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From Martin Scorsese to Stanley Kubrick: 10 films with incredible cinematography

“The absence of colour can be a stronger factor than the presence of colour.” Robby Müller

Cinema depends on narrative structures, deft direction, brilliant performances, but most importantly on cinematography, which refers to visual storytelling and helps capture the beauty of the narrative. By manipulating light, frame, shadows and colours, cinematographers have the power to change the entire landscape of the film as they focus on the raw, intimate emotions of the characters in the film. A “great cinematographer,” according to Seamus McGarvey, “Is one who loves story” and manages to make the film look “beguiling and enticing”, utilising the power vested upon their creative genius. 

One of the most acclaimed cinematographers in the history of cinema, Christopher Doyle, said, “I think the point of cinematography, of what we do, is intimacy. Is intent, is the balance between the familiar and the dream, it is being subjective and objective, it is being engaged and yet standing back and noticing something that perhaps other people didn’t notice before, or celebrating something that you feel is beautiful or valid, or true or engaging in some way.”

Not only does cinematography help explore the art of storytelling but also uphold the director’s vision. Over the last few decades, cinematographers have resorted to evolving technology, animation and other features to leave an everlasting impact on the viewers as well as in the history of cinema, thus exploring their creative genius to the utmost. 

Here are the ten best films that are the product of exquisite cinematography and brilliant filmmaking that remain etched in the minds of viewers forever.  

The 10 films with the best cinematography:

10. Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, 2018)

In the late 1970s, a young American girl arrives in Berlin to audition for a prestigious dance academy and becomes the lead dancer, replacing the former whose friend accuses the matrons of the academy of dabbling in witchcraft and more; the suspense thickens as the sinister and hidden chambers are explored. 

Headed by Luciano Tovoli, the film’s cinematography derives heavily from German Expressionistic art, where reality is enmeshed in fantasy. Terrifying, the film uses primary colours to heighten the feeling of provocative horror; the intense use of colour and the lack of light in certain areas where the faces are shown in colour add to the atmospheric horror of the film.

9. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

A pathetic protagonist, Lester Burnham, is trapped in a troubled marriage with an ambitious wife and a daughter who loathes herself and is brimming with insecurities. He increasingly grows infatuated with his daughter’s friend Angela. The film is a sardonic commentary on marriages, infidelity, sexuality, homophobia and more. 

The film is considered to be a masterpiece in terms of seductive camera movements and the use of colours. Examining masculinity, social taboo, relationships, beauty standards and consumerism, the camera pans poignantly, taking into account every scene that is complemented by simple yet brilliant conceptual cinematography.

8. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Daniel Plainview, a ruthless mercenary and wannabe oil magnate, conducts business with his adopted son and refuses to stop unless he gets to his desired point in life, which involves immense success in his oil business. He does not even hold back from manipulating and misusing his own son, who remains fairly oblivious to his cunning nature.

PTA’s brutal antagonist is cold and ruthless; his film reeks of vaulting ambition and the nasty desire for success bordering on insanity. With mellifluous all-encompassing yet intimate camera angles, the director manages to capture the harrowing nature of the film that is definitely accentuated by Johnny Greenwood’s background score.

7. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane’s symbolic dying words lead to a series of fascinating discoveries by a reporter who delves deeper into Kane’s mystified life from being a nobody to a successful magnate. As the reporter advances closer towards discovering the elusive meaning of “Rosebud”, the mystery intensifies, and the identity of Kane remains as illusory as ever.

Orson Welles, the wunderkind of his time, had made use of both realism and expressionism that made his film one of the most influential pieces of cinema. Gregg Toland, the cinematographer, cleverly and deftly manipulated light and depth of field to allow the audience to choose their point of focus. Well-stylised camerawork and exceptional vision are some of the most notable features of the film.

6. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

The rocky relationship that Jack O’Brien, one of the three brothers, shares with his father affects his adulthood as he tries to make peace with the ghosts of his past and tries to move forward with his life while being constantly bombarded by much deeper and underlying philosophical and existential questions that lead him to reexamine his entire existence.

Devastatingly beautiful, the film is profound as it poignantly examines family, trauma, memories and nature itself. The cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, had apparently not read the entire script to prevent paranoia from creeping in. he is successful in capturing the raw emotions of the family as they go tumbling down and later evokes memory in an adult Jack with his well-stylized shots that mainly use natural lighting.

5. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

Amidst raging conflict between the mafia families resulting from hatred, envy and the lust for power, all-powerful Sicilian mafioso Don Vito Corleone, better known as the Godfather, succeeded by his son Michael, tries to keep his friends close and his enemies closer as family structure start crumbling due to betrayals, conspiracies and pervading deaths.  

The film is Coppola’s masterpiece and abounds in symbolic imagery complemented by crucial dialogues that heighten the dramatic tension in the film. Filled with dramatic action, the film relies on background noises, suggestive music, fleeting visuals, close-ups and more to convey the director’s fantastic vision. 

4. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

On his honeymoon to Paris with his new bride, Marcello Clerici, a loyal Fascist secret police under Mussolini’s regime, plans to murder his anti-Fascist professor. However, when he meets his professor’s wife, his plans are thwarted and his political, as well as romantic loyalties, are put to test as he fails to grapple with the rationale. 

The film is a scathing commentary with a morally degraded protagonist who begins to question his own thoughts. Bertolucci manages to use brilliant aesthetics, dexterous camerawork and stunning visuals to build a character sketch amidst political tensions while showing the flourish of fascism. The protagonist is trapped in a mock psychological prison created by the ever-talented Vittorio Storaro’s vision where shadows act as prison bars and the camera prevails as a looming panopticon on-screen.  

3. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)

Su and Chow are two next-door neighbours in a dingy Hong Kong apartment who are trapped in loveless marriages. Via fleeting introductions and stolen glances, they gradually fall for one another while being cheated on by their respective spouses. However, missed chances and the ongoing socio-political tension prevents their union. 

Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar-wai produce wonderful magic on-screen with the help of sublime cinematography where the combination of close-takes, frenzied camera movements, use of frames, shadows and distinct colours as well as the harrowing background music help heighten the feeling of claustrophobia, desire, longing and melancholy in the film. 

2. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)

Jake LaMotta is an Italian-American boxer who initially tastes success and settles down with a beautiful woman as he rises through the ranks. Soon, his psychological demons and self-destructive anger coupled with gluttony, jealousy and other insecurities cripple him and affect his life and relationships. 

Obsessive and insecure, the protagonist, played by the brilliant Robert De Niro, helps focus on the steady psychological and emotional degradation of a man resulting in isolation. The monochromatic and poetic cinematography perfectly captures the gloomy and depressive all-pervading atmosphere of the film alongside the “unsympathetic hero’s” wounded ego making the experience of isolation and insecurities palpable. 

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece establishes a connection between the past and the future which begins after a mysterious artefact is discovered. The film focuses on the story of evolution where humans and computers race against time to achieve the subsequent step in evolution as humans seek help from the supercomputer to understand origins. 

The filmmaker uses colours like black, white and red, technology and other camera shots including dolly shots, close-ups, wide-range shots and more, that make his groundbreaking concept even more stellar and way ahead of its time. 

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