Most beautiful shots, neat camera tricks and unorthodox cinematography methods put to work. Welcome to the collection of 30 visually stunning movies in the 21st century.
If we agree that film is a medium made of image and sound, bound together by storytelling, then cinematography happens to be quite essential to the final result.
Among many purposes, cinematography defines the perspective from which a particular story’s told. It also becomes a cinematic language on its own, and a key element of how a movie is experienced.
While there is no golden recipe for the best cinematography, there were some outstanding achievements in that field in the 21st century. So without further ado, here are the top examples of visually stunning movies counting from 2000.
Visually Stunning Movies In The 21st Century – 30 Top Picks
Note: The films on this list appear in a ascending order, starting from 2000. It doesn’t mean that the number one indicates the top.
#30 The stunning work of Paul Laufer in The Cell (2000)
Cinematographer: Paul Laufer
Tarsem Singh, an Indian-born director whose background placed him in directing music videos mostly, made his first feature film back in 2000. The Cell (2000) followed a serial killer played by Vincent D’Onofrio, whose degenerative acts of gruesome violence became the target of an FBI agent (Jennifer Lopez).
Although Singh’s film met with rather mixed-to-negative reception, not a single person could deny Singh an irresistible, arresting aesthetic of his cinematography. Paul Laufer’s work in The Cell (2000) is spectacular, colorful, like the most luscious fruits laid before your eyes. Singh swims in surrealism, looking into a serial killer’s twisted mind where violence takes an oddly hypnotising, grisly turn. Eventually, it was Paul Laufer who ensured The Cell (2000) a certain kind of cult following – despite the film’s jumbled script.
Best scene: When character played by Jennifer Lopez sneaks into a room where the killer “stores” the victims in glass cells. The camerawork is stunning throughout the entire sequence, which combines feverish cuts with long takes, and eventually closing it all with a fantastic costume design of Vincent D’Onofrio on a golden throne. Wow.
#29 A realistic approach to cinematography in City of God (2002)
Cinematographer: Cesar Charlone
Brazilian cinema haven’t joined mainstream quite yet, however the South American country occasionally gives the cinematic world a ripe fruit to consume. Among those rare darlings was City of God (2002), directed by duo Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund.
The story, based on a novel by Paulo Lins, is set in a dodgy neighborhood of Rio De Janeiro, where a bunch of boys aspire to become nefarious gangsters. One of them is an exception, a kid who dreams of being a photographer. The perspective of the latter causes City of God (2002) to elaborate on the dramatic situation of Brazilian youth, the lack of future and crime being the only plausible career.
This blood-chilling testimony of how emotionally numb children grow when exposed to violence, derives its power from the potent visual narrative. Meirelles and Lund tell their story in a nimble manner, and Cesar Charlone’s cinematography, which paints a feverish, blood-soaked image of Rio de Janeiro, fuels this terrifying image flawlessly. Charlone masterfully shuffles with angles that distinguish authoritarian figures from lower-level thugs, and bets on emotional intensity through fast-paced editing. From this meticulous camerawork design beams an image of Brazil that’s far from postcards.
Best scene: When Shaggy and Bernice try to flee the neighbourhood by stealing a car. There is a horrid reality to it, and the undertone of their inevitable fate makes this sunny setting even more emotionally ravaging.
#28 An Asian fable – Hero (2002)
Cinematographer: Christopher Doyle
Early 2000s were the golden era of Asian cinema sailing through the international waters. The fascination with majestic landscapes, and exotic costumes opened doors for many stories shipped from China, Japan and other Asian countries. However, among titles like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), it was Hero (2002) which offered the most astonishing cinematography.
Hero (2002) found actor Jet Li play Nameless, an officer who is called for an audience in King of Qin’s palace. The story unveils a mind-game of chess played between the head of state and an ordinary soldier, alas the chances of winning aren’t exactly equal. Yimou Zhang, the man behind the camera of Hero (2002), has an unhurried manner of directing, but that slow cinema vibe pays off with the monumental, multifaceted work of Christopher Doyle.
Not a single shot in Hero (2002) feels out of the bigger picture. Doyle culls inspiration from Chinese tales and stories to conjure a world of rich cultural context that feels incredibly authentic. Whether it’s an exhilarating dance or a fight sequence or even a stoic freeze, Doyle has the right composure to pull it all off without hesitation. Therefore, Hero (2002) remains one of the most visually stunning movies of all time.
