To determine the all-around greatest films of all time, the well-known Sight and Sound Directors Poll surveys filmmakers themselves. By that same logic, then, if you want to know which movies most excel in one particular aspect, you’ll want to poll the people who work on that aspect of cinema: the actors will know which have the best acting, the editors which have the best editing, the sound designers which have the best sound design, the rigging grips which have the best-gripped rigging. And if you want to know the best-shot films of all time, you have only to ask the cinematographers.
In 1998, American Cinematographer polled the American Society of Cinematographers membership for the best-shot films of all time. Kristopher Tapley at Hitflix writes that the “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.”
Here are the 1894-1949 top-ten results and their cinematographers:
- Citizen Kane (Gregg Toland, 1941)
- Gone with the Wind (Ernest Haller, Ray Rennahan, 1939)
- Sunrise (Charles Rosher, Karl Struss, 1927)
- Metropolis (Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, 1927)
- The Wizard of Oz (Harold Rosson, 1939)
- The Magnificent Ambersons (Stanley Cortez, 1942)
- Casablanca (Arthur Edeson, 1942)
- Battleship Potemkin (Eduard Tisse, 1926)
- The Third Man (Robert Krasker, 1950)
- The Birth of a Nation (G.W. Bitzer, 1915)
“The choice of Gregg Toland’s cinematography for Citizen Kane as the best in the first 45 years of motion pictures comes as no surprise,” writes American Cinematographer‘s George Turner. “No other movie has been more praised, studied and written about — or more panned, damned and blacklisted.” At the time, “audiences in general were put off by the ‘arty’ photography, overlapping dialogue, unusual cutting and Welles’s penchant for injecting startling and often irritating sound effects. It was years before the ‘newness’ of the Kane style wore off and gained widespread acceptance,” and even absorbed into the mainstream.
And those from 1950-1997:
- Lawrence of Arabia (Freddie Young, 1962)
- The Godfather (Gordon Willis, 1971)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (Geoffrey Unworth, 1969)
- Days of Heaven (Néstor Almendros, 1978)
- Schindler’s List (Janusz Kaminski, 1993)
- Apocalypse Now (Vittorio Storaro, 1979)
- The Conformist (Vittorio Storaro, 1970)
- Raging Bull (Michael Chapman, 1980)
- Blade Runner (Jordan Cronenweth, 1982)
- Touch of Evil (Russell Metty, 1958)
Turner calls Lawrence of Arabia “perhaps the crowning achievement in the long and illustrious career of director of photography Frederick A. Young,” naming as its most famous single image “the lingering scene in which Omar Sharif, riding a camel, is first seen as a tiny spot in a mirage on the horizon. In the foreground, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and an Arab youth are drawing water from a well when they notice the wobbly, distorted shape coming toward them. Shimmering in waves of heat and strangely liquid colors, the rider steadily approaches the well. As he gets closer, he is still indistinct, but the ominous thumping of the camel’s feet can be heard. Sharif finally emerges from the mirage, raises his rifle and shoots the Arab. The long scene carries a strong element of dread and suspense.”
Finally, here are the results from 1998-2008:
- Amélie (Bruno Delbonnel, 2001)
- Children of Men (Emmanuel Lubezki, 2006)
- Saving Private Ryan (Janusz Kaminski, 1998)
- There Will Be Blood (Robert Elswit, 2007)
- No Country for Old Men (Roger Deakins, 2007)
- Fight Club (Jeff Cronenweth, 1999)
- The Dark Knight (Wally Pfister, 2008)
- Road to Perdition (Conrad L. Hall, 2002)
- City of God (Cidade de Deus) (César Charlone, 2003)
- American Beauty (Conrad L. Hall, 1999)
The American Society of Cinematographers quotes Delbonnel on Amélie‘s visual victory: “This is real honor for me, especially considering the other movies in this list. These are some of the finest cinematographers, and I’m not sure I deserve to be among them, but I am very happy to be. They are all explorers.” And in that, he sums up why, when we want to know what movies to watch, we should ask the people who make movies: their real competition lies not in simply generating beauty, but in leading the art form into territory unknown.
You can watch several films on the lists–Battleship Potemkin, Sunrise and Metropolis–above. Find more great films in our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.