6 Examples of Quality Cinematography

As I said in my review of Love Letter, a common trait many of my favorite Japanese films have is beautiful cinematography, and Love Letter had plenty of that. With that in mind, I want to list some films which I thought had very high quality mise-en-scene compositions.

Unlike most of my lists, most of these movies are ones I have reviewed on this blog in the past.

6. Skyfall (2012)
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem
Country of Origin: United Kingdom


While I have not seen Anna Karenina or Life of Pi, I have seen the other three films nominated for the 2013 Oscar for cinematography, which are Skyfall, Lincoln, and Django Unchained. Of those three, Skyfall would be my clear winner for the Oscar, and it’s almost purely because of the scene that contained the shot I used above. It was the scene where Bond fights Patrice in Beijing after the latter had performed a sniping assassination. It was a beautiful contrast of the lights from advertisements outside with the dark inside the skyscraper Bond and Patrice were in, resulting in the two becoming silhouettes. Sam Mendes is known for his visually stylistic movies, such as Jarhead (2005) and American Beauty (1999). Jarhead was a visual spectacle to behold, but I will say Skyfall, thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins, completely blew that movie out of the water.

5. Downfall (2004)
Director: Oliver Hirschbeigel
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara
Country of Origin: Germany

For this, I’m going to use the oft-parodied rant in which Hitler reacts to a failed German counterattack to his senior staff officers as an example. You see here that cinematographer Rainer Klausmann opted for a handheld camera, keeping Bruno Ganz (Hitler) at the center. In the meantime, you can see other characters like Joseph Goebbels, out of focus, basically not at all reacting to Hitler’s shouting. Interspersed, you see shots of the area outside the room where you see hordes of German officials, and among them are Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), the main character Traudl Junge (Lara), and her friend Gerda. Again, you see Klausmann using his handheld camera to keep the characters he wants in focus, even as he moves around without holding the camera perfectly still.

4. 2046 (2004)
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi
Country of Origin: Hong Kong


Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai is basically my current favorite director, and 2046 was my pick for the best Asian film I had seen over the course of 2012. Wong just totally blew me away with his visual style in all three of the movies of his that I have seen. What stuck out to me in 2046 was the colors he used for his shot compositions. When we first meet Bai Ling, Zhang Ziyi’s character, we see her feet as she tosses and turns in her bed, attempting to sleep through the ruckus coming from Chow’s (Tony Leung) room, which is next door to her’s. The almost spotless near-white of Zhang’s skin plus the blood red polish used on her toenails stood in stark contrast to the drab gray-green walls of the apartment she was rooming in. Wong Kar Wai generally demonstrated a talent for making his actresses, already beautiful women to begin with, even more appealing with how Christopher Doyle’s camera treated them. His cast and crew complained about how long shoots would take, often joking the movie would be complete in the year 2046. However, I felt the end result was worth the loving attention Wong gave it.

3. Amelie (2001)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou
Country of Origin: France

amelie-bathAmelie was nominated for the 2002 Oscar for Best Cinematography, ultimately losing to Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Nonetheless, Amelie had a very interesting visual style. As much as I have to credit director Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, I think Audrey Tautou deserved kudos as well with how she acted her scenes. Tautou is a pretty woman, but she had a presence in Amelie which made the movie look very funny, which was what the intention was. In the screenshot I have here, Amelie has frozen upon seeing news of Princess Diana’s death (the movie takes place in 1997), and it is when she drops the top of the shampoo bottle she is holding that the movie really gets rolling. All Tautou had to do was stand perfectly still, yet it became a very memorable scene.

2. Maboroshi (1995)
Director: Koreeda Hirokazu
Starring: Esumi Makiko, Asano Tadanobu
Country of Origin: Japan

maboros2In Maboroshi, director Koreeda decided to follow examples of old-time director Ozu Yasujiro by typically leaving a stationary camera and having his characters walk on and off-screen. The movements are always kept to a minimum. For much of the movie, nary a word is said. In fact, most of the time, the shots are put together such that oftentimes the viewer doesn’t even get a good look at the characters’ faces. In one scene, we see Yumiko (Esumi) looking into her husband’s workplace at a forge. We see her from inside, ostensibly from her husband’s point of view, as she makes funny faces to him. When we look back at him, we see him barely react. While barely anything happens on screen, we can see the sheer intimacy within this couple, and it lays the emotional groundwork for what is to follow in the movie.

1. The Graduate (1967)
Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft
Country of Origin: United States

The-GraduateThe Graduate could very well be the single most carefully composed movie I have ever seen. My oft-cited example is at the beginning when Ben (Hoffman) has debarked his plane and is on a moving walkway. We see the camera positioned such that we, like Ben, can’t see very far in front of him, symbolizing his lack of direction in life now that he has graduated college. We see in the hotel room where Ben and Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) lay together, the latter faces away from Ben as he speaks. She shows an utter lack of interest in Ben besides the satisfaction he offers her in her ability to control something. Finally, we see Ben and Elaine (Katherine Ross) on the bus at the end, clearly satisfied with their handiwork as the other passengers look at them in wonder. Overall, The Graduate can truly be defined to be visual poetry.