Best scene: Death of Nameless. In a dramatic build-up, we get to see Nameless humbly accepting his fate to be pierced with hundreds of arrows. It’s a monumental shot by Doyle, where sky – seen from Jet Li’s perspective – turns dark from a swift shower of deadly arrows.
#27 The fantastical world of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Cinematographer: Guillermo Navarro
Guillermo Del Toro’s childlike imagination imbues most of his movies with a unique blend of charming innocence and dread. But none of his films had the kind of impact that Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) had.
While Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is a war drama on the surface, its soul belongs to a Grimm brothers fairytale. Such contrast is outstandingly achieved by the perspective which defines Del Toro’s narrative. We get to observe the atrocities of war through the eyes of a little girl, and through the copying mechanisms she displays.
For that reason, Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography is cautiously designed to mimic a child’s point of view – through camera angles introducing set locations from the character’s back to viewing only bits of war that are eligible to child’s eye. Navarro embraces the fable setting of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and uses the child’s perspective to build a world of monsters, kings and magic, all blended in an invigorating canvas of his work. It’s often grim, but no matter how dark the tale is, Guillermo Navarro maintains its fabulous character, creating an arresting, beautifully filmed movie.
Best scene: I still get goosebumps, even after all these years, when the Pale Man’s feast comes round. The sheer genius of this scene is how well the set design and lighting works with creating an unnerving cloud of danger. It’s the film’s hallmark and it just might be one of the most iconic horror scenes of the century. Pure gold.
#26 The harsh lands of There Will Be Blood (2007)
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Most viewers remember There Will Be Blood (2007) for its memorable role of Daniel Day-Lewis. The American actor was indeed in his prime, owning the role of Daniel Plainview, a ill-intentioned oil drill owner. This towering, electrifying performance ensured Day-Lewis an Oscar, while the film was generally praised as one of the most influential films of our century (at least so far).
Every discussion about There Will Be Blood (2007) has to touch the film’s cinematography too, as it belongs to every list of the most visually stunning movies. Robert Elswit stroke gold by playing with the barren farmlands, as well as the raw, austere interiors. It’s a meticulous visual design, which also makes a paramount example of how cinematography helps the narrative. Long, slow zooms, and natural lighting imbue Elswit’s cinematography with raw authenticity, helping director Paul Thomas Anderson paint the melodramatic image of the turn of centuries, and how one man’s greed casts shadow on all those surrounding him.
Best scene: It’s easily the oil drill fire. Probably one of the single most iconic shots of the last two decades, proving Elswit’s work to be of most exquisite class.
#25 A stunning example of interior-driven cinematography in Zodiac (2007)
Cinematographer: Harris Savides
David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) ushered a new standard of thriller. An exciting whodunnit extravaganza, and pursuit after a serial killer was traded for a stretched-over-time, vain investigation which painted a picture of just how bleak police work could be. But that irregular approach did not diminish the chance for David Fincher to direct Zodiac (2007) with audacity and genuine flair.
The film’s crudeness wouldn’t be so palpable if not for the cinematography delivered by Harris Savides. As if set in a world drained out of vitality, each image is soaked in palettes of grey and green. Fincher spends much of the time in confined spaces of timid offices, and without any distracting visual gimmicks, Zodiac (2007) fully embraces its Neo-noir character.
Zodiac (2007) also defined much of Fincher’s later works. A similar greenish color grading was applied to The Social Network (2010), a highly-inventive thriller approach towards the story of Facebook, as well as The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo (2011). Over the time, it became one of David Fincher’s iconic hallmarks.
Best scene: Conversation near the film’s end when three detectives close onto a man who most likely was, indeed, the infamous Zodiac. From the moment this man is introduced, to the fantastic camerawork that focuses on details and lets the actors carry the tension, this entire scene is a ticking bomb, much like the interviews conducted by Holden Ford and Bill Tench in Mindhunter (also made by David Fincher by the way).
#24 The decade-defining blockbuster style of The Dark Knight (2008)
Cinematographer: Wally Pfister
I’ve been hesitant about putting The Dark Knight (2008) on this best cinematography list, simply because of its blockbusterish character. But true art doesn’t necessarily mean a limited distribution in a few arthouse cinemas, right?
The Dark Knight (2008) boosted the imaginable live action tropes and gimmicks on almost every possible level. Undoubtedly, Wally Pfister had a gargantuan budget to work with, and boy he made sure it was seen.
