What do we mean when we call a film beautiful?
After all, the majority of movies are commercial enterprises — they exist to entertain and make money rather than be one of the most beautiful movies.
That means that most movies, by default, have to rely on formula: familiar plots that are proven to please; recognizable stars who have an image to maintain; solid, professional style that doesn’t take too many risks. A movie is a product, after all, whether it’s a Hollywood blockbuster, a direct-to-video action movie, or an indie comedy on Netflix – audiences want what they already know they like.
Of course, movies made for profit can be beautiful (there are plenty of commercial Hollywood pictures on this ranking), and some can even be beautiful inadvertently (aren’t Michael Bay’s explosions such lovely colors?).
What Makes the Most Beautiful Movies?
But there are films that transcend all of their material and financial limitations to bring some true beauty into the world: visually beautiful movies, movies with beautiful scenery, movies with beautiful cinematography. Since so many elements come into the making of a movie, there are many factors that can make a film beautiful – the quality of the cinematography, the craftsmanship of the production design, the interaction of music and imagery, the spectacle of technical innovation.
This ranking celebrates the movies that define cinematic beauty. It includes big-budget Hollywood productions and no-budget art films; passion projects and movies that turned out beautiful against all odds; movies that were acknowledged masterpieces as soon as they premiered, and movies that took decades to earn their due recognition.
It has some of the usual suspects (movies that everyone says are beautiful, not Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects), and a few curveballs – movies with beautiful cinematography, powerful use of music, gorgeous faces, and even lush costuming.
Methodology: Ranking the Most Visually Beautiful Movies
Movies are ranked across 2 sets of score: one objective (scores from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes), and one subjective (our opinion).
- IMDB Score
- Rotten Tomatoes Score
On the subjective side, films are scored according to their Visual Appeal (is it pretty to look at?); Technical Innovation (did it make a contribution to the craft of filmmaking?); Music Integration (is the music an integral part of the experience?); and Production Design & Costuming (is there exceptional care in the sets, costumes, colors, etc?).
- Visual Appeal
- Technical Innovation
- Music Integration
- Production Design & Costuming
There are some ground rules here: only one film per director, but many of the collaborators overlap. After all, the director alone doesn’t make a movie – unless the director is also the writer, cinematographer, editor, and every performer, which leaves, maybe, Bill Plympton.
We also made an effort to include films from every decade of the last century (although the 1930s were a little tough – in America, the studio system was at its most mercenary, and the rest of the world’s film industries were less developed technically).
Most Beautiful Movies
La Belle et la Bete (Tie)
No film captures the feeling of a fairy tale like Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete. That’s a grand statement, but generations of film critics have agreed. Cocteau – a Renaissance man of High Modernism – was a poet, novelist, painter, designer, and genius of all trades, but it is with film that he made his most indelible contributions to world culture.
La Belle et la Bete was partly as a tribute to Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais, who plays the Beast, the Prince, and Avenant (the obnoxious man who wants to marry Belle), and partly an attempt to attach his Surrealist sensibilities to an accessible story. It’s an unqualified success in both. As a New Yorker magazine profile of 1949 makes clear, Cocteau was the ultimate micromanager in his filmmaking, doing everything from overseeing makeup and costuming to sweeping up the studio.
But his madness had its method; every frame of a Cocteau film is imprinted with his singular vision, a complex mix of Classical and Romantic and Surrealist imagery and inscrutable metaphors. Cocteau’s adaptation of the traditional Beauty and the Beast is shot through with the kind of poetry only a filmmaker like Cocteau could imagine – dreamlike and vivid, filled with the kinds of images that immediately strike you as appropriate.
Human arms stick out of the walls holding candles; tears turn to diamonds; a mirror ripples like water. The practical, in-camera effects are both startlingly convincing, and charmingly handcrafted; they are, above all, extraordinarily beautiful, especially one long, slow-motion shot of Belle half-running, half-floating with the grace of a ballet dancer. It’s magic in every sense – quite possibly, even the literal one.
See Also: Cocteau’s Orpheus Trilogy is one of the most fascinating example of a filmmaker working through a theme over decades: The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1950), and The Testament of Orpheus
2001: A Space Odyssey (Tie)
2001: A Space Odyssey was a watershed in film – not just science-fiction, but the history of cinema. It’s a triumph on two fronts, one thematic, one aesthetic. On the thematic front, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (who co-wrote the screenplay) sought to tell the biggest possible story: the story of humanity, from its spark of origin to its transcendence to something post-human.
While sci-fi movies had confronted deep questions of human existence before, from Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to Planet of the Apes in the same year (1968), no film had quite attempted, or achieved, what Kubrick intended with 2001. Clarke’s screenplay and novelization (itself a classic of sci-fi literature) tell the story in words – taking a great deal of the sublime away in the process – but Kubrick’s film does so with images. Incredibly sparse dialogue gives very little in the way of exposition; action and imagery leave motivation and outcome to the audience’s imagination.
For the first time, the highest order of special effects was used not just to craft a believable alternative world, or just for a sense of spectacle, but for the sake of their own aesthetic value. While Kubrick sought out experts to craft the most realistic depiction of space flight yet included in the movies, Kubrick’s camera does not merely show the special effects – it luxuriates in them. 2001 films spacecraft models with the depth and attention to detail of a documentary, and actors in ape suits with anthropological eye. It’s no wonder conspiracy theorists still believe Kubrick shot the Apollo 11 moon landing on a soundstage – if he had, it would have been impeccable.
See Also: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) remains notable for its outstanding technical achievements, namely a pioneering use of lenses to capture scenes lit only with candlelight, seeking to create the most realistic depiction of 18th century life possible.
The Grapes of Wrath
John Ford is primarily known for his Westerns, usually starring John Wayne, but as a trusted journeyman in the studio Golden Age, Ford was a master of any genre, and his masterpiece may well be this story of a family displaced and dispersed by the Dust Bowl. Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay condenses John Steinbeck’s sprawling novel into a focused and searing portrait of a family in crisis, oppressed and broken by political and economic forces they cannot comprehend.
When released in 1940, The Grapes of Wrath was the rare case of a film being recognized as a classic immediately, and of a film being almost universally acclaimed as better than the novel that inspired it. Ford brings the height of his stylistic mastery to The Grapes of Wrath, using cinematographer Gregg Tolland’s high-contrast black and white imagery (which Tolland would perfect in Citizen Kane the following year) to echo the journalistic images of photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, while providing a polish and clarity that makes each scene deeply immersive.
Expert juxtaposition of wide angle landscapes that swallow up the actors, and claustrophobic close-ups, make The Grapes of Wrath a master class in using photography to move audiences. The effect is intensified by the score, which uses folk song “The Red River Valley” throughout, in a variety of haunting variations that resonate even after the film ends. It’s one of the most intimate and humane films of the Studio Era, and one whose aesthetic beauty is united to its philosophical drive.
See Also: Out of nearly 150 films, John Ford rarely made even a mediocre one, at least visually, but The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) particularly stand out, with Liberty Valance approaching The Grapes of Wrath for its stunning black and white photography.
When Disney-Pixar announced a film based around the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead, Latinx-Americans cringed. While it was written and co-directed by Adrian Molina, a California-raised child of Mexican immigrants, big-budget Hollywood movies have never been known for their sensitivity to Mexican culture. Indeed, Disney attempted a very Disney-corporate move by trying to trademark the name “Dia de los Muertos” before online outcry forced them to back down. Molina and Lee Unkrich were totally committed to authenticity, bringing the animators and creative team to Mexico and enlisting an all-Latino voice cast (except for John Ratzenberger, who was given one line for the sake of Pixar tradition – Ratzenberger has been in every Pixar production).
It paid off – opening in Mexico a month before its American premiere, Coco became the nation’s highest-grossing movie, as Mexican audiences were thrilled to see their culture depicted with dignity and joy after years of racist gangster and peasant caricatures. Coco’s story – in which a music-loving little boy named Miguel travels to the Land of the Dead to uncover a deep, dark family secret – gave Pixar’s animators license to craft what may well be the most colorful, complex, and engaging world in the studio’s long history. The Land of the Dead is a massive swirl of activity, each frame jam-packed with decoration, comic bits, and references to Mexican culture, while Miguel’s hometown is lovingly rendered as a place of warmth and little touches of beauty.
As is typical of Disney movies, Coco is a musical, stuffed with original songs that incorporate Mexican folk music (the heartbreaking traditional “La Llorona”), contemporary pop, and Broadway-style big numbers. And in Pixar tradition, Coco doesn’t go skimp on the heartbreak and “feels,” reaching for an emotional depth that makes Coco not only one of the most visually beautiful movies ever, but one of the most heartfelt.
See Also: While all of Pixar’s films are stunning, for visually beautiful movies, it’s hard to beat Finding Nemo (2003), which Unkrich co-directed. From start the finish, the film is a wonder of underwater imagery, sure to please anyone who spent their childhood enraptured by an aquarium.
French national treasure – no, scratch that, international treasure – Jacques Tati was ready to give up his beloved character M. Hulot, preferring to focus his energy on writing and directing rather than having to perform. Of course, no one would ever let Charlie Chaplin give up the Little Tramp, and no one would let Jacques Tati give up Hulot; instead, Hulot wanders in and out of the action of Playtime, occasionally taking center stage, but usually as a background character. The real star of Playtime is Tativille – the outrageously gigantic set that Tati had constructed on an empty 3-acre block in Paris to represent an ultra-modern city, complete with centrally-heated buildings and its own small power plant.
With a budget of more than 17 million francs (approximately $3 million), Tati went deeply into personal debt, though, as he dryly remarked, he would have paid that for Elizabeth Taylor. There was a method to Tati’s madness, of course; his own little city gave him the power to choreograph every aspect of life for maximum comic effect. One of the recurring themes in the M. Hulot films is the main character’s futile struggles with modern technology, and Playtime carried that theme to its logical extreme – the entire city is a piece of modern technology for Hulot to battle.
Like Tati’s other films, Playtime is essentially silent; dialogue is demoted to sound effect, punctuating the humor and signifying the meaninglessness of modern conversation. Instead, Tati’s humor is wry and detached, centering around visual absurdities – the gleaming glass doors that Hulot cannot open; the highly-polished floors he cannot walk on; the maze of cubicles he cannot navigate.
To take it all in, Tati filmed in 70mm (making it one of the era’s best movies with beautiful cinematography), determined to capture every detail of every frame, and the film is so packed with jokes, every viewing uncovers new bits of business in the background. Jacques Tati’s playground still rewards close attention.
