Exception

I agree with all but one of the best shot films between ’98 and ’08 named in an American Cinematographer poll. I concur with the celebrating of Amelie, Children of Men, Saving Private Ryan, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, The Dark Knight, Road to Perdition, City of God and American Beauty…but I say “no” to Jeff Cronenweth‘s cinematography of David Fincher‘s Fight Club .

Sorry but I’ve always despised the somewhat murky, underlit look of that film — as if the negative had been soaked in a vat of cappucino mixed with guacamole and string beans. Throughout most of the film Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter‘s skin looks greenish-gray. The last time I watched it (on Bluray) it pissed me off and made me feel depressed all over again.

Replace Fight Club with Roger Deakins‘ capturing of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or John Toland‘s work on The Thin Red Line or Harris Savides‘ shooting of Zodiac and we’re good to go.

55 thoughts on “Exception

  1. I’ve always loved the look of FC. It does the attractively unattractive thing incredibly well, and it meshes perfectly with the theme. It’s an ugly world, but oddly inviting.

  2. Mulholland Dr. The best film of the aughts according to most meta-polls. Most discussions of cinematography concern aspect ratio, framing, filters, etc. But, one over-looked component of cinematography is composition. Nobody beats Lynch at composition. I have spoken.

  3. I think Fight Club’s tones and palor matches the decay of the characters’ souls. Way wrong on this one, Wells.

  4. definitely a fight club cinematography admirer. it set quite a few standards.

    my list would be:

    the new world

    children of men

    the assassination of jesse james

    the thin red line

    saving private ryan

    a very long engagement

    zodiac

    gangs of new york

    the fall

    three kings

  5. Funny that Jeff picked a still from the ONE AND ONLY BAD MOMENT in Fight Club.

    As many know, it is not only one of my three favorites of all time, but also my PERSONAL GUIDEBOOK TO LIFE. But THAT shot, from that scene, where HBC goes on this EMBARRASSING spiel about how the “condom is the glass slipper” of age, is CRINGE-INDUCING. I bristle and groan every time, because her acting is so fucking bad there, and the dialogue is so awful. A minor blight on a total masterpiece, but Christ is that bit lousy.

  6. That shot from Zodiac is pretty damn fantastic. It’s fairly tragic that Zodiac was overlooked by pretty much everyone, award voters and audiences.

    As a matter a fact, I now know what I’m doing on my Thursday evening. I’m gonna watch Zodiac for the 10,000th time.

  7. Zodiac was GORGEOUS. Definitely deserved some recognition on that list.

    How about Pan’s Labyrinth? Or The Matrix?

  8. Where’s Russian Ark on that list? Birth and Himalaya ought to be somewhere on it too. The Insider should have been in the top 10 over Fight Club or American Beauty. I’d have Richardson for Bringing out the Dead over Kill Bill. And Minority Report over Munich for Kaminski.

  9. Wells are effin’ kidding me? Really? You’re gonna go there? Check it out on Blu-Ray and you will see murkiness raised to a level of Carvaggio excellence. Brilliant work by Cronenweth and his team.

  10. Funny that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow made it in there at the bottom. Wasn’t most of it CGI? Does computer-generated lighting count as cinematography?

  11. LexG >> For me the moment that makes me cringe is Tyler’s shouting “Run, Forrest, run!” as Raymond K. Hessell flees. It’s a complete tonal sabotage for the scene and a stupid reference to a lesser film.

  12. Dr. Bob: “Mulholland Dr. The best film of the aughts according to most meta-polls. Most discussions of cinematography concern aspect ratio, framing, filters, etc. But, one over-looked component of cinematography is composition. Nobody beats Lynch at composition. I have spoken.”

    You have spoken, alright. Foolishly. Composition is supposed to be the responsibility of the director, not the cinematographer. And it’s not overlooked, because people talk about composition when they talk about direction. I don’t know why you’d bring up Lynch’s name w/r/t cinematography anyway, because the director of photography on Mulholland Dr was Peter Deming.

  13. I like the way FC looks, but I guess I can kind of grasp the argument that it’s a little too “grimy” to be beautiful (I’d disagree vehemently with that sentiment, however).

    As far as the cinematography in Fincher films during that period, though, it’s hard not to go with Zodiac. And I love TDK as much as just about anybody here, but including that movie while excluding Jesse James is really sort of madness.

  14. er, are the commentators on this board aware that most of what they are critiquing/discussing is not cinematography, but post-production colorizing?

  15. Buffalo 66

    Irreversible

    Innocence

    Cache

    George Washington

    Elephant

    Eureka

    Morvern Caller

    4

    Dog Days

    Auto-Focus

    The Royal Tenenbaums

  16. MilkMan and Dr. Bob have nailed some good exclusions from the top 43. I would like throw in Werckmeister Harmonies.

  17. “Replace Fight Club with Roger Deakins’ capturing of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or John Toll’s work on The Thin Red Line or Harris Savides’ shooting of Zodiac and we’re good to go.”

    Great list Jeff, but i’d take The Dark Knight out before I would Fight Club. But yeah, Jesse James, Zodiac, Thin Red Line and There Will Be Blood are all mindblowing in their unique ways.

