Cinema Experts Decide The Year’s 20 Best Music Videos

UPDATED: Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” won in both categories. Alright!

A few months ago we experienced the annual shitshow known as the MTV Video Music Awards, the celebrity-driven PR spectacle in which a lot of famous people crowd into a room and pretend they’re interested in music video as an art form. It’s fun, in its way, but it ignores the fact that music video can actually be a serious art form, a place for technical wizardry, emotional storytelling, fun costumes, and gratuitous scenes of people in the world’s most amazing locations. That’s why you should know about Camerimage, an annual event happening in Poland this week. It’s a celebration of the year’s best cinematography in feature films, documentaries, and music video.

Cinematographers are the technicians who make the video look good, and so by extension the Camerimage award nominees are all very good-looking.

There are also a number of other motifs that surface among the videos. This year’s big themes apparently included horses, Soviet ghost towns, and people standing on things really high up on the air.

The 20 nominees in the music video category are a mix of hip-hop, pop, rock, house, and folk, and they’re all worth a look. Here are all 20 of this year’s nominees:

Hot Chip, “Need You Now”

cinematographer: Benoît Soler | director: Shynola
Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor tries to escape himself in the video for the single “Need You Now.” Set in a bleak English seaside town, the video’s visual spareness matches the song’s emotional core.

Imagine Dragons, “I Bet My Life”

cinematographer: Yon Thomas | director: Jodeb
Imagine Dragons have some serious money backing them. Remember at the Grammys when they didn’t perform but then did a live four-minute commercial presented by Target? Actor Dane DeHaan stars in this big-budget extravaganza, an underwater-and-then-airborne journey set at Arizona’s Theodore Roosevelt Dam.

Pharrell Williams, “Freedom”

cinematographer: Matthew J. Lloyd | director: Paul Hunter
Technically impressive but cheesy at all get out, Pharrell’s “Freedom” features a wide array of in-your-face visuals juxtaposed with Mr. “Happy” singing in a variety of places where people aren’t free at all, like the floor of a sweatshop. Most striking, though, are the images of black men breaking rocks, which were inspired by the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Rihanna “Bitch Better Have My Money”

cinematographer: Benoît Debie | directors: MEGAFORCE & Robyn Rihanna Fenty
Who knows when our favorite marijuana enthusiast is going to release her eighth album, but at least this year she gave us #BBHMM, the song with one of the least worksafe videos ever released by a mainstream artist. Torture, murder, and boobs are all gleefully splattered across the screen in this much-discussed clip.

Vince Staples “Señorita”

cinematographer: Martim Vian | director: Ian Pons Jewell
There’s a twist at the end of “Señorita,” the Future-produced track by Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, so watch it through before you read the next sentence… Black culture, black suffering, and black social ills are presented for the benefit of white audiences who watch safely from home. It’s very powerful. The video is shot in symbolic black-and-white, and by the end of the video black actors are literally licking the camera.

Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”

cinematographer: Rob Witt | director: Colin Tilley
Kendrick cements his status as an everyday hero in the video for “Alright,” in which he drives a car that’s carried by cops, floating through the air and rapping from atop a streetlight. It’s a political video heavy with powerful symbolism about black men and American cops.

Klangkarussell, “Netzwerk (Falls Like Rain)”

cinematographer: Chris Clarke | director: Charlie Robins
Kendrick’s streetlight looks cool, but real-life Ukrainian daredevil Mustang Wanted scales buildings in the vertigo-inducing video for Klangkarussell’s “Netzwerk (Falls Like Rain).” Set in Serbian capital Belgrade, the death-defying video is frightening even for viewers at home.

Fractures, “It’s Alright”

cinematographer: Matthew Chuang | director: Matthew Chuang
Speaking of Eastern Europe, here’s a sad song with an equally heartstring-tugging video about a man who returns to his empty home in Chernobyl, the site of the greatest nuclear disaster in world history. Be warned if you’re someone who cries easily.

Tove Styrke, “Borderline”

cinematographer: Jacob Møller | director: Rúnar Ingi
Critically acclaimed Swedish pop singer Tove Styrke traveled to the Arctic Circle to shoot the video for “Borderline,” which is ironic since the song is very tropical/reggae-inspired. Set on the remote arctic island of Svalbard, the video features Tove and friends wreaking havoc in a Soviet era ghost town.