See Also: Masterpiece or not, many Tati fans still consider Playtime to be a bit cold – like the city at its center. The first Hulot film, Mon Oncle (1958) is far warmer, centering on the relationship between Hulot and his nephew, who loves his eccentric uncle and the unpredictability he brings to boring middle-class life.
As often happens with innovative ideas, Walt Disney’s Fantasia was nearly doomed by bad timing. Disney originally planned the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment for a stand-alone short, but became convinced that a full film of experimental, classical music-scored shorts could bring respectability to the animation medium. Disney’s ambitious plans imagined Fantasia as an ever-changing, road-show repertory concert, presented with the most state-of-the-art sound and projection.
Unfortunately, with no European market (due to WWII) and the exorbitant expense of bringing a dedicated sound system to each theater in the roadshow, Fantasia first appeared to be a boondoggle, failing to make a profit in its initial. However, a series of reissues throughout the 20th century helped prove Disney’s vision.
Disney’s crew – more than 1000 strong – crafted one of the most extraordinary animated features ever made, with an inspiring variety of styles and approaches. The conventionally Disney-cute segments, like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “Nutcracker Suite,” and “Dance of the Hours,” are juxtaposed with more experimental segments like the abstract “Toccata and Fugue” and “Meet the Soundtrack.” The finale, combining “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria,” is where Fantasia truly stretches the medium, however; the genuinely horrifying meets the transcendently peaceful, providing an inspiration for later generations of serious animators like Ralph Bakshi and Hayao Miyazaki.
See Also: Rabbit of Seville (1950) and What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), directed by Chuck Jones for Warner Brothers, could easily be seen as the antidote – if not an intentional parody – to what many critics saw as Fantasia’s pretentiousness.
In many ways, Koyaanisqatsi is the logical extension of what Werner Herzog was doing with Fata Morgana – a film about images, told in images, to combat a dearth of meaningful images. In the process, the filmmakers made one of the most visually beautiful movies in history. Koyaanisqatsi came about slowly, by a series of unlikely events. Director Godfrey Reggio hired cinematographer Ron Fricke to produce a series of TV commercials as part of a massive public service campaign for the city of Albuquerque, NM. While the campaign was successful, at the end of the project, the organization had $40,000 left, which Reggio and Fricke decided to use to shoot an experimental film, capturing images in Chicago, Washington, and New York with no real plan.
The film grew by accretion between 1975 and 1980, with Reggio and Fricke adding film whenever they had funding; slow-motion, time-lapse, even stock footage. It wasn’t until Reggio happened to meet Francis Ford Coppola, and show him the working edit of the long-gestating film, that Koyaanisqatsi finally came together. It’s almost easier to talk about Koyaanisqatsi as a symphony, than to discuss it as a film; Reggio and Fricke structure the film as movements, motifs, themes, that intersect in unexpected, often clever ways – ancient Native American pictographs juxtaposed with the launch of missiles, hot dogs on a conveyor belt melding into people on escalators.
But above all, Koyaanisqatsi is known for two things: its innovative approach to time, with its time-lapse and slow-motion sequences; and its minimalistic score by Philip Glass. Radical in its time, Glass’ music proved highly influential, and the combination of experimental art music with experimental film made Glass a sought-after film composer. The formula worked for two more films – Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002) – completing the cycle: “Life Out of Balance,” “Life in Transition,” and “Life as War.”
See Also: One could be very tempted to see Ron Fricke’s 2011 film Samsara as the real completion of what Reggio and Fricke began in Koyaanisqatsi, but the film works quite well on its own, exploring various ways of exploring the sacred and the profane in a sort of guided meditation.
Days of Heaven (Tie)
Texas writer and director Terrence Malick’s second film looked, for 20 years, like it would be his last; if it had been, his name would still be spoken in awed tones by movie lovers. Days of Heaven was shot in 1976, with Alberta, Canada, standing in for the Texas panhandle in order to keep the budget down. Malick is known for movies with beautiful cinematography, but it was on Days of Heaven that Malick established his reputation as a difficult filmmaker, driving his crew crazy with his loose scheduling, pared-down equipment, and improvised set-ups and blocking. With its period setting (1916), every aspect of the production was geared toward absolute realism, down to constructing costumes with vintage fabric, and building and furnishing a mansion in an empty field.
Numerous union crew members, used to the tighter production and planning of a Hollywood movie, quit in frustration. It took Malick two years just to edit the mountains of film he shot while figuring out the thrust of the story. Malick and his initial cinematographer, Néstor Almendros, had a vision of Days of Heaven as a modern silent movie, and with that in mind, intentionally worked a stripped-down production with as much natural light as possible. This approach was part of the crew’s frustration; Malick and Almendros (along with Haskell Wexler, who took over when the production ran over time and Almendros had to leave for another job) insisted on shooting the majority of the film at “magic hour,” the roughly half-hour when the sun goes down, but the sky is still bright.
That meant a radically shortened workday and lengthened production schedule, but it also meant a visual style that has been often imitated, but never matched. With a soft, golden light throughout the film, Days of Heaven takes on a storybook quality, creating a movie that seems almost like an Andrew Wyeth painting come to life. And for two decades, it was all anyone had of Terrence Malick, until an unexpected 21st century comeback that is still going strong.
See Also: Malick’s semi-autobiographical The Tree of Life (2011) pushed his experimental working methods to its furthest extreme, intercutting a middle-aged protagonist and his flashbacks to childhood with the origins of the universe, the dinosaurs, and the swallowing of the Earth by the sun.
Russian Ark (Tie)
There has never been a film like Russian Ark, and very likely, there will never be another. That is not an exaggeration; it is a statement of fact. As a technical achievement, it is very unlikely that Russian Ark could ever be reproduced; filmed in a single take in high-definition video, with a cast of more than 2000 extras and three orchestras, “monumental undertaking” is an apt description. It’s also pretty literal: Russian Ark is a cinematic monument to Russia. The film pushed the new HD digital video to its technical limits, recording onto a hard drive that could only hold 100 minutes of footage and rerecording sound later; as cinematographer Tilman Büttner explained in an interview, on-set sound would have caught his cursing at every mistake.
Under the constraints, the action had to be obsessively choreographed and rehearsed, with each participant knowing their part perfectly. It took four takes to complete the 96 minute performance – something close to a miracle. In Russian Ark, the camera takes on the persona of an unnamed narrator, a ghost who walks the halls of the Saint Petersburg Winter Palace unmoored in time. Guided by a character called The European, who looks on the opulence of the palace with the same contempt that he would view a provincial hovel, the camera/narrator visits 33 rooms, each filled with people and events of different eras in Russian history, from the extravagance of the 18th century to the ravages of WWII; at one point, they even encounter modern-day tourists and their tour guide.
The care taken to reproduce the costumes, settings, and music of each period is exemplary, and Russian Ark, cinematographer Buttner, and director Alexander Sokurov were rightly nominated for, and won, numerous international awards. Something like a dream, and something like a documentary, Russian Ark is, up until now, in a class of its own.
See Also: It is difficult to compare Russian Ark to any other film, but there would be no tradition of Russian historical epic without Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), which depicted the legendary Prince Alexander’s defeat of the Holy Roman Empire in the 13th century. Made at a time when tensions between Stalin and Hitler were high (but not yet at war), Eisenstein’s vision of Russia triumphant over Germany was a wise choice.
When he optioned Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather (before it was even published), superstar producer Robert Evans famously said he wanted to make a movie so unmistakably Italian audiences would “smell the spaghetti” from the screen – so much so, his first choice to direct was Sergio Leone (who had his own gangster movie in mind). The film went to Francis Ford Coppola, who had yet to make a hit and whose production company was deeply in debt to Warner Brothers from his sci-fi flop THX 1138 (1971). Coppola was endlessly afraid of being fired; Marlon Brando, cast as Don Corleone, threatened to quit if the studio let Coppola go.
Despite Evans’ confidence, production was a daily battle over casting, costs, time, complaints from the Italian-American Civil Rights League, and threats from the the actual American Mafia families. It was all worthwhile. Together, the embattled cast and crew made the seminal Mafia film, one steeped in history, drama, humanity, and brutality.
Coppola and his cinematographer, Gordon Willis, crafted the look of the film with an intentional focus on stability and tableau, imagining the film as a series of moving paintings, under the oppressive weight of evocative, chiaroscuro shadows, broken only by the natural light in Michael Corleone’s romantic sojourn in Sicily. The Godfather’s imagery works in concert with the magnificent score by Italian legend Nino Rota to create a full experience in which every element – imagery and music, editing and acting, production design and writing – work in harmony to make the closest thing possible to a flawless film.
See Also: Coppola’s other troubled production, Apocalypse Now (1979) makes the frustrations of The Godfather’s creation look like summer camp. Despite disasters that drove Coppola to a nervous breakdown, and star Martin Sheen to a heart attack, Apocalypse Now came together in the seminal Vietnam movie.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear and the history of 16th century feudal lord Mori Motonari, Akira Kurosawa’s late-career masterpiece Ran was the great director’s final take on the samurai genre that had made him an international legend. Traditionally, Shakespearean actors take on the great tragic roles at key points in their lives (Hamlet in their youthful powers, Macbeth in middle age, and Lear in their old age) when they are best able to internalize the characters. Appropriately, at the age of 75, after nearly 20 years of financial struggles and feeling like an outcast and exile, Kurosawa took on the story of an elderly lord who portions out his realm to his three sons, only to be disrespected, exploited, and betrayed.
With a budget of $11 million – the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time – Kurosawa set out to vindicate his career with one last historical epic. Legendary for movies with beautiful cinematography, Kurosawa’s preparation for Ran was extensive, and it shows. For every scene, Kurosawa painted elaborate storyboards which have been appreciated on their own merits as works of art (and were subsequently published in book form).
Following his storyboards, Kurosawa made the most colorful, visually beautiful movies of his career, filled with stunning gold and red. Kurosawa especially luxuriates in the elaborate costumes, frequently shooting his actors against neutral backgrounds to bring out the richness of their clothing. This tight, even perfectionistic focus allowed Kurosawa to exert control over an enormous crew and cast; a documentary, titled A.K., depicts the production in detail, showing a director who may be aged, but by no means weakened.
See Also: Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams is his most personal film, consisting of eight short films based on Kurosawa’s actual recurring dreams. When no studio would risk financing such an idiosyncratic film, American devotees Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas found the funding to make a lovely (if uneven) film.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Let’s talk about unlikely events: George Miller’s third sequel to his Mad Max franchise had been in development as early as 1997, which was already more than a decade after its last installment, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Miller tried to begin shooting in 2001 and 2003; new star Tom Hardy (taking over the role from Mel Gibson, who was still dealing with his… let’s say “personal issues”) was cast in 2010. The film was finally shot in 2012, taking another two and a half years in post-production. Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of film the term “development hell” was made for, yet, against all odds, Miller not only got Fury Road completed and released – it was hailed by critics and fans as one of (if not the) best films of 2015, nominated for 10 Oscars and winning six of the most prestigious technical awards, including costuming and editing.
