Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Cinematographers of the Decade

They're the men who make movies look as good as they do, but they often don't get the credit they deserve. There are some spectacularly talented directors of photography working in cinema today, and these are the ten who have done the most impressive work throughout the past ten years.

10 – Ed Lachman (Erin Brokovich; Far From Heaven; Import/Export; I'm Not There)
Ed Lachman's best work in this decade has involved adapting the styles of an earlier age and, along with director Todd Haynes, turning them into something new. He did gorgeous work on Far From Heaven, bringing the Technicolor world of the 1950's to lush, vivid life, and in Haynes' I'm Not There, his work was arguably even more impressive. That film's use of multiple versions of Bob Dylan allowed Lachman to shoot in a fashion resembling DA Pennebaker films, the Nouvelle Vague or Peckinpah westerns, but all of these disparate tones were skilfully blended into a seamless whole.

9 – Rodrigo Prieto (Amores perros; 21 Grams; Brokeback Mountain; Lust, Caution)

Alejandro González Iñárritu's stunning debut Amores perros was invested with real energy by Prieto's gritty and lively camerawork, and he carried over that sensibility into Iñárritu's more lugubrious follow-up 21 Grams. He switched styles, however, when he started working with Ang Lee, capturing the vast expanses of Brokeback Mountain in a sharp and composed fashion, before bringing a more intimate air to the same director's sexually charged Lust, Caution.

8 – Peter Andrews (Traffic; Solaris; The Good German; Che)
Yes, I know he doesn't really exist (Peter Andrews is the pseudonym Stephen Soderbergh uses as his cinematographer credit), but that doesn't make his work any less impressive. Soderbergh is a ceaseless experimenter, and his body of work in this decade bears that out. He gave Traffic's three narrative strands a distinctive colouring, and he aped the style of 1940's studio pictures in The Good German. His further experimentation has been facilitated by his adoption of the RED camera, with which he has shot films as diverse as Che, The Informant! and The Girlfriend Experience.

7 – Robert Elswit (Punch-Drunk Love; Good Night, And Good Luck; Michael Clayton; There Will Be Blood)
PT Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love is a truly unique experience, and Robert Elswit's cinematography plays a huge part in that, with his use of primary colours and lens flares seeming to reflect the mental state of the lovestruck central character. Elswit later did extraordinary work on Anderson's There Will Be Blood, being rewarded with an Academy Award for his strikingly imaginative camerawork, and he took a novel approach to filming George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, shooting the film in colour and then converting the images to black and white in post production.

6 – Robert Richardson (The Aviator; Kill Bill; The Good Shepherd; Inglourious Basterds)
Martin Scorsese's The Aviator is a visual feast from beginning to end. He and Richardson toyed with the lighting to create a specific period effect for the early scenes, and his camerawork brilliantly captures the creeping madness and paranoia of Howard Hughes later on. His other key collaborator in this decade was Quentin Tarantino, and while I wasn't a fan of the director's Kill Bill films or Inglourious Basterds, I can't deny that they looked terrific, with Richardson and Tarantino's eye for composition proving to be a potent mix.

5 – Anthony Dod Mantle (28 Days Later; Manderlay; Slumdog Millionaire; Antichrist)
Mantle is one of the most exciting young cinematographers around. His frantic handheld camerawork brought an immediacy to Danny Boyle's zombie film 28 Days Later, and he later joined Boyle in India – a cinematographer's heaven – to make the vibrant and thrillingly kinetic Slumdog Millionaire. But his most impressive work came just this year, with Lars von Trier's stunning Antichrist, one of the most visually striking films I've seen in years.

4 – Dion Beebe (Chicago; Collateral; Memoirs of a Geisha; Miami Vice)
If you want a lesson in how a visionary director can unleash a cinematographer's true talent, just compare and contrast the work Dione Beebe did with Rob Marshall and his work with Michael Mann. Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha are pretty and professionally shot, but there's no real life to them, not much imagination at work. When he began working with Michael Mann, however, Beebe produced some staggering images; he made LA at night glow with vivid hues, while his filming of Miami Vice is simply breathtaking. In that film, his handling of intimate sequences between characters is just as impressive as those extraordinary panoramic shots of a plane cutting through the clouds, or a boat speeding towards the horizon. It's a stunning piece of work, and one that I can't resist enjoying again and again on Blu-Ray.

3 – Janusz Kaminski (AI: Artificial Intelligence; Minority Report; Catch Me If You Can; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)
A long-time collaborator with Steven Spielberg, Kaminski began this decade with superb work on some of the director's most exciting films. He took Spielberg's vision to a starker, more shadowy place in Minority Report, while his work on Catch Me If You Can was exhilaratingly light on its feet. He also proved himself a remarkable storyteller with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which his camera reflected the experience of Jean-Dominique Bauby's paralysis. Few films in this decade have used the camera us such a vital component of the narrative as this one did.

2 – Emmanuel Lubezki (Y tu mamá también; Ali; The New World; Children of Men)
A brilliant cinematographer and innovator, Lubezki's chief achievements in this decade are The New World and Children of Men. In the former, he found images of indescribable beauty and captured the intimacy of John Smith and Pocahontas' love story, and all of this was done with the use of natural light, as is customary on Malick's films. In the latter, he was reunited with his Y tu mamá también director Alfonso Cuarón to shoot an atmospheric vision of a dystopian British future. Two scenes in particular are justly celebrated: the stunning long take as Clive Owen staggers through a war zone, and devilishly clever attack on a car which is filmed from inside the vehicle, using a specially created camera rig to capture the reactions of each passenger. This enormously exciting talent is currently at work on both Malick and Cuarón's next films.

1 – Roger Deakins (The Man Who Wasn't There; The Village; Jarhead; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
Originally, this feature was going to be a list of films displaying the best cinematography of the decade rather than the cinematographers themselves, but I quickly dumped that idea when I realised more than half of the list would be the work of just one man. In the past ten years, Roger Deakins has done more extraordinary work behind the camera than any of his contemporaries, and the variety of it is simply astounding. With the Coen brothers he has made films as diverse as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man; works of stunning precision, clarity and atmosphere. His work with other directors might not be as wholly satisfying as the Coens' films, but his camerawork is always exemplary; just look at Sam Mendes' Jarhead and Revolutionary Road, or M Night Shyamalan's The Village to see films that fail to live up to their images. But his greatest achievement is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a haunting and evocative lament for the past, in which every single frame is a work of art. Quite simply, Roger Deakins is the best in the business.