Film Industry

Best Cinematography Movies Of All Time: 10 Of Our Favourites

Photograph of the blog post author, Sam Jones

Sam Jones

24.6.2021

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In this article, we present to you a few of the best cinematography movies ever made. From Wizard of Oz bringing colour to our televisions for the first time, cinematography has captured the attention of many movie fanatics. 

camera lens

Cinematography is about the art of motion-picture photography. Fundamentally, it is what makes movies stunning. From the earliest surviving motion picture to today’s jaw-dropping visuals, movies are centred around cinematography and can make or break them. 

People like Emmanuel Lubezki and Roger Deakins have become legends within the cinematography world and have delivered numerous masterpieces. 

Whereas producers and actors have enticed audiences in the past, cinematography is becoming the new eye-opener.

From iconic classics to modern coming-of-age narratives, these are some of the best cinematography movies of all time. 

Top 10 Best Cinematography Movies Of All Time

Now that we’ve discussed some of the background of cinematography, it’s time to get stuck in! Here’s our list of best cinematography films: 

10. Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

grand budapest hotel

Based in the 1970s this film follows the memories of Tom Wilkinson during his stay at the Grand Budapest hotel. Looking back to his past as a bellboy, Tom’s adventures are joined by Monsieur Moustafa.

Tom helps him through a series of complicated situations due to a passed-down painting from a rich lover. 

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman dedicated to making this film a visual masterpiece. Firstly, visiting the location of old hotels in Europe to get inspiration for the Budapest hotel itself and scout out locations for filming. 

Yeoman decided on many of the shots way in advance of filming. He is set in his ways when it comes to his ideas. They used a low-tech approach and strictly a single camera. Yeoman knew exactly what he wanted to create and executed it perfectly. 

Despite not winning the Oscar for best achievement in cinematography, the film received multiple other wins like best costume design and production design for its efforts. 

9. Birdman (2014) 

birdman michael keaton

With a total number of 193 awards and 484 nominations, Birdman is a highly regarded film full stop. Emmanuel Lubezki received both the BAFTA and Academy awards for best cinematography

The plot follows the life of has-been actor Riggan Thomson as he tries to rekindle his career in broadway after famously playing the superhero Birdman.

Groundbreakingly, the film appears to be one singular shot following Riggan from start to finish. 

Of course, this film was not one continuous shot. But Lubezki worked his magic and created one of the top cinematography films ever made!

Filming lots of scenes with a hand-held camera, Lubezki magically uses light to create seamless, continuous shots. 

Of course, a team was needed to constantly move lighting and objects to create the illusion making sure no shadows removed us from the fantasy.

Lubezki and his team created something never done before making this one of the best cinematography films. 

8. Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)

memoirs of a geisha cinematography

Memoirs of a Geisha is a romantic tragedy and personally one of my favorites. Already based around Japanese culture and the art form that is involved with being a Geisha, this film promised beautiful visuals. 

We follow the life of Chiyo who is sold off to a Geisha house. This is swiftly followed by the loss of her mother and separation from her sister. Chiyo’s start in life is mundane with a tragic past. Also, her future in the Geisha house not looking much more promising.

As the story continues Chiyo ends up not only becoming a Geisha but the most prized Geisha in history. 

Cinematographers Dion Beebe and Sion Michel had a task to recreate the largely lost world of Geisha in pre-war Kyoto. Visiting Japan and its historical locations, the team gained inspiration by delving into the culture of Geisha in Gion, Kyoto visiting a Geisha school, temples, and shrines. 

During production, the production crew analysed Japanese kimonos, paper screens, geisha makeup to name a few. This was to attempt a recreation that did this beautiful Japanese period justice.

The efforts in recreating the geisha art and culture are what make this film one of the top movies for cinematography.

7. Life Of Pi (2012)

life of pi best cinematography movies

Life of Pi is a wondrous film full of breathtaking, otherworldly shots. Claudio Mirana is renowned for his work on films such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tron: Legacy.

