16 Stunningly Photographed American Films That Were Completely Snubbed By The Academy Awards

The Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography don’t always reflect the best work of Hollywood’s most visually astute professionals. Mark Fraser looks at 16 movies where the work of the camera department was completely overlooked by the Oscars.

16. Deliverance (Vilmos Zsigmond, 1972)

Deliverance, Top 10 FilmsNot one aspect of the great outdoors appears particularly welcoming in this movie about the great outdoors. From the terrifying four wheel drive hillside descent that leads to a rustic hillbilly supply stop to the steep gorges and white water rapids of the soon-to-be-dammed river and its thickly vegetated shore line through which degenerate redneck sodomites roam – all of it reeks of danger. Even the boarding house at the end of the line, where the corn served at the dinner table is something special, feels ominously unsettling. Choosing a good cinematographer has never been director’s John Boorman’s weak point, as he previously showed with 1967’s Point Blank (for which he used Philip Lathrop) and, 10 years later, with Exorcist II: The Heretic (William Fraker). The talented Vilmos Zsigmond eventually won an Oscar for shooting most of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978). He also shot Michael Cimino’s landmark disaster Heaven’s Gate (1980).
The Winner – Geoffrey Unsworth for Cabaret.

15. Cutter’s Way (Jordan Cronenweth, 1981)

Cutter's Way, 1980s film, Jeff Bridges,Dreamy and poetic only begin to describe this criminally underrated piece of sun soaked southern Californian noir, in which a nostalgic longing for the past – coupled with a profound sense of loss – is vividly evoked. This is definitely a movie that is aging well.
The Winner – Vittorio Storaro for Reds.

14. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Nicola Pecorini, 1997)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Film, Terry GilliamA surprisingly faithful adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s classic piece of gonzo journalism by director Terry Gilliam, capturing all of the book’s drug-fuelled delirium and acid-induced paranoia. What makes the career of DOP Nicola Pecorini a little more extraordinary is the fact he is blind in one eye.
The Winner – Janusz Kaminski for Saving Private Ryan.

13. Malcolm X (Ernest Dickinson, 1992)

Malcolm X, Top 10 Films, Spike Lee’s biopic about Malcolm X was one of most neglected films of 1992 when it came to Oscar, failing to secure nominations in a number of categories for which it should have been recognised, including set design, editing, screenplay, direction, film and, of course, cinematography. DOP Ernest Dickinson’s visual touch is both crisp and clear, capturing some 40 years of 20th Century American history over three hours without ever slipping into the kind of sentimentality one usually associates with heavy duty period pieces.
The Winner – Philippe Rousselot for A River Runs Through It.

12. The Shining (John Alcott, 1980)

The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, American Horror Cinema,Arguably not a Hollywood film per se (American expatriate Stanley Kubrick, who was residing in England when the movie was made, both produced and directed it), The Shining was nevertheless distributed by Warner Brothers – and was probably bankrolled by a bit of US cash – hence its inclusion on this list. Although this work was somewhat misunderstood when it first came out, it has since developed the reputation as being one of the greatest colour horror movies ever made. Certainly it is one of the best looking excursions into the genre, thanks to the late John Alcott, who won the cinematography Oscar for his efforts on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).
The Winner(s) – Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghrislain Cloquet for Tess.

11. The Wild Bunch (Lucien Ballard, 1969)

The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah,Not only were either director Sam Peckinpah or cameraman Lucien Ballard nominated for their work on one of the best looking, expansive, action packed Westerns ever made, but another less groundbreaking oater – the easier-to-digest Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – picked up the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Fortunately the National Society of US Film Critics awarded its 1970 cinematographer gong to Ballard.
The Winner – Conrad Hall for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

10. Sorcerer (Dick Bush and John Stephens, 1977)

Sorcerer, Top 10 Films, Roy Scheider, Filmed in five countries (Mexico, Israel, France, the US and the Dominican Republic) this existential crime caper-come-road movie is as gritty and desperate as they come, particularly when it morphs into a jungle remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic La Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) around the 25 minute mark. A much maligned movie that is surprisingly rich in detail and texture.
The Winner – Vilmos Zsigmond for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

9. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Michael Ballhaus, 1992)

Coppola, Dracula, Top 10 Films,Although this elaborate production was another slight misfire for Francis Coppola, it wasn’t his DOP’s fault. Some of the film’s clever shadow trickery was later lampooned in an episode of The Simpsons. This incarnation of the Dracula story ended up winning three Academy Awards (for costume design, sound editing and make-up) and was nominated for its art direction-set decoration. Why the Oscar judges chose to totally ignore Michael Ballhaus’ luscious lighting is anyone’s guess.
The Winner – Philippe Rousselot for A River Runs Through It.