Right from the start, The Dark Knight (2008) captures attention by an action-packed bank robbery scene, filmed through luminous shots of the city view reflected in a glass building. Over the entire canvas of the film, Wally Pfister’s constantly focused on nailing Gotham’s dirty, noir vibe, and makes the city look unwelcoming, and hostile to some extent. That’s the brilliant use of practical effects and Chicago filming locations.
At the same time, there is a lot of gorgeously framed shots – like the one in which the camera circles around the Joker and Rachel at a fundraiser (the spin adds a dynamic touch to the dialogue). In that way, Pfister adds nuances to each scene – many particular scenes can serve as examples of how cinematography goes hand-in-hand with storytelling.
Best scene: Pfister had a plenty of phenomenal moments in The Dark Knight (2008) but as far as superhero movies go, the “we’re tonight’s entertainment” sequence became a classic.
#23 A low-budget stunner – Ink (2009)
Cinematographer: Jeff Pointer
A low-budget movie rarely manages to elevate its cinematography on a masterful level, however Jamin Winans’ Ink (2009) topped many Hollywood productions with significantly larger budgets.
Ink (2009) is a sci-fi drama, which uses the concept similar to Inception (2010). In a story where dreams and imaginary visions constitute a substantial part of what you see, cinematographer Jeff Pointer used every penny of the micro budget to build a credible, lucid world.
Pointer’s cinematography in Ink (2009) incorporates a blueish-tint filter, and basks in the grim, dark interiors and city-by-night landscapes. As a result, most of the film radiates with somberness, which perfectly corresponds to the journey of the protagonist.
Furthermore, Jeff Pointer never tries to cover up the limited budget. In fact, it becomes his sharp weapon – the imperfections build the credibility of a “dreamlike” world that Ink (2009) is mostly set in. Despite its small-scale character, Ink (2009) delivers a visually stunning experience.
Best scene: The final moments of the film, where the fate of all characters is revealed in a series of entwined cuts. There is a stunning quality to this sequence, which goes way ahead of its super-low budget.
#22 A neon-soaked classic – Drive (2011)
Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel
Not many modern directors can boast such a style as auteur and sharp as Nicolas Winding Refn. The eccentric filmmaker cherishes literally every frame he uses in the film.
In my opinion, Drive (2011) still holds the title of Refn’s opus magnum – a simple story of a stuntman driver who leads more than one lives, and finds himself in some really knees-deep s***.
Albeit I’m not Nicolas Winding Refn’s most avid fan, I gotta give him credit for putting together memorable visual concepts. In Drive (2011), Refn collaborated with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who nailed the neon-saturated, cruising-at-night mood. Thanks to nuances – such as luminescent jacket that Ryan Gosling wears for most of the movie – this cinematography exhibits a very detailed approached to each frame too.
Best scene: There were several stand-alone gems. However, the scene I immediately connect with “Drive” is probably the amazing stunt which Ryan Gosling’s character performs on a rehearsal day.
#21 A cinematic ode to Mother Nature – Samsara (2011)
Cinematographer: Ron Fricke
Shot in more than 100 locations, on 70 mm film, over five years in more than 20 countries.
Samsara (2011) is the ultimate definition of image as means of storytelling. Ron Fricke travelled around the world to collect footage that captures the essence of nature and humanity, and how the two connect. His film is a tribute to Mother Nature. The director, also responsible for the cinematography in Samsara (2011), manages to diversify the mood, but there is not a single shot in the entire movie that lacks the bliss. It’s the ultimate feast for the eyes.
#20 A most visually stunning film of Terrence Malick – Tree of Life (2011)
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
When it comes to the visual side of filmmaking, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) could easily serve as a textbook go-to benchmark for young filmmakers. Almost every single frame in this film has its own majesty and philosophy put into it, as if not a single second of Malick’s opus magnum could have been wasted or done without its own meaning and place in the greater scheme of things.
The cinematography, helmed by Emmanuel Lubezki, ranges from beautiful close-ups which place the viewer closer to the characters and their emotional state, to spacious shots of galaxy and our planet, radiating with a relentlessly artistic vibe. When needed, Lubezki lets the camera dance close to the feet, or cling onto one, continuous image. As a cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki packs all his experience and sensitivity in this work, making Tree of Life (2011) an exhilarating visual experience.
This range of tools, angles and ideas, which is put in motion in Tree of Life (2011), grows into an awe-inspiring art of its own making. It’s this very cinematography that imbues Tree of Life (2011) with soul that’s truly unparalleled in the world of cinema.
Best scene: The closing sequence where all the characters meet in the barren land, near the sea. Its meaning is fantastically empowered by dynamic camera that makes the most out of its very hermetic, personal approach.
