Beyond simply the camera, many factors go into crafting a film that is overall breathtaking from top to bottom. This does not necessarily mean pretty images of wilderness, but also the creation of gritty dystopian universes. The all-time best combine all aspects put in front of the camera to create eye candy in the theater. These are my Top 10 Visually Beautiful Movies. I have excluded movies with amazing individual shots or scenes. This is about the totality of the piece.
10. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015):
What is most amazing about director George Miller’s adrenaline fueled “Mad Max: Fury Road” is that he literally had every shot mapped out before filming even began. It is basically looking through the eyes of a madman on screen. Once he got the green light, Miller let his production designers, props department, make-up, and stunt team run wild and the result was edge of your seat action. The biggest thing is that most of the action is practical effects. Those are real stunt guys swinging around on poles attached to post-apocalyptic cars. That crazy guitar player with a flame thrower attached. Also actually playing guitar and blasting fire in real life. The cars and vehicles are all unique and the action never feels chaotic in terms of not knowing what is happening. This is beauty when it comes to showing chaos.
9. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000):
No martial arts film has ever felt more like a piece of visual poetry than Ang Lee’s masterpiece “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“. Set in the 19th Century Qing Dynasty China, the film follows two sword smiths who have the mystical sword named Green Destiny. The sword is stolen by a young warrior who has gone through many trials as a princess, including a stint in the desert after being kidnapped by a nomad who ultimately becomes her love. While the fight scenes are not entirely realistic with battles featuring fighters who are able to glide through the air, the quiet beauty feels like watching a mesmerizing dance of combat. The highlight is the tree top battle between the two leads, a sequence I still do not know how they did to this day. “Crouching Tiger” is a meditation on the idea of being a warrior.
8. “Wings of Desire” (1987):
Speaking of poetry, not much beats the elegant nature of “Wings of Desire”. Directed by Wim Wenders, the story starts off in beautiful black & white as angels follow around all types of people who cannot see the heavenly beings. They are tasked by god to learn from society during their eternal lives. When one angel (Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist, he finds out that if he jumps off a building and gives up his eternal life he can become human. When he does this the visuals turn into some of the most sumptuous and colorful images you could see. The idea of a stark life of eternity versus a luscious chance for one journey being alive was definitely ahead of its time.
7. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007):
What list about visual beauties would be complete without the great Cinematographer Roger Deakins involved. Not the best movie overall in history by him, nothing beats his complex visual look at a legendary bad guy robber during the early days of the Wild West in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”. This unique portrait of the typical Western by writer/director Andrew Dominik is compelling. However, this is not the directors film. Brad Pitt’s portrayal as James is similar to watching a legend seeing their statue being erected. Then you have a multi-layered cinematic take on the classic western style. Highlighted by a jaw-dropping train robbery sequence in the woods to Deakins using shoe shine on lenses, “Assassination of Jesse James” looks at the old west from a perspective that nobody ever did before.
6. “Barry Lyndon” (1975):
While not the most exhilarating of legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s films, his most visually rewarding has got to be his 1975 period piece “Barry Lyndon”. As always a control freak, Kubrick had the first ever 1×1 aspect ratio lens made with the help of N.A.S.A. technology in order to shoot scenes lit only with candle light. Doesn’t make sense to you or me, but the overall feeling of living in 18th century England does not stop there. “Barry Lyndon” encapsulates life in the renaissance era perfectly. From the costumes to meticulous period props and locations, Kubrick spared no expense in re-creating an authentic feel of what it was like living in the days before America was even created.
5. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993):
Both claymation and stop-motion animation is no doubt a labor of love. Spending 12-plus hours in a day to shoot 10 to 15 seconds of footage has to be tedious, especially when a tiny little mistake ruins a characters pose. But when it is done to perfection, stop-motion can result in a beautiful experience. For me, nothing tops the Tim Burton produced “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. An odd tale, “Nightmare” follows the story of Jack Skellington, the most popular man in ‘Halloween Town’. Tired of scaring kids for years, Jack stumbles upon Christmas Town and is transformed into a world of joy. Unfortunately, he is incapable of bringing joy based on his scary background despite the want in his heart. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” combines the happy imagination of a child with their kid-like fears. The motion capture work is captivating and holds up to this day. Jack Skellington’s Lament in front of the never ending moon is classic cinema.
4. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928):
Any world history book in schools would not be complete without the story of Joan of Arc. Her battle and leadership in the 1400’s to free France from the tyranny of English rule brought about a revolution that ultimately freed a nation. Unfortunately it lead to her being burned at the stake. Legendary Danish filmmaker Carl Th. Dreyer took an innovative approach with “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Albeit made in the silent era, bigger movies still had major set pieces. With “Passion”, he made one of the oddest stylistic choices in cinema history as it is shot almost entirely in close-up. It creates an immediacy of the injustices being heaped upon this hero of a nation. Maria Falconetti’s portrayal of the tear filled woman on trial is enhanced ten-fold because of the camera being slammed into her heartbroken face.
3. “Baraka” (1992):
The late Roger Ebert described “Baraka” in the best way possible when reviewing it in 1992; “If aliens came and wanted to see a complete look at humanity, ‘Baraka’ would be the best example.” Unlike any other filmmaking experience, director Ron Fricke’s worldwide encompassing documentary is almost impossible to categorize. Fricke spent years traveling around the world with no singular premise other than to show humanity. Religion, performance art, homelessness, tribalism, rural towns, and historic landmarks are just some of the features of life on earth this film explores. “Baraka” is a collection of all of us on this planet. And it is a beautiful sight to see.
2. “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962):
“Lawrence of Arabia” is unquestionably the epic of all epics in movie history. David Lean spent two years in the desert shooting this journey in the desert. Based on the true story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British soldier who is sent to the heart of the Middle East. Not knowing what to expect, Lawrence is able to unite several warring Arab nations into some semblance of a government. The sprawling desert scenery is breathtaking in sequences such as trying to cross an endless area of desert without water. So many stories came out of this historic undertaking of a movie. Producers complained and threatened to fire director Lean for taking 30 plus days filming a sequence that, in the script, simply said “Lawrence takes the train”. Once they saw the unbelievable battle, the producers shut the hell up.
1. “Blade Runner” (1982):
For my money, no movie has ever been slicker visually than Ridley Scott’s dystopian opus “Blade Runner”. Completely ahead of its time, Scott created a world centered around major cities overpopulated and run by the rich (sound familiar?). Harrison Ford is chasing down rogue human-looking robots in a major metropolis. Futuristic stylization is combined with classic Film Noir style detective movies. The use of production design concepts such as Matte Painting fits flawlessly alongside vehicles and costumes that are unlike any before or since. “Blade Runner” is almost as hard to wrap ones head around visually than it is story wise. The Mecca of sci-fi filmmaking on the big screen for your eyes.