  18. Sky Captain is mostly green screen. That shouldn’t even count. Fight Club is way to high. Look at the films it’s ahead of.

    My faves from 98-2008 are There Will Be Blood, Saving Private Ryan, Road To Perdition, A Cival Action ( both by Conrad Hall one Oscar winner the other nominated ) Saving Private Ryan, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Last Samurai, LOTR, The New World, Benjamin Button, Gangs Of New York, The Thin Red Line.

    Here are some finely shot films not on the list…

    The Cell, Australia ( cinematography best part of that film ) Elizabeth, The Patriot, Letters From Iwo Jima, L.A. Confidential, The Truman Show, Good Night and Good Luck, Open Range, The Road, The Majestic.

  19. Malik Sayeed’s work on BELLY.

    I’m not kidding. Sayeed’s crazy bold colors and grain in that movie, and for Spike in CLOCKERS, were some of the most eye-popping cinematography around.

    Also kind of odd that in honoring the last 10 years, they went went with so many classical-looking, polished movies, and left out the movies with THE LOOK THAT DEFINED THE ERA.

    Well, I guess they have CITY OF GOD and COM in there, but all that greenish-purple Prieto-Libatique septic-tank vision seems underrepresented, especially since it was THE TRADEMARK LOOK OF THE ERA– 8 Mile, Amores Perros, Josie and P-Cats, Frida, Phone Booth, Tigerland, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, 21 Grams, Constant Gardener, etc.

    And of all those Prieto-Libatique movies…

    25th Hour should be on there.

  20. Matt Libatique has a good eye. He just shot Aranofsky’s Black Swan which should be intesting to see the look of the film.

    It’s hard to talk smack on Deakins, Richardson, Ballhaus, Lubezki, Kaminski, Beebe, Elswit and Prieto.

  21. Great Expectations missed the top 50, but had some very influential photography. Also my favorite works by Savides are Birth and The Yards, neither of which made it.

    BTW, why 98 – 08? Who came up with that stretch? The I hate James Cameron Club?

  22. Heh… I kind of like the “Run, Forrest, run!” part from Pitt.

    GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME.

    TYLER DURDEN = GOD.

  23. Lazarus:

    I am fully aware that Lynch did not serve as his own cinematographer on MD. I just didn’t feel like looking it up. Everyone knows that Lynch is heavily involved in the cinematography of his films, so why split hairs.

    And, I call bullshit on your argument that composition is not an element of cinematography.

  24. “BTW, why 98 – 08? Who came up with that stretch? The I hate James Cameron Club?”

    The list does conveniently exclude both Titanic and Avatar, doesn’t it? Not that I would have included either film on the list even if it included films from ’97 and ’09.

  25. Dr. Bob, call whatever you want. The director is responsible for WHAT is in the frame, and what is not. The cinematographer is responsible for HOW that image looks. Even directors who aren’t as well-versed in photography as Stanley Kubrick are usually choosing a focal length as well.

    You’re just flat-out wrong, and I’d love to hear others chime in with their opinions to back me up.

  26. laz – your statement is such an oversimplification that it is basically wrong, but if you want to limit yourself specifically to the British film industry, you are slightly more correct.

    You’re trying to nitpick, but you’re doing it badly. In point of fact, based on the distinction you are making, the camera operator is responsible for framing and composition. But the distinction you are making disintegrates within a year or two of working on actual film sets, when you realize that, in general, there is no “rule” where you’re trying to cite one. The director, the DP, and the camera op all have their opinions and have their impact on the composition.

    And then, even after all that, you’re going to completely ignore the editor? No, no, you’re just trying to bully people with half-formed pseudo knowledge.

  27. Hell, I bet everybody here with actual on-set experience has worked on at least one film where the storyboard artist had made the most significant contributions to the compositions of the shots.

  28. “Replace Fight Club with Roger Deakins’ capturing of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or John Toll’s work on The Thin Red Line or Harris Savides’ shooting of Zodiac and we’re good to go.”

    Great list Jeff, but i’d take The Dark Knight out before I would Fight Club. But yeah, Jesse James, Zodiac, Thin Red Line and There Will Be Blood are all mindblowing in their unique ways.

  29. Glad to see people naming some worthy films here, you’ve restored my faith in humanity.

    Some of the mentions that please me to no end are:

    Elephant

    Auto-Focus

    Russian Ark

    Assassination of Jesse James

    Miami Vice

    I’d like to add The Fountain to that list as well.

  30. I would add:

    OLDBOY (Chung)

    EL AURA (Varese)

    RUNNING SCARED (Whitaker)

    NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Deakins)

    LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Van Hoytema)

    PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN (Wolski)

    CASINO ROYALE (Meheux)

    EDGE OF DARKNESS (Meheux)

    SEXY BEAST (Bird)

    SUNSHINE (Kuchler)

    THE EXPRESS (Morgenthau)

    IN AMERICA (Quinn)

    MICHAEL CLAYTON (Elswit)

    Agree with: BIRTH, THE YARDS and Prieto’s amazingly gritty work on 25TH HOUR.

