The Most Breathtaking Cinematography of 2018

It was a year filled with beautiful images, so let's honor the image-makers who made them. 

If film is, in fact, a visual medium, then this is the list you've truly been waiting for.

2018 featured some mightily impressive cinematography over the past 12 months, and luckily for us, it came in many different forms, i.e. multiple DPs per project, a director deciding to shoot his black-and-white film himself, the medium known as television, etc. If it's difficult to determine the "best" of anything, that's doubly true of the cinematography artform. What makes one image more beautiful than the next?

No Film School's list hopefully provides an educated assortment of examples. These were the projects that made our eyes "stand up and take notice," gasping in the otherworldly beauty of the cinematographic image. Let these be our encouraging gesture to seek out the best films on the best screens possible. 

306 Hollywood

DPs Elan Bogarin, Jonathan Bogarin, and Alejandro Mejía

As glib as it is profound, 306 Hollywood has to be my pick for best cinematography of the year. On its head, brother/sister filmmaking duo Elan and Jonathan Bogarín made a documentary about their dead grandmother and the crap she left behind in her house. But through surreal stagings, visual catalogs, miniature re-enactments, and even a slightly hallucinogenic dance sequence, the film travels through metaphysical realms and mythological musings that are colorful, quirky, tragic, and divine. The cinematography in this film embodies the limitless potential of a lens and imagination, taking the simple story of an average woman and turning it into the meaning of everything. —Oakley Anderson-Moore

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

DP Bruno Delbonnel

An anthology film with six parts and six chances to get it right, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western that takes on many visual lifeforms. Whether set in the bucolic, green-infused countryside or the dry, orange mountains of the dusty deserts fit for a parched cowboy,  Bruno Delbonnel's work on Joel and Ethan Coen's film is a time capsule sight to behold.

Whatever each story calls for, the cinematography delivers, and that's made abundantly clear by the time the film wraps with a tale that's thematically and thus visually darker than the rest. Whether featuring a frighteningly funny cowboy shootout or a creepy, gothic stagecoach ride from (or is it to) hell, the cinematography alters its lush colors to complement the dramatic, often unsettling demands of the story. By the time an elderly man makes his appearance prospecting for gold, you will realize you're in the hands of masters.  —Erik Luers

Black Panther 

DP Rachel Morrison

This one’s going to be controversial, but hear me out: if you’ve seen the wildly successful Black Panther, you know that it somehow feels different from other comic book movies. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s feat of going from virtually no blockbuster/VFX experience to shooting a film that blends effects, CGI, and live action far more seamlessly than most of its counterparts is as impressive as any superhero stunt.

The movie looks gorgeous, and it’s not just the lavish, detailed production design and CGI. I’m convinced that it’s Morrison's work behind the camera that makes Black Panther feel like both the lushest and the most realistic superhero story on screen, despite the fact that it’s based on an entirely fictional nation. The hand-to-hand combat is especially well choreographed and shot, and it’s likely Morrison’s indie drama roots that lend these and other more intimate scenes a humanity not typical of action films.

A runner-up must be mentioned here if only because it falls on the entirely opposite end of the scale: Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap is shot by the director himself with such rawness and intimacy with the use of his own DIY rigs that it’s a sample of truly quintessential indie cinematography. —Liz Nord

First Man

DP Linus Sandgren

I am a sucker for film, and by that I mean celluloid. The choice to use Super16 for most of the movie, giving it a documentary-like feel, and to contrast it with IMAX for the moon, was one that helped define the experience of being the “first man” on the moon as mind-blowing and new. The quest to present audiences with a visual contrast to help highlight the experience of the characters is as familiar to film as Dorothy stepping out of black-and-white Kansas and into the color-filled world of Oz.

Chazelle did an excellent job making the moon landing visually unique by contrasting it with the filmy docu-style found throughout the rest of the movie.

Check out our posts on the cinematography in First Man on using 16mm to shoot a subway scene in a Culver Citty garage! Who says film is dead?  —George Edelman 

Let the Corpses Tan

DP Manuel Dacosse

I was late to the party on this one (and or more likely, late to Giallo in general) but nothing this year hit the spot for me quite like Manuel Dacosse's work on Let the Corpses Tan. This is some of the most stylized filmmaking I've ever seen. Every frame is frenetic with life and color, combining Argento-esque lighting with Sergio Leone-like pacing to give us something utterly unique. The varied amount of shot setups in this film are dizzying. From cigarette lit close-ups and insane shifts in focus, to visceral movements following action and sweeping overheads of the Italian seaside, there's hardly a moment to stop and catch your breath. Perhaps the most intriguing moments of the film, however, are those that you may think better suited to play on repeat on the walls of some gallery by the West Side Highway. Bars of gold explode into splashes of paint, a woman is tied up on a cliffside only to urinate upon a line of willing men, all shot at such extreme angles that you're not sure if you're looking at a human being or some sort of god. The cinematography plays beautifully off the other elements of this dazzling homage, and when they are stitched together, the result is truly a work of art. —Jon Fusco

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel 

DPs M. David Mullen and Eric Moynier

There are lots of films this year that's cinematography blew me away, but I wanted to pick something that I think has gone unheralded. And that's on TV.The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has the best cinematography of the year. Season One masterfully used long takes to make the dialogue pop, and Season Two has an insane dance sequence and a few montages that make the show continue to feel lyrical. The camera is constantly moving and keeps a frenetic pace.

