Top 10 Movies With the Most Stunning and Unique Cinematography

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
March 16th, 2014

Walking into a movie, most people think about the story about to unfold and the actors who are going to portray that story. However, one of the key elements to a great movie is what the audience actually sees on screen. This is the work of the cinematographer. Some movies have such stunning cinematography that it stands out to make the movies truly unique and special. Here are 10 movies whose cinematography sets them apart.

"Barry Lyndon"

Directed by Stanley Kubrick with cinematography by John Alcott, the 1975 film "Barry Lyndon" is notable for its use of natural light. Many of the beautiful scenes were shot by candlelight with no electrical light. The result is a film set in the 1800s that actually looks like paintings from that time period.


Kazuo Miyagawa is responsible for the cinematography on this noted Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa. "Rashomon" uses light in a symbolic or metaphorical way. However, it does so unexpectedly by representing evil with light and darkness for good. Miyagawa was the first cinematographer to take the risk of pointing a camera directly into the sun, which creates a stunning effect.

"American Beauty"

Conrad Hall won an Academy Award for his cinematography in the Sam Mendes-directed film "American Beauty." Hall's cinematography in the film is classic and evokes a calm mood. He intended this to create a deliberate contrast against the onscreen relationship clashes in the story. Hall also increased the amount of rain in the movie. This helped to darken the mood as the climax approaches.

"The Road to Perdition"

Another project from the team of Conrad Hall and Sam Mendes, "The Road to Perdition" brought Hall his third and final Academy Award for cinematography. In the movie, Hall helped to create the characters and the audience's reaction to them by the way he shot them. He shot Tom Hanks' lead character always from a great distance at the beginning of the film, and he then tried to obscure shots of Hanks to establish the dark nature of the character.

"Citizen Kane"

Orson Welles' film "Citizen Kane" is widely acclaimed as the best movie ever made, and much of the credit for that goes to cinematographer Gregg Toland. Toland was the first to shoot a movie largely in deep focus, in which the audience can see different things going on in the foreground and background of each shot. For some key shots, creating this effect involved complex use of in-camera effects that were revolutionary in 1941, when the movie was shot.

"Schindler's List"

Janusz Kaminski was hired as the cinematographer for "Schindler's List" in part because he spoke Polish and would be able to communicate well with the Polish crew. However, the movie was also the beginning of an incredibly fruitful teaming up between himself and director Steven Spielberg. The film was shot in black and white to give it the feel of a documentary. Adding to this documentary-like feeling was the use of a handheld camera for almost half of the shots in the film, which won the cinematography Academy Award for Kaminski.

"The Last Emperor"

"The Last Emperor" was one of the many partnerships of director Bernardo Bertolucci and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Storaro was captivated by the use and psychological meaning of color in movies. In "The Last Emperor," he moved deliberately through the color spectrum to evoke specific psychological and emotional responses in the audience.


Director William Wyler and cinematographer Robert Surtees were forced to shoot "Ben-Hur" in a widescreen format even though neither of them really wanted to do so. They overcame what they viewed as a great hindrance to their storytelling by deliberately filling the frame with lots of motion and detail. In addition, they found a way to shoot with a great deal of depth of field. This involves action going on in both the foreground and background of the screen, which is extremely unusual in widescreen movies.

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Although "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" was not a particularly successful film when it was released in 2007, it was noted as one of the many stellar examples of cinematography by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. In the movie, Deakins tried to create a sense that everything had been shot with an old-fashioned camera. Of particular note is the night time train robbery sequence in which everything is supposed to be occurring in pitch darkness. However, Deakins' skillful technique allows the audience to keep track of what is happening.


Chrisopher Nolan's movie "Inception" is notable for its often surreal vibe as it transitions through several layers of reality. Much of the feeling of the film is due to Wally Pfister's exceptional cinematography, which won Pfister an Academy Award. Pfister deliberately chose to use different formats in shooting the various sequences of the film, including 35mm, 65mm and VistaVision, and he made a choice to avoid shooting in IMAX or 3D formats.

The next time you find yourself amazed by a visually stunning movie, take a moment to check out the credits to see who the cinematographer was. These visual geniuses are key to the look and feel of many of the movies that stun and delight audiences.