    And, Jeff, you couldn’t be more wrong on FIGHT CLUB. That movie is eye sex.

    No fucking digitally shot movie would ever make my list. I think ZODIAC and COLLATERAL are two cases of overrated head dunks into the Kool-Aid tank. MIAMI VICE looks day-old vomit and PUBLIC ENEMIES looks like month old vomit.

  31. ^WTF@dismissing Zodiac with one sentence, but praising the very pedestrian-looking (at least to my eyes) In America.

    I actually like that film more than most, but there was absolutely nothing about the look of it that stood out to me. At all.

  32. I could write a freakin’ essay on why ZODIAC is the most overpraised looking film of the last decade. Starting with the shitty Viper cam’s flat looking photography in (most) scenes. The entire film looks soft to my eye. Skin tones never feel realistic for a film going for gritty. docu-drama feel. I’ll give you that Fincher shoots (directs?) better HD than Mann, but that’s not saying much. As an aside, I’m a huge fan of Harris Savides, and I even heard from a DP friend that he wasn’t all that high on the digital look himself – Fincher pushed him in that direction. To my knowledge (and I may be wrong), he hasn’t shot digital since.

    IN AMERICA is a terrific looking film. Declan Quinn’s cinematography is beautifully calibrated, perfect color balance and contrast. I’m not the biggest fan of the film itself, but I certainly appreciate the look. It has stuck with me. Quinn can be hit and miss – but he’s a solid cinematographer on the whole.

  33. Probably not a “cool” choice and probably wouldn’t quite make my tops, but I liked Eduardo Serra’s look for UNBREAKABLE. Kind of an underrated DP all around.

  34. I’d probably add 300, Pistol Opera, Tears of The Black Tiger, that Miike Django, Casshern, Avalon, and Ponyo to that list.

  35. Eduardo Serra ! Done some great work. Just finished both Deathly Hallows films.

    Defiance ( should have been Oscar nominated for that )

    Blood Diamond

    Girl With A Pearl Earring

    Beyond The Sea

    What Dreams May Come

    Unbreakable

    The Wings Of The Dove

  36. Kick Amelie to the curb, where a little dirt wouldn’t hurt… the digitally ramped up colors of its cinematography were just the over-bright, extra-cheery cherry on top of this cloying monstrosity.

  37. Gordn27: “You’re trying to nitpick, but you’re doing it badly. In point of fact, based on the distinction you are making, the camera operator is responsible for framing and composition. But the distinction you are making disintegrates within a year or two of working on actual film sets, when you realize that, in general, there is no “rule” where you’re trying to cite one. The director, the DP, and the camera op all have their opinions and have their impact on the composition.”

    I’m sure everyone has an opinion. including the gopher getting bottled water for people. But the director is the one who decides what the shot is going contain, and has the final say. I don’t know what the fuck the British Film Industry has to do with it. Yes, technically the camera operator physically “frames” it, but this is at the instruction of the DP, based on what the director wants.

    I’m not sure which film sets you’ve been on, but I’m referring to auteurs whose compositions actually have artistic merit and are worth discussing. I couldn’t care less how hacks go about their business. And if you think someone like Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, etc. are leaving the shot selections to their DPs you’re fucking insane.

    “And then, even after all that, you’re going to completely ignore the editor? No, no, you’re just trying to bully people with half-formed pseudo knowledge.”

    I’d love to hear how editors are composing the shots after the face. That’s a new one.

    I never insinuated that the various positions in filmmaking other than director are worthless and make no contribution to the productions. I’m very much into studying the work of various cinematographers and editors. But I think you h

  38. Stanley Kubrick was the cinematographer. I share the opinion that he is maybe the greatest cinematographer of all time. Altman was another.

  39. There’s nothing wrong with the cinematography of TDK and The Prestige but it still bothers me that they made the top 50 list.

    But everything on that list I pretty much agree with, except the exclusion of Jesse James from the top 10.

  40. “bisonfilms says …

    er, are the commentators on this board aware that most of what they are critiquing/discussing is not cinematography, but post-production colorizing?”

    Er, post production colorizing via digital intermediate falls within the purview of the Director of Photography. they often superivse the process along with the Post Production Supervisor.

    Lazarus, there are dozens of auteurs that jave left the composing, framing, and mise-en-scene up to the D. P. (Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola, just to name a couple.)

  41. I was glad to see that Eyes Wide Shut at least got an honorable mention. I’m tired of seeing all the color leeched out of film. In some ways, I think that Janusz Kaminski is the worst thing that’s ever happened to Steven Spielberg.

    EWS managed to be amazingly colorful, but still maintain Kubrick’s trademark cold antiseptic look.

  42. Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice was probably the best looking movie I saw in the past decade.

    Though I’m sure much of it can be attributed to how his willowy lead actress caught the light.

  43. It’s a pretty solid list. I’m surprised Jeff didn’t take the opportunity to take a shot at Lord of the Rings (which 100% deserves to be there).

    I don’t see Traffic, but it sure feels like it should be there…no love for “Peter Andrews”?

    And Fight Club looks exactly like it’s supposed to look. Beautiful and decrepit and dark.

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