FREE THE AWARDS: The Watchlist
Overwhelmed by your pile of screeners? Here are some notable films from some of the best cinematographers working today.
By Daisy Gonzalez, Content Specialist for FREE THE WORK.
“The Watchlist” is a guide in which FREE THE WORK recommends films and filmmakers to keep on your radar throughout awards season.
Cinematography may be a field where visionary aesthetic thinkers can thrive, but it’s not always the most inclusive space. According to Variety, only one woman has ever been nominated for cinematography’s top honor at the Academy Awards and the track record is even worse for anyone that isn’t a part of the majority group.
While not a comprehensive list, we hope this functions as an introduction to some amazing creators in the cinematography world. From Claire Mathon’s smooth and delightful hues in Spencer and Petite Maman to the beautifully frightening corridors of Annika Summerson’s Censor, here you will find some of the most interesting cinematography made by filmmakers from historically excluded communities in 2021.
Swan Song (2021) — DoP: MASANOBU TAKAYANAGI
Why you should watch: Not only will you find a beautifully devastating performance by Mahershala Ali but in this film written and directed by Benjamin Cleary, you will be stunned by Masanobu Takayanagi’s (Silver Linings Playbook, Spotlight) ability to create an expansive world amidst the film’s confined setting.
Petite Maman (2021), Spencer (2021) — DoP: Claire Mathon
Why you should watch: It’s Claire Mathon’s world and we are just living in it. Boasting two films from two of the best auteurs working today, Céline Sciamma and Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, cinematographer Claire Mathon has delivered exceptionally beautiful photography that is sure to be etched into viewers’ minds for years to come.
The childlike sincerity that emanates in Petite Maman is thanks in large part to Claire Mathon’s masterful hand. A tale of growing up set in a fantasy dimension, the dashes of magical realism on the frame make for an enchanting experience you won’t soon forget.
Mathon’s haunting imagery of a Princess Diana at her wit’s end in Spencer turns the fairytale into a horrific nightmare. The silky soft frame emphasizes the vulnerability of Kristen Stewart’s Diana and transports us inside the mind of the tortured royal. Needless to say, we can’t wait to see what else comes next for Claire Mathon.
The Power of the Dog (2021), Zola (2021) — DoP: Ari Wegner
Why you should watch: Another cinematographer with two films in contention, Ari Wegner is a visionary. Directed by Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog is exhilarating, haunting, and unsettling, and in complete harmony with Ari Wegner’s visual poetry. An impressive cinematic pleasure, Wegner’s camera won’t let you look away from the darkness within.
Y’all wanna hear a story about why Zola should be on your watchlist? Written and directed by Janicza Bravo (co-written by Jeremy O. Harris), Zola will take you on a cinematic whirlwind through this stranger-than-fiction saga that was first told through a series of viral tweets. Yes, you read that correctly. Ari Wegner is once again behind the camera and captures the glitzy, gritty sensation of A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King’s story. Shot on Kodak 16mm film, this trip-to-hell is one you can’t miss.
Summer of Soul (… or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021) — DoP: Shawn Peters
Why you should watch: No stranger to working with hybrid elements, Shawn Peters (The Art of Dying Young) was the perfect person to helm Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul. Powerful and transporting, the blend between film and historical record is seamless and sure to send viewers directly to Harlem in the summer of 1969. A historical resurrection of paramount proportions, Peters’ work is a feat of cinematic archaeology.
Belfast (2021) — DoP: Haris Zambarloukus
Why you should watch: The Greek Cypriot cinematographer is a frequent collaborator of Kenneth Branagh’s, bringing to life some of the director’s most interesting works. Inspired by the photojournalism of the 1950s and ’60s, Zambarloukos filmed Belfast in black-and-white to emphasize the emotion brought on by the film’s stars and highlight the region’s monochromatic feel. The personal story in Belfast is one that will touch your heart.
CODA (2021) — DoP: Paula Huidoboro
Why you should watch: Siân Heder’s touching CODA blazed through Sundance 2021 with aplomb. Heder teamed up with longtime friend and collaborator Paula Huidobro to share this heartfelt coming-of-age film about Ruby, the sole hearing member of a deaf family. The creamy look of each frame grounds the film in its beautiful settings allowing audiences to experience the imagery around them in a way that never distracts from the moving story at its center. Huidoboro’s camera work helps audiences reacquaint themselves with a coming-of-age tale as old as time.