He had two goals in mind during the creation of this film. He wanted to expand on the possibilities of the 3-D experience and to create a soft ‘golden hour’ feel.

The story follows the life of a man named Pi as he revisits his memories of his earlier life with a journalist. The basis of Pi’s story is that it will make you believe in God.

In his story, Pi ends up lost at sea on a boat following the sinking of the cargo ship he and his family were moving their zoo on. 

He is joined by different animals on his tiny lifeboat, most noticeably a tiger named Mr. Parker. As they drift across the vast ocean they equally experience terrifying and stunning moments. This creates a spiritual connection between them. 

One very distinctive scene is a moment where Pi is surrounded by bioluminescent plankton lighting up the ocean around him. As he runs his hand through the water to disturb the microscopic creatures, a blue whale, glowing with bioluminescence breaches the water jumping straight over Pi. 

The combination of cinematography and music within this scene is enough to bring floods of tears to your eyes, I’ve got goosebumps just writing about it! 

The Life of Pi is stunning, period. The beauty of its scenes can endorse deep emotions and trap you in a trance. The end to this film which leaves the direction of the narrative up to the audience is the cherry on the pie to this amazing visual fictional story. 

6. Roma (2019) 

roma best cinematography movies

Roma certifies itself as one of the best cinematography movies on Netflix. Directed, written, and cinematography all done by Alfonso Cuarón!

He became the first director to win the best cinematography for their own film; as well as being the first to win best director for a foreign language film. Cuarón deserved every bit of attention this film got. 

Cleo is the protagonist of the film following her life as an indigenous live-in maid in Colonia Roma. The story centers around her pregnancy from an affair as the father disappears.

He shot the film entirely in black and white. The specific camera shots Cuarón used, rarely using close-ups, give us a more detailed inside to the world around the characters, unlike other movies. 

The way the film is portrayed is one of emotions and poetry as mostly silent Cleo is filmed in a way that expresses her inner feelings. 

Aspects of the story were inspired by Cuarón’s own life. Therefore, we begin to understand the passion he dedicated to this movie. This outstanding film with its use of camera angles and black and white imagery makes it a strong contender on our list. 

5. The Tree Of Life (2011)

tree of life best cinematography

The Tree of Life is a very deep and meaningful film popular with the more philosophical of us film lovers. The story is entwined with imagery of the inception of life on earth and the beginning of the universe. Thus, a more in-depth message to the film can be felt throughout.

With the opening quote, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” the film kicks right off into its alternative meanings behind the story. 

The story recalls the life of Jack and his battle between grace and nature represented by Mrs. and Mr. O’brien, his parents. The conflict of following your head or your heart is central to the narrative.

The back and forth visuals between Jack’s story and breathtaking scenery of space and creation make this film one of the top movies for cinematography.

4. Gone With The Wind (1939)

gone with the wind

Gone with the wind, 82 years after its release is still a much loved and referenced film. We follow the love affair between Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Hamilton. Critics praised this classic massively.

On its release in 1939, it became the highest earning film in history. It held that title for over 25 years! Not only is this one of the top movies for cinematography, but renowned as one of the best films to ever be made. 

The production of this film when discussing cinematography became quite the task and caused some upset. Planning to film this colour rich movie during the time where coloured films were only just being conceived created a monumental task on its own.

Producer David O. Selznick fired the original cinematographer and replaced them for favouring a colour scheme he did not! 

Shadows are used to create immensely powerful scenes with The Tree of Life being one of the first films to use them so successfully. Selznick’s very specific idea of what he wanted Gone With the Wind to look like can be credited for making the film the masterpiece it is still today. 

Winning 8 Academy Awards in total including best picture, this film had to make the list of best cinematography films. 

3. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

kill bill vol.1 poster

A bit more of a wild option but Kill Bill strongly deserves to be on this list. This iconic Quentin Tarantino film starring Uma Therman is a homage to grindhouse cinema like martial arts and samurai cinema. 