Hook N Sling, “Break Yourself (feat. Far East Movement)”

cinematographer: Nicholas Wiesnet | directors: Carlos Lopez Estrada, Nelson De Castro
Get on the bus! Australian DJ Hook N Sling’s infectious “Break Yourself” features Asian-American group Far East Movement, best known for their 2010 hit “Like A G6.” The trippy video is set entirely on a school bus. Er, a prayer bus. Make that a city bus. Whatever kind of bus it is, it crashes and then just keeps going.

Florence and the Machine “WHAT KIND OF MAN”

cinematographer: Steven Annis | director: Vincent Haycock
Florence and the Machine invest a lot of energy into their videos, and this sweeping cinematic epic is one creepy meditation featuring a car crash, flashes of nudity, and a hotel freakout. The video elevates the band’s most straightforward rock song into something much bigger, with Florence surrounded by a gang of ominous male dancers and horror movie flashes.

Rag’n’Bone Man, “Hell Yeah (feat. Vince Staples)”

cinematographer: Victor Seguin | director: Truman & Cooper
Long Beach rapper Vince Staples is the only musician that appears on two of the nominated songs, although he doesn’t appear in this video by English blues rapper Rag’n’Bone Man. This is a grim story about a brother and sister making plans to kill their abusive dad. It’s not exactly uplifting.

Kodaline, “Ready”

cinematographer: Isaac Bauman | director: Abteen Bagheri
Kodaline’s racetrack-set “Ready” was conceived as a charity video for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. Starring Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin from Superbad), the video’s a tearjerker about a disabled jockey determined to race once again.

U2 “Every Breaking Wave”

cinematographer: Steven Annis | director: Aoife McArdle
U2’s last album was automatically inserted into millions of iTunes users’ libraries, which might explain the low Youtube play count on the video for “Every Breaking Wave.” Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the terrorist war between Catholics and Protestants, the video is visually spectacular and moving even if you can’t bear the band’s politics. Again, big warning if you’re someone who cries at things.

Warsaw Village Band & Mercedes Peón “Midsummer Rain Song”

cinematographer: Tomasz Ślesicki | director: Dorota Piskor
Camerimage happens in Poland, so of course there are a couple of Polish nominees in there. There are lots of unanswered questions in the video for Warsaw Village Band’s strange, folky “Midsummer Rain Song,” but that’s part of the magic. This video was shot by the duo calling themselves Psychokino.

Fisz Emade Tworzywo, “Pył (feat. Justyna Święs)”

cinematographer: Damian Kocur | director: Marek Skrzecz
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of Polish hip-hop duo Fisz Emade Tworzywo. The two brothers released their most recent album in late 2014, and thee’s some really crazy dance movies in the video for “Pył,” which means “Dust.”

Flume, “Some Minds (feat. Andrew Wyatt)”

cinematographer: Ross Giardina, ACS | director: Clemens Habicht
Australian DJ Flume roped in Miike Snow singer Andrew Wyatt to sing on the single “Some Minds.” For the video, ballet dancer Callum Linnane floats through the Sydney Opera House to perform a one-man dance that incorporates some unexpected special effects.

Etienne de Crécy, “You”

cinematographer: Nicolas Loir | director: Helmi
Everyone’s falling for everyone else in the steamy video for French DJ Etienne de Crécy’s “You.” Fans of same-sex three-ways should watch through to the dizzying finale.

Of Monsters and Men “Empire”

cinematographer: Starr Whitesides | director: Tabitha Denholm
We’ve already talked about the stunning the May-December relationship between a tuxedo-wearing Swedish model and her much older paramour. Repeated viewings don’t make this one any less gorgeous.

Snoop Dogg, “So Many Pros”

cinematographer: Nicolas Loir | director: François Rousselet
Finally, on a lighter note… Vintage movie posters provide the inspiration for Snoop’s funky “So Many Pros.” It’s not the most original idea, but it’s well executed and looks like it was probably a lot of fun to shoot.

Winners of this year’s Camerimage Awards will be announced on Saturday.

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