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.
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
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
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
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
DP Manuel Dacosse
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