#19 The black-and-white beauty of Ida (2013)
Cinematographers: Łukasz Żal & Ryszard Lenczewski
Ida (2013) was a touching story of a girl, who joins a congregation in a poor region of Poland. The clue of the story is her Jewish birth origin, which allows the director to tackle the hostile attitude towards her nation during the German occupation of Poland.
The visual narrative of Ida (2013) is sustained by its sensitive camera work, which is continuously cautious about the character’s comfort zone. Żal and Lenczewski tend to observe the events from distance, therefore establishing a cold, somehow two-arms-long perspective that feels afraid of consorting with the characters. Sensitivity is what drives Lenczewski and Żal.
Best scene: I love the dancing scene. Żal and Lenczewski construct an intimate image through distance and objects interfering with the focus of the scene – an arch that goes into the frame and covers the dancing couple. The camera avoids looking straight at them, and this idea works well with the film’s subtle narrative.
#18 A world of static camera stills – A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (2014)
Cinematographer: Istvan Borbas & Gergely Palos
Roy Andersson’s trilogy about being human constitutes a singular, reflective and poignant essay on vanity and existence. Andersson operates on a highly metaphysical level, with multiple symbols, and as he balances the dialogues on the verge of drama and tragicomedy, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (2014) feels like an loose essay more than a regular narrative.
Cinematography in Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (2014) is particularly inventive though.
The camera’s still in all of its takes, capturing wide frames, often with asymmetrical composition. Istvan Borbas and Gergely Palos, two Hungarian cinematographers responsible for this concept, create a magical illusion of an exhibition, where each scene can be viewed as a painting. It’s a rare approach, one that requires patience from the audience, but that is also incredibly rewarding and well-fitted for the strange world created by Roy Andersson.
Best scene: I particularly like the one sequence in a bar, when guests begin to sing. Roy Andresson is a madman, but his cinematic insanity speaks volumes. And this one scene is both interesting in the way it’s framed – as most of the action takes place in the background – and as a symbol on its own.
#17 The Interstellar (2014)
Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema
Paradoxically sci-fi movies tend to confine themselves within claustrophobic interiors. Having a firm grasp over the grandeur of cosmos isn’t easy though. However, that wasn’t the case of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), the director’s ode to Stanley Kubrick and his love letter to a kid’s dreams about space.
The cinematography, developed by Hoyte van Hoytema, was consulted with scientists to bring about the most realistic image of space ever shown in a film. As Van Hoytema admitted, the result they pursued with Nolan was to keep the science behind the story legit and to keep the cinematography less show-off-like. As a result, Interstellar (2014) feels majestic in every detail. Otherwordly on the surface, Interstellar (2014) embraces the intricate plot designed by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, where humanity plays the pivotal role, notwithstanding the infinite space.
In my opinion, Interstellar (2014) is one of the most significant cinematic achievements that Hollywood gave birth to in the 21st century so far.
Best scene: Docking of a spaceship would be the most obvious choice, so let me play hipster and point to the time travel near the film’s end. The idea to use bookshelves, blending into abstract walls of a corridor, is a magnificent touch that puts both creativity and craft on pedestal.
#16 Emmanuel Lubezki’s long-take approach in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (2014)
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu often exploits philosophical monologues in contrast with visceral, wild visuals. That’s what happened in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (2014), and then was sealed with The Revenant (2016).
Following a burnt-out actor, played by Michael Keaton, Iñárritu scrutinises the story of rise and fall, a self-deprecating nature of human beings and how bitterns takes over as time passes by. I know it sounds all muddled and insufferable, but trust me – it’s actually a great movie.
Part of its dignified, tasteful form is owed to Emmanuel Lubezki, the DP of the film. As Michael Keaton explained during one of the discussion panels, the filming took only 30 days, and nobody could afford messing up any of the long takes. ‘Anything—a misremembered line, an extra step taken, a camera operator stumbling on a stair or veering off course or out of focus—could blow a take, rendering the first several minutes unusable even if they had been perfect.‘
Lots of scenes in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (2014) are continuous master shots, and combined with exceptional interior lighting, this cinematography assures that no matter how the script drifts away, there is always something visually stunning to keep the film’s momentum going.
Best scene: Lubezki went nuts several times in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (2014), but its the awakening of Michael Keaton’s character, followed by the rise of a mechanical birdman and his monologue, which eventually leads to a Childish Gambino-like chaos from his music video “This is America”. Lot to process at first sight, but it’s a stunning piece of cinematography.
