Cinematographers pick the best-shot films of all time

Posted by · 11:31 am · February 4th, 2015

Stumbling across that list of best-edited films yesterday had me assuming that there might be other nuggets like that out there, and sure enough, there is American Cinematographer's poll of the American Society of Cinematographers membership for the best-shot films ever, which I do recall hearing about at the time. But they did things a little differently.

Basically, in 1998, cinematographers were asked for their top picks in two eras: films from 1894-1949 (or the dawn of cinema through the classic era), and then 1950-1997, for a top 50 in each case. Then they followed up 10 years later with another poll focused on the films between 1998 and 2008.

Unlike the editors' list, though, ties run absolutely rampant here and allow for way more than 50 films in each era to be cited.

I'd love to see what these lists would look like combined, however. I imagine “Citizen Kane,” which was on top of the 1894-1949 list, would handily take the cake. Gregg Toland's innovations on that film are part of the very fabric of modern filmmaking. I loved seeing “Metropolis” on there, and just on the outside, “Napoléon,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “L'Atalante” were deservedly in the mix.


1. “Citizen Kane” (Gregg Toland, 1941)
2. “Gone with the Wind” (Ernest Haller, Ray Rennahan, 1939)
3. “Sunrise” (Charles Rosher, Karl Struss, 1927)
4. “Metropolis” (Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, 1927)
5. “The Wizard of Oz” (Harold Rosson, 1939)
6. “The Magnificent Ambersons” (Stanley Cortez, 1942)
7. “Casablanca” (Arthur Edeson, 1942)
8. “Battleship Potemkin” (Eduard Tisse, 1926)
9. “The Third Man” (Robert Krasker, 1950)
10. “The Birth of a Nation” (G.W. Bitzer, 1915)
(Check out the rest of the list here.)

With the modern era collective, it was Freddie Young's epic lensing of “Lawrence of Arabia” leading the way, and again, how can you argue? Gordon Willis featured prominently for his rich work on “The Godfather” and Vittorio Storaro popped up twice in the top 10 with “Apocalypse Now” and “The Conformist.” Others in the mix that I was happy to see included “JFK,” “Psycho,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Persona,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Brazil” and “Alien.”


1. “Lawrence of Arabia” (Freddie Young, 1962)
2. “The Godfather” (Gordon Willis, 1971)
3. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Geoffrey Unworth, 1969)
4. “Days of Heaven” (Néstor Almendros, 1978)
5. “Schindler's List” (Janusz Kaminski, 1993)
6. “Apocalypse Now” (Vittorio Storaro, 1979)
7. “The Conformist” (Vittorio Storaro, 1970)
8. “Raging Bull” (Michael Chapman, 1980)
9. “Blade Runner” (Jordan Cronenweth, 1982)
10. “Touch of Evil” (Russell Metty, 1958)
(Check out the rest of the list here.)

Moving into the aughts, it was Bruno Delbonnel's lush and colorful “Amélie” that came out on top, with inarguable entries like “Children of Men,” “There Will Be Blood” and “The Dark Knight” scattered throughout. On the outside, my personal pick for the best in that range – “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” – was in the mix alongside great stuff like “In the Mood for Love,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Matrix,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Munich” and “The Fountain.”


1. “Amélie” (Bruno Delbonnel, 2001)
2. “Children of Men” (Emmanuel Lubezki, 2006)
3. “Saving Private Ryan” (Janusz Kaminski, 1998)
4. “There Will Be Blood” (Robert Elswit, 2007)
5. “No Country for Old Men” (Roger Deakins, 2007)
6. “Fight Club” (Jeff Cronenweth, 1999)
7. “The Dark Knight” (Wally Pfister, 2008)
8. “Road to Perdition” (Conrad L. Hall, 2002)
9. “City of God (Cidade de Deus)” (César Charlone, 2003)
10. “American Beauty” (Conrad L. Hall, 1999)
(Check out the rest of the list here.)

That leaves six years unaccounted for, and I imagine there will be another poll in due time. For now, what are some of your highlights from 2009-2014 behind the camera? I have to admit, I find it hard not to just populate the list with Emmanuel Lubezki. Between “The Tree of Life,” “Gravity” and “Birdman,” he is, simply, in a class unto himself.

So I gave it a go. Here's what my list would more or less look like:

1. “Gravity” (Emmanuel Lubezki, 2013)
2. “Enter the Void” (Benoît Debie, 2010)
3. “Birdman” (Emmanuel Lubezki, 2014)
4. “Antichrist” (Anthony Dod Mantle, 2009)
5. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Bruno Delbonel, 2013)
6. “Inherent Vice” (Robert Elswit, 2014)
7. “Out of the Furnace” (Masanobu Takayanagi, 2013)
8. “The Tree of Life” (Emmanuel Lubezki, 2011)
9. “Bronson” (Larry Smith, 2009)
10. “Skyfall” (Roger Deakins, 2012)

But holy crap was that hard (and just in six years, not even a full decade). I'd want to find room for so many more: “Mr. Turner,” “Spring Breakers,” “Rush,” “The Master,” “Rampart,” “Shame,” “127 Hours,” etc.

What about you?

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