As we slowly and eagerly await the end of a year that history will squint back on forever, we can take some solace in knowing that it hasn’t been completely devoid of good things. And if you’ve been following our marathon year-end coverage from the beginning of December, which course you have been, you know of what we speak. Today we finally zero in on the element that best illuminates the unassailable power of the silver screen — cinematography.
Manipulating light and shadow with camera moves that can be pinpoint-precise or completely off-the-rails, using colors, flares, reflections, apertures, dimensionality and every lens from the widest angle to the most dramatic macro to tell stories through image…there’s nothing quite like it, and we’d be lying if we said it wasn’t one of our very favorite things to talk/write about. This carefully curated list is an eye-opening smorgasbord of cinematography talent, across all genres, techniques and experience levels. From color-splashed horrors to mystical black-and-white adventures, industry-favorite luminaries to fresh-off-the-boat talents, natural-light magicians to artifice-prone wizards, the cinematographic year of 2016 had a bit of everything and then some.
20. “Cemetery of Splendour” – Diego Garcia
With his go-to cinematographer abducted by Miguel Gomes for “Arabian Nights,” Thai master-cine-hypnotist Apichatpong Weerasethakul hired the young Mexican DP Diego Garcia to shoot “Cemetery of Splendour,” Apichatpong’s first full-length feature film since 2010’s ‘Uncle Boonmee’ and the first one entirely shot on digital. The result? “It’s almost like I’ve always been making films with him, because we’re so synchronized in the way he understood how I want to use natural light and available light at night. Diego has been a good inspiration with the way that he works.” That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, and coming from such a revered master of the craft, surely the greatest compliment Garcia could hope for. It all makes sense, of course, seeing how the perfectly composed shots in ‘Cemetery’ are as transfixing as anything Sayombhu Mukdeeprom created for the director before. Punctuated by interior bursts of lush LED neon greens, reds, blues and violets, ‘Cemetery’ pulls you into its orbit with an invisible magnet, which is partly controlled by Garcia and partly by the post-production work that’s always so crucial when working in digital. Methodical, graceful and without a single glimmer of ostentation — not even when an amorphous jelly floats in a heavenly sky — Diego Garcia’s talent shines through every inch of the frame.
19. “The Light Between Oceans” – Adam Arkapaw
Derek Cianfrance is a terrific director worth following closely, but there are, inarguably, many, many things wrong with his latest picture “The Light Between Oceans,” a melodrama with a few too many endings, and rather a lot too much schmaltz to boot. But one area in which the movie is not found lacking, and that almost compensates for its shortcomings elsewhere, is in visual radiance. Shot by Adam Arkapaw, quickly becoming one of our favorite new cinematographers thanks to his work on season one of “Top Of The Lake,” “True Detective,” and the magnificently rendered “Macbeth,” the DP’s grasp is both grand and intimate, sentimental and desolate in Cianfrance’s picture. Tender scenes are bursting with almost invasive Cassavetes-like intimacy, while the sweep and scope of David Lean is captured in the epic shots of cold, unforgiving but majestic landscapes outdoors. “The Light Between Oceans” crashed at the box office this year, but those who dial it up on VOD may well find they’ve a pleasant surprise in store — at the very least, they’ll get to luxuriate in one of the best-shot films of the year.
18. “Crosscurrent” – Mark Lee Ping Bin
Even the most ardent of cinephiles probably passed by Yang Chao’s “Crosscurrent” without so much as an eyebrow-raise. This snail-paced, lugubrious film flew under many radars, and, truth be told, it’s a bit of a miracle that it managed to nab distribution due to its alienating subject (unless you’re super in love with Chinese poetry). But ‘miracle’ and ‘alien’ are also, ironically, the superlatives that come to mind when thinking about Mark Lee Ping Bin’s photography. Shot on celluloid (reportedly the last Chinese film to be shot entirely on film), most of the story takes place along the Yangtze River in the wee magic hours of dawn, when nothing but a lowly lantern on a boat and the methodically rising sun light the way. Lee, who is famous for being Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s cinematographer, which is its own superlative, wraps the film in an unbelievably resonant atmosphere thanks to his meticulous techniques of working with natural light. All the more resplendent for having the grain of celluloid as a texture, “Crosscurrent” is turned into a warm, luminous, blanket thanks to Lee’s mastery — and he deservedly won “Outstanding Artistic Contribution” at Berlinale for his work. Well worth seeking out if you’re into soulful cinematic photography.
17. “Knight of Cups” – Emmanuel Lubezki
In his brilliant breakdown of “Knight of Cups,” film critic Richard Brody writes, “Where, for Iñárritu and Cuarón, Lubezki provides a mere adornment to their narrative, for Malick he creates a new way of cinematic seeing.” For a lot of Emmanuel Lubezki’s fans, the most painful irony is watching him win three Oscars in a row for work that, in many ways, pales in comparison to the images he has summoned up for Terrence Malick. While collaborating with the notorious director (the two have been together since “The New World”), Lubezki is his most liberated, experimental self — shedding all ostentatious and ornamental characteristics. In “Knight of Cups,” Lubezki matches the film’s energetic stream-of-consciousness rhythm by turning Los Angeles into a metropolitan mind-maze (inspiring many a video essay), illuminating a hedonistic lifestyle gone awry with some of the most potent visuals of the year. Neon-drenched strip clubs, mind-bending portraits of a frenzied fashion culture, camera angles that shoot the environment in ways reflective of the cobwebbed thoughts of Christian Bale’s lost soul, with swimming pools, bedrooms, limos and mansions all searingly captured with fisheye lenses and natural light. The film is splattered with powerful images that will get no credit at next year’s Academy Awards, but will withstand the test of time all the same.
16. “20th Century Women” – Sean Porter
The overall effect of Mike Mills‘ completely delightful ode to politically and socially engaged motherhood in 1970s America is so warm and gentle-hearted that it’s possible it’s being relatively overlooked amid the glut of spikier or more overtly stylized awards-season fare. And that’s really an injustice, because while the overall tone of the film and of Sean Porter’s lovely, airy, Californian lensing is tinged with nostalgia, it’s not the type of sentimentality that clouds the judgement or blunts the insights. Porter, who also turned in stellar work in a much grimier register on this year’s breakout punk-slasher indie “Green Room,” has been a key player in several unfairly under-the-radar independent films recently, from the Zellner brothers‘ weird, sad “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter” to Eliza Hittman‘s underseen debut “It Felt Like Love.” But on “20th Century Women,” it feels like his talents have blossomed given a slightly broader canvas on which to paint: The film feels light on its feet yet grounded in a recognizable reality, fond of its characters (especially Annette Bening‘s wonderfully mercurial yet anchoring turn), but also ever-so-slightly detached from them, observing at a gently ironic remove. There are more experimental flourishes here and there, as in a car journey that becomes a literal trip, with lights and colors echoing out from the images, but for the most part this is an exercise in humane, affectionate filmmaking, with the camerawork feeling like the best type of embrace: one that’s supportive but not stifling, like the best of a mother’s love.