#15 The sensational filming with 35 mm negative – Mommy (2014)
Cinematography: Andre Turpin
When Xavier Dolan premiered Mommy (2014), many viewers were polarized by how the film messed around with the screen aspect ratio. While it helped build a cramped, hermetic atmosphere of the film, it also was unconventional and offbeat, and to some – also slightly cheesy. Despite the critical opinions, Mommy (2014) confronted a difficult relationship of mother and her son with stunning grace and sensitivity. And camerawork of Andre Turpin was at the heart of it.
Dolan’s collaborative work with DP Andre Turpin resulted in some of the most magnificent scenes of the so-called “festival darlings“, cementing Dolan’s auteur craftsmanship. Turpin introduced warm color grading and a very personal way of filming, which channeled the emotional energy of Mommy (2014). By placing characters in the very centre (also thanks to the changing ratio), Mommy (2014) is always close to them, as well as their emotions.
There’s also the non-digital aspect of filming that Xavier Dolan cherishes. As the director explained in an interview, using 35 mm negative is more human in comparison with the cold, mechanic images you get with digital camera. This grainy, slightly rough image is visibly Mommy (2014) too.
Best scene: Fans will be divided here between the two iconic scenes – “Wonderwall” and “Experience”. I lean toward the latter one, for its energetic camerawork and editing is as exciting as its dramatic and heartbreaking. However, it’s the “Wonderwall” scene where Dolan introduces the idea of expanding screen ratio… touch choice.
#14 How to nail the post-apocalyptic vibe – The Rover (2014)
Cinematographer: Natasha Braier
David Michod’s The Rover (2014) – a follow-up to his most acclaimed Animal Kingdom (2010) – didn’t get enough praise that it most certainly deserved. In my opinion, it is a masterpiece of neo-western, and a fine example of crafting a apocalyptic sci-fi masterpiece without any high-tech enhancements.
During a hit-and-run, the bunch of lowlife thieves leaves one of their own behind though. The man whom they stolen from embarks on a feverish pursuit after his property. The two main roles in the movie are played by the magnificent duo Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce.
The film’s vision owes a lot to Natasha Braier’s fantastic work on the cinematography. The way the camera likes to stick for longer master shots, as well as the impeccable use of natural lighting are essential to The Rover (2014).
Braier has also understood the power of Australian prairie – its enigmatic nature, colourful skies and drylands, all together creating an unforgettable, apocalyptic setting. The Rover (2014) is a visually stunning movie thanks to the way the barrens and the scorching heat of Australia make this story both very human and distant, if not otherworldly even.
Best scene: The last shot of the film, when camera’s closed upon Guy Pearce’s face, only to stick to him and observe from a distance, with a fantastically picturesque landscape that adds a lot to the character’s solitude and pain. A beautiful shot.
#13 Patience above all – Embrace Of The Serpent (2015)
Cinematographer: David Gallego
Metaphysical, philosophical and deeply spiritual. Those would be the most accurate words that describe Embrace of The Serpent (2015), the Colombian Oscar nominee from 2015.
The film throws the audience into the middle of the Amazon. A lost explorer is rescued by a tribe that lives deep in the jungle. With months to spend there, the man learns the local’s way of live, and becomes their ardent protector.
Embrace of the Serpent (2015) sacrifices the granular-level storytelling, but in return offers a unique journey into the world of nature seen from a perspective of a spiritual experience. David Gallego’s cinematography finds most poetic ways to turn the Amazon jungle into a mysterious, vibrant maze. I could clearly see Sebastiao Salgado’s photography as an influence for Gallego.
These black-and-white visual journals had a mysterious, ethereal tissue, found in various situations and places all over the world. And Embrace of the Serpent (2015) has that similar structure, where nature becomes less palpable and more metaphysical.
#12 The blood-soaked reality of Macbeth (2015)
Cinematographer: Adam Arkapaw
Upon its premiere, Macbeth (2015) met with mostly in-favor reviews, but despite a warm embrace from the critics side, the epic retelling of Shakespeare didn’t gain any significant awards or satisfying box office results. As sad as it is, the Justin Kurzel-directed film has been one of the most breathtaking experiences in the modern history of film – at least when it comes to the cinematography.
New Zealander Adam Arkapaw adapted the darkest parts of the classic drama to imbue Macbeth (2015) with surrealism. Each scene has its stoic beauty, as if the shots were paintings, raw and visceral. Arkapaw turned the medieval interiors into places of solitary confinement, and each landscape was given its own fabulous interpretation. Although the slow-motion battle scenes didn’t quite land for me, I’ll say that – DP Adam Arkapaw’s take on the Macbeth vs. Macduff duel is on par with most riveting one-on-ones in the history of cinema.
