Best cinematography Oscar winners—all of them!

Film School Rejects put up this video of every movie that ever won a “Best Cinematography” Oscar.  It’s 7½ minutes long, and if you know every movie, I’ll eat my hat. You will certainly be intrigued by some of the more obscure movie and want to watch them—at least if you’re like me. FSR‘s notes:

Cinematography is more than just an element of film, it is integral and thus essential. You can have a movie without a script, after all, you can have a movie without sound, without actors, without a director even, but someone has to shoot film for it to be a movie, so in this regard the cinematographer isn’t just a spoke on the wheel of filmmaking, they’re the hub.

In the following seven-and-a-half-minute supercut, the fine folks at Burger Fiction have compiled, in order, every single Best Cinematography Winner in the history of the Academy Awards, including the years 1936 through 1966 when there were actually two such awards given out each time: one for black-and-white films, and one for films shot in color.

These are the films that have helped to define the art of cinematography, and therefore they’re more than mere winners, they are building blocks future generations of DPs must use to lay their own path through the field, taking and contributing simultaneously to insure their art is an ongoing evolution and not a static practice.

Be sure to watch this full screen. My two cinematography favorites are both here: Lawrence of Arabia and the underappreciated Days of Heaven, perhaps the most beautiful film ever made. And the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, filmed with handheld cameras, is mesmerizing.

This year’s nominees for this category are at the end.

If you have a cinematography favorite not on this list, put it below, along with your prediction of what movie will win for 2016.

h/t: Matthew Cobb


  1. rickflick
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating. Many of the older ones I have not seen. It’s nice to know, I’ll never run out of good films before I die.

    • davidintoronto
      Posted February 19, 2017 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Not all of these are good movies – they’re just pretty. For instance, you can safely skip “The Towering Inferno.” 😉

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 19, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        TTI is far from great cinema. But I think one has to see it (and the other disaster films of that era), if one wants to come to grips with the subtext of America in the Seventies. 🙂

        • Mark R.
          Posted February 19, 2017 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

          I liked the illicit sex scene on some dangerous fire-filled floor. I remember both died horribly and thought it unfair. Looking back, I approve of my stance at 5 or 6 years old.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted February 20, 2017 at 2:55 am | Permalink

            I approve of your stance too. (Not that I’ve seen the movie). But Hollywood in those days seemed to have an unwritten rule that immorality had to be punished.


      • rickflick
        Posted February 19, 2017 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        I usually research films I think I need to see. Towering Inferno wouldn’t interest me. With so many films, and so little time…

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted February 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

          I saw it but so long ago I remember nothing of it. I bet it will seem formulaic now since so many big budget disaster movies followed in its wake.

  2. mfdempsey1946
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Happy to see this. Have seen more than 90% of the films included, which is true of most any other serious film lover as well.

    Especially pleased to glimpse images from my favorite of the ten thousand or so films I have watched over the years, several of them innumerable times…

    Stanley Kubrick’s ravishing and inexhaustible masterwork “Barry Lyndon”…

    Whose cinematographer, John Alcott, I had the honor to meet while working as a production assistant on another film that he shot. His cinematography proved to be this picture’s only redeeming quality.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 19, 2017 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      I watched Barry Lyndon again, for the first time in decades, a couple months ago. It is a gorgeous picture, Kubrick’s best looking (in an oeuvre of great-looking pictures). It may be the most beautifully filmed movie ever.

      But it is godawful slow-moving, a trait it shares with Thackeray’s novel.

      • mfdempsey1946
        Posted February 19, 2017 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

        The “slow” page of “Barry Lyndon” is absolutely necessary to its meanings and its, to me, overwhelming emotional impact.

        It’s a film about, among other things, a world where people are trapped within intricate webs of rules that govern every aspect of their lives, right down to the most minute aspects of personal behavior. All of humanity still lives in various version of such a world; only the details have changed.

        It’s also a film about the transience of life, and this meaning is embedded in its images rather than its story, for this element is part of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel even though it shares more or less the same basic plot with the film.

        Many scenes play out in real time; others are elided or not shown at all. The film profoundly contemplates the mystery of time and, beyond that, the mystery of humanity’s very existence. In this sense, it can be taken as a companion to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which approaches these subjects from an entirely different direction.

        I would like to suggest that the frequent criticism of many films by reviewers and many moviegoers for being “slow” is an error. After all, some of the emptiest movies I have seen have been “fast”. It all depends on whether or not the “slowness” is integral and well controlled by a master filmmaker. As it most definitely is, I feel, with “Barry Lyndon”.