While Tom Hardy’s Max is the title character, the film absolutely belongs to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, a rebellious lieutenant of the warlord Immortan Joe, who escapes with Joe’s wives in hopes of finding her childhood home, the Green Place. To a greater extent even than the earlier Mad Max films, Fury Road is essentially one long chase sequence, with brief respites for some very minimal exposition. In other words, Fury Road doesn’t feel the need to explain itself; either you get swept up in it and accept it, or you don’t. Miller stages some of the most incredible action sequences ever devised, trusting in practical effects and expert stuntpeople over CGI, and the obviously hand-crafted quality of the film serves to intensify the emotional foundation. Miller develops his characters through action, and because audiences come to care about the characters, they care about the action more deeply.
See Also: Miller released a black and white edit of Fury Road (titled the “Black & Chrome Edition”) in 2016, satisfying rumors that it was even better than the original. Quite simply, it is. See both versions anyway.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Martin Scorsese’s most simpatico collaborator (screenwriter of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ), Paul Schrader came into his own as a director with his 5th feature film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Taking on the scandalous life story of Japanese author Yukio Mishima – whose brilliant, troubled life and career ended when he led a fascist death-cult in a failed coup d’etat intended to restore the Emperor to absolute power – Schrader found his perfect subject. The author of Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader used Mishima’s life and work as a framework for exploring his own obsessions with art, identity, death, and the transcendental powers of film.
It was not without controversy; in fact, the lingering shame of the Mishima Affair, and legal action by Mishima’s widow (who objected to Schrader’s inclusion of Mishima’s bisexual affairs) kept the film from being officially released at all in Japan.
Rather than a straight biopic, Schrader constructs Mishima around three of Mishima’s stories, interwoven with scenes from the day of Mishima’s attempted coup and flashbacks to his childhood and youth. What stands out most about Mishima is Schrader’s command of his imagery. Each aspect of the film has its own distinct style and color scheme: naturalistic color for “present day”; black and white for the flashbacks; and bold, saturated colors for each of three Mishima novels. The film is further broken up into the four chapters of the title: Beauty, Art, Action, and Harmony of Pen and Sword. The score by Philip Glass oscillates between meditation and urgency (experimental Kronos Quartet would later record the music as String Quartet No. 3), tying the whole film together as a unified work.
See Also: In the realm of unconventional biopics, Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1977) deserves credit for dramatizing the life of a musician who lives on as more myth than man: Franz Liszt. Starring The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, and featuring prog-rock arrangements of Liszt and Richard Wagner, it’s one of the strangest biographical films ever made – not the least because there is probably not a single scrap of fact in it.
One of the most iconic and influential horror films of all time is, at its core, a pirated Dracula. When director F.W. Murnau wanted to make a film adaptation of Dracula for German cinema – the 1897 novel had been adapted into a highly successful 1924 stage play in England – the production company, Prana Films, could not obtain rights. No problem; Murnau simply changed all the names, got the studio sued by Bram Stoker’s heirs, and brought the studio down in bankruptcy. And it was worth it, to bring Nosferatu into the world. While most prints were destroyed, by court order, a few that survived in private collections were enough to make Nosferatu one of the first cult classics.
Nosferatu is one of the most unique and distinct vampire films ever made. Max Schreck’s rodent-like vampire is, quite simply, terrifying in his every moment on-screen. Murnau’s practical effects remain deeply unsettling even today, and eerily convincing; when the art-horror film Shadow of the Vampire (2000) posits that Schreck was a real vampire, the fiction seems less than fictional. In every visual aspect, from shadow to camera angles to blocking, the film aims to disturb; Nosferatu crosses the ground between surrealism and expressionism, creating a nightmarish atmosphere that is as seductive and inescapable as the vampire.
See Also: Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre, featuring a legendary performance by Klaus Kinski.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
When your critics accuse you of micromanaging your films until your actors are puppets, your sets are quirky dioramas, and your plots are implausible, airless cartoons, what do you do? You prove them all right with an instant classic of stop-motion animation. That’s what Wes Anderson did with Fantastic Mr. Fox after the critical drubbing he took for The Life Aquatic (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007). While those films had their charms, they also convinced Anderson’s detractors that he had settled into self-parody after The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).
Helmed by animator Henry Selick, the genius behind The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s novel, and it was precisely the palate-cleanser Anderson needed to break out of monotony and into the next stage of his career. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a children’s film the way, for instance, The Dark Crystal (1982) is a children’s film – that is, by default, not by necessity. That’s not to say that Fantastic Mr. Fox is anything but a Wes Anderson film; all of Anderson’s hallmarks are there, from the obsessive focus on details (maps, tools, disguises) to his nostalgic soundtrack selections.
But while those tropes often seemed too twee and precious in live action, they fit so naturally in animation that they seem fresh, even revelatory, in Fantastic Mr. Fox. It helps that the voices are perfectly cast, from George Clooney as the title character, to Anderson regulars like Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, and that the dialogue (co-written with Noah Baumbach) is sharper and wittier than ever. Movies with beautiful scenery usually feature real scenery, but above all, it’s the rich, lived-in design, filled with characters and places that seem realer than real life, that makes Fantastic Mr. Fox one of the most visually beautiful movies of the 21st century.
See Also: Anderson’s next film, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) followed the new maturity signaled by Fantastic Mr. Fox; the fact that that maturity came in a film about children in a summer camp is just one of the ironies that makes Wes Anderson fandom so unique.
Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ is a film about filmmaking, about Fellini, and, above all, about itself. From the title – a reference to Fellini’s six features, two shorts, and one collaboration (three half-films) – 8 ½ is as self-referential as film gets. The film stars Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s favorite star and one of Italy’s greatest film icons, as Guido Anselmi, a film director suffering a paralyzing case of insecurity as he works on sci-fi film that is really a barely-disguised autobiography. From that aggressively clever premise, Fellini hangs scenes that outline all of his obsessions and anxieties, as depicted in Guido’s imagination – religion, sex, art, ego, identity.
For much of the film, it’s nearly impossible to tell where Guido’s surreal real-life experiences end and his fantasies begin – or vice-versa – as a parade of producers, crew members, and executives, not to mention his mistress and his wife, all show up at his resort hideout to get him back on track. Fellini’s stunning black and white frames, lensed by legendary cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo, feature some of the most striking imagery of any film of the era. Faces move in and out of frame, from the sublimely beautiful to the grotesque, while the seemingly endless string of antagonists and hangers-on give the audience a taste of Guido’s disorientation.
It was in 8 ½ that audiences first got to see what we now call “Felliniesque” – the way a character will step into frame, abruptly making an unrelated shot about him or her; the way the camera follows characters, while other characters surface and disappear in between; the way the camera walks with a character like a dance partner. It is a style distinct enough to bear his name and close enough to absurd to make parody way too easy, but in the hands of Fellini it’s never less than delightful.
See Also: I’m Not There (2007), directed by Todd Haynes, has the single most accomplished extended Fellini parody ever made, following a Bob Dylan stand-in (played masterfully by Cate Blanchett) as his mid-60s “electric” period spirals out of control.
Favored son of Austin, TX, Richard Linklater has never particularly been known as a visual stylist. His most iconic and beloved movies, like his debut Slacker (1990), Dazed and Confused (1993), and the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise , Before Sunset , and Before Midnight , are marked by their rich characterization, deep sense of place, and nonstop dialogue – lots and lots of it. Linklater movies are talkies above all, even his more commercial Hollywood outings, with memorably realized characters conversing, monologuing, and sometimes even lecturing.
Linklater can come up with some striking images, as Boyhood (2014) and Fast Food Nation (2006) show, but Linklater is not the first director we think of for visual beauty. Except for Waking Life. With his 2001 animated film – a milestone for computer animation and rotoscoping – Linklater and his collaborators, Austin locals using off-the-shelf software on Apple computers, created something truly extraordinary.
The film (first shot on video by Linklater and an enormous cast, then animated) follows Wiley Wiggins, star of Dazed and Confused, who may or may not just be Wiley Wiggins himself, as he wanders through a setting that is surreal in the 1920s sense – unstable, playful, and governed by the slipperiest of dream logic. What’s it about? It’s about Wiley Wiggins, star of Dazed and Confused, who may or may not — it’s about dreams. It’s also about some of the most imaginative animation ever seen on film, and it’s a film that seems to exist solely because it seems to exist. See it on the big screen, in Austin, on some strong substance – the way Austin intended.
See Also: The makers of Tower (2016), an animated documentary about the Austin bell tower sniper attack in 1966, takes uses a similar rotoscoping technique as Waking Life, applied to archival footage and reenactments, to create a tensely engaging vision of a real-life horror.
Once Upon a Time in the West
A Fistful of Dollars (1964) brought the intense close-ups and ruthless villains; For a Few Dollars More (1965) added the temporal distortions and surreal edge; and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) contributed that timeless score to the world. But it was Once Upon a Time in the West in which Sergio Leone brought together every element that made the Spaghetti Western a cult-favorite genre. With stars Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson (both of whom had turned down Clint Eastwood’s role in A Fistful of Dollars just a few years before), Leone sought to make the ultimate Western, the Western to end all Westerns – quite possibly literally.
After all, Leone made Once Upon a Time quite against his will, since he was ready to retire from Westerns and take on the American gangster story that would later become Once Upon a Time in America (1984). It was only because Paramount Pictures offered him a sizable budget and Fonda that the greatest film of Sergio Leone’s career came about. With Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone focused not on action, but on iconography, to a far greater degree even than in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, Once Upon a Time is deliberately, even aggressively slow (if such a thing is possible); minutes pass without dialogue or action, the better for the audience to soak up the atmosphere of the deserts, buildings, and faces.
All of the hallmarks of the Dollars Trilogy are amplified, particularly the rituals leading up to the startling, sudden acts of violence: the tense movement of hands, the darting eyes, the wind and sand. Leone had composer Ennio Morricone (his most trusted partner) score the film before shooting, playing the music on set. With definitive motifs for each character, and editing to match the rhythm of the music, Once Upon a Time plays like an opera, with closeups and shootouts for arias. Leone had made classics before, and he would make classics again, but it was with Once Upon a Time in the West that he found the pinnacle of his art, making the Spaghetti Western – a sordid genre synonymous with cheap exploitation – into high art.
See Also: It would take Leone more than 20 years to realize the gangster movie he wanted to make after The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Along the way, he would turn down The Godfather, and if The Godfather is a pop masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America is an oil painting by an old master.
