Staff Top 10
Top Ten Directors of Photography

a remarkable number of the best filmmakers in the world work exclusively with the same director of photography, movie after movie. This fact isn’t remarkable in or of itself; what’s interesting is the debate it might—and probably should—spawn: an auteurist chicken-or-egg argument. If Wong Kar-wai films look fantastic, as I imagine we can all agree they do, who deserves the credit: Wong or Christopher Doyle, who’s served as DP on every Wong effort save his debut? Russian Ark is a supremely thoughtful meditation on Russian art and history, but its spot in the canon is forever reserved as the longest single take in movie history. Who gets the props there: director Alexander Sokurov for orchestrating the pageant or cinematographer Tilman Büttner for mustering the sheer athleticism to pull off the crazy stunt? (In the making-of doc included on the DVD, Büttner, who also shot the physically demanding Run Lola Run, confesses that he suffered back pains for months after filming wrapped.)

The obvious answer in such instances is “both,” but which name appears on these film’s main IMDB pages, while the other you have to click “more” to find, above costume design and “production management” (whatever that means) but well below the implied auteur, literal author, and cast?

This isn’t a new debate. A sizable fraction of film critics and academics prefer to attribute the brilliance of Citizen Kane (particularly its stunning visual design and groundbreaking use of deep focus photography) to veteran DP Gregg Toland rather than neophyte filmmaker Orson Welles. But, now more than ever, cinematographers are (at least) number two in the creative process behind making movies that matter, more vital to the final product than screenwriters or actors. For my money, I’d follow Christopher Doyle just about anywhere, while, as much as I like Sean Penn, I passed on All the King’s Men.

What follows below is a personal list of the ten best directors of photography in the business right now—a list that doesn’t include such worthy names as Remi Adefarasin (The House of Mirth), Nelson Yu Lik-wai (all five of Jia Zhang-ke’s features), Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano), John Toll (The Thin Red Line), Peter Deming (Mulholland Drive), Peter Suschitzky (Spider), Edward Lachman (Far from Heaven), or Büttner. Such unthinkable exclusion is telling of the wealth of talent currently working behind the camera on film sets from Hong Kong to Los Angeles.

10. “Peter Andrews”
Peter Andrews does not exist. It’s a pseudonym employed by Steven Soderbergh, who has lensed every film he’s helmed from Traffic on (he also edits his own work under the name “Mary Ann Bernard”—who knows why). This raises an altogether different query than the one I mentioned in the introduction to this piece. That is, has Soderbergh developed into a better director of photography than of movies in general? Example A: Solaris’s cool, metallic space veneer and moodily oversaturated flashback sequences. Example B: Full Frontal. Case closed?

09. Harris Savides
Unlike many of my peers, I’m not a fan of Gus Van Sant’s recent (unambiguously Béla Tarr-aping) output. However, the best thing, without a doubt, about Van Sant’s Loneliness (or whatever you want to call it) Trilogy is Savides’s exquisite camerawork. Even if Elephant’s tragic high school kids frequently resemble over-fetishized runway models, there’s still no question that the man knows how to sustain some of the world’s smoothest tracking shots. Hell, his perfectly modulated balance of Michael Haneke-style long shots and revealing close-ups almost redeemed the otherwise useless Last Days.

08. Emmanuel Lubezki
Lubezki is a rare talent, but one you can’t necessarily trust with just any filmmaker. His candy-coated compositions only added, for example, to the kitsch factor of the recent live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. Partnered with reputable aesthetes like Tim Burton or Terrence Malick, on the other hand, he’s top-tier all the way. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is virtually all surface, but—you decide about 15 minutes in—that doesn’t matter a bit because it looks so damn good. His masterly use of natural light as an expressive force is best exemplified by Malick’s The New World, which wouldn’t pack nearly the same end-of-innocence punch without Lubezki’s expertise. (Bonus points for having shot this breathtaking scene.)

07. Eric Gautier
He’s worked side-by-side with some of France’s finest contemporary filmmakers—Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Patrice Chereau. Too easy, you say? Like Kobe winning three NBA championships—with Shaq. Not so fast: Gautier also shot Walter Salles’s staggeringly vapid Che Guevara biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries, and if you manage to stay awake throughout (no simple feat, granted), it’s clear that his landscape work there is as stunning as anything in Esther Kahn or Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.