        Years ago Film Quarterly ran my review of “Barry Lyndon”. The review ended with “I am grateful for its existence.” Forty-two years later, that still stands.

        • Mark R.
          Posted February 19, 2017 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

          I appreciate your insightful post and agree. Barry Lyndon is a unique critique of the times Kubrick was depicting. Slow and grueling and boring and all that…an aspect the movie needed to explore to be successful.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 20, 2017 at 2:58 am | Permalink

        Speaking of Kubrick – what about 2001? Also slow-moving, but IIRC enormously visually impressive.


        • Posted February 20, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          I actually agree with the former Internet reviewer, Confused Matthew. _2001_ is *not* much of a *movie*, it is a very beautiful slide show with occasional nice music. It has almost no plot, no character development (remember that we only really learn why HAL went nuts later, in _2010_) and so on. So I agree with him – _2010_ is the better *movie* (which is not to say it is a very good one).

          • rickflick
            Posted February 20, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

            I re-watched 2001 and you are correct, it has many weaknesses. But, when I first saw it, it blew my mind. It was the first sci-fi movie to show decent special effects, like weightlessness, and wonderfully realistic images of space and possible futures. Any work of art which is based on opening new technical vistas is bound to become dated. CGI and other new techniques have made imaginary worlds much easier to fabricate than they were in 1968.
            While the plot seems thin, it was based on a story by A.C. Clarke which had a provocative theme. It added to the films importance for viewers at the time.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted February 20, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

              Agreed. Time does not deal kindly with ‘futuristic’ movies. I recall e.g. the ‘Prisoner’ TV series and how spooky it was when the door of No 6’s bungalow opened as he approached it – these days, I’m liable to bounce off a shop door if it doesn’t open automatically for me.

              But also, the thread is about cinematography, not screenplay or acting, and visually I think 2001 still stands up.


            • Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

              Oh, the book is interesting, I agree. I forget if some of the details that are only in the movie _2010_ are in the _2001_ book or not.

              And I agree that the movie was pioneering, but I dare say it is akin to a lot of the current movies that are “all flash and no substance”. Not *quite* that bad, of course, because of the pioneering rather than rehash-pretty.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. Up through most of the 60s about every other film was B&W. I thought Master & Commander was a good one.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 20, 2017 at 2:59 am | Permalink

      If you noticed the captions that’s because they chose a colour one and a B&W one for each year. 😉


  4. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I wish I could have the time to see them all. Very glad to see that Birdman was in there, and a little surprised that Avatar was. That opens avenues about what cinematography is, at least to me.

  5. Posted February 19, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    You’ll eat your hat…But will you eat your boots?

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Citizen Kane is missing, now isn’t it?

    Also, two other black-and-whites, these filmed after the separate category was eliminated — Dr. Strangelove and Raging Bull.

    And Gordon Willis’s highly influential cinematography in The Godfather (and in GF Part II).

    I’ve also always been fond of the cinematography in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Vilmos Zsigmond’s first outing as a DP in an American film.

    • DW
      Posted February 19, 2017 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” deserves much more attention than it gets. It is one of my favorite Altman films, but I think few people watch it.

      • Mary Ann Bushman
        Posted February 20, 2017 at 2:41 am | Permalink

        And Thieves like Us, also from Altman.

  7. barn owl
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    That video made me realize how many films I love because of the cinematography, and not necessarily because they are great movies in other ways. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a beautiful film, and in any case I’ve always loved the wuxia genre. Hugo is another enjoyable and visually appealing movie, but I didn’t think the story was especially compelling (silly and overwrought in places). As a Tolkien “purist,” I had mixed feelings about the Lord of the Rings films, but I have to admit that the cinematography was exquisite.

    • Larry
      Posted February 19, 2017 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      Agree 100% with you on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Beautiful film.

  8. DW
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Some of my favorite cinematography is the work that Christopher Doyle did on Wong Kar-wai films. Everybody should see the wonderful and beautiful “In the Mood for Love”. Certainly one of the finest films ever made.

    And if you like moody and evocative films, watch their “Ashes of Time”.

    • Drhack
      Posted February 19, 2017 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      Second that

    • rickflick
      Posted February 19, 2017 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      In the Mood is on YouTube. I agree it’s intriguingly lit and shot. The plot/story is interesting too.

  9. Kiwi Dave
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Three films I find visually absorbing are:
    1968: Space Odyssey 2001;
    1985: The Runaway Train;
    2004: House of Flying Daggers.

    The last is my visual number one.

