Roger Deakins on the set of EMPIRE OF LIGHT | © Searchlight Pictures
Since two categories merged into one, no director of photography has amassed as many Oscar nominations as Roger Deakins. The British cinematographer earned his 16th nod this year for Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, having previously won for 1917 and Blade Runner 2049. His career spans continents and six decades, encompassing projects as varied as a Marvin Gaye video clip and pioneering work in animated cinema. What started as an early interest in the possibilities of digital filmmaking has turned into a veritable pursuit of innovation, bringing classic technique to virtual spaces. A visionary, a pioneer, a living legend, Roger Deakins is one of a kind.
To celebrate the master, let’s look back at his many Oscar nominations, ranking them along the way. After all, in times of awards fever, everyone loves a good list…
16) UNBROKEN (2014) Angelina Jolie
Shooting the dramatized life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, Deakins breaks the biography in varying shades of brown. There’s the sun-bleached, eggshell greyness of open skies bearing down on open waters. The remembrance of home is realized in nostalgia-infused shades. Then, you have a prisoner’s existence, all muddy sludge and harsh light searing bruised skin, perfect for a moment of misjudged Christic symbolism. Though very well-executed, it’s fundamentally unexciting, if not outright disappointing.
Unbroken is streaming on HBO Max, Peacock Premium, and DirecTV.
15) EMPIRE OF LIGHT (2022) Sam Mendes
For a story so besotted by the comforts of old-school movie theaters, weeping over their long-term decay and eventual death, it’s curious how digital Empire of Light feels. Rather than replicating old film stock textures, Deakins returns to his newfound comfort zone of computerized crispness. The images gleam, sharp edges glistening, the night opened up by a sensibility untethered from the limits of celluloid. Gorgeous throughout, the picture still could have benefited from a more thorough investigation of the tensions brewing within its every image.
Empire of Light is streaming on HBO Max and DirecTV.
14) THE READER (2008) Stephen Daldry
Considering that Chris Menges replaced Deakins before production wrapped, it’s difficult to ascertain what one should credit to which cinematographer. In any case, there’s plenty to admire in the visual contrasts between each narrative’s acts. It goes from memory to a haunted now, from the delicate eroticism of stolen afternoons in adolescence to the Taschen coffee table book gloss of adulthood. Never spectacular or particularly showy, the shots nevertheless feel imbued with an elegant negotiation of still-life prettiness and bloodless detachment.
The Reader is streaming on Kanopy, Showtime, FuboTV, and DirecTV.
13) 1917 (2019) Sam Mendes
To consider the technical challenges posited by this WWI drama is to gaze bravely into the heart of madness. Shot to appear like two continuous takes, 1917 reads like a pair of mirrored movements going through opposite journeys, from light into shadow and back again. The choreography is astounding, breaking each long gesture into ever-shifting compositions that make sense in isolation and s part of a bigger whole. And yet, apart from some dream-like passages, I’m not especially fond of the effect achieved. One applauds the logistical ingenuity, the engineering miracle while wondering if, instead of immersion, the effort didn’t result in a film that you coldly appreciate rather than engage.
1917 can be rented or bought on most of the major platforms.
12) THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) Frank Darabont
Maybe the most overrated title on this list, The Shawshank Redemption is still a smashing piece of crowd-pleasing cinema littered with memorable images courtesy of a Roger Deakins that hadn’t yet achieved his current status. Maybe the saturated coda is a step too far, but before that, the audience is treated to a cavalcade of subtly masterful image-making. It spans the gamut from some solemn midcentury tableau to the vague theatricality of a life behind bars, climaxing with the ecstasy of freedom bathed by thunderous light.
The Shawshank Redemption is streaming on HBO Max.
11) PRISONERS (2013) Denis Villeneuve
The first of three Oscar-nominated collaborations between Roger Deakins and Denis Villeneuve finds the British DP navigating a picture alternating between distinct modes of cultural elevation. On the one hand, Prisoners appears enshrined in art-house prestige. On the other hand, it’s often at its best when embracing the pulpy nature of its premise and twists. The cinematography thus results from different impulses, calibrated into a harmony that feels severe, cutting, tastes like acid. In terms of technique, it’s an excellent showcase for compositions marked by naked light sources, burning bright directly into the lens.
Prisoners is streaming on Netflix.
10) O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) Joel & Ethan Coen
Whether or not this Coen Bros. joint was the first feature to use the “digital intermediate” process, it’s responsible for popularizing it. Moreover, I don’t think the infrastructure for the modern digital standard of cinematography would have been in place if not for what Deakins accomplishes here, in part to accomplish the kind of bizarre color story devised by his directors. So that’s another way of saying that, cinematography-wise, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of the most historically significant films in modern Hollywood history. It further deserves applause for the way its weary stylizations help temper the humor in this Odyssey retelling.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is available to rent and purchase on a variety of platforms.
09) BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) Denis Villeneuve
Unspeakably stunning, the long-gestating sequel to Blade Runner looks like the dream of a ruined tomorrow. Going apeshit on technique and trickery, Deakins is showing off like nobody’s business, almost daring AMPAS to ignore him again – no wonder he won the Oscar! I still prefer the look of its narrative predecessor, but Villeneuve’s take on Ridley Scott’s sci-fi world demands your awe. Indeed, it’s hard to pick a favorite moment from its cornucopia of sights. Maybe it’s the extravagance of a decomposed Vegas. Perhaps it’s the watery light of a madman’s fortress, an imagined birthday party floating in shadow, or a neon provocation that glows bright pink.
