By Scott Youngbauer

First let’s just get this out of the way. Every one of these Oscar winning films is gorgeous and a work of art. Each is stunningly different, both in visuals and content, and are all viewed best on the big screen. All deserved every bit of the Oscar. That said, for the “Oscar Decade Series”, here is an attempt to rank them into a top ten with a brief explanation of that order, a highlight of what makes them unique, and the key scene that probably had a part in the win.

10. Memoirs of a Geisha 2005Cinematography by Dion Beebe

Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha has the disadvantage of being the weakest film as a whole of the entire list. Aside from the how gorgeous the film looked, it was a bit of a dropped ball when it was released. The film was touted as an early best picture contender in late 2005. When the film was released to a ho-hum critical and audience reception, the technical nominations took the place of both the picture, and acting, nods.  Looking back at the film it’s a surprisingly weak adaption of Arthur Golden’s novel, with key moments lost in translation. The only stand out performance belongs to the great Gong Li, who steals every scene she’s in. Visually the film is impeccable, but perhaps that is just the problem. Can a film be in fact too beautiful? Maybe, Dion Beebe’s photography, (who also shot Marshall’s Chicago, and Nine), overly romanticized the material. The glamour of the world of these Japanese women was heavily laid on. Perhaps Beebe didn’t get across visually how cut throat and grey this world really was?  That said, when this is only the valid criticisms of the cinematography it can’t all be that bad. What stands out in Beebe’s work on Geisha is his eye for lighting, which is delicately in shots throughout.

Key Scene: When thinking of the most visually outstanding moment of the film Sayuri’s stage performance comes to mind. When Ziyi Zhang comes out on stage with long flowing hair wearing a silk kimono, and high platform shoes, I couldn’t help but think how many drag performances it has since inspired. Maybe it was Marshall’s attempt to pay homage to Showgirls by the way of Farewell My Concubine?

Here is a clip:


9. Avatar 2009- Cinematography by Mauro Fiore

I know I’m going to get some flack for ranking this one so low, but personally I walked out of James Cameron’s film feeling a little cold from the CGI fest I had laid my eyes on.  No disrespect to either Cameron or his gazillion dollar camera. I guess I just couldn’t connect with the paper-thin material on a personal level. Call me old school, but I like my cinematography done outside of a green screen stage. However, I can see that it’s a technical wonder that’s worth rewarding. Everything visually in the film is stunning. Every color pops and feels as if it was from another realm. It makes for perfect eye candy. Not sure if Cameron had this in mind when creating the experience of watching it, but it’s certainly one for the history books.

Key scene: The tree of souls climax at the end where Jake is turned into a Navi.  Even though I wasn’t one of the film’s devoted fans, I couldn’t help but be moved by how visually powerful this scene is.


8. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World 2003- Cinematography by Russell Boyd

There probably wasn’t a better man for the job making Patrick O’Brien’s book into a film than Australian filmmaker Peter Wier and cameraman Russell Boyd, who has shot a lot of Weir’s films. Both have an eye for scale on the high seas. Each shot is grand featuring the standard issue epic shots overlooking the unexplored oceans of Pacific.  The movie really couldn’t look any better.  Weir’s film has the feel of adventure, and the battle scenes bring one straight into the action.

Key scene: The battle scene with the French is what this material lives for. A thrilling scene that achieves the film’s sense of adventure that moviegoers love to experience in a dark theatre


7. The Aviator 2004- Cinematography by Robert Richardson

One of Martin Scorsese’s films had to win this category at least once in the 2000’s, and The Aviator is a perfect choice. Scorsese surrounds himself with the best in the business, and Robert Richardson is one of the best cameramen in Hollywood. He’s worked closely with Scorsese in many of his films along with Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. The film above all encapsulates that old Hollywood feel, and fits Howard Hughes’s “to the moon” persona that was both his strength and weakness. Howard Hughes was never a man to do things half-assed, and Richardson’s cinematography perfectly matches that. Take his way of photographing the beautiful set pieces by Dante Ferretti. The guy certainly knows how to shoot for scale.

Key scene: The Coconut Grove in which Leo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes hob knobs with the iconic Errol Flynn (Jude Law), and charms the delectable Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blancett).  It’s Hollywood glamour at its finest moment.

Here is a clip:


6. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001- Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie

It’s appropriate that Andrew Lesnie’s work on Fellowship was the one film of all three that won the Oscar for cinematography. Perhaps it’s because that the film is probably the most beautiful of the three, partly due to it having most iconic scenes from the book. The film has all the Tolkien iconic locations: hobbit shire, the forests of Rivendale, mysterious woodland Lothlorien, and the foreboding mines of Moria.  It’s my personal favorite of the three films, and it’s the one that I’m willing to watch over again.  I may not have been as big of a fan as most were of these movies, but can fully appreciate them as Peter Jackson’s masterpiece. Jackson alongside Lesnie did what few filmmakers could do. Which was create Tolkin’s universe from a reader’s imagination, and bring it to life on screen.

Key scene. The Shire. Everything about these scenes was just how I pictured them from the books.  The opening shots of Frodo’s home are charming, lovely, and Jackson’s magic at its best.