Stop Making Sense
Don’t even think about calling Stop Making Sense a concert film. Yes, it’s a film of a 1984 Talking Heads concert (actually, three concerts edited together for the best takes). But to refer to Stop Making Sense as just a “concert film” is to discount the “film” aspect; concert films are usually about the concert, with the filmmaking, at best, passable, and at worst, a cynical, uninspired cash-grab. And with Jonathan Demme behind the camera, a cynical cash-grab or merely passable filmmaking are equally out of the question.
It’s not that Demme has ever particularly been known as a bold visionary; it’s that Demme is Hollywood’s consummate professional, an expert craftsman with an eye for quality, and combined with the brilliance of the Talking Heads as his collaborators, magic was bound to happen. And make no mistake: Stop Making Sense is magical. From the moment David Byrne walks out on stage carrying a boombox and an acoustic guitar, it’s clear that this is not an ordinary concert – it’s performance art scored live by the most eccentric and electrifying band of the day. With a pre-recorded drum machine loop that staggers him with each snare hit, Byrne’s solo performance of “Psycho Killer” (never more unnerving) sets the tone: uncomfortably funny, uncompromising, and never quite on solid ground.
With each song, another member and musical element is added to the mix, until the Talking Heads are at their mid-80s maximum. Each song is its own little play, from the intimately gorgeous “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” in which Byrne sings to a lamp, to the giant business suit Byrne wears in “Girlfriend is Better,” an unexpected touch that instantly became Byrne’s most memorable look.
See Also: The Band’s concert film The Last Waltz (1978), directed by none other than Martin Scorsese, is often taken as the standard for concert films. From Scorsese’s rich imagery (calling to mind his friend and rival Francis Ford Coppola’s work in The Godfather more than Scorsese’s own body of work) to Robbie Robertson’s ridiculous bronzed guitar, everything about The Last Waltz is engineered for gravitas. Only the purity of the songs keeps it from sliding into This is Spinal Tap-style self-parody – but the songs are pure beauty.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) may have generated more of a cultural impact, and initiated a whole genre, but Vertigo remains the master’s masterpiece. An unsettling, tricky story of obsession, paranoia, and emotional and psychological abuse, Vertigo retains its ability to disturb even today, with the simplest of cinematic tools – camera angles and movement, color, music, and career-best performances. For audiences in 1958, Vertigo was especially disturbing because the obsessed, paranoid stalker at the center of the film is none other than Jimmy Stewart – the most all-American star in Hollywood.
Today, in the #MeToo era, Vertigo’s power has a different sort of resonance, as Stewart’s private detective character, haunted by the suicide of a client he had fallen in love with, manipulatively remakes another woman into her doppelganger – only to discover he has been the victim of a shockingly cruel con. Hitchcock’s full command of his craft is evident throughout Vertigo, one of the most visually beautiful movies of his career. While Hitchcock had never been particularly known for beauty – his ability to build suspense and imagine diabolical set pieces had always been Hitch’s greatest strength – with Vertigo Hitchcock pulls together a film full of iconic design that deepens and enriches the story.
Deeply saturated colors, epic locations, and emotionally rich closeups combine to a film as beautiful as its story is twisted. Most importantly, though, Hitchcock’s cinematographer Robert Burks developed the “Vertigo effect,” quite possibly the most perfect cinematic way to visually signify disorientation and terror. Technically known as a dolly zoom, the in-camera effect became highly influential and endlessly imitated, keeping Vertigo’s legacy current.
See Also: Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) treads similar ground as Vertigo, with a major aspect of the plot centering on a phobia, and Hitchcock uses color similarly as well.
Wings of Desire (Tie)
According to Wings of Desire, legendary Columbo actor Peter Falk is a fallen angel. That is, Peter Falk doesn’t play a fallen angel; he is a fallen angel, having chosen material, mortal life over the cold stasis of the celestial realm. It is this fearless weirdness that makes Wim Wenders’ 1987 film one of the most delightful, life-affirming, and visually beautiful movies of the New German Cinema movement. Made after nearly a decade of living in the US – where he obsessively explored that most American of film genres, the road movie – Wenders returned to Germany to make a love letter to West Berlin.
He hit upon the idea of a pair of angels, Damiel and Cassiel, who silently and invisibly observe the people of the city, until Damiel (Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist and makes the ultimate sacrifice: willingly falling from grace to human life, just to have the chance to meet her and experience love. Wenders’ concept allows him to create a deep and moving portrait of the city he loves, as the angels are able to hear all of the hidden thoughts and see all of the private scenes of Berlin’s people.
To differentiate the parallel worlds of the angels and the humans, Wenders visualizes the angel’s perspective in an unreal, slightly chilly sepia-toned black and white; once Damiel becomes human, the visuals switch to warm, gritty color. Cleverly, Wenders stages Damiel’s change in front of the Berlin Wall (the ultimate symbol of separation), where the blast of brightly colored graffiti is as shockingly beautiful to the audience as to Damiel, seeing color for the first time. Wings of Desire luxuriates in the material realities of human life, and Wender’s joy is palpable; it’s easy to believe, watching Wings of Desire, that the angels would trade immortality for a taste of human existence.
See Also: Paris, Texas (1984) is the culmination of Wenders’ American period, a slow, searing exploration of broken relationships and a different facets of love: brother to brother, lover to lover, parent to child, and finally self. The stark Texas landscape and Ry Cooder’s haunting score make it a Western for the modern age.
The Secret of Kells
Until The Secret of Kells, Ireland had never been properly represented in animation; in film, certainly, including classics like In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), but never in an animated family film. Noticing this absence, filmmakers Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey hit upon the most Irish subject possible: the creation of the Book of Kells, the magnificent illuminated manuscript considered one of the most beautiful books ever made.
Created over a long period somewhere around 800 CE, the Book of Kells is often regarded as the greatest masterwork of Ireland’s pre-Medieval era, and a beloved symbol of Ireland itself. Made of the finest materials available in the age, with highest level of detail and craftsmanship, the Book of Kells has inspired generations of Irish artists, including Moore and Twomey.
Moore was motivated to make a film with the depth and craft of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, but rooted in Irish history and mythology, and The Secret of Kells accomplishes this seemingly impossible task beautifully. Telling the story of a young boy apprenticed in the scriptorium of the Abbey of Kells (where books are made), The Secret of Kells brings together the imagery of early Christian Ireland (stained glass windows, Celtic crosses) and of pre-Christian paganism (deep green woods, fairies) for a visual style that endlessly rewards attention.
Moore and Twomey based the look of the film on the manuscripts of the era, with flat characters and backgrounds that seem to move in a purely two-dimensional space. Thick black outlines call to mind stained glass; so too, the colors seem illuminated from behind, with the glow of cathedral windows. The Secret of Kells achieves what only the best children’s film accomplish – it gets richer and more meaningful with age.
See Also: Tomm Moore’s second film, Song of the Sea (2014) continues with the mission of bringing Irish folklore and art to children’s film, as a young boy discovers that his sister is a selkie (the legendary Irish Seal Folk who can transform from seals to humans).
In 1965, Kwaidan’s director, Masaki Kobayashi, was best known for his ten-hour long trilogy, The Human Condition, a naturalistic study of a young, pacifistic socialist swept up in Japan’s fascist army in WWII. Kwaidan, then, was quite the shock when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965, winning the Special Jury Prize (it would later be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film). The four short films making up the anthology (which ran three hours in its original roadshow presentation, before being drastically cut for the American market) could not be farther from the style of Kobayashi’s earlier films, except perhaps in their deliberate pace and heightened acting.
Where bleak realism was the thrust of The Human Condition, Kwaidan is pure folk tale – a story found in its telling. Drawn from a book of folktales written by half-Irish, half-Greek expatriot Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan (which simply means “ghost stories”) is an exercise in total creative control. Filmed on massive, elaborate sets built in an airplane hanger, all four films are defined by their extreme design, in which every aspect of every image – each leaf, stone, and snowflake – is carefully measured for ultimate effect. The main criticism of Kwaidan – that it is too hermetically sealed and slow-moving to be scary – is precisely the strength of the film.
Every story plays out with the inevitability of fate, as the audience is held not by jump scares and gore, but by elegant camera movements, stunning landscapes, and color that would impress The Archers. Some of the images in Kwaidan – such as the blind musician whose family paints the words of the Heart Sutra to protect him from vengeful ghosts, but forget his ears – will stick with viewers forever (unlike Hoishi’s ears).
See Also: Kobayashi’s 1962 film Harikiri is as stark as Kwaidan is sumptuous, playing out in cold black and white cinematography, largely set in bare rooms, but when, in its last reel, the film opens up to duels in a claustrophobic graveyard and windswept plains, it’s as thrilling as any battle scene ever filmed.
One of the most fascinating things about Schindler’s List, besides the film itself, is the fact that Steven Spielberg did essentially everything he could not to make it. Though Spielberg optioned the rights in 1983, at the time he feared that he had not developed enough as an artist to do justice to a Holocaust story. His first choice to direct was Roman Polanski, who had lived in the infamous Krakow Ghetto and whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz; when Polanski refused, Spielberg tried to talk Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese into taking on the film. Finally, the arc of history itself compelled Spielberg to make Schindler’s List, as the fall of the Berlin Wall brought a shocking rise in neo-Nazi groups and Holocaust deniers to public attention.
When he bought the rights, Spielberg joked that it would be 10 years before he was prepared to make the film; it turned out to be true. Given Spielberg’s mission – to make a film that would put audiences in the midst of the action, alongside the victims and brutalizers – his visual choices are spot-on. Spielberg had always made movies with beautiful cinematography, but Polish cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (who subsequently became Spielberg’s right hand, all the way up to Ready Player One) shot almost all of Schindler’s List with hand-held cameras, without sophisticated dolly or crane movements, essentially showing all of the action from a human perspective.
While the hand-held camera gives a sense of documentary realness, the high-contrast black and white – too crisp for a documentary made in the 1940s – underscores the film’s aesthetic control. Of course, the little girl in a red dress killed in the liquidation of the ghetto – the only color in the film – was instantly classic; it is the single image that has defined Schindler’s List. Despite his reluctance, Spielberg crafted an exquisitely beautiful film, though one too heartbreaking to revisit very often.
See Also: Much of Spielberg’s imagery was inspired by Shoah (1985), the 9-hour long French Holocaust documentary. It is one of the finest, and most unbearable, films ever made, but a crucial history lesson.