Uma Thurman as ‘The Bride’ wakes up from a coma following the attempted assassination of her and her unborn child. Upon awakening, The Bride swears revenge on the antagonist Bill and his team of assassins. 

Maybe the most referenced scene from this film is where The Bride fights the Crazy 88 followed by flail-wielding schoolgirl Gogo Yubari. Yubari is iconic in herself and has become part of pop culture with her contrasting cute style to super aggressive warrior.

Robert Richardson is to credit for the gender-blending, wacky aesthetic of Kill Bill. He describes his experience as “the purest rhythm I have had with a director – ever”. The close work relationship with Tarantino and Richardson set up this film to be the masterpiece it is today. 

Despite the firm claim in film culture Kill Bill made, it failed to receive numerous awards, mainly settling for the Saturn awards for best action/adventure/thriller and best actress.   

2. Dances With Wolves (1990)

dances with wolves

Dances With Wolves is another much loved classic by many. Directed by Kevin Costner, this film tells the tale of Union Army Lieutenant John J. Dunbar and his encounter with the native American Lakota people. 

As a romance blooms between Dunbar and a Lakota called Stands with a First, he slowly becomes accepted into the tribe. During his adventures, Dunbar befriends a wolf named Two Socks which then becomes the inspiration for his given name by the Lakota people, Dance with Wolves. 

Dean Semler was responsible for the cinematography of this film and is credited with making it the success it was. The scenery of the American plains, the depiction of Native Americans, the deep moments between Dunbar and Two Socks, this film is no short of stunning, emotional scenes.

Deserving so, Dances with Wolves won the 1991 Oscar for best cinematography and the Academy Award for best picture. 

1. Moonlight (2016) 

moonlight best cinematography movies

We have reached number one on our list and taking the spot is none other than Moonlight. It’s hard to put into words the impact this film has had on audiences being relatable to many. 

The struggle of Chiron is one that gripped many people and a story that will stay with us for a long time. The film is an account of Chron’s life growing up as a back teem, surrounded by drugs, struggling with his sexuality. 

Followed by neglect from his mother and being an outcast from society, we follow Chron through a series of life events like his encounters with a drug dealer called Juan and sexual experiences. 

The film ends with an emotional encounter between Chron and his friend Kevin discussing Chron’s sexuality. The scene cuts to a memory Chron has of himself standing on a beach in the moonlight. 

A tear jerker like no other, Moonlight is an emotional story that soberingly makes us aware of our privileges. The cinematographer James Laxton however created imagery not conventional of this film style. Instead of a very realistic feel, the scenes appear more dreamlike and hypnotises us into Chron’s story.

Instead of viewing the narrative from an audience perspective, you feel you are living Chron’s life right there with him making it all the more emotional. 

Moonlight received the critical affirmation it deserves with winning 161 awards and nominated for another 288. As Well as winning the Academy Award for best picture in 2017, Moonlight is often credited as the best film of 2016! 

If you haven’t seen this film, you simply must! 

That Was Our List Of The Best Cinematography Movies

roger deakins best cinmatography

And…. scene! 

That was our top 10 list of best cinematography films. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it!

From classics like Gone With the Wind where colour in cinema was a new concept to Moonlight following the story of a black gay man, cinematography is the hidden attribute to all these films.

Imagery is something we all deeply connect to but is challenging to define. Minds like Emmanuel Lubezki bring concepts unlike no other and translate them into visual art. These masters of imagery are what bring us film lovers so much joy and wonder. 

Did we miss any of your favourites? Let us know in the comment section below! If you enjoyed this article, be sure to share it on your social media. Tag us @musicgateway!

If you enjoyed this article, why not check out another on our blog? Here are articles on Cinematography 101, Famous Cinematographers Throughout Time and Best Cyberpunk Movies for starters!

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