1. 1916 DW Griffith: INTOLERANCE (C: Billy Bitzer)
A film that was originally subtitled "A Sun Play For The Ages" because it was Photographed entirely (Interiors & Exteriors) by Natural Daylight! It also revolutionised film language by utilising what Sergei Eisenstein would later call: "Intellectual Montage" by inter-cutting four (4) separate stories, from four (4) separate epics of time, each one hand tinted a different colour.
2. 1927 Abel Gance: NAPOLEON (C: Leonce-Heri Burel & Others)
A film that totally liberated the camera to the extent that Mr. Gance has been referred to as "The Tony Scott Of The 1920's!" He & his Cinematographers were 1. Hand Holding The Camera. 2. Mounting The Camera On Horse Back. 3. Mounting The Camera on a Boat For A Simulated Storm At Sea. & Intercutting that scene with a "Political Storm In Parliament" by 4. Mounting The Camera On A Pendulum & Swinging It Through The Scene in Parliament! (I won't even get into the use of MTV fast cutting and multiple superimpositions.)
3. 1941 Orson Welles: CITIZEN KANE (C: Gregg Toland)
A film that made Deep Focus & Long One Shot Tales famous... Also, in the "Mocumentary" about the life of Charles Foster Kane that opens the film: "Documentary Style" Cinematography was simulated for the first time and it also utilised at least four (4) filmmaking techniques that would not be seen again until the late 1950s during the French New Wave: 1. The Freeze Frame 2. The Jump Cut 3. The Flash Frame & 4. The Hand Held Camera.
4. 1949 Vittorio DeSica: BICYCLE THIEVES (C:Carlo Montuori)
A film that put The Italian Neo-Realists on the map! After WWII Italy was in ruins & the filmmakers had nothing to work with so got into the streets and invented the Independent Film Template by utilising 1. Natural Locations 2. Available Light 3. Non-Actors 4. Inexpensive Equipment 5. Very Little Money & 6. Organic Episodic Stories.
5. 1950 Akira Kurosawa: RASHOMON (C: Kazuo Miyagawa)
A film that had so little money to work with that is was shot on only three (3) Available Light Locations. 1. The Rashomon Gate. 2. The Court & 3. The Forest & utilised only mirrors or reflectors to supplement the Natural Light... When asked about the lack of funds and equipment the Zen-like Cinematographer Kazoo Miyazawa stated: "Forget the expensive equipment... Only a beautiful person, can take beautiful pictures..."
6. 1960 Jean-Luc Godard: BREATHLESS (C: Raoul Coutard)
A film that put The French New Wave on the map! Shot almost entirely Hand Held on Natural Location & with Available or Practical Light, since Mr. Godard wanted the film "to look like reportage..." or news footage... The Cinematographer was often pushed around in a wheel chair or hidden from view on the Champs de Elysee in a canvas mail delivery cart!!! This film that had some critics stating that Mr. Godard & his Cinematographer had "Driven a stolen truck over the rules of filmmaking and then had backed up and driven over them again!
And Now We Come To Stanley Kubrick! & I believe that No discussion about rule breaking or revolutionary Cinematography can take place without discussing these next four (4) films...
7. 1964 Stanley Kubrick: DR. STRANGELOVE (C: Gil Taylor)
This film was the first time that Mr. Kubrick insisted that the lighting should be built into the sets. & it can be clearly seen in The Circular Table In The War Room. This film was also the first to simulate documentary like "Combat Cinematography" that utilised Hand Held cameras and I later learned a special "out dated" batch of film negative.
8. 1969 Stanley Kubrick: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (C: Geoffrey Unsworth / John Alcott)
Another film where Mr. Kubrick had all of the lighting built into the rotating circular space ship Interior, enabling his Cinematographers to create the illusion of weightlessness by basically capturing "In Camera CGIs", decades before CGIs were even thought of or invented..
9. 1970 Stanley Kubrick: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (C: John Alcott)
A film where Mr. Kubrick & Mr. Alcott totally perfected Practical Lighting in the form of 150 watt bulbs, that are often visible in the scenes! & in the famous "Alex Kills The Cat Lady Scene" this enabled the Actors to freely take their performances in 360 degrees as Mr. Kubrick followed along with his Hand Held Arriflex 2C Camera sporting an 18mm Wide Angle Lens.
