Given that movies are a wholly visual artform, it’s surprising more of them aren’t…well…beautiful. Sure, plenty are nice to look at, but the focus is usually either on the characters or the action, and all too often a strong visual aesthetic might be missing. These 19 films show just how impressive and beautiful a movie can be. They might not all be nice to look at, but they have undeniable visual artistry.
19. What Dreams May Come
One of Robin Williams’ semi-successful attempts at drama was What Dreams May Come. The vast majority of the film was set after his death, as he travelled through a painterly heaven and a miserable hell attempting to save the soul of his wife. Ignoring the rather mediocre plot, the way heaven itself was portrayed was stunning. Shot of Fuji’s Velvia film, the colors were beautiful and rich, and much of the filming was shot in wildlife parks around the USA. Combined with a gentle hand with the CGI, you have a beautiful attempt at showing the afterlife without resorting to ivory gates and heavenly hosts.
18. Pan’s Labyrinth
A movie doesn’t need to be pretty to be beautiful, it can be an ugly, terrifying experience, but still be visually arresting and aesthetically perfect. Monster lover Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is perhaps the purest expression of that. It concerns the escapist fantasies of a young girl during the Spanish Civil War, struggling to escape the cruel crutches of a Fascist leader. The beauty and horror of a dark fairytale world mixes with the real horror and brutality of the world around her, prompting viewers to try and distinguish if the other world is real or not. As brutal as it is beautiful, it’s pure nightmare fuel.
I went into this list with a “no documentary” rule, because otherwise it’d just be Planet Earth â€” but Baraka is something a little different. It doesn’t have a plot, but it’s not a documentary either. It doesn’t attempt to inform or tell a story. It has no dialogue, no voice overs, no narrative. Instead, it’s just a series of shots of beautiful and sometimes horrific things. Long, tracking shots, time lapses, churches, temples, piles of skulls, tattoos, dancers, cities filled with life. Images are juxtaposed to create a connection in the mind of the watcher, and real life objects are reduced to abstracts and patterns. Beautiful and complex, it’s not quite a movie, but it sure is something.
16. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry is an incredibly interesting director. Usually when a music video director goes into film, they’re flashy and filled with jump cuts and explosions. Gondry is the opposite â€” he’s obsessed with beauty and imaginations, his films playing with our perception of reality. ESotSM is a perfect example of that, with its constantly shifting reality of memories and events, and its circular logic and patterns. Advertised as a romantic comedy, it is both romantic and a comedy, but more than that it’s a bittersweet look at the vagaries of love, shot absolutely beautifully.
15. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
There’s a whole genre of high budget wuxia movies that could be in this spot. Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and especially Curse of the Golden Flower â€” but the one that stands out the most, due to its incredible success, is Crouching Tiger. It introduced western cinema goers to the wonders of high budget wuxia, with the stunning action, historical setting, and understated romance â€” and as much as any of those, the stunning locales and cinematography. Fighting among the swaying treetops in an elegant ballet of death, or riding across the vast and brutal desert, the locations and filming technique were as flawlessly executed as the fights.
Yes, I’m exposing my own biases with this one, as it’s a film all of 20 people have seen. Urga, sometimes called Close To Eden, is an understated, introspective Russian film about the friendship between a Mongolian shepherd and a Russian truck driver who breaks down near their yurt. Incredibly funny if you can adjust to the pace and style, the long and winding steppes of Mongolia are a stunning backdrop to this unlikely story, especially when contrasted to the bustling city. Throughout the movie the plains are established as a thing of barren beauty, and the final shot of a power plant where seconds before a couple had been making love is astonishingly powerful.
13. Darjeeling Limited
Wes Anderson is one hell of a director, and if you like one of his films, there’s a pretty good choice you can instantly spot any of his work, and doubtless love them all. His strong visual style is perhaps best shown in Darjeeling Limited, which is as much a love song to India as a story. It has all of Anderson’s trademarks: obsessions with symmetry, obsessively controlled and set up scenes, and bright primary colors â€” but there’s something about it being in India that makes it that much more gorgeous and poignant.
12. Lawrence of Arabia
Widely regarded as one of the finest and most influential movies of the 20th century, Lawrence of Arabia’s incredible cinematography was a major influence on generations of film makers. Never before had such effort gone into showing the hugeness, enormity and beauty of the desert. Shot on extremely wide-angle cameras, the film had an aspect ratio of 2.20:1, much wider than most current screens, which served to perfectly encompass the huge size and splendour of the Sahara.
11. Where the Wild Things Are
This dark and bittersweet adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book was a very interesting project. It’s hard to take a book which can be read in five minutes, and stretch it into a feature length film, which Spike Jonze did by making the film far darker in tone than the book. The beauty of the images and imagination from the story translate wonderfully on screen, thanks to Jonze’ $100 million budget, allowing him to create fantastical and barren landscapes. However, the downbeat and bittersweet tone of the story, combined with the rather unlikable characters, lead to box office struggles.