The Company of Wolves
Based on a short story from Angela Carter’s collection of post-feminist fairy-tale retellings, The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves is a werewolf film quite unlike any other (and there were many in the early 1980s – An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Howling (1981), Teen Wolf (1985), and all of their sequels and rip-offs). Directed by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, from Carter’s own screenplay, The Company of Wolves takes a highly idiosyncratic approach to its storytelling; above all, it is a story about telling stories.
Rather than a conventional three-act structure, Jordan and Carter stage a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale as stories within stories, told by Rosaleen (an amazing Sarah Patterson, just 13 years old) and her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) – all within Rosaleen’s dream. While the complex, non-linear nesting-doll frame stories may appeal to the English majors who loved The Bloody Chamber, what sticks with audiences long after seeing The Company of Wolves is the imagery.
While Jordan would complain of the film’s limited budget – much of which went to some truly gruesome werewolf transformation scenes – in the grand tradition of the Hammer horror films, Jordan does quite a lot with limited resources. The forest sets are dark, eerie, and claustrophobic, while the indoor scenes are richly decorated and lived-in (the production designer, Anton Furst, would later win an Oscar for his seminal work on Tim Burton’s Batman ). The costumes and settings keep the film in a vague “fairy-tale” setting, but the boldness and daring of Jordan and Carter’s vision make for a timeless classic.
See Also: Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 feature Alice, a retelling of Alice in Wonderland, falls into a similar uncanny region as The Company of Wolves. Svankmajer’s grotesque stop-motion sequences reclaim Lewis Carroll for the surrealist camp, saving Alice’s story from fairy-tale moralizing.
It is no exaggeration to say that every sci-fi movie that came after 1927 owes a debt to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Along with F.W. Murnau, Lang was one of the most forward-thinking and aesthetically radical filmmakers of Germany’s silent film era. Lang was a filmmaker, but in an era of unimaginative comedies and melodramas, Lang had the ambition of an artist, philosopher, poet, and all-around genius, creating some of the most visually beautiful movies of the day. Like no other filmmaker of the day, besides Murnau, Lang understood that cinema is an art of light, and his cinematic studies in the contrast between light and shadow earned him the nickname “Master of Darkness.”
Pitched somewhere between the German Expressionism and Bauhaus styles of the era, and the Romantic and Gothic styles of an older Germany, Lang’s Metropolis was, and is, a film like no other. A few years after Metropolis, Lang attracted the unwelcome attention of the Nazis, particularly Joseph Goebbels, who wanted Lang to take over the UFA studio and create propaganda. Lang escaped to America, where he became the single greatest influence on film noir crime dramas.
The most expensive movie made in Germany at the time, Metropolis is paradoxically a Marxist fable of a spoiled and heartless upper class that preys on the workers; their status is rendered literally, with the wealthy in stunning skyscrapers, and the poor underground. While the story was simultaneously criticized as being overly simplistic, and too complicated, by critics of the era, what stands the test of time is the imagery – humanoid robots, flying cars, and countless other innovations that would become the basic building blocks of science fiction’s face.
See Also: Lang’s atmospheric M (1931), widely considered the first film about a serial killer, and one of the key influences on the film noir style.
Moulin Rouge! (Tie)
Baz Lurmann’s Moulin Rouge! is too much – or, in the French, de trop. It’s a film that starts at sensory overload, and then amps up the excess, as if Baz Luhrmann were part of a secret CIA experiment to see just how much visual and auditory stimulation an audience can process. If cinematic technology could reproduce small, taste, and touch, the overused metaphor “breathtaking” might become literal – you would not be able to breathe. If a movie screen could deliver dopamine, the entire experience of watching Moulin Rouge! would be like an absinth binge condensed into two hours of 20th century pop songs and glitter.
The first time you view Moulin Rouge!, you will very likely experience the most intense motion sickness of your life, like riding a roller coaster on a cruise ship pitching in a storm. The second time you watch, your best bet is to give in, like acid gurus tell you. From then on, you’ll chase that high forever. Is this hyperbole? Is there any other way to talk about a film that puts an exclamation mark in its title? In plot, Moulin Rouge! is a conventional backstage drama that wouldn’t feel out of place in a 1930s Warner Brothers musical; a young, provincial writer moves to the big city and gets swept up in a romance with a beautiful but doomed star. But in execution, no studio-era Hollywood movie of the Golden Age could (or would) match the frantic pace, overstuffed compositions, and unreal colors that Luhrmann manifests.
Luhrmann stated that his objective was to emulate the thrill that a Fin de Siecle audience would experience at the Moulin Rouge by using turn-of-the-Millenium film techniques; if the can-can did it in 1899, it takes MTV to do it in 1999. Perhaps no film ever made gold out of such an outrageous conglomeration of anachronisms, or more joyously threw all caution to the wind for a purely sensory experience. Wait til the VR version comes out.
See Also: One year later, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Chicago (2002) would bring a fraction of Moulin Rouge!’s manic energy to the classic Broadway musical, but that fraction is still more than enough to make it one of the most vibrant movies of the 21st century.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was a long shot for the Best Picture Oscar – a low-budget coming-of-age film that was more praised than seen, especially one by an African-American cast and filmmaker, isn’t the kind of movie that the Academy tends to notice. So when La La Land (2016), a colorful, exuberant (and forgettable) love letter to Golden Age Hollywood, was announced as the winner, it wasn’t surprising. What was surprising is that the announcement was an error – presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were reading the card for Best Actress.
Moonlight was the winner, and the stirring upset was made all the more sweeter by the fact that, yes, Moonlight was absolutely the best film of 2016, and one of the most visually beautiful movies of the 21st century.
Based on a loosely autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight tells the story of a boy named Chiron, centering on three distinct phases of Chiron’s life. In the first, Chiron – nicknamed “Little” – is protected from bullies and taken in by crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali in a career-peak performance), who becomes a mentor figure. In the second, a teenage Chiron falls in love with his friend Kevin, who tentatively reciprocates, but is forced to beat Chiron mercilessly by a group of bullies. In the third, the adult Chiron – now a drug dealer himself, going by the name “Black” – hooks up furtively with younger men but hides his sexuality until encountering Kevin again.
Each section of Moonlight is defined by its own distinct look, with different colors and film stocks; most notably, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton sought to find the truest rendering of black skin tones, experimenting with lenses and film stocks to give the actors an uncommon, almost uncanny beauty.
See Also: Jenkins and Laxton’s previous film, Medicine for Melancholy (2008) is slighter and cuter than Moonlight, but is gorgeously shot, with the filmmakers manipulating each image for total color saturation (techniques they would perfect in Moonlight).
In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is two love stories: the tentative, unconsummated love between the main characters, and Wong’s love for the Hong Kong of his 1960s childhood. As in his other films, Wong worked improvisationally, slowly growing the story and developing the themes along with the actors and his trusted cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. Wong’s rapport with actors was crucial, as his younger actors struggled to understand the social and emotional repression of the era. In all, shooting took 15 months. Wong was editing the film almost literally until the last minute, settling on a title just in time for its premiere in the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
In the Mood for Love glows. While the film may have been made on the fly, Wong’s images are exquisitely crafted, with careful compositions and precisely placed camera. The long production, running far over schedule, forced Doyle to leave the film; his replacement, Mark Lee Ping-Bin, brought a slower, more studied style that contrasted powerfully with Doyle’s work, especially in the hushed, intimate moments between the leads.
The rapid development of Hong Kong presented problems for the production; eventually, outdoor scenes had to be shot in Bangkok, Singapore, which looked more like 1960s Hong Kong’s level of development. Throughout the film, dull gray backgrounds, smoky interiors, and the unassuming suits of the men are contrasted with the women’s shimmering, constrictive dresses and rich splashes of color, especially red. Wong’s stars, Tommy Leung and Maggie Cheung, light up the screen, conveying their repressed emotions with the subtlest of expressions and motions – not to mention two of the most beautifully photographed faces in modern film.
See Also: Wong’s eccentric sequel, 2046 (2004) depicts Tommy Leung’s character after the events of In the Mood for Love, contrasting his relationships with three women and dramatizing the science-fiction story he is writing. As narratively complex as In the Mood for Love is straightforward, 2046 baffled many critics, but holds up well in retrospect.
Rivers and Tides
A documentary about an artist should match the artist’s work, and it’s hard to imagine a documentary that could more perfectly capture the mood of Andy Goldsworthy’s work than Rivers and Tides. One of the most beloved and unique artists of his generation, Goldsworthy is a landscape sculptor and photographer whose speciality – works crafted in natural settings with materials found on-site – is almost tailor-made for a documentary film.
Goldsworthy makes an ideal doc subject for a number of reasons; for one, the only way to capture his works for posterity is photography, since they are inevitably wiped out by their own setting. Further, his compositions, made using everything from sticks and stones to leaves and flowers, are spectacularly rich in color, texture, and shape; on camera, they come very close to special effects, as the camera finds unexpected order and pattern, as though they appeared spontaneously.
There are movies with beautiful scenery, and then there are movies that are beautiful scenery. Rivers and Tides, shot and directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, is quiet, contemplative, and slow, emulating Goldsworthy’s own artistic process of going out into nature, finding his materials, and crafting his sculptures improvisationally. Graceful camera movements, unexpected perspectives, and still compositions do not so much bring Goldsworthy’s art to life as frame the works, as though presenting them as objects for meditation.
The soundtrack, composed by classical guitarist Fred Frith, is performed by a trio that feels entirely in tune with the rhythms of the film and Goldsworthy’s art; samples of bubbling water complete the natural motifs of the music. In short, Rivers and Tides represents the highest potential of documentary, and of the craft of film, making sure every element works in harmony to transcend any of its independent parts.
See Also: Riedelsheimer’s follow-up, Leaning Into the Wind (2018), is largely more of the same, but when the same is so perfectly crafted, it’s hard to complain.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Quite possibly the most controversial film in American history (include a very large asterisk in your mind), Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ was one of the loudest battles in the Culture Wars of the 1980s. More than any source, though, the film is a combination of two men’s religious upbringing: the blood ritual of Scorsese’s Italian Catholic childhood, and the existential guilt of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s repressive Calvinist youth. The central theme of the film – temptation and guilt – enraged evangelical conservatives, whose doctrines assumed that Jesus was both without sin, and totally above it. They were, therefore, incensed at Scorsese’s portrayal of a Jesus who is wracked by feelings of fear, powerlessness, desire, and guilt.
Scorsese’s aesthetic choices are curious, to say the least; Harvey Keitel’s Brooklyn accent brings his Judas a weird kind of earthiness, for instance. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus is one of the most intense and affecting portrayals of a character that has been endlessly portrayed. Whether he is wallowing in self-loathing, fiercely raging at hypocrisy, lusting after Mary Magdalene, or showing flashes of pure joy (as in the wedding feast scene), Dafoe gives a master’s study in facial and physical expression.