Blade Runner 2049 is streaming on Hulu.
08) KUNDUN (1997) Martin Scorsese
The only time these masters of cinema collaborated, the result was an underrated gem that unspools the treads of biopic convention until what’s left is a loose poem on the verge of anti-narrative. Unlike other entries in this list, Kundun repudiates detachment, using its beauty to immerse the viewer in its swirling colors. The epic does double work as a granular kaleidoscope where history bleeds into cinematic visions closer to opera than realism. Oh, how I wish Deakins and Scorsese would work together again.
Kundun isn’t currently streaming anywhere but is available on Blu-Ray and DVD.
07) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) Joel & Ethan Coen
With one exception, the top seven entries of this ranking could be categorized as either westerns or noirs. In the Coens’ 2007 Best Picture champion, the two modes of storytelling meet, inspiring a work of deep shadows cutting across sprawling vistas. Oscillating between cramped interiors and the oppressive openness of the desert, Deakins delineates gradations of near-cosmic discomfort, appealing to a fatalistic verve that’s as vicious as it is beautiful.
No Country for Old Men is streaming on HBO Max and DirecTV.
06) SICARIO (2015) Denis Villeneuve
From the moment the camera focused on specks of dust sparkling in a shaft of sunlight, I knew I was in for some stunning cinematography. Deakins doesn’t disappoint, consistently elevating commonplace scenes and allowing procedural mainstays to escape cliché. For example, notice how the border separating countries never bifurcates aesthetics. Wherever you are, the desert is cruel and unforgiving, it glows blinding white as if the earth were a mirror of the sun’s surface. The night is pitch-black, a cosmic gorge eating the world, while dusk reveals murals of colored light ravaged by armed silhouettes moving with violent purpose.
Sicario can be rented, or purchased from most of the big services.
05) TRUE GRIT (2010) Joel & Ethan Coen
Deakins’ farewell to celluloid is an exercise in classicism tinged with a melancholy that goes beyond narrative matters, manifesting in the very filmmaking forming its story. There’s a sense of loss pervading images, all occupying a space between picture book illustration and Old Hollywood frame. It’s cinematography as the invocation of myth, bypassing homage or pastiche to reach for something more robust, bigger, and profound too. Some may find it too pretty for its own good, but they are wrong – sorry, not sorry.
True Grit is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Showtime, MGM Plus, FuboTV, and DirecTV.
04) SKYFALL (2012) Sam Mendes
Every time I’m feeling particularly bratty about the state of digital filmmaking, I try to remind myself that it’s not all bad. Indeed, some master cinematographers can create miracles with the particularities of the medium, achieving feats impossible to accomplish with more traditional stock. In all its jewel-toned glory, Roger Deakins’ sole Bond film is the title that always comes to mind during such introspections. Sultry, coolly spectacular, burnished blue at times, and plunged into fiery hell for the climax, it’s sheer perfection throughout.
Skyfall is streaming on Netflix, Paramount+, MGM Plus, FuboTV, and DirecTV.
03) THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (2001) Joel & Ethan Coen
Shot in color but intended for digital color correction into silvery monochrome, this noir riff is a marvel to behold. Once again, Deakins proves he can do classicism like only the great Hollywood masters can, finding a granular range in the grayscale that even the studio system’s big names would envy. The work is pristine, technically flawless, stylistically bold – the kind of achievement that should make anyone into an industry titan, a king craftsman, an artist beyond belief.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is available to rent and purchase on most major platforms.
02) FARGO (1996) Joel Coen
Give or take Unbroken, Fargo might represent Deakins’ cinematography at its least beautiful. And yet, to say beauty is the criteria by which cinema should be judged is shortsighted. Regard the Coens’ masterpiece and find how there’s a purpose to the frigid ugliness. The picture’s a nightmare of modern noir frozen and bent out of shape, turned to pitiless pitch-black comedy. So, of course, its frames are as precise as a scalpel, apocalyptic when night falls and all you can see is a white nothingness made dark. They’re also uncomfortable to stare at for long, the wintery landscape burning your eyes, the deadened interiors a conformed embrace that slowly smothers.
Fargo is streaming on FuboTV, Starz, Showtime, and DirecTV.
01) THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007) Andrew Dominik
But of course, it’s hard to resist the appeal of aesthetic ravishment, pure beauty in service of beautiful filmmaking. Taking his craft to a level of perfection that few have achieved, Roger Deakins helps define Dominik’s film as a study in mythmaking, every image vibrating with portentous intent, the weight of time past and history retold.
There’s not one shot that’s not gorgeous in ways that defy verbiage, with the pastoral vistas being especially glorious amid the gloom and doom of it all. The screen feels like a window into the imagined yesterday, juxtaposing a sense of material reality with a patina of self-aware fantasy. It’s the grandeur of a tall tale swallowing itself, a traitor whose soul cannibalizes itself, a bottomless pit of gilt exploding like an impossible moving daguerreotype. It’s the peak of Roger Deakins’ career and maybe the best-photographed American film of the 21st century.