Best scene: Heavy fog hanging over Scottish barrens clash with dehumanised, spacious corridors of castles. When the story reaches its climax, Arkapaw arranges the combat between Macbeth and Macduff among piling fumes from bonfire, with particles of ash covering the warriors and flames surrounding them.
#11 How the Mexican-American drug war turned into visual art – Sicario (2015)
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Who could possibly suspect that a thriller about a Mexican cartel could be such a bedazzling cinematic achievement as Sicario (2015) turned out to be?
This film marked the first entry into screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s American borders trilogy, with Hell or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017) following. Sicario (2015) followed a CIA agent who embarked on a mission to Mexico, where she was supposed to hunt down a drug lord.
Behind the camera stood acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve, however Roger Deakins navigated the cinematography in the movie.
Deakins reinvented the barren borderlands for me. In his lenses, the city of Juarez imitated a beast – hostile, drenched in blood and rabid – while the pursuit after a drug lord was an emotional powerhouse, with picturesque sunsets, sky-high frames and night vision views and even shots of dust particles dancing in the sunlight.
Sicario (2015) was nothing short of brilliant, and it was definitely Deakins’ work that Brough Sheridan’s narrative to life.
Best scene: When it comes to cinematography, there’s nothing more exhilarating on the thriller ground than the convoy scene in Sicario (2015). As the Mexican police escort drives through the city of Juarez, the tensions is palpable.
#10 Intimate, artistic and unforgettable – Moonlight (2016)
Cinematographer: James Laxton
Among the many love stories, romances and social dramas, Moonlight (2016) by Barry Jenkins stood out as a monument of independent art. Moonlight (2016) unraveled the coming-of-age drama of an African-American kid who grows in a poverty area of Miami. The story encapsulated three chapters of Chiron’s life, and how the surroundings suppressed his sexuality. The film received accolades for its script and strong acting chops, as well as the overall artistic quality of it.
Yet to tell the truth, James Laxton, the DP who worked on Moonlight (2016), was the most overlooked person when this rain of awards showered over Barry Jenkins’ head. Laxton’s cinematography turned Moonlight (2016) into a fable-like story. Close-to-face framing, as well as placing characters in the centre of composition leads the film’s visual convention. Some of those frames do feel like music videos, while others – like the most memorable swimming scene – were acts of pure genius that fostered the immersion effect.
Laxton occasionally breaks with that close-to-character pattern by bringing dynamic camera swirls too. There’s also an incredible color grading game here, in which various shades of blue adhere to the oneiric parts of the story. And what a better proof of awesomeness than another cinematographer getting inspired by it (here I am talking about Waves (2019), which was very close aesthetically to Laxton’s work).
Technicalities aside, Laxton’s camerawork adds a lot to Chiron’s perspective too. All angles and frames have a purpose of putting the viewers in the shoes of Chiron, letting us feel what he feels. It’s a powerful method of using perspective which I’d call in medias res, and it plays an essential part in Moonlight (2016).
Best scene: Chiron (main character) is taught to swim by his protector, Juan. The camera is half-underwater, fighting to stay above the surface like the kid it observes. It’s masterful in every way, letting the viewer feel like he’s in the middle of action.
#9 A visually stunning movie, and made in a single uncut take – King Dave (2016)
Cinematographer: Jerome Sabourin
How about for a film which brings “master shot” concept to a level of “no cuts at all“?
This is precisely an experiment conducted in King Dave (2016) by Daniel Grou. The story, based on a theatre play, follows a low-key protagonist Dave – a simpleton whose one full day we get to see, abounds in quite strange and unexpected events.
The cinematography’s neat trick empowers this cinematic experiment. The incredible work done in this field makes one gasp in awe at the sheer genius of coordinating the entire set to flawlessly deliver the backstage choreography without a single slip-up. It’s a ridiculously entertaining piece for those visual freaks.
Best scene: Well, technically the entire film is one scene.
#8 The sci-fi visual masterpiece – Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Denis Villeneuve’s films were almost universally mind-blowing when it comes to visual aesthetics, but it’s his science fiction opus magnum that deserves the title of the masterpiece.