Noche de Fuego (Prayers for the Stolen) (2021) — DoP: Dariela Ludlow
Why you should watch: Mexican writer-director Tatiana Huezo has burst into the scene with Noche de Fuego, a harrowing drama that follows three young girls on the path to adolescence in a town at war. Film as an act of resistance is never more evident than in every frame captured by cinematographer Dariela Ludlow. Responsible for every idyllic and softly illuminated moment, Ludlow shapes a universe that despite being surrounded by horrific violence, still enshrouds the young protagonists in strength as they come of age in a harsh reality.
Censor (2021) — DoP: Annika Summerson
Why you should watch: A bloody good time, this dizzying debut from writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond is a wonderful homage to the “video nasties” of the early 80s. The film’s brutal and feverish nightmare is brought to life by none other than cinematographer Annika Summerson (Mogul Mowgli). The colorful, surreal frames stand out in the grains of the 35mm print used to convey Censor’s sense of dread. Sure to take you back to the days of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, seek out Summerson’s sensational work in Censor.
Ailey (2021) — DoP: Naiti Gámez
Why you should watch: Director Jamila Wignot’s Ailey recounts the life of famed choreographer Alvin Ailey. Cinematographer Naiti Gámez captures the spirit of dance with hyper-stylized visions of the “backstage” that feel almost dream-like. The film’s vérité style recreates the impossible and honors the legendary choreographer with much reverence to what he represented in the performing arts.
Passing (2021) — DoP: Edu Grau
Why you should watch: Actress turned director Rebecca Hall makes a stunning feature debut in her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. Choosing to film Passing in black and white, cinematographer Edu Grau carefully composes a lighting scheme that accentuates the colorism themes in the film. Hall and Grau team up to utilize the film’s visuals as a narrative tool. The expert-level execution not only results in visually striking imagery but invites viewers to examine the film from the Black gaze and imagine what it meant to “pass” in 1929, a feat that couldn’t have been achieved as effectively without the expert cinematographic choices made throughout.
Shiva Baby (2021) — DoP: Maria Rusche
Why you should watch: A strong directorial debut from writer-director Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby follows Danielle, a young bisexual college student, and her awkward encounters at a Jewish funeral service. Cinematographer Maria Rusche’s unwavering camera holds viewers in Danielle’s perspective. Tightening the frame as the film goes on, Rusche masterfully builds on the tension onscreen as we watch the world collapse around Danielle. Rusche’s aesthetic will leave viewers horrified, but laughing silly at the worst social event of the year.
Tick, Tick… BOOM! (2021), In the Heights (2021) — DoP: Alice Brooks
Why you should watch: Like several of the amazing cinematographers on this list, Alice Brooks boasts two marvelous entries into the race this season. Helmed by first-time feature director, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tick, Tick… Boom! joins the musical boom of 2021 with a touching musical tribute to playwright Jonathan Larson. No stranger to the theater world, Brooks embraces the theatricality and sincerity of Larson’s story with her own experiences to create a personal vision on the screen.
Now, let’s take the A train to Washington Heights. Directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), In the Heights is a musical drama celebrating the experiences of immigrants and their struggles between home, cultural identity, and family in the days leading up to a power blackout. Cinematographer Alice Brooks captures the kaleidoscope of “sueñitos” and the effervescent energy that permeates at street-level and (literally) leaps off the buildings of Washington Heights. It’s hard to resist the colorful vibrations of In the Heights.
Annette (2021) — DoP: Caroline Champetier
Why you should watch: The world was never the same after Annette made its festival debut at Cannes in the summer of 2021. An undefinable experimental exercise, director Leos Carax enlisted cinematographer Caroline Champetier to help achieve the camp fever dream vision in Annette. The color palette feels like it has been brusquely plastered through every frame, with saturation sure to transport its innocent viewers into a nightmare they won’t soon forget. Champetier has crafted something unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Bendetta (2021) — DoP: Jeanne Lapoire
Why you should watch: A sensationally scandalous affair, provocateur Paul Verhoeven returns to the screen with Benedetta, the tale of the 17th-century entanglement between two lesbian nuns in an Italian convent. A period film at heart, albeit an unconventional one, cinematographer Jeanne Lapoire opted to move away from the traditionally faded look of those films and instead gravitated towards showcasing the natural light and power in every frame. Perspective is key in Benedetta and Lapoire more than achieves this for its hopeful protagonist.