06. Roger Deakins
Coen brothers movies always look different and always look great, from Fargo’s snowbound visuals (the color white has seldom been put to such effective use—seriously) to the rich, smoky black and white of the noir homage The Man Who Wasn’t There. For this, a generous portion of the credit should go to Roger Deakins, who’s shot all of their movies since Barton Fink. But that’s not the end of his case. Deakins also shot Scorsese’s Kundun, bathing the story of the Dalai Lama in deep, radiant hues of yellow and red, and Sam Mendes’s Jarhead, where he managed to do for sand what Fargo did for snow.

05. Janusz Kaminski
Kaminski won his first Academy Award for his haunting work on Schindler’s List, a daunting exercise in matching frenzied action with devastating stillness. Spielberg has smartly stuck with him ever since (though—fun fact—ex-wife and fellow member of Oscar’s Class of ’93 Holly Hunter didn’t). Kaminski’s crowning achievement as a cinematographer may be one in the same with Spielberg’s masterpiece: A.I., hands-down the most visually sumptuous sci-fi film ever made. The harrowing demolition sequence is proof of Kaminski’s technically fluent, first-rate craftsmanship. The iconic underwater shot of Haley Joel Osment’s David and the blue fairy statue solidifies his reputation as a visionary artist in his own right.

04. Dion Beebe
Speaking of fruitful director/DP partnerships, Michael Mann and Dion Beebe are—two films in—the duo du jour in American cinema. Collateral, with its luminous fluorescent glow and striking DV urgency, captures L.A. as indelibly (and perhaps definitively) as Gordon Willis did New York in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Miami Vice is the hypnotically stylish apotheosis of Mann’s designer oeuvre, and he would never have achieved it without Beebe’s singular lens. Who knows? There might be actual substance in there somewhere, but that sure as heck ain’t the reason it gets my vote as the best Hollywood movie so far this year.

03. Mark Li Ping-bing
Whether credited as Mark Li Ping-bing, Mark Lee Ping-bin, Mark Ping-bin Lee, Mark Lee, or Pingbin Li, this is definitely a guy you want shooting your movie. Hou Hsiao-hsien swears by him, and for good reason. The trio of vignettes in Three Times might have played as mere back-catalogue rehashes without Ping-bing’s camera guiding Hou’s signature concerns in fascinating new directions. Where the turn-of-the-century brothel in 1998’s Flowers of Shanghai is adorned in bold shades of orange, yellow, and gold, the “Time for Freedom” chapter of Three Times (again set in a turn-of-the-century brothel) is defined by compositions in blue, green, and violet, beautifully underscoring the painful longing of Hou’s characters. Aside from Hou, Ping-bing has also lent his painterly touch to Tran An Hung’s The Vertical Ray of the Run and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town.

02. Agnes Godard
The first thing everyone notices about Claire Denis films is that tactile sensuality, surfaces that shine in the sun (the toned soldiers of Beau Travail) or seem to gradually deepen in color before your eyes (the seemingly mundane hotel room in Friday Night). Ladies and gentleman: Agnes Godard, the DP who can make anyone or anything look like a Vermeer painting. Her meticulous, penetrating visual style couldn’t be more perfectly suited to Denis’s strangely shaped, deliberately paced narratives. Trouble Every Day would be just another Euro-art-horror flick without the weight of melancholy that Godard’s camera carries. As is, it feels, at times, like a portrait of two suffering saints—who just happen to think cannibalism’s pretty sexy.

01. Christopher Doyle
To be perfectly honest with you, my choice for #1 here wasn’t terribly difficult. It was basically just a matter of deduction. Who, over the past decade-plus, has made the most consistently gorgeous-looking movies? Wong Kar-wai, right? No question. Well, as mentioned above, Wong and Doyle are inseparable to the point that it’s reasonable to wonder where one ends and the other begins. And no, as virtues go, breathtaking, eye-popping beauty isn’t everything, but it goes an awfully long way. Think back momentarily, and consider all the indelible moments that Wong and Doyle have brought us: the would-be lovers riding off on the motorbike at the close of Fallen Angels, Doyle’s camera peering skyward before the credits roll; the rhythmic series of impossibly graceful shots following Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung through their solo motions in In the Mood for Love (shot with Ping-bing); Faye Wong’s android drifting disaffectedly through Mr. Chow’s pulp fantasy in 2046; the three minutes and forty-two seconds of romantic ecstasy that is their music video for DJ Shadow’s “Six Days.”

Hey, if that’s not enough for you, Doyle has also shot non-Wong films as diverse as Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence. Dumplings, Hong Kong director Fruit Chan’s contribution to the pan-Asian triptych Three…Extremes, would be a scathing polemic on its own. With Doyle manning the camera, it’s a striking, self-reflexive paradox—a visually seductive critique of our image-obsessed (global) culture.

By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2006-11-13
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