Frankly, I still can’t get over of how Blade Runner 2049 (2017) became such a wildly under-appreciated, lost sci-fi darling. Despite its lamentable box office results, it still constitutes Roger Deakins’ most impressive work (yeah, I’ve seen the impressive 1917 (2019)).
Roger Deakins has devised a world where every detail awes and astonishes, and it’s his meticulous work that keeps the almost three hours of the film flow smoothly. Together with Villeneuve, he makes use of camerawork that creates vast, immersive spaces, most of them driven by steampunk designs and concept art.
Deakins knows when to open with a strikingly beautiful image, and when to close onto the character. That’s how he keeps the story very close to the protagonist played by Ryan Gosling, by letting him to be the guide in this gigantic cities, wastelands and desserts.
I should also mention the work on lighting and color grading here, both of which play an immense role too in extracting pure art from Deakins’ work.
Best scene: It’s very difficult to point to one particular scene. But if I really need to pick one, it would probably be the sequence on a dessert, where Ryan Gosling’s character walks among gigantic monuments, lying around in the sand. A truly magnificent series of shots which captured the visionary style of Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
#7 The hermetic horror of Son of Saul (2017)
Cinematographer: Mátyás Erdély
Fantastic cinematography doesn’t need to incorporate breathtaking locations or vivid sets to become a powerful storytelling tool. Sometimes, the most haunting things relate to the feeling of confinement, imprisonment and alienation. All these things lie in the foundation of the Hungarian drama Son of Saul (2017), which takes a wickedly realistic look at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The concept for this visual language was to keep the camera glued to film’s protagonist – a nameless prisoner who works for Gestapo at the heart of the concentration camp. The perspective built by this unique approach feels hauntingly authentic, and throws the audience in the middle of the concentration camp and its soul-wrenching horrors. The camerawork, shaky and sticky, adds a truly unprecedented quality to this experience in Son of Saul (2017).
As far as the most excruciating, memorable traumas caused by movies go, Son of Saul (2017) ranks very high.
#6 When cinematography gives you an acid trip – Good Time (2017)
Cinematographer: Sean Price Williams
The visually stunning movies don’t necessarily need to be breathtaking. Sometimes, it’s the way the cinematography elevates the experience that matters most. That’s the case of Good Time (2017), a hot-pursuit thriller by Joshua and Ben Safdie.
DP Sean Price Williams likes to stick close to the characters we see in the film. By keeping them on a short leash, he creates a hectic, stuffy atmosphere. But only in combination with an outstanding, vibrating soundtrack, Williams achieves a masterful level of a mind-drilling effect. The shaky photography, which often feels granular and far from 4K ultra HD, adds a touch of realism to the feverish go-get-him that Good Time (2017) essentially is.
Furthermore, Williams pays tribute to the likes of Nicolas Winding Refn as well. Good Time (2017) paints its world in blueish shades and vibrant, city-by-night images. It’s not a movie which will appeal to your calm, nature-loving part, however the sneaky party animal is about to go get some.
Best scene: When it comes to the cinematography itself, it’s probably the bank robbery scene. It’s meticulously designed to amp up the tension right away, and Williams uses the dynamic hand-hold camera style in an exemplary way.
#5 A drug-fueled nightmare in Climax (2018)
Cinematographer: Benoit Debie
Although Climax (2018) was shot in 14 days only, it might be one of the most significant cinematographic achievements of the 21st century.
Climax (2018) pretty much owns its premise of “what would happen if a bunch of professional dancers was shut in a creepy storage space and be given heavy hallucinative drugs?“. A funny story here, because Climax (2018) film is actually based on a real story of a dance group that got LSD-ed in 1990, however Noe took the events to an upper level of mindfuck. Noe was fascinated with the energy of dancers he saw at a party back in 2017, and wanted to bring that same dynamic to a film.
Within the first hour of the film, Gaspar Noe, along with cinematographer Benoit Debie, treats the camera as a sneaky member of the party, one who listens and glances at all the people on the floor. But soon, dancing and drinking goes terribly wrong when the drugs kick in.
In Climax (2018), I was impressed by the way the cinematography pumps up the film’s genre-shifting gears. Noe managed to throw a full-blown party, but with the right technical choices, the dancing fever becomes a nightmare to watch. Noe operates with extreme dynamics too, and finds his camera swirling, rotating and zooming in and out, all of it to speak the same expressionist language as the characters. This is also the matter of perspective – such passionate, intrepid cinematography falls in line with what the characters feel and who they are.
Best scene: I’d say that the entire first hour of the movie is among the century’s most amazing accomplishments. Raw, striking and beautifully dynamic, it’s the best reflection of dancing as an act – its energy and expression.