Terry Gilliam’s dystopian comedy/satire is as well remembered for its striking visuals as for its dark tone and pitch black humor. Gilliam managed to pack so much bureaucratic misery and totalitarian repression into this film, while still keeping the humour ramped up. The cruel and buffoonish government with its overly complicated and barely functional machines create a perfect backdrop for the film, which Gilliam captures with huge sets â€” and then contrasts with dreams of flying and color. And, like every Gilliam film ever, it was a box office flop.
9. Days of Heaven
The fact that Days of Heaven even got made is bewildering. A major Hollywood title, the crews and actors weren’t prepared for the independent style of production, where scripts were changed on the fly, and actions were constantly rewritten. Cinematographer NÃ©stor Almendros was going blind during shooting, so would have production assistants shoot the scene with a polaroid, which he would stare at intently through a magnifying glass. Most of the film was shot during the “golden hour” between sunset and dark, giving the film a magic feel and soft glow, but limiting shooting to just 25 minutes a day. Beautiful and astonishing to watch, it ran extremely long over time and budget, and didn’t perform as well as hoped at the box office.
8. Fanny and Alexander
Fanny and Alexander should only be watched by the patient. Clocking in at more than 300 minutes, it’s considered one of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest masterpieces, a wondrous and beautiful look at the life of a family. Originally planned as a four part TV mini, it was released as a shortened 188 minute film cut, but if you have the patience, the full version is well worth the effort. The tale of a rich and happy Swedish family who lose their father only to have the mother marry an abusive and ascetic bishop. It was Bergman’s last directorial role, and a labor of love, shooting the world of these children as a thing of alternating beauty and terror. Heavily thematic and symbolic, it’s a wonderful film. But holy crap is it long.
7. The Fountain
Darren Aranofsky’s The Fountain languished in development hell for a very, very long time before finally getting made. It’s three stories told simultaneously across 1000 years, all about a man who loves a woman, searching for eternal life. A conquistador searching for eternal life for his queen, a doctor trying to save his wife, and a space traveller with a consciousness in a living tree. Non-linear and very much open to interpretation, the Fountain was met by many scratched heads from cinema goers, unprepared for its open nature and poorly defined ending. But the imagery? From the mundane to the fantastic, Aranofsky’s work is just astonishing, and just watching the trailer gives you an idea of how beautiful it is.
French film Amelie sparked a massive resurgence of interest in French cinema amongst US audiences, helped along by Audrey Tatou and her ingenue best. Residing as much within her own imagination as the world around her, Amelie sets out to make the lives of those around her better as much as she can. She kindles romances, helps families, and makes the world a better place. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography captures the magic of Montmatre perfectly, and makes Amelie’s imagination and flights of fancy fit perfectly within the world they’ve constructed.
Dave McKean is primarily a collage and sculptural artist who decided he wanted to make a movie â€” and with the help of amazing writer Neil Gaiman and the Jim Henson workshop, he created one of the most magical and disturbing things to appear on the screen in decades. A modern Wizard of Oz tale of a girl escaping into her own imagination to deal with the outer world, it’s one of the few times where CG has been used because there’s no way anything real could capture the atmosphere that McKean wanted. Sadly under appreciated, it’s a wonderful movie.
4. Barry Lyndon
Much of Kubrick’s work could land on this list, thanks to his demanding and exacting shooting style which always resulted in visually arresting films. Whole books have been written on his technique, so choosing a single movie to include is tricky. I’m going with Barry Lyndon, as one of his most expansive and epic tales, thanks to its beautiful period scenery and sets, recreating the 18th century aristocracy. Equal parts cynical and beautiful, it’s a lifetime of a film, and undoubtedly one of Kubrick’s best and most distinctive.
3. Citizen Kane
There’s no way Citizen Kane could be left off this list, because it wholly revolutionized film-making and the business of cinematography. Without it, 90% of the way movies are shot wouldn’t exist how we know them. His incredible use of deep focus had never before been seen, his insane angles, shooting with the camera tilted, or from beneath floorboards. It was one of the first big film’s to shoot angled upwards, allowing ceilings to be seen in frame, something that no one else was doing. There’s more than just the look of the movie that rates it as the finest ever made, but the style and beauty are a big part of it.
2. Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was one of the most visually distinctive films of the 80s, and massively reshaped the way we portrayed the future. Its dystopian and vertical cityscape was heavily influenced by the work of french artist Moebius, and Deckard’s neo-noir adventure in the sprawling, dank, wet and miserable future are rightly regarded as one of the best movies ever created. Without its incredible aesthetic style, Blade Runner wouldn’t be what it was, and would just be another mediocre scifi to crowd the shelves, but that strong style was so incredible, so revolutionary that it just about invented a genre.
1. The Fall
In 2006, Tarsem Singh finished the Fall. Filmed over more than four years and 20 countries, Singh paid for the entire film himself so as to be completely uncompromised in his vision. It is beautiful. There is no other way to put it. The story is odd and sad, but the visuals are the most stunning thing you will ever see in your life. Singh’s locations are the most beautiful imaginable locations from around the world, shot in ways you can imagine. This movie is so aesthetically perfect that it will make you weep, before causing you to go and book tickets on a trip around the world.