    • Drhack
      Posted February 19, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      HoFD definitely belongs on this list. 2001 along with Citizen Kane & Magnificent Ambersons are in a different league maybe because the movies themselves are so good.

      Runaway Train was based on a script by Kurosawa.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted February 20, 2017 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      That’s a good choice. I can’t remember which of Hero and House Of Flying Daggers has that extraordinary final fight scene in the blizzard, but that will stay with me for a long time.

  10. Roger
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Akira Kurosawa of Seven Samurai (1954)fame.

    • Larry
      Posted February 19, 2017 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Definitely.

  11. Roger
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Wow, there sure are a lot of movies aren’t there. I’ve seen a lot but I haven’t seen a whole lot more haha.

  12. ethan
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Oh my gosh. “2001: A Space Odyssey” wasn’t even NOMINATED in this damn category. The DAWN OF MAN sequence at the beginning and the one where David Bowman manually deactivates HAL the computer are classics of visual effects, and, YES!, cinematography! — which still looks spectacular today.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 20, 2017 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      I absolutely agree about 2001.

      The visual effect that really impressed me was the second-last scene – where Bowman’s pod approaches the monolith and starts racing through space with lights streaming past it. We’re used to that sort of thing now but in 1968 it was truly spectacular.


  13. Posted February 19, 2017 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    The Michael Bay films Armageddon and Pearl Harbour also exhibit some spectacular cinematography, despite needing a wee bit more work in the script department.

  14. Larry
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    The Third Man – Yes!
    Citizen Kane – What?! Not there?!

  15. Zach
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always thought Quentin Tarantino’s movies were beautifully shot. Guess that makes sense: Robert Richardson, the man behind three of the winners on that list, was the cinematographer for Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight. They all got nominated.

  16. Larry
    Posted February 19, 2017 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Sparatcus – 1960. One of the most deserving of a cinematography acknowledgement.

    Non-winners, but amazing anyway:
    The Sand Pebbles (1966).

    Grand Prix (1966), a John Frankenheimer film. Amazing shots.

    Chinatown (1974).

    I guess films like the Wizard of Oz are not eligible due to the indoor studio location?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 20, 2017 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      Maybe they weren’t sure whether WoO qualified for the B&W or color category — depending on whether it was the Kansas scenes or the Oz scenes? 🙂

  17. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted February 20, 2017 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    2001 has been mentioned – justifiably – several times.

    Aeon Flux (the movie) impressed me – and still does – with its elegant clean visual style.


  18. Petu W.
    Posted February 20, 2017 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    Interesting! Top ten list of these films? Here’s mine in chronological order:

    – Laura
    – She wore a yellow ribbon
    – Third man
    – The Quiet Man
    – An american in Paris
    – Shane
    – Cries and whispers
    – Barry Lyndon
    – Apocalypse Now (The original version!)
    – Fanny & Alexander

    Barry Lyndon is a underrated masterpiece made by an overrated director…

  19. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted February 20, 2017 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    My favourite film and my pick for cinematography would be Heat. I saw it in the cinema when I was twelve and it really blew me away. It’s a brilliant film, it makes LA look like beautiful, and it has a fabulous soundtrack too. All Michael Mann films look good, although they can end up looking slightly car-adverty, but Heat is luminous.

  20. Kevin
    Posted February 20, 2017 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Fantastic. Always worth reminding Americans the foundation of art comes from education and endowments. How’s that look for the future?

  21. Posted February 20, 2017 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Speaking of Oscars, one of my favorite actresses is Marie Dressler, who won it in 1931 for “Min and Bill.” It’s a great film if you haven’t seen it. A year later she starred in “Emma,” which you can rent at Amazon video. Emma is a housekeeper for a scientist and inventor, and he has accompanied her to the train station to see her off for a well-earned vacation to Niagara Falls. At 26:45 they approach a news stand, and he suggests they buy her some magazines to read on the train. Of course, he is an intellectual, and the first one he selects is “American Mercury.” You can easily see the editors name in bold print on the cover. It is none other than H. L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore and fellow atheist! He picks out some of the other well-known “serious” journals of the day, such as “The Worlds Work,” “The Review of Reviews,” and “The Atlantic.” Emma has other ideas. She picks out “Screen Romance,” “True Confessions,” etc. She opens “French Models” to a page that wouldn’t have been allowed after the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced beginning in 1934. Anyway, I just thought I’d point out a bit of movie trivia that isn’t likely to show up on “Jeopardy.”

  22. Scote
    Posted February 20, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Neat 🙂

    But they really shouldn’t have used a *miniatures* shot of ships for the Black Swan. Those are visual effects, not the cinematography the film won for.

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