TV has long been about shooting coverage, but Maisel has really elevated the hour-long drama. And it's doing it without epic fight scenes, without being about murder, or without being in Westeros. Watch it and let the incredible camera work wash over you. —Jason Hellerman


DP Alfonso Cuarón

Roma was a close contender for Best Film of the Year for me, and will undoubtedly top many lists, but I felt that the cinematography by reluctant DP Alfonso Cuarón will perhaps be Roma's greatest legacy. The balance between the camera work and the stories unfolding on screen were phenomenal. It takes vision (and guts) to choreograph a street-filled riot with thousands of extras and then to leave the camera inside a department store focused on a woman shopping for a crib while violence quietly explodes outside the windows. It shapes your perspective long after the film ends. —Jourdan Aldredge

You Might Also Like

Your Comment


Maybe Black Panther feels different because other movies in the genre are made well... Action scenes devoid of light and play station 2 cgi

December 26, 2018 at 9:19AM


Black Panther shouldnt be anywhere near this list. Its an average to good film, massively overhyped and inflated. It is a better Marvel film but still not a good film and its cinematography is nothing special while the less said about the CG elements the better.

December 26, 2018 at 1:28PM


Bizarre how Black Panther would be anywhere near a list like this. It's a nice Marvel film and all, but uh... I wouldn't put the cinematography above a generic super hero movie; definitely not bad, it looked solid but to be included in any sort of Academy Award discussion is a little ridiculous.

December 26, 2018 at 4:57PM

Roan Mayln
Cinematographer / Writer

Black Panther deftly takes first prize in the visual storytelling arena for 2018, all elements working wonderfully together to tell this incredible story, From the costume design, set design, Amazing editing, And magnificent performances etc. etc. I'm just one of billions of people that is very proud of this production achievement. Let the haters hate numbers don't lie.

December 26, 2018 at 6:58PM


Folks bashing Black Panther simply don’t understand the social implications packaged within this “Marvel” film. Seeing Wakanda for the first time gave me chills. Knowing how important it was for children of color to see this world beautifully and meticously materialized on screen is why it’s at the top of my list for 2018. Killmongers final monologue occurring within a Marvel film is groundbreaking. And yes, it was beautifully filmed and incredibly thoughtfully crafted, on a level in my opinion above most other Marvel films.

December 27, 2018 at 9:32AM, Edited December 27, 9:32AM

John Haas

I think there are plenty of people who understand that Black Panther is a milestone for people of color, but that shouldn't automatically earn it extra points in directing, story telling, cinematography, etc.

I think there is a strong argument that it's not all that different from other Marvel films in terms of overall quality. In fact, I'd argue that there are at least a couple of other Marvel films that are better films overall, but that's subjective.

Killmonger's final monologue is a little odd to me and if you really think about it is sort of insulting to his ancestors. He is victimizing himself and comparing his potential bondage to the bondage of his slave ancestors. Really!?

Yeah, the two aren't even remotely close to being the same. He was certainly a victim when he was left in America with no family, but the rest of what happens is something else entirely.

He stabs T'Challa in the stomach and throws him down a waterfall, burns all the heart-shaped herbs so that he would forever be the most powerful, kills an old gardener, causes hundreds of deaths and advocates for millions more.

His bondage would have been for the heinous acts he committed and was well deserved. The slave's bondage was the result of unjust capture, transport, and transaction. Trying to equate the two is just wrong.

December 28, 2018 at 10:39AM



December 28, 2018 at 10:12AM

I make films about children's robots and designers

The horrible "bumpy-cam" hand held camera work of First Man ruined the experience for me. I saw it in IMAX. Just imagine following folks around, bumping all the way, on an 80 foot screen. STUPID CHOICE! Now if you want to see a beautifully DIRECTED and PHOTOGRAPHED movie, Bohemian Rhapsody is a piece of work to enjoy watching.

December 28, 2018 at 10:18AM

Douglas Knapp
Director of Photography, Camera Operator

Nowadays it is very nice to watch a movie like The Marvelous Mrs. Maysel. Often you want to see movies without violence and prostrate real women. Plus the plot. Loved it

December 28, 2018 at 10:33AM

I make films about children's robots and designers

Free Solo? Shouldn't it be on this list? I know it's a documentary, but the drone shot looking down over the edge of El Capitan and revealing Alex Honnold clinging to nubbins of rock quite literally makes you gasp. That single shot merits it being on this list. (you can argue that the subject matter makes it breathtaking and with maybe less emphasis on cinematography, but ... that shot!)

December 28, 2018 at 10:34AM