8. Se7en (Darius Khondji, 1995)

Seven, Se7en, Top 10 Films, Director David Fincher’s mostly dark and gloomy rain-soaked landscapes are dominated by an overwhelming sense of gathering dread – regardless of where and when the action is taking place – helping make Se7en one of the tensest modern detective movies ever made. Never has such grim subject matter looked so terrifyingly good.
The Winner – John Toll for Braveheart.

7. Rumble Fish (Stephen H Burum, 1983)

Top 10 Films of Dennis HopperAn influential American film critic (David Denby, I think) called this “Camus for kids”. Citizen Kane for teens may have been more appropriate given director Francis Coppola and Stephen Burum’s penchant for masterful expressionist black and white wide-angled compositions. This is something Gregg Toland may possibly have liked.
The Winner – Sven Nykvist for Fanny and Alexander.

6. Angel Heart (Michael Seresin, 1987)

Bram Stoker's Dracula, Top 10 Films,Like fellow Brit Ridley Scott, Alan Parker has directed some handsome looking films, and this Faustian horror noir movie is no exception. Indeed, Angel Heart may well represent the high point of the working relationship between Parker and the New Zealand-born cameraman Michael Seresin, who photographed a number of the director’s movies including Bugsy Malone (1976), Midnight Express (1978), Fame (1980), Birdy (1984) and Come See the Paradise (1990). Oddly, another work by the director won Oscar’s cinematography statuette for 1987.
The Winner – Peter Biziou for Mississippi Burning.

5. Nixon (Robert Richardson, 1995)

Nixon, Anthony Hopkins, Top 10 Films, One couldn’t have blamed Robert Richardson if he felt a bit peeved in 1996 after being nominated for neither Oliver Stone’s flamboyant Nixon nor (to a lesser extent) Martin Scorsese’s stylish gangster epic Casino. As with JFK four years earlier (for which the cinematographer won his first Oscar), Richardson and Stone created a rich smorgasbord of images, textures and moods within a sweeping narrative that criss-crossed the past and present, mixed history with conjecture, and infused a variety of film stocks with actual newsreel footage. One of the director’s best films and the tenth that he and the DOP collaborated on before their working relationship came to a halt following the less ambitious U Turn in 1997.
The Winner – John Toll for Braveheart.

4. The Godfather (Gordon Willis, 1972)

The Godfather, Top 10 Films, Whichever way one looks at it, it’s now kind of staggering to think that the late Gordon “The Prince of Darkness” Willis* was completely overlooked for his work on The Godfather by the academy given the film’s massive commercial success and the significant place it has since established in the annals of modern Hollywood. Things were so out of whack back then that even the Goldie Hawn vehicle Butterflies Are Free (shot by Charles Lang and directed by Milton Katselas) got nominated for its cinematography. As they say, crime doesn’t pay. (*According to Peter Biskind in Star – The Life & Wild Times of Warren Beatty.)
The Winner – Geoffrey Unsworth for Cabaret.

3. Natural Born Killers (Robert Richardson, 1994)

Natural Born Killers, Top 10 Films, Contemporary critics of this movie (and there were quite a few of them back in 1994) hated director Oliver Stone’s ham-fisted approach to satire so much they failed to recognise one of Natural Born Killers’ crowning achievements – that it was (and still remains) one of the biggest, craziest and most ambitiously off-the-wall experimental films ever to have come out of Hollywood. Despite Stone’s heavy-handedness, the movie ultimately works because of DOP Robert Richardson’s breathtaking versatility behind the camera.
The Winner – John Toll for Legends of the Fall.

