5. “First Man” – Linus Sandgren
Neil Armstrong, the “First Man” of Damian Chazelle’s latest film, was an extraordinary paradox: a pioneer who underwent incredible trials and overcame incredible odds to venture further into space than anyone ever, but who maybe could only do so because of his undemonstrative, pragmatic outlook — a reserve that hardly lends itself to stirring biography. And yet “First Man” is thrilling, while never betraying its leading man’s stoicism — in fact it seems empowered by it, with Linus Sandgren’s exceptional cinematography (as well as that of an unusually important second unit) cumulatively building to a visceral spectacle while being, at any given moment, similarly unflashy. Even during some of the most pulse-pounding action sequences of the year, Sandgren’s scope is resolutely intimate, suggesting the rattling peril of an impending crash with little more than shuddery, abstract impressions of flashing lights, shaking panels and whirling analogue dials, as though we can only experience what would have been in Armstrong’s sightline. Back on earth (and when finally on the moon) Sandgren’s more classical, widescreen impulses take over, though even in domestic scenes and training sequences Ryan Gosling‘s Armstrong is often framed to seem removed, aloof. The lack of bombast in the visual approach to possibly humankind’s most bombastic achievement is a beautifully counter-intuitive choice that pays off richly, making thrilling the unsexy work of training, repetition, trial, and error that went into getting him — and “us” — to the moon: it’s a giant leap told as a series of small steps.
4. “If Beale Street Could Talk” – James Laxton
There is a point to which you can whip cream, before it gets hard and stiff and forms peaks, where it will coat a spoon but also slide off it in voluptuous folds. Somehow that’s the velvety, luxuriant consistency that James Laxton achieves with the cinematography in Barry Jenkins’ lambent and lovely “If Beale Street Could Talk,” an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel that replaces the bruised blues and purples of Laxton’s “Moonlight” palette with unabashedly romantic autumnal ambers and golds. Such overt aestheticization has its critics, of course, especially in the context of a social-issues drama dealing with systemic racism, unjust incarceration and unplanned pregnancy in the tinderbox environs of 1970s Harlem. But the absence of visual grit is the point. ‘Beale Street’ looks at its subjects — especially incandescent newcomer Kiki Layne, her lover played by Stephan James and her mother, embodied with powerful warmth by Regina King — the way the cameras of the classic era looked at their subjects, their Garbos and Grants: as if they were in love. And that the faces that are the focus of these swooning, shallow-focus close-ups are black, is its own act of quiet redress, as though with each one, Jenkins and Laxton are addressing decades of cinematic erasure, meeting the eyes of hatred and marginalization and condescension, with the steady, direct, defiant gaze of love.
3. “The Favourite” – Robbie Ryan
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, so of course, the grasping pursuit of it should warp the way the world is seen. Robbie Ryan, a regular collaborator of Andrea Arnold‘s, will surely finally get his first Oscar nomination for his gleefully mischievous, fisheye-heavy work on Yorgos Lanthimos‘ ribald “The Favourite,” which lends anarchic, anachronistic energy to the exquisite late-Baroque production design. Yet as bouncy and comedic as the exaggerations can be, Ryan’s approach also heightens the story’s pathos. Olivia Colman‘s scatty and petulant Queen Anne gets lost in luxuriously paneled, seemingly endless palace corridors, that seem to bend back, Escher-like to enclose her; Rachel Weisz‘ Lady Sarah commands all her spaces (even the dance floor) with authority until her position is destabilized and she’s pushed almost literally out of frame by Emma Stone‘s Abigail, whose own tragedy is that once she maneuvers herself into the fulcrum position of this skew-whiff universe, she hasn’t the imagination to know what to do with it. Never has the loneliness, paranoia and literal self-centeredness of royal favor been more pithily imagined, and never has period power-play looked this much sumptuous fun.