In the 30 years since its release, The Last Temptation remains capable of refreshing those old battles, even after acceptance by critical and scholarly viewers. Drawing from the Catholic iconography of his childhood, Scorsese gives us some of the most striking images ever made in a religious movie, blowing the dust off overly familiar scenes; the raising of Lazarus, for instance, plays more like a horror film than a religious hagiography. Outliving all the controversy and political posturing, The Last Temptation of Christ sets a standard for revitalizing tired images.
See Also: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) is as close to a polar opposite from Last Temptation as possible. Filmed in black and white in Italian neorealist style – with non-professional actors intentionally wearing anachronistic wardrobe – Pasolini’s film is both surprisingly reverent, and powerfully humanistic (the main complaint of conservative Italian Catholics – Pasolini’s Jesus is too human).
Can a movie filled with machine guns spraying infinite bullets, characters punching through marble walls, and puke-green scrolling gobbledygook be beautiful? Hell freakin’ yeah, it can, and The Matrix proves it. The Wachowskis’ modern masterpiece is an unlikely blend of cyberpunk, wuxia, kung fu, bullet-riddled John Woo crime drama, and hero’s journey iconography straight out of Joseph Campbell. It never lets up, it never quite makes sense, and nothing since the opening space battle of Star Wars had stirred audiences quite like The Matrix’s giddy “bullet time” sequences.
One word that has constantly dogged The Matrix from the time of its release is “stylish,” as if its excesses of style were a weakness, but sometimes style is its own kind of beauty. Put simply, The Matrix takes all of its influences, amps them up for the CGI era, and plays every element with the enthusiasm of Renaissance opera. If the film, even for a moment, failed to take itself seriously, the whole endeavor would crumble, but fortunately for the Wachowskis, every actor is fully invested; Keanu Reeves’ iconic “Whoa” and bewildered expressions never served a film better. Along the way, the Wachowskis create some indelible images, some surreal (like Reeves’ disappearing mouth, an image straight out of Bunuel or Dali), some disturbing (Reeves coming to in his energy-harvesting pod).
While the sequels would squander some of the goodwill The Matrix created, as the Wachowskis flew a little too close to the sun (and answered too many questions better left mysteries), the original remains one of the most affecting examples of pop art from the turn of the millenium, and a touchstone for how filmmakers could harness CGI and special effects without them stealing the show.
See Also: The Wachowski’s live-action anime Speed Racer (2008) was seen as a total failure at the time, but in the last decade it has established its own cult following, largely because of its total, unflagging commitment to its own ridiculousness.
The Last Picture Show
Peter Bogdanovich – a struggling film critic and stage actor at the time – got one essential thing from his mentor (and freeloading houseguest) Orson Welles: shoot The Last Picture Show in black and white, never mind that it was 1971. Captured by Hollywood Golden Age cinematographer Robert Surtees, the rich black and white imagery evokes the nostalgia that fuels The Last Picture Show, a coming-of-age story set between the autumns of 1951 and 1952. Visually, The Last Picture Show feels precisely like the films that would be showing at the Royal Theater in Anarene, TX: smooth, assured, classical.
While coming-of-age stories happen everywhere, The Last Picture Show is unmistakably Texas. Underneath the surface, something harder and colder than plain old teen angst churns in the characters; the cast of unknown young actors includes Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd, all of whom bring their characters an intensity and depth that would make them stars of the New Hollywood era. The imagery might evoke 1951, but the frankness of the subject matter is all the 70s.
While Bogdanovich had only made two short films before The Last Picture Show, his confidence, and that of his collaborators, shows throughout the film. Movies with beautiful scenery are easy; for The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich and Surtees make excellent use of ugly spaces. The characters are visibly hemmed in by the weathered, decrepit buildings of a dead-end town surrounded by miles of nothingness, and eye-level, horizontal shots continually give the audience the same trapped feeling. The music, too, sets the stage; The Last Picture Show was the first Hollywood film completely scored with popular music, most of it diegetic, coming from the jukeboxes and car radios that the characters use to cover the silence of the North Texas emptiness. It may have been set 20 years before it was made, but The Last Picture Show is too vibrant and alive to be a mere nostalgia piece – then or now.
See Also: Bogdanovich has one more black and white masterpiece in him, just two years later: Paper Moon (1973), which also featured a period setting (the Great Depression) and the extraordinary young star, Tatum O’Neal. Again, Welles was an inspiration, as cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs emulated Citizen Kane’s deep-focus photography.
Before he was a fugitive, Roman Polanski was a golden boy of New Hollywood, the era’s expert in corruption and foremost nihilist. After summoning the actual Prince of Darkness for Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and the ghosts and witches of Macbeth (1971), Polanski turned his attention to a much more down to earth (and close to home) evil: political corruption and murder in 1930s Los Angeles. With a screenplay by Robert Townes (who had initially been asked to write an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, before deciding the novel could not be improved upon), Polanski made a film that implicates Hollywood’s corruption and exploitation in the guise of a neo-noir mystery about water rights.
While most critical attention to Chinatown focuses on the screenplay – a highly literary script rightly considered one of the greatest ever written – Polanski’s imagery is less often noted. Polanski is known for his dark style, but cinematographer John Alonzo trades the stark, high-contrast black and white associated with the classic film noir tradition with a grainy, washed-out sepia that makes the film seem as drought-stricken as the land. The use of shadow, the fixation on vision (cameras, glasses, eyes), and an intentionally limited point of view all serve to keep the audience as lost and suspended as Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes – in fact, we see nothing that Jake does not see, unlike conventional mysteries, which give the audiences hints that protagonist does not witness. It’s a beautifully-crafted film that is rotten to the core – like the city it depicts.
See Also: Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) is by no means a masterpiece (the ridiculous choice to visualize the dagger in Macbeth’s famed monologue is a real low), but its highs are high indeed. An incredibly realistic medieval setting augments the only film production of Macbeth to ever truly capture the evil heart of the “Scottish play.”
The Fog of War
If ever there were a film that had no need to be beautiful, it is Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, a documentary exploration of the life and career of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the much-reviled “architect” of the Vietnam war. But this is an Errol Morris film, idiosyncratic director of classics like Vernon, Florida (1981) and The Thin Blue Line (1988), and visually beautiful movies about talking heads are his stock in trade. The key to The Fog of War is the Interrotron, a brilliant work of engineering that made it possible, for the first time, for an interview subject to maintain eye contact with the interviewer and the camera at the same time.
It’s a relatively simple concept, as obvious in retrospect as an on-set monitor for instant playback; the camera sits behind a two-way mirror, as with a teleprompter, but rather than text to read, Morris’ face is projected. While the interviewee is speaking directly to Morris’ image, he is also looking directly into the camera, creating an unusual intimacy for the audience.
McNamara, a former Ford executive whose leadership as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson got the US embroiled in a quagmire in Vietnam, sat for more than 20 hours of interviews with Morris, opening up to give remarkably frank commentary on what went wrong in Vietnam – but stopping short on applying his lessons to the War on Terror, which was still in its early stages. Talky documentaries are not usually movies with beautiful cinematography, but with Morris’ evocative imagery and careful use of visual aids like charts and animations, The Fog of War shows that journalism doesn’t have to be ugly to tell the truth.
See Also: Morris’ debut feature, Gates of Heaven (1978) is raw, with Morris still working to find his directorial voice, but it’s a fascinating portrait of the pet cemetery business. Famously, Morris’ friend Werner Herzog vowed to eat his shoe if Morris managed to get the film finished and theatrically released; the subsequent shoe-eating (done at the Gates of Heaven premiere) was captured by documentarian Les Blank in the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) – now included as a special feature on the Gates of Heaven DVD.
The Night of the Hunter
If Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete is a fairy tale on film, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter is one of the most perfect nightmares ever committed to celluloid. Not a nightmare like the one on Elm Street or any other schlocky horror flick, but a slow-burning, primordial nightmare of dread, vulnerability, and helplessness – the kind of nightmare children have before they can fully articulate what they fear. That Laughton – a decorated actor, but a first-time director – could capture something so rich and timeless is surprising; that he never made another film is a tragedy for the art.
Taking inspiration from the German Expressionist films of the silent era, Laughton made a film at once terrible and beautiful, with rich black and white cinematography and locations out of a Southern Gothic fable. Based on a screenplay by novelist, poet, and pioneering film critic James Agee, The Night of the Hunter is fascinating, in part, for what it is not. While the plot centers on a serial killer (the Reverend Harry Powell, Robert Mitchum’s most depraved character in a career full of them) terrorizing a family in search of a hidden fortune, the adult motivations are kept tantalizingly at the periphery.
This is a film told largely from the perspective of the children, who scarcely know what it going on – only that they are in danger – and throughout the film the audience is kept in the same state. Why Powell hates women, why he kills, why he believes he hears God’s voice – the film gives us no explanation, and like the children, we feel nothing but the pure malevolence.
See Also: Charles Laughton never directed another film, but the legacy of The Night of the Hunter can be most clearly seen in the work of David Lynch, especially Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and Lost Highway (1997).
One of England’s most respected writers and directors, on stage and on screen, Mike Leigh is known for his dedication (even obsessive dedication) to absolute realism and accuracy. That reputation holds as true for his gritty contemporary dramas (the kind that are often called “kitchen sink realism” in Britain) as it does for his exhaustively researched period dramas, like 1999’s Topsy-Turvy. Topsy-Turvy avoids the biopic curse by focusing on a very specific period in the careers of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the most popular entertainment team of the Victorian era: the year of writing and preparing their opera The Mikado.
Part of the beauty of Topsy-Turvy is that is refuses to indulge in the lazy conventions of the “Great Genius” school of biopic; Gilbert and Sullivan are presented as practical, working artists, always scanning the world around them for ideas, and working through those ideas as sensible (albeit sometimes vain and overly-sensitive) pragmatists. With Leigh’s background in theater, Topsy-Turvy shows an obvious affection for the hard work of making a play, and for the relationships, backstage chatter, and emotional labor as well.
More importantly, the film treats the process with an almost procedural eye, often coming across more as a backstage documentary – one somehow made in 1885. The heart of the film is in the detailed rehearsal sequences, as costumes are made (costume designer Lindy Hemming won an Academy Award for her work, dressing the actors for both the film, and the play within the film), singers practice their songs, sets are built – not in simplistic montage scenes that make it seem like it all happened over night, but meticulously observed.
