Baltimore Sun

American Cinematographer's best-shot films 1998-2008

American Cinematographer magazine has updated a 1999 readers' poll of the best-shot films from 1894 to 1997 with an online vote for the best-shot films of 1998-2008. (The original poll was done to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers.) Here's what AC readers picked -- and in many cases, what I would have picked from the same cinematographer instead.

1. Amelie (2001). Yes, Bruno Delbonnel's golden portraiture of adorable Audrey Tautou, as well as his whiz-bang camera movements, earned Jean-Pierre Jeunet's comedy the top spot in the AC poll -- and as the magazine points out, it's unusual for a comedy to emerge the winner.


My alternative: Delbonnel's protean collaboration with Jeunet on their romantic World War I epic, "A Very Long Engagement" (2004).

2. Children of Men (2006). In long takes and striking naturalistic light, Emmanuel Lubezki shot Alfonso Cuaron's nightmare vision of a baby-less near-future in which Clive Owen plays a reluctant aid to underground activists striving to protect the one pregnant woman.


My alternative: Lubezki's vibrant You-Are-There-in-color look at the founding of Jamestown in 1607 for Terrence Malick's "The New World" (2005).

3. Saving Private Ryan (1998). Janusz Kaminski innovated virtuoso jitter-cam techniques to convey the chaos of D-Day for director Steven Spielberg.

My alternative: Kaminski was more emotionally expressive and just as virtuosic and daring for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007), collaborating with director Julian Schnabel on putting audiences inside the vision of a man who is paralyzed except for his left eye.

4. There Will Be Blood (2007). Robert Elswit brought some passages of blunt visual magnificence to Paul Thomas Anderson's infuriatingly inert portrait of an oil tycoon and megalomaniac (Daniel Day-Lewis).

My alternative: Elswit's fluid, textured black-and-white imagery in "Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005) helped George Clooney create a charged, haunting examination of CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow's battles with America's top Red-baiter, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

5. No Country for Old Men (2005). No argument here for the Coen brothers' best picture. Roger Deakins, a modern master of cinematography, said, "I felt this was the nearest a contemporary film might come to a Peckinpah Western," noting that movies like "The Wild Bunch" are "much more than the sum of their stories." Deakins conjured a South Texas environment in which horror and beauty exist side by side. He also applied a sharpshooter's eye to the subtlest gestures of each character. (That's Josh Brolin in one of the film's many tense scenes, above.)

6. Fight Club (1999). No quibbling here, either. David Fincher's dark-night-of-the-soul comedy about alienated men (Edward Norton, Brad Pitt) who beat each other up in order to feel anything was out-of-control but alive. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth imbued its shadowy images with the volatility they needed.

7. The Dark Knight (2008). Wally Pfister was the man in charge of the camera for Chistopher Nolan's second Batman movie. It's a handsome, accomplished piece of "serious" graphic-novel escapism, but it drove me from absorption to excruciation in 20 minutes.


My alternative: I'd much rather re-see Pfister's sunny, glamorous work in F. Gary Gray's entertaining remake of "The Italian Job" (2003) or Pfister's sunny, sensuous work in Lisa Cholodenko's "Laurel Canyon" (2002).

8. Road to Perdition (2008). Conrad L. Hall, who died in 2003, was a towering figure in American cinematography. Here he beautifully calibrated the colors and lighting; he appears to have kept his wits sharp by seeing how many scenes he could compose with headlights, candles, or isolated overhead lamps. But this would-be tragedy about a hit-man is a stiff.

My alternative: Hall brought a verdant richness to "Without Limits" (1998), Robert Towne's moving, too-little-seen biopic of the University of Oregon runner, Steve Prefontaine.

9. City of God (2002). For director Fernando Meirelles' sprawling underworld saga, covering three decades of life in Rio de Janeiro's poverty-struck and crime-ridden favelas, cinematographer Cesar Charlone came up with a ripped-from-the-streets style that's been highly influential -- I bet the "Slumdog Millionaire" team took a long look at this one. I found it ultimately wearying, and prefer Meirelles and Charlone's teamwork on "The Constant Gardener" (2004), but this was a formidable visual achievement.

10. American Beauty (1999). Conrad L. Hall delivered a pristine yet natural style. But even with Kevin Spacey's crack sardonic timing, Sam Mendes' movie about turn-of-last-century suburbia was smug and even, at times, ludicrous.

My alternative: Hall didn't work much between 1998 and 2008 (as I noted above, he died in 2003), so I'll cheat a little and suggest Tim Burton's exquisitely phantasmagoric "Sleep Hollow" (1999), for which Hall did shoot second-unit scenes.


So, readers, what are your picks? I welcome you to range over all the titles in your memory; I stuck to the cinematographers that AC named, just to narrow down the choices.