2. “You Were Never Really Here” – Thomas Townend
In several films on this list — among them “First Man,” “Burning” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” in particular — the cinematography is so inextricably linked to other areas of superlative craft, like sound design, music, and editing that it feels slightly unfair to single it out. But though Lynne Ramsay‘s “You Were Never Really Here” is the standard bearer for that phenomenon, with Thomas Townend’s photography indivisible from Joe Bini’s editing, Jonny Greenwood’s score and Paul Davies‘ sound design (really a testament to Ramsay’s thoroughgoing directorial genius in orchestrating all of these departments), the specific choices that Townend makes in terms of composition are absolutely crucial. Although this masterclass in deconstruction feels as though it was somehow built from annihilation, from the jagged smithereens left over when you pitch a $15 hammer at the cliches of the revenge genre, the actual scenes are shot with almost elegiac grace and consideration. The lake sequence is the most obvious example, with a moment of epiphany, triggered by a tendril of blonde hair in a shaft of underwater light, made to look like an ascension. But this care is everywhere — the visceral impact of the film does not come from hand-held camera shake or rough-and-ready docu-realism. Instead, like Joaquin Phoenix‘s schlubby, scarred Joe, Townend’s camera prowls and hulks, equal parts weary and wary, and very occasionally whimsical (s/o to the green jelly bean, the single greatest insert shot of 2018). This quality of watchful quiet, underpinning all the violence, depravity and PTSD flashbacks, is what makes “You Were Never Really Here” so singular, as a fully inhabited character portrait of the kind of pulp archetype who is normally only illuminated by sporadic muzzle flare. The title becomes ironic; Joe, with his lumbering physicality and shattered psychology, is really, really here.
1. “Roma” – Alfonso Cuarón
It’s almost insolent, that Alfonso Cuarón can, for only the second time in his feature-directing career (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” being the other), not team up with regular collaborator/ genius Emmanuel Lubezki, and still turn in a cinematographic miracle. But “Roma” is just that: a film in which the vast disparities of narrative scale — from the folding of laundry in a bedroom to a massacre of protestors in a bullet-strafed street demonstration; from a day at the beach to a night at the movies to a harrowing, seemingly real-time scene of childbirth — are mirrored by black and white widescreen shot-making of astonishing elasticity. So often, when the recreation of a past period is involved, there is an inescapable sense that the scenes are dressed to the camera, that there is an enforced rigidity going on because just outside the frame there is some anachronism, some telephone pole or Starbucks signage that will ruin the effect. But Cuarón’s miracle is that the meticulous reanimation of his childhood feels so roomy, so vast and complete that it encompasses its own horizons. And so we don’t just get to look at these refocused moments, we get to look around inside them, with Cuarón’s inquisitive camera trailing sinuously through his recreated past, following a conga line around the living room, tracking Yalitza Aparicio‘s Cleo up the rickety steps to her little apartment, or suddenly wheeling back to deliver a casually epic vista in which phalanxes of young men undergo synchronized martial arts training in a field near a shanty town. It’s beautiful of course, but that is almost beside the point: it’s more astonishing how solid and sharp-edged and real this landscape of memories feels.
Honorable mentions: Just missing out on our top 20, Magnus Nordenhof Jønck supplied some wonderfully understated heartbreak in “Lean on Pete” as well as in “Hold the Dark.” Sean Bobbit gave Steve McQueen‘s “Widows” a deliciously gritty-yet-slick finish; Alexander Dynan delivered Ethan Hawke into evil in crisp, formalist, empty frames in “First Reformed” and Steven Soderbergh pioneered the iPhone thriller with “Unsane.” Also worthy of mention: “Vice” – Greig Fraser; “Destroyer” Julie Kirkwood; “The Front Runner” – Eric Steelberg; “Western” – Bernhard Keller; “Wildlife” – Diego Garcia; “Leave No Trace” – Michael McDonough; “Vox Lux” – Lol Crawley; “Sweet Country” – Warwick Thornton/Dylan River; “The Sisters Brothers” – Benoit Debie; “Thoroughbreds” – Lyle Vincent; “Peterloo” – Dick Pope; “Bad Times at the El Royale” – Seamus McGarvey; and while documentaries will get their own list soon, the cinematography of “Hale County, This Morning, This Evening”; “Free Solo“; and “Minding The Gap” all deserve a special shout-out.