10. 1975 Stanley Kubrick: BARRY LYNDON (C: John Alcott)
A film that was lit 100% either by Candlelight, Available Light or simulated Available Light... & it was only with the assistance of a Super Speed Lens from NASA (with an aperture of an f .7!) that Candlelight Cinematography was made possible, since that lens was 100% faster that the normal lenses available at that time... By the way Mr. Alcott won the Academy Award for his Cinematography.
11. 1999 Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (C: Neil Fredericks)
A revolutionary film! Because the Directors for the only time in film history made the unheard of decision of choosing NOT To Direct The Film! Instead there was No Crew & the entire production was captured by the Actors utilising a 16mm camera and a video camera, in only eight (8) days! & It was the "amateurish" Cinematography that made this film so authentically frightening!
12. 2000 Danny Boyle: 28 DAYS LATER (C: Anthony Dod Mantle)
A nearly 10 Million dollar Horror/Thriller that was shot entirely with a dozen Canon XL1 Home Video Cameras... By the way, It was the Cinematographers daring to capture the small Danish "Art" film THE CELEBRATION, entirely Hand Held on a Sony Hi8 Home Video camera, that had gotten Danny Boyle's attention!
13. 2008 Danny Boyle: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (C: Anthony Dod Mantle)
Another daring film mostly captured with the experimental Silicon Imaging HD Camera that enabled Mr. Boyle and Mr. Dod Mantle to run along with the impoverished kids in the slums of Mumbai on Natural Locations & in Available Light. This was the film that garnered the first Academy Award for HD Cinematography as well as for its fearless Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle.
14. 2013 Alfonso Cuaron GRAVITY (C: Emmanuel Lubezki)
A film that looks like no other and one that took the Director & Cinematographer four (4) years to figure out how to realise and capture... A film that made you actually feel like you were there experiencing that extraordinary 100% CGI thrill ride through the colliding satellites above the earth.
15. 2015 Sean Baker: TANGERINE (C. Radium Chung & S. Baker)
A film as revolutionary as the Italian Neo Realist's BICYCLE THIEF or the French New Wave's BREATHLESS... A film that reinvented The Independent Film Template by adding to it: Transgender Non Actors & capturing the entire production on two (2) iPhone 5's! Now That's Fucking Revolutionary!!!
Films That Should Also Be Included:
16. 2000 Mike Figgis: TIMECODE (C: Patrick Alexander Stewart)
The first film to be written out on music sheets, improvised by name stars and captured on four Video cameras, in a Hand Held One Shot 90 Minute Take... It was also shown entirely unedited on a four way split screen.
17. 2002 Alexander Sukerov: RUSSIAN ARK (C: Tillman Buttner)
A film that captured an historical tour of the famous St. Petersburg Museum in a Steadicam One Shot 90 Minute Take and utilised over 850 period costumed extras as well as complete orchestras...
18. 2004 Michael Mann: COLLATERAL (C: Dion Bebee)
The first major studio (Warners) HD film shot in the streets of Los Angeles and utilizing so little light on its star Tom Cruise, that during a climactic scene, he is actually silhouetted against the night time skyline of Los Angeles!
19. 2006 Alfonso Cuaron: THE CHILDREN OF MEN (C: Emmanuel Lubezki)
The film that utilized Film & Digital & only Available or Practical Lighting to create a Hand Held Digitally Enabled One Shot Take, "Documentary From The Future"...
20. 2013 Jean-Marc Vallee: DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (C: Yves Bellanger)
A Hollywood indie that garnered multiple Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor Etc...) even though it was captured with a Hand Held Arri Alexa HD Camera on only two (2) lenses (a 35mm & a 50mm) and utilised totally Available or Practical Light since its Lighting Budget was exactly ZERO Dollars!!!
Of course, when it comes to selecting "film lists..." There are really no right or wrong answers, since it is a very subjective choice...
However, If you are taking a serious look at the films that "re-wrote the rules of Cinematography..." Then I feel that these above mentioned films need to be included or at least considered...
To learn more about cinematography for your own films, check out the Basic Cinematography course at Raindance
Also make sure to take a look at David's collection of books to learn more about the filmmaking world.