5. Slumdog Millionaire 2008- Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle

Danny Boyle is unique director in that every one of his films looks different than the one previous. Slumdog Millionaire gets major points on this list in that it was the only contemporary film in to win the Oscar in this category in the 2000s. I would imagine that shooting a contemporary movie would be one of the toughest to nail in a visual style, due to it being set in a time period we’re all familiar with. Boyle, and cinematography Anthony Dod Mantle, transport the viewer with a slick style that demonstrates world cinema at its finest hour. Every scene breathes of life and color. Shots of this film, such as Latika on the train platform, and the children hanging off the rail cars will forever have a place movie history.

Key Scene: The opening sequence of the children running from the airport runway to the slums is a perfect example of how a cinematographer can literally put the viewer in the surroundings. Everything is shot has the perspective of the slums, and it puts you in the moment running with these children. Notice how the sky is barely visible in these shots, which puts the audience into this fast paced urban environment.


4. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2000- Cinematography by Peter Pau

Was there anything quite like seeing Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon on the big screen? I know I was a blown away 15-year-old when I saw it. It was probably my first real experience of foreign cinema, and will always remember when it came to my hometown theatre. For a po-dunk cow town in Montana any foreign film that has a cultural reach like that is pretty amazing. I think a lot of this films success has to do with its iconic photography. Finding an interesting middle ground from fantasy, Kung Foo, and romance novel, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was “the film” in 2000. It also sparked similar fantasy/action films such as House of the Flying Daggers, and Hero.  Going back and reviewing the film I was still taken in by its beauty. Both Ang Lee and Peter Pau know how to shoot the fast paced fight scenes, and it has every type shot imaginable for great cinema. Crouching Tiger offers everything from sweeping action shots, beautiful close-ups, to epic landscape shots.

Key Scene: Hard to pick just one, but the bamboo tree top balance scene between Zyi Zhang and Chow Yong Fat comes to mind when thinking of the film’s strongest visual moment. Hands down the most iconic moment of the movie that movie.


3. There Will Be Blood 2007- Cinematography by Robber Elswit.

Robert Elswit has been working closely with Paul Thomas Anderson for years. There is something about Elswit’s camera that beautifully captures the essence of his films. Elswit photography compliments the actor’s performance beautifully, but never distracts.  The camerawork in There Will Be Blood often has the feel of an old photograph, and filmed the rugged environment Texas landscape with nostalgia, and power. Also, his close-ups of the facial expressions of Daniel Day Lewis highlight the actor’s fascinating features.

Key Scene- The climatic bowling alley scene will forever be engrained in my memory. A scary yet oddly funny scene that had me floored seeing it in theatre.


2. Pan’s Labyrinth 2006- Cinematography by Guillermo Navarro

If one had to nail one of the visual themes of Guillermo Del Toro’s film it would be that he, and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, find beauty in the horrific. The film transports one to this young girl’s harsh reality of growing up in fascist 1944 Spain into fairy world where she can hide from the harsh reality that surrounds her. Many of the scenes seemed shot as if they were inspired by a dream, or a children’s fairy story. Pan certified both Del Toro and Navarro as a true storyteller.

Key scene. The last scene of the movie where Mercedes, and the rest of the rebels enter the Labyrinth finding Ofelia dying, then transforming to the fantasy fairy world where she is reunited with the King. It’s a potent scene that captures the beautiful in the tragic.


1. Road To Perdition 2002- Cinematography by Conrad Hall

Conrad Hall was a vet in the film business shooting the Paul Newman greats as Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. At the end of his career he was perfectly matched with Sam Mendes. Hall won an Oscar for his work on American Beauty and Butch Cassidy. He died before he could receive the Oscar for Perdition. The film is dedicated to his memory in the end credits. Known for his precise lighting, and key visual themes, Hall is probably one of the greatest cinematographers that ever lived. His movies are able to be moody, yet beautiful.  The man also knows how to accent moments with this dark beauty. One of my favorite shots of Perdition is a shot that simply illuminates Daniel Craig’s striking blue eyes. Every  camera shot in this film has meaning behind, and speaks towards story and character.  One could study every single frame of this film and see significance behind it. How many filmmakers can do this in their work? While many simply fill the screen with images to fill in the spaces in the story, Hall was an artist who could relate meaning behind to every individual shot he looked in his lens. You could say this  every cinematographer on this list, but Hall was someone who did it exceptionally well.

Mendes also directs with a similar photographic eye, and his style clicked with Hall in both this film and American Beauty. The images are controlled, but never overly confined, and always speak of character.  Why does Conrad Hall’s somber film trump all the other films on this list? It’s an executed creative vision that beautifully portrays that cinematography is a finely tuned craft. It may sound like a cliché, but it couldn’t be more true.

Key Scene. The climax shot through a glass window overlooking the beach. The shot combines the element of water over a three-layered image. The shot is the reflection of the beach, ocean, and Tom Hanks looking out at his son waving to him. Jude Law is then revealed in the reflection. Law shoots Hanks in the back. Law’s mutilated face is illuminated with a defused cloudy light from the windows. It’s a gorgeous yet heartbreaking scene that perfectly demonstrates the brilliance of Conrad Hall. A reflective moment disrupted by revenge.