See Also: Much as Topsy-Turvy delights in the theater world, Leigh’s 2014 film Mr. Turner, a biopic of Victorian painter J.M.W. Turner, takes the inspiration and work of painting as its subject. It’s a visually beautiful movie with a career-best performance by Timothy Spall.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Tie)
In Sunset Boulevard (1950), Norma Desmond famously says of her silent movie stardom, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” Perhaps no film in history bears out that statement more than The Passion of Joan of Arc. Taking on a project that hit on sensitive religious and political issues, Dreyer faced criticism from many sides – French nationalists who objected to a Dane directing a film about their patron saint; the Catholic Church, which objected to the depiction of church authorities; and even the British government, which took offense at the portrayal of English soldiers.
Dreyer’s original cut was banned, and he was forced to drastically edit the film; the original was not rediscovered until 1981, when a copy was found in a vault. Despite political and religious pressures, though, many critics immediately recognized Passion as a masterpiece. Dreyer brought together a naturalistic approach to the acting, and a highly stylized approach to the imagery, that even today gives viewers an uncanny sense of being present at the real trial and execution of Joan.
Renée Jeanne Falconetti, a respected stage actress, stars as Joan, and truly nothing in the film matters but her face, which is featured in invasive, empathetic close-ups throughout. Falconetti shaved her head and wore no makeup, leaving Dreyer to focus on nothing but her natural state. With nothing but close-ups and medium shots, and a courtroom full of grotesque and brutal faces, The Passion of Joan of Arc implicates the viewer even as it draws us in with the beauty of the human expression.
See Also: Vampyr (1932), Dreyer’s take on the vampire mythos. Less influential than Nosferatu, Vampyr nevertheless has a strong cult following for its unsettling, dream-like imagery.
Black Narcissus (Tie)
In truth, virtually any movie by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Archers) could be listed among the most visually beautiful movies of all time; Powell and Pressburger were incapable of making an ugly film. While they were often criticized for elevating style over substance (movies with beautiful cinematography but insignificant plots), Powell and Pressburger have risen in reputation in the decades since their 1940s heyday. What seemed like thin, unrealistic stories at the time have been reassessed as masterpieces of iconography; what seemed like gaudy imagery is now regarded as technical triumph.
It’s worth saying that, in the 21st century, Black Narcissus is a deeply problematic story, one that implicates and interrogates British colonialism, while also remaining steeped in the racism of that same system. Black Narcissus tells the story of an order of nuns who come to a remote Himalayan mountain to establish a school and hospital. Surrounded by the trappings of the former harem where they have been housed, the order gradually dissolves under the pressures of lust and loneliness.
When it was released in 1947, The Archers were praised for the most technologically advanced color photography of the era; today, Black Narcissus is remembered not only for its color, but for its extraordinary performances, which are pitched somewhere between silent movies, tragic opera, and modern dance. It’s an ugly story rendered with exceptional beauty, and remains sensual and seductive even today, especially as The Archers’ influence spanned across the globe, from Italians like Dario Argento to Americans like Martin Scorsese.
See Also: The Red Shoes (1948) is The Archers film that most commonly comes up in conversation, with a whisper-thin story elevated by intense color and a classic 15-minute ballet sequence.
Cleo from 5 to 7
Agnes Varda’s 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7 has aged extraordinarily well, arguably much better than the more radical films of the French Nouvelle Vague. Where many of her better-known contemporaries made their name on style and novelty, Varda brought an exquisite artist’s eye to Cleo. Cleo unfolds in almost real time – the “5 to 7” refers to the afternoon hours, traditionally the “lover’s hours” in French culture – as Cleo comes to terms with her own mortality while waiting for a cancer diagnosis. Over the two hours of the plot (90 minutes of screen time), Cleo receives a disturbing tarot reading and encounters numerous bad omens – a broken mirror, a street performer swallowing frogs, even the film her lover is editing (a comedy in which a woman dies).
With her photographic training, Varda brings a superb eye to every frame of Cleo from 5 to 7; while Varda is very much the New Wave avant-gardist (Roger Ebert called her the “soul” of the French New Wave, as well as “Saint Agnes of Montparnasse”), her compositions are never haphazard. Like Godard or Truffaut, Varda’s camera often pretends to cinema-verite, but her eye will never allow a shot that is ugly or awkward. Cleo from 5 to 7 is filled with striking images: the frog-eating street performer; the shock of color tarot cards; Cleo trying on hats, reflected in multitudes.
At the same time, Cleo is a film of faces, much like Bergman’s Silence trilogy; the startling look of the fortune-teller, staring directly into the audience’s eyes; Corinne Marchand’s face framed by her curls and white fur; the faces of people on the street, drawn into Cleo’s vision. Marchand plays Cleo, a shallow pop star obsessed with her own beauty, with a surprising depth; throughout the film, even as Cleo attempts to project cool self-possession, Marchand never allows us to forget the death sentence Cleo expects, always threatening to surface.
See Also: The Gleaners and I (2000), Varda’s documentary about people who live by scavenging, shows Varda’s experimental side as she mischievously incorporates accidental shots, “gleaned” images, and herself into a clever and lyrical film.
A Touch of Zen
Hong Kong filmmaker King Hu’s masterpiece, A Touch of Zen is brought to life by a little more than just a touch of zen – far more than the cheap chop-socky kung fu flicks celebrated by grindhouse fans (and the Wu Tang Clan). A Touch of Zen is motivated by the question of how to achieve transcendence in a world of violence and corruption. Of course, it is also a martial-arts film from Hong Kong’s golden age (though the film was actually made in Taiwan), which means that question is answered with high-flying sword fights and hand-to-hand combat in exotic settings. That’s the wonderful contradiction of A Touch of Zen, which seeks peace and enlightenment alongside stylized violence.
Like Serio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – which examined guilt, responsibility, and retribution – A Touch of Zen was seen as legitimizing the artistic potential of a trashy genre, influencing generations of filmmakers like Ang Lee and Quentin Tarantino. Though, as with most Chinese productions of the era, A Touch of Zen is somewhat hampered by its production values, its ambition is not at all diminished. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, A Touch of Zen was the first Chinese film to win a prize at the festival (the Technical Grand Prize) and the first martial arts film to ever win an international award.
Hu’s visual mastery is evident in scenes that have become iconic of the wuxia genre, including the complex and exhilarating battle in the bamboo forest (Ang Lee would pay tribute in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ) and the mystical scenes in the Buddhist monastery that close the film. The iconic ending – when the monastery’s Abbot Hui, badly injured in a fight, bleeds gold and climbs a mountain to attain Enlightenment – puts A Touch of Zen firmly in the realm of the transcendent, delivering its zen message in unforgettable imagery.
See Also: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which won four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film, takes the template set by A Touch of Zen and adds the higher production values of a Chinese-Hollywood co-production, to tell the kind of story Lee specializes in – a romance forbidden by duty and propriety, but this time acted out in sublime action sequences.
Frida, the lyrical, visually stunning biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, was directed by Broadway and opera legend Julie Taymor, but the world owes its existence to the passion of star Salma Hayek. Throughout the 1990s, there were two competing Frida Kahlo projects; the other, long in pre-production by director Luis Valdez, would have been a more experimental take starring two different women (one of them Jennifer Lopez) as Kahlo’s split personality.
However, Hayek, who had been haunted by Kahlo’s works since her youth, fought to get her own film made, from contacting the executor of Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s estate (which was left in trust to the people of Mexico), to convincing Alfred Molina to star as Rivera and Julie Taymor to direct. (Hayek’s battles with abusive Miramax head Harvey Weinstein would not be public knowledge until more recently, underscoring how determined she was to make Kahlo’s story.)
While Hayek made sure Frida would be made, Julie Taymor’s hand is evident in every aspect of the film. Best known as a stage director, Taymor is one of the most visually distinct directors in the field, known for elaborate costumes, fantastical colors, and highly-choreographed spectacle. Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto transfers the visual richness of Kahlo’s surrealistic paintings to celluloid – a gold-flecked gilding to every frame.
Frida features some incredible sequences; the bus accident that nearly killed Kahlo, leaving her in a lifetime of pain, is a tour de force of cross-cutting, colors, and time dilation. Throughout the film, Taymor also brings various Kahlo paintings to life, such an an extraordinary section based on The Two Fridas. Romantic, tragic, and exquisitely alive, Frida is as good as a biopic gets.
See Also: Taymor’s adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy Titus Andronicus, simply titled Titus (1999) combines Taymor’s visual boldness with Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most nihilistic play for a frequently overwhelming – but never tame or boring – experience.
Chimes at Midnight
The production of Chimes at Midnight was a disaster in nearly every way. With a budget of just $800,000, and co-stars who could only appear on set for a few days because of contractual obligations, Welles took over six months of production time (with a month off in the middle searching for extra funding), shooting over-the-shoulder shots with stand-ins – sometimes only stand-ins. Welles himself dubbed the voices of numerous minor characters when on-set sound failed, with some truly ludicrous accents at times. He also rushed his usually meticulous editing to get the film done in time for Cannes, which he hoped would be his redemption.
Long story short, it wasn’t; one catty reviewer even wrote that Welles was the first Falstaff too fat for the role. But, unlikely as it seems, Chimes at Midnight doesn’t just work – it’s practically a miracle. No writer-director, besides Orson Welles, would have the audacity, in the 20th century, to make a film combining portions of five different Shakespearean plays, edited and often heavily rewritten. In his ruthless cobbling together of texts, Welles created the definitive Jack Falstaff Story, bringing one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and deeply realized characters front and center.
Working on a piddling budget, Welles still managed to burn some of his most indelible images onto film, with all the photographic richness of Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles himself said that if he had to submit one film as his entry to Heaven, it would be Chimes at Midnight – an assessment that has been upheld by Peter Bogdanovich and the Criterion Collection.
See Also: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962) – Orson Welles was incapable of making a film that was anything short of beautiful, even when it was an unaccountable mess. The man’s eye never faltered, unlike his financial judgment.
Killer of Sheep
It was a long road from the making of Killer of Sheep in 1977 to its full recognition, and eventual selection by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990. In fact, besides local screenings, Charles Burnett’s film – his MFA thesis project at UCLA – was not released widely for thirty years, due to the fact that there was no way for a film made on less than $10,000 to pay music rights for the soundtrack. Killer of Sheep was shot on weekends by non-professional actors over the course of nearly a year, in 1972 and 1973, entirely on location in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
It was a watershed period for the neighborhood; the Watts Rebellion (also known as the Watts Riots) had taken place in 1965, and in 1972, the legendary Wattstax concert, sponsored by Stax Records, paid tribute to what had come to be seen as a civil rights action. During that same period, Burnett was quietly making a record of life in Watts, one that would prove a definitive work of African-American cinema. Inspired by the Italian Neo-Realists, Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, and India’s Satyajit Ray, Burnett depicts Watts with slice-of-life beauty well beyond its minuscule budget and other technical limitations.