2. The Elephant Man (Freddie Francis, 1980)

The Elephant Man, Top 10 Films,David Lynch’s first big studio outing was – like his debut movie Eraserhead – shot in black and white. Only this time it truly was glorious. British DOP, the late Freddie Francis, had at one point in his career directed some low rent horror films before leaning back towards being a lighting-cameraman (he won the Oscar for black and white cinematography back in 1960 for Jack Cardiff’s Sons and Lovers). While The Elephant Man notched up eight Academy Award nominations, Best Cinematography wasn’t one of them. In the end the film didn’t win anything, although Francis received a British Academy Award and the big gong from the British Society of Cinematographers for his efforts.
The Winner(s) – Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghrislain Cloquet for Tess.

1. Blade Runner (Jordan Cronenweth, 1982)

Blade Runner, Top 10 Films,It’s difficult to understand how the academy managed to completely by-pass the cinematography for Blade Runner when it acknowledged the film’s good looks by nominating its visual effects and set design. Fortunately, this Ridley Scott-directed landmark science fiction movie wasn’t ignored altogether as it managed to collect best cinematography awards from the British Society of Cinematographers, the Los Angeles Film Critic Association and the judges acting on behalf of the British Academy Awards. Its DOP, the late Jordan Cronenweth, was voted one of the 10 most influential cinematographers of all time by the International Cinematographers Guild in 2003.
The Winner(s) – Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor for Gandhi.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

What do you think of the films featured in this top 10? What films would you add to this list?

Discover More:
Top 10 Best Supporting Actors Who Were Completely Snubbed By The Academy Awards
Top 10 Oscar-Winning Directors Who Should Have Won Years Earlier
11 Academy Award Best Actor Nominees Who Should Have Won The Oscar
Top 10 Times The Oscars Picked The Right Best Picture
Top 10 Films To Be Snubbed For Best Picture At The Oscars
16 Stunningly Photographed American Films That Were Completely Snubbed By The Academy Awards

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    So glad to see Seven at number 8, such a cinematically stunning film.

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    Rodney Reply

    Ballhaus (#9) was robbed. That version of Dracula is the most gorgeous looking film of the 90’s. Hands, down.

    Surprised Elephant Man didn’t win either, that film is just stunning to watch from a visual standpoint.

  3. Avatar
    Julien Reply

    Lovely piece of writing Mark. I think we can all see how the Academy gets it wrong time and time again but it seems to be a case of who you know, not what you can achieve most of the time. Blade Runner is a stunning-looking film that was groundbreaking in more ways that one. It’s criminal the Academy didn’t take note of its cinematography. Interesting to see Natural Born Killers make the list – it’s a film I don’t generally like but I can see how it’s use of differing film stocks and fluctuating colour/black & white photography appeals. Perhaps it was too cutting edge (too anti-establishment Oliver Stone) for the Academy.

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    Jason P Reply

    Excellent list. Nice to see Sorcerer get some recognition and you’re spot on about Dracula.

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    CineGirl Reply

    I’ve always loved the way Elephant Man was shot, such wonderful use of light and dark shades within the black and white.

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    Filip Reply

    Never considered the photography of Deliverence before but you’re absolutely right about how effective it is.

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    ArchE Reply

    Astounding that some of these didn’t win. A very illuminating read Mark.

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    BowlingF Reply

    Always love the way Terry Gilliam shoots his movies. Fear and Loathing is definitely one of the best. Great top 16.

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    Terry Reply

    Brilliant list! I hope the Academy takes note.

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    Terry Reply

    Should add: great to see Cutter’s Way make the list. I’ve always considered its cinematography to be a great achievement so it’s nice to see it make the list.

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    Ron Hudson Reply

    Some wonderful films and some wonderful work by very talented DOPs but there’s a few on here where I would agree with the Academy.

    Yes, there’s some terrific cinematography on show here but, for example, as good as Sorcerer is, it never should have beaten Close of Encounters of the Third Kind. What Spielberg did with that film is make us believe we were being visited by aliens without the use a computer to generate all the trickery. It was a truly astonishing piece of work that still looks gorgeous today.

