer, Writer, Director
80

Tree of Life? Like really? It might impress critics, but from DP/director's point of view it's not even that great. I can easily name 5 Lubezki's movies which have better cinematography. It's not even his best DP work...It's just very good, but nothing mind blowing. How can they not mention DPs like Deakins or Kamiński? Lists like this for me are nearly always useless. It should be a list created by DPs or directors, who understand technical & artistic aspect.

April 29, 2016 at 4:19PM, Edited April 29, 4:19PM

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Andy Tokarski
Director, Editor, Colorist
1306

In the mix:
Jordan Cronenweth for Blade Runner.
Deakins on Assassination of Jesse James.
Gordon Willis for Manhattan.
Sven Nykvist for Persona.

April 29, 2016 at 6:38PM

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Jon Mills
Filmmaker
752

Yes! Excellent additions!
My four-more:
Godfather II (Willis),
Blow Up (Carlo Di Palma),
The Leopard (Giuseppe Rotunno)
M (Fritz Arno Wagner)

April 29, 2016 at 8:21PM

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Andrew Bearman
Cineaste
76

All eight of the above are wonderful. I'd like to add No Country for Old Men (Deakins) and Thin Red Line (John Toll)

April 29, 2016 at 10:31PM

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This list is good and I enjoy these films -- but it got me thinking of a point that seems a tangent but is related to holding these type of films up as 'ideal'. When films try to have a constant flood of images that are masterpieces, it can be distracting and too much after a time. A film needs to breathe. Wim Wenders is an example of someone who overdid it, in my opinion (with the exception of his documentaries). The films that I like have average cinematography but then surprise you with some beautiful imagery at just the right moment-- it hits the story home and the image stays with you.

The issue is brought up with film music, if the music is too noticeable did it upstage the story? It almost takes you out of the story. As a breath, its good, but too much, maybe it takes away from or hides shortcomings in the story? Are we too fixated on the sunsets in Badlands that no one notices the perfect hair on the actors after a long period on the run?

April 29, 2016 at 10:43PM, Edited April 29, 10:43PM

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David Barrington
Videographer
147

Good comment, David. As a photographer, I do love watching movies where every frame is a painting. I'm quite happy letting myself get caught up in those wonderful images as they roll by, at times, losing the thread of the story. When I think about it objectively, everything needs to breathe and the cinematography is no exception. There should an ebb and flow to it.

April 30, 2016 at 1:37PM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
909

love it!

April 29, 2016 at 10:52PM

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Robert Zinke
Blogger / DP / VFX Artist
134

Lubezki is the man!

April 29, 2016 at 11:06PM

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Robert Zinke
Blogger / DP / VFX Artist
134

I love what this video inadvertently did, made a bunch of filmmakers on this forum share what they all consider the "best" cinematography. Now I have quite a few suggestions to go through and study :)

April 29, 2016 at 11:46PM

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John Haas
Cinematographer
673

The Red Shoes? You have to be kidding me! Who came up with this?!

April 30, 2016 at 5:13AM, Edited April 30, 5:13AM

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The Red Shoes is widely thought of as one of the greatest for so many reasons, Scorsese has referenced this film throughout his career. As incredible as the shots are by Jack Cardiff, just remember he pulled all of it off shooting on Technicolor 3 strip - a camera that's not only more gigantic and heavy than almost anything else but also needed more light than a black and white production, and he moves the camera like a banshee throughout the movie anyway.

April 30, 2016 at 12:25PM

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Devin Pickering
Cinematographer/Editor/Composer
203

Agree it's a landmark of color film. The recent print -- assume it's Criterion -- shows its brilliance.

April 30, 2016 at 10:21PM

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Andrew Bearman
Cineaste
76

Something I find interesting are the directors on this list. 2 Malick, at the top and the bottom of the list. 2 Wells near the top and mirroring Malick but inside him on the list with 2 Kubrick films in wedged in between at the top end.

Not that I think any deep meaning is to be drawn from where they fell on the list, it's just interesting. The fact that these directors have 2 films each speaks volumes I think. And with different DP's for 2 films on the list.

And yes, this is a list of cinematographers not directors, but to say the director doesn't influence the resultant imagery is foolish.

Also of note is that both Storaro and Cortez both appear twice and only once with any of the directors who appear twice.

April 30, 2016 at 12:41PM

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Michael Markham
Actor/Filmmaker
921

I hate being negative, but wanted to share my thoughts: I really disliked the audio of the narration in this video. It sounds like the narrator is whispering into my ear and he sounds melodramatic. It distracts from the focus of the video which is the list of movies. Sounded like good quality audio, though.