While the acting is naturalistic, and the camera style frank and documentarian, Burnett’s craft is exquisite – far from clumsy film-school pretense. Burnett’s compositions are as clear and rich as Bergman or Ozu, while the black and white cinematography brings streets, cars, and people into a kind of pure detail. Burnett especially captures faces with confidence. And the music: Burnett called Killer of Sheep a history of black music, and its use of diegetic sound brings life to scenes of Watts culture. It was a revelation when, after paying $150,000 for music rights, that Killer of Sheep was finally released on DVD so general film buffs could finally see Burnett’s masterpiece.
See Also: It’s not one of the most beautiful movies ever made, but the documentary Wattstax (1973) does depict one of the greatest concerts ever staged – the Wattstax festival, featuring Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, Rufus Thomas, and more of the top R&B acts of the 1970s, along with a young Richard Pryor riffing on politics and black life.
The Silence Trilogy (Tie)
Three of the most starkly gorgeous and haunting films ever made, Ingmar Bergman made the three films he considers a trilogy – Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and Silence – to confront the silence of God. For a filmmaker fixated on weighty philosophical questions, this may be the heaviest. Bergman characterized the films as a progression: conquered certainty, penetrated certainty, and God’s silence, respectively, and while they share little commonality in plot, the silence – literally conveyed with an absence of music – is overwhelming.
Their stories are stories of disintegration: the family that unravels over a single vacation day in Through a Glass Darkly; a pastor whose faith is shaken by a parishioner’s suicide in Winter Light; and a pair of sisters torn apart by resentment and bitterness in The Silence. They are not pleasant films, but they are visually beautiful movies – fearfully beautiful.
While in their time Bergman’s films were praised for their realism, what sticks with the viewer is, in fact, their high degree of stylization. With master cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Bergman constructs minimalistic black and white tableaux of characters who barely interact, rarely line up in blocking, and seem to inhabit different planes of existence – precisely the themes of the films, rendered visually. Bergman’s style in the films – especially the sharp profiles and austere sets – is so distinct and iconographic that it has been endlessly parodied by filmmakers, including Woody Allen. Bergman’s tightly controlled compositions make the flashes of surreality – the spider-god in Through a Glass Darkly, or a tank rumbling down an empty street in The Silence – all the more startling.
See Also: Persona (1966), possibly Bergman’s most experimental film, demonstrates the greatest use of close-up since The Passion of Joan of Arc to tell the story of two women whose personalities gradually overlap in an isolated seaside cottage.
Daughters of the Dust
The first film written, directed, and produced by an African-American woman to be commercially released, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is a revelation. It does not play in any way like a first feature, much less one that was made on a budget of just $800,000 (paid by PBS when no Hollywood studio would finance it). Dash portrays a story with the depth of a Toni Morrison or Alice Walker novel, as a large Gullah family – descendants of African slaves who developed their own unique culture in the isolated islands of South Carolina and Georgia – prepare to head North in 1902.
While the main story is simple, Dash’s complex structure of flashbacks, non-linear asides, and stories within stories told by multiple narrators (and a touch of magic realism) give access to the deep inner lives of the characters, and of the Gullah people. Daughters of the Dust opens with a series of title cards offering a brief context for the Gullah culture, as if it were a documentary, and truly, there are moments that seem, almost magically, like a documentary. That is, if a documentary could have been made in 1902 with such extraordinary beauty.
The sepia palette – rich earth tones, iridescent blues, and searing whites of the girls’ dresses – makes Daughters of the Dust seem like a turn of the century photograph come to life, while the Gullah dialect immerses viewers in another world. Many sequences in the film have no narrative thrust at all, functioning as tone poems: the family laughing as they try to save their picnic blankets from a strong sea breeze; close-ups of the everyday items in the family’s homes; the women of the family preparing a gumbo. Daughters of the Dust did more than show Hollywood that a black woman could be an artist; it preserved a culture, nearly a century after it disappeared.
See Also: Beyonce’s “visual album” Lemonade brought Daughters of the Dust some unexpected attention in 2016, when scenes from the music video echoed the settings and costuming of Dash’s film. Dee Rees’ Mudbound (2017) owes a great debt to Dash as well, with its complex family dynamics and dusty cinematography.
Belladonna of Sadness
Belladonna of Sadness is, quite simply, one of the strangest films ever made. An animated film that is barely animated, Belladonna of Sadness is one of the ultimate midnight movies – if you’re not in an altered state when the film begins, you will be by the time it’s over. It’s that kind of movie. The story is as simple and primeval as Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960); Jean and Jeanne, a Medieval couple, have their wedding night disrupted by the lord and his attendants, who rape the new wife. The Devil tempts her to take her revenge, but she refuses until the baron’s jealous wife accuses Jeanne of witchcraft – at which point she takes Satan up on his pact, exacting her revenge with real witchcraft. In the end, she is chained to a cross and burned.
Even by the standards of 1970s anime, Belladonna of Sadness is marked by its minimal animation; the majority of scenes are still images, with the camera panning in, out, and across to create a sense of dynamism. In terms of its imagery, Belladonna of Sadness is one of the most eclectic films ever made, with wide, even jarring shifts in style and technique, from the juvenile and vulgar to the transcendently gorgeous. Lovely watercolors are juxtaposed with rough, jerky lines, soft pastels with naturalistic earth tones with psychedelic flashes that burn into the retinas. It is not an easy film to watch, with its harrowing images of rape, mutilation, and the grotesque, but every frame reveals the filmmakers’ commitment to creating the most indelible images possible.
See Also: The only films that approach Belladonna of Sadness’ strangeness may be Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) – live-action parades of mind-bending and arresting imagery fueled by LSD, mushrooms, transcendental meditation, and Jodorowsky’s mountainous ego.
For the first few years of his career, David Gordon Green looked like the second coming of Terrence Malick (who had recently made The Thin Red Line  his first film after a 20 year absence). A second-act shift into raunchy stoner comedy befuddled fans, but true believers will continue to look to his 2000 feature debut, George Washington, and keep the faith. Set in a decaying town in rural North Carolina, George Washington follows five children, white and black, as the run the streets, railroads, and empty lots of the town in the summer heat.
While the film does have a plot (an accidental death, and the children’s attempt to hide the body and cover up the accident), that is not where the story comes alive; it’s in the small details, the leisurely uncovering of the children’s inner lives, and the exploration of the human condition from a highly localized perspective. Unlike the kids in, for instance, Stand By Me (1986), the children in George Washington never appear to be acting; they are living and experiencing, and the film give us the invaluable chance to live and experience with them. If anything, the plot is a distraction – it’s the kids that matter.
With cinematographer Tim Orr, who Green met when they were both students at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Green finds an authentic beauty that many have compared to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977). The film’s saturated colors convey the feeling of a sweltering North Carolina summer; this movie feels, even looks, hot and humid. The children’s conversations, their improvised games, their observations – few filmmakers (except maybe Truffaut or Ray) have ever captured children’s emotional reality so clearly and unaffectedly.
See Also: The Florida Project (2017), by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, takes the same approach to the lives of several children living in cheap motels in Kissimmee, FL. As with George Washington, there is a plot (the mother of one of the children struggles to keep from losing her child and meager housing), but it’s all secondary to the gorgeously-shot kids’ world.
German filmmaker Werner Herzog is notorious for torturing his actors, his crew, and, most of all, himself, in the process of making his films, and that sado-masochistic impulse was in place as early as Fata Morgana – his third released film, though it was the second he shot. During filming, Herzog and his crew (fortunately, there were no actors to torment this time around) survived sandstorms, a flood, and imprisonment when one of the crew members happened to have the same name as a wanted fugitive. Not one to be outdone, Herzog also contracted a blood parasite for good measure.
While the film was shot over a year in 1968 and 1969, it took two years for Herzog to decide what to do with the footage he gathered in various regions of Africa; in the meantime, he made another crew and a cast of little people actors miserable with Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970).This is not simply one of those movies with beautiful scenery; when he finally decided how to handle his film, the concept Herzog came up with was out there even for 1971. While it is never mentioned in the film itself, Herzog conceived of Fata Morgana as the dispatches of an alien civilization studying the wastelands of another planet, its civilization in ruins.
Along the way, a narrator (film critic Lotte Eisner, who was one of Herzog’s earliest champions) reads portions of the Popol Vuh, and a male narrator recites surreal, nonsensical poetry. Herzog captures desert mirages (hence the title), destroyed oil fields and tankers, and one of the strangest musical sequences ever filmed. Herzog himself called Fata Morgana a hallucination, and much of its initial popularity was of the midnight-movie variety, fueled by psychedelics. Its influence however, spanning from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982) to Ron Fricke’s Samsara (2011).
See Also: For Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) Herzog put another crew through (much less life-threatening) frustrations to shoot a 3D documentary designed to make audiences feel as if they are in the Chauvet Caves, home of the oldest human art.
A Field in England
Imagine, for a moment, that the Monty Python crew, after the end of Flying Circus, had made up their minds to make a serious historical film, and enlisted Ingmar Bergman to direct a script by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Depending on the power of your imagination (and the help of psychoactive substances) the film you conjure up might look a lot like Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. Written by Wheatley and his wife, Amy Jump, A Field in England was inspired by Wheatley’s work on a documentary about a historical reenactment society, where he learned about the role of hallucinogenic mushrooms in 17th century magic.
Setting the story in the English Civil War, Wheatley and Jump conjure up a story of cowardice, betrayal, and cruelty that is also, at times, mordantly funny and frequently surreal – something like Withnail and I (1987) transported to a more brutal setting. The plot, such as it is, concerns a group of deserters from the English Civil War who are conscripted – thanks to a stew of hallucinogenic mushrooms – to find a buried treasure for an alchemist. Shot by Laurie Rose (one of the most promising young cinematographers working today) in a gritty, grimy black and white, A Field in England begins much like a conventional low-budget English historical movie, though one with a bit more filth than the usual BBC production.
Once the drugs kick in, though, it’s virtually impossible for the characters – or the audience – to know what is actually happening, and what is a hallucination. Characters are brutally murdered, only to pop up again later; characters double and triple-cross one another, but continue to work together. The explicitly psychedelic scenes are some of the trippiest in film history, right up there with Easy Rider (1969) and The Holy Mountain (1973), but throughout, the combination of visual style and setting keeps audiences unsettled.
See Also: Since we already mentioned it, there are many words to describe Bruce Robinson’s pitch-black comedy Withnail and I (1987): squalid, vulgar, foul, repugnant – and morbidly funny. Not beautiful, though. Really not anything like beautiful.