Top 5 Films of Wally Pfister as Cinematographer

By Doug Heller


Top 5 Films of Wally Pfister as Cinematographer

Editor’s Notes: Wally Pfister’s Transcendence opens in wide release tomorrow, April 18th. 

Sven Nykvist and Ingmar Bergman.  Michael Ballhaus and Martin Scorsese. Janus Kaminski and Steven Spielberg. Gordon Willis and Woody Allen. John Allcott and Stanley Kubrick. Barry Sonnenfeld/Roger Deakins and The Coen Brothers. Steven Soderberg and…Steven Soderberg. Wally Pfister and Christopher Nolan.  These are some of the great cinematographer/director collaborations of all time, each DP working three or more times with the director and in some cases being partly responsible for the reputations of each other.  This list could have easily become more of a Top 5 Christopher Nolan Films list instead of a Wally Pfister list, because the two are intrinsically linked.  But instead of simply picking the best films that Pfister happened to be the director of photography on, I chose to focus on the photography more than the overall film.  That said, there may be a surprise (possibly two) on the list of Wally Pfister’s best films as cinematographer.

Pfister hasn’t really been working in major motion pictures for all that long, 14-15 years really.  He started off in the 1990s doing the photography for soft-core porn pictures and stayed working there with some TV pickups for close to 10 years.  Then he shot Memento (2000) for Christopher Nolan and so began their collaboration and Pfister’s high-profile career.  Pfister’s shot seven of Nolan’s eight (soon to be nine) films and seven films of various other directors, but never the same one twice except Nolan.  Pfister’s work is always good, but it seems to be the best with Nolan, who shares Pfister’s contempt for digital photography and also a willingness to let Pfister be more creative than other directors seem to, so yes, the list is a little Nolan heavy but not exclusive.

And now, I’d like to list some honorable mentions: Memento (2000): while Pfister’s work on this is great, sometimes making the film look like a Polaroid, it isn’t the cream of the crop for me; Batman Begins (2005): Pfister went dark for the first installment of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, very dark.  He established a great look for the series, but he did manage to top himself; The Italian Job (2003): say what you will of the overall film, it looks stunning from its beautiful Venice footage, to the Alps to Hollywood.  Pfister even managed to make Philadelphia look good, which is no small feat (sorry Philadelphians. You have a great city, just not an especially pretty one).

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I believe film occupies a rare place as art, entertainment, historical records and pure joy. I love all films, good and bad, from every time period with an affinity to Classical Hollywood in general, but samurai, sci-fi and noir specifically. My BA is in Film Studies from Pitt and my MA is in Education. My goal is to be able to ignite a love of film in others that is similar to my own.