April 30, 2016 at 5:10PM

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Adam Fernandez
Editor
76

Its a nice list, but here are couple of issues. 1st - Tree of life. For me this film is more of a film art movie. How can the cinematography of this be considered great (as of helping to move the story), when cinematography IS the story there.
The other thing which is questionable is the narrator's idea of giving the credit for cinematographer where I think really there are so many people involved in those decisions. Where is director, where is the art department? Is it really only the cinematographer who decides about what kind of clothes someone wears in a background, thus "having full control of the pallet" in the film?

May 1, 2016 at 11:09AM

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If you say cinematography is the story in Tree of Life, wouldn't that make it even more impressive? And it could be argued that all these films are "art movies" so I'm not sure why you singled out Tree of Life.

May 8, 2016 at 4:16PM

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Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile
96

OMG. How wonderful are they...!!

May 1, 2016 at 3:44PM, Edited May 1, 3:44PM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
619

Shawshank redemption is a good one!!!

May 1, 2016 at 5:45PM, Edited May 1, 5:45PM

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CABLE (X-FORCE)
DP/EDITOR/DIR
278

The inclusion of The Magnificent Ambersons is a bit puzzling to me, but the rest of the choices are solid. Other films worth considering: Tonino Delli Colli's work on Once Upon A Time in the West, Robby Muller for Paris, Texas, Raoul Coutard for Weekend or Contempt, Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood, and any Christopher Doyle-Wong Kar Wai collaboration.

May 1, 2016 at 9:51PM

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Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile
96

I believe that they have left out my favorite cinamatographer, Philippe Rousselot.

May 2, 2016 at 1:38PM, Edited May 2, 1:38PM

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Tommy Bradley
Studio Manager
81

While I agree with some of them, like the number 1 and 4, I really miss on the list Les Misérables 2012 and The Untouchables 1987.

May 2, 2016 at 3:32PM

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d h
186

I would add:

The Black Stallion (DP: Caleb Deschanel)
Sicario (DP: Roger Deakins)
Lawrence of Arabia (DP: Freddie Young)

May 2, 2016 at 9:41PM, Edited May 2, 9:41PM

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Jason Paikowsky
Bidding Producer, Line Producer
81

What about Deepa Mehta's 'Water'?

May 9, 2016 at 11:25AM

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Andrew Newby
Documentary film maker
67

Wait, Battlefield Earth didn't make the list?

May 12, 2016 at 1:23AM, Edited May 12, 1:23AM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
338

Witness? Chinatown? Fargo? A whole bunch of French and Scandi films......

June 22, 2016 at 10:39AM

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Carol Hallows
Film Director, Screenwriter.
81

"The Duellists" Frank Tidy
"Alien" Derek Vanlint
"The Natural" Caleb Deschanel

July 19, 2016 at 9:13PM

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Peter Briggs
Screenwriter
74

How can you have "great" cinematography in a mediocre movie? This list has a few masterpieces but some real snoozers as well. It's like giving an award for Best Tires on Chevy Aveo. The obsession of form over function, is what drives many an indie or student filmmaker to spend loads of money on toys when they really neede a better script and actors. On a bigger scale you have Terrence Malick. His best movie, "Badlands", has the most workaday cinematography while "Days of Heaven", while beautiful to look at, is a pretty forgettable story. No one really gives two cents about the story in DOH. When people only talk about a film's cinematography, there's something terribly wrong with the film. In short, films that should be on this list should be great films as well.

Films to add:

Red Sorghum
Chunking Express
Ran
City of God
Soy Cuba
Godfather II
My Name is Ivan
American Beauty
Third Man
Lawrence of Arabia
The Fugitive (John Ford)
Alien

July 20, 2016 at 11:39AM, Edited July 20, 11:39AM

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Tim Naylor - DP
Director of Photography
1

Problem I have with this list is that seems like like the critics it polled pretty much think films start and end with American or a few European films. Not a single Asian or Latin American Film? No Kurosawa, Zhang Yimou or Wong Kar Wai? You also have to ask yourself why good cinematography seems to follow great directors more than great cinematographers. Film is such a collaborative medium that I find it meaningless to separate and award individual crafts. Critics relish this sort of thing as its their lifeblood and validates them somehow, manifesting in hollow wank fests such as the Golden Globes.

It's like awarding a crap paining for Best Brush Strokes. How does anyone award Best Editing without seeing the dailies? Or Best Cinematography without Production Design? Or Best Film without Best Director?

July 20, 2016 at 11:53AM

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Tim Naylor - DP
Director of Photography
1

its a crime not to mention any of tarkovsky's films.

August 4, 2016 at 12:36PM

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Ruchit Negotia
Filmmaker
98