#4 The horrors in black and white – The Lighthouse (2019)
Cinematographer: Jarin Blaschke
The Lighthouse (2019) was the second feature film by Robert Eggers, and it quickly earned the director an iconic status among modern horror makers. This is an ingeniously crafted film, which documents as two lighthouse keepers – played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson – loose their minds. The premise is just that simple, but Eggers comes up with a total thrill ride.
To fulfill his tale of madness, Eggers dresses The Lighthouse (2019) in an all black and white palette. And that’s a brilliant canvas for cinematographer Jarin Blaschke to work with.
Blaschke conjures magic with the lighting, and has an eye keen on turning the desolate lighthouse into a nightmare fuel. When need, Blaschke scavenges for horror in less obvious places – it’s the maddening grimaces of Pattinson and Dafoe which make you crawl under your seat for most of the time. Moreover, Blaschke plays with the symbolical layer too, and has mighty fun while he’s at it.
The result is the type of cinematography which captures the essence of the film – the process of losing one’s mind. Because by the end of The Lighthouse (2019), I also felt slightly less myself.
Best scene: The final reveal with Robert Pattinson’s climb to the top must be one of the most exhilarating moments on the recent history of the horror genre.
#3 Parasite (2019)
Cinematographer: Kyung-pyo Hong
Parasite (2019) is the revelation of 2019 – a film sharp as a knife, smart and ridiculously entertaining, it rightfully marched to victory at the Cannes Film Festival.
Hong’s trademark is his uncanny precision in the way he imagines frames of the camerawork – Parasite (2019) resides mostly within one house, but the DP’s outstanding work makes the interior play a character on its own. It’s also the cinematography which helps to elicit the concoction of genres, ranging from fear-inducing jump scares to finest, artsy sequences with classical music.
Best scene: When poor family of Kims runs down the stairs in the city suburbs, only to discover that their flat has been completely flooded. The lighting plays a key role as well, as it sates the images with beautiful contrast. However, many scenes from “Parasite (2019) are stand-outs.
#2 1917 (2019)
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
In 1917 (2019), Roger Deakins reached a whole new level of cinematographic perfection, elevating a relatively simple story to a heartfelt experience. Smart editing helped Deakins and director Sam Mendes achieve an illusion of one continuous tracking shot, which lasts for the entire run-time of 1917 (2019).
The craftsmanship is just impeccable – as we observe the two protagonists in their descent into the frontline, Deakins deploys all kinds of vivid imagery, wide landscape shots and gameplay-like sequences to earn 1917 (2019) a spot among the most visually beautiful movies of all time.
As a result, 1917 (2019) experiments with more than one method or tool, but such a bold mirage pays off immensely. Deakins never usurps the front seat of storytelling, and provides an exhilarating way of colorizing and visually supporting Mendes’ vision.
Best scene: While 1917 (2019) had a range of memorable moments, it’s the Wayfaring Stranger singing that’s still echoing in my head.
#1 Joker (2019)
Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
The movie that stirred the most heated discussions in 2019 has been discussed in many ways. Some were left speechless, while others worried about the movie’s alleged power of suggestion and how it could possibly lead to tragedies. I had my own point of view, and seen Joker (2019) as one of the most chillingly realistic analysis of depression.
In spite of all the commotion and razzmatazz surrounding Todd Phillips’ polarising blockbuster, the verdict regarding its cinematography was rather unanimous. The work of Lawrence Sher, dipped in gloomy industrial venues of Gotham, managed to become a visualisation of Arthur Fleck’s imperfect life. You could almost smell the stink of the rotten city, feel its repelling touch.
Apart from that, Lawrence Sher took a very route in the way this cinematography worked. Many scenes were marvellously playful with lighting, as well as the distance from which we see Arthur, only to capture Joker’s transformation – from the guy sitting in the shadows to the maniac who craves the spotlight. That was one of the challenges Sher shared in an interview with Observer;
When Arthur is with the world at large, we try to see him small within that world with longer lenses and then the empathy and the connection with Arthur really comes once we’ve reached his apartment with his Mom and that’s when we start to go to more wider lenses, more connected lenses with him.Observer, interview with Lawrence Sher, 02.05.2020
Best scene: The bathroom dance, which is the most mind-blowing when you consider it’s improvised. But just as equally memorable was the last part with Joker standing on the cop car, surrounded by pure chaos.
There you go – those are the most visually stunning movies of the 21st century. Share your picks in the comments!