    I also believe Saving Private Ryan was a rightful winner in the cinematography stakes ahead of Fear and Loathing.

    I totally agree in regards to The Elephant Man, Dracula and Natural Born Killers though. Maybe even Seven should have beaten Braveheart.

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    Callum Reply

    Some real surprises here. As if The Elephant didn’t win and Seven should have cleared up that year.

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    dean Reply

    great to see rumble fish, one of my faves.

  14. Avatar
    Davis Reply

    Good list. Always felt the cinematography Oscar favoured directors and films winning the “big” awards which sometimes left some great work unrewarded.

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    Brittani Reply

    Excellent list. I love that Se7en and The Elephant Man are on here. They’re my favorites and were shot so brilliantly.

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    Andrew Reply

    It always blows my mind to remember that The Godfather did not get a nomination for it’s iconic cinematography. Like, HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN, and yet I read some think pieces on it, so I kind of know the backlash/story. Still, it’s a terrible shame (and I love the winning cinematography that year).

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Terrific article here Mark. I love love love angel Heart and nice to see you give it a mention.

  18. Avatar
    Andy Turner Reply

    Can’t believe The Godfather didn’t win for cinematography given its greatness.

  19. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    @ all …. thank you for taking the time to read this and your feedback.

    @ Ron Hudson …. I tend to agree with you in both instances vis-a-vis Close Encounters and Saving Private Ryan (although the fiddling with the shutter speed during the battle sequences in the latter was, IMO, a tad overdone). As much as I’ve always liked Sorcerer, had I done this list this time last year, it may not have made it – it was only after I got the blu-ray six months ago and saw a cleaned up print in its proper aspect ratio did I fully appreciate what an achievement in cinematography it is. Also, I think both Se7en and Nixon should have beaten Braveheart.

    @ Dan Grant … Angel Heart (as does Rumble Fish) shows us just what a stunning looking actor Mickey Rourke was before he became a boxer. Cheers for your observation.

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    Alex Withrow Reply

    Fully agree with every pick here. Absolutely perfect list. Richardson’s work in NBK is insane, and Willis changed cinematography with The Godfather.

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    Evan Crean Reply

    Wow. These are some epic cinematography snubs. The Godfather and Blade Runner are pretty surprising to me. One of the movies on my list that I can’t believe got snubbed was Skyfall. I think Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers working right now, and it’s downright criminal he hasn’t received the recognition he deserves for his amazing work.

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    Joe Tedesco Reply

    As much of a huge fan of Deliverance as I am there are a couple of “day for night” shots where the gunman on the cliff is being eyed that are simply awful. It was probably too difficult an effect for the time. Archivists should revisit and clean those shots up if possible. They detract from otherwise great cinematography. Thank you for a spot on list.

  23. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    @ Joe T: I know what you are talking about, and it was taken into consideration before cobbling this list together. While I now own a DVD of the movie, I’ve only seen it on the screen once (in 1996). It looked great; all of Zsigmond’s stuff is great. Thanks for reading.

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    Tom Moran Reply

    I would add several earlier films to the list, including John Seitz for “Hail the Conquering Hero.” I know he was nominated that year for “Double Indemnity,” but still.

  25. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    Two of these movies – Blade Runner and The Godfather – made the American Society of Cinematographers’ Top 10 list of 100 milestone films in “the art and craft of cinematography of the 20th century”. They were second and fifth respectively. The Wild Bunch, The Shining and Se7en were in the remaining 90.

    The winner was Lawrence of Arabia. The remaining seven in the top 10 (in order) were Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, The Conformist, Days of Heaven, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The French Connection.

    Looking back at this 2015 article, there is a serious omission that the ASC happily picked up on – Paris, Texas, which was shot by the late Robbie Muller.

    According to list organiser Steven Fierberg, ASC members “wanted to call attention to the most significant achievements of the cinematographer’s art but not refer to one achievement as ‘better’ than another. The selected films represent a range of styles, eras and visual artistry, but most importantly, it commemorates films that are inspirational or influential to ASC members and have exhibited enduring influence on generations of filmmakers.”

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