How a film is seen as gorgeous varies from one person to another, but here’s my take on it. The films listed are ones released between 2000 to 2011. Why not “Ten Most Visually Gorgeous Films Ever“? Because, duh, I haven’t seen enough movies to bravely put that ‘ever’ line. And like all similar lists, it’s hugely subjective and in this case, I avoid films that rely solely on CGI such as Speed Racer, Sin City, etc. I prefer films that are purposefully, meticulously put together to visually look good from the start, rather than those that are ‘beautified’ in post-production. Well, okay, Hugo is in the list and it’s filled with post-production magic but what the hell, it’s an exception.
So, here they are. Enjoy!
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Cinematographers: Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan and Ping Bin Lee.
Doyle worked on seven out of Wong’s ten feature films.
Other works include Happy Together (1997), Hero (2002), Perhaps Love (2005).
Kwan worked on four out of Wong’s ten feature films.
Other works include 2046 (2004), My Blueberry Nights (2007).
Lee worked on one out of Wong’s ten feature films.
Other works include Air Doll (2009), Norwegian Wood (2010).
Of course there’d be a Wong Kar Wai film in this list. The visual of his films is always so alluring, with the moody lightings, the camera angles, the color hues, everything. He’s one of those auteurs who has a definite style, uniquely his own, and like Wes Anderson, you’d recognize his films instantly. Like how he often re-casts the same actors in his film, he also almost always work with the same cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. However, with Wong’s long and often undetermined working time, Doyle had to quit at one point and thus, replaced by other cinematographers. Wong is known for not having fixed screenplays and rely on improvisations on set and he also never has a fixed time frame for a project, often times finishing a film just days (in 2046’s case, mere hours) before submitting it to a film festival.
The film was initially intended to be more frontal in its romance, more obvious, with several scenes of love-making, but in the end it offers a much more subdued romance and it’s definitely what makes the film so strong. Its unseen, insinuated emotions put a special charm to the film. Another star of the film? The qipao (cheongsam), of course. There were 46 of them, although not all were in the final cut. You can’t rock a qipao better than Maggie Cheung and you know it.
Director: Yimou Zhang
Director of Photography: Christopher Doyle
Worked on one out of Zhang’s nineteen feature films.
Other works include Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004).
For some time, I couldn’t quite choose which Zhang film to put in the list. Aside from Hero, I also love the look of House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). This man creates such striking, grandiose images that just blows your mind. He’s also the man behind the astonishing 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Different from Wong whose works feel private, Zhang’s works are always done on such large scales, and in the end I choose Hero for its amazing use of colors.
While colors are usually used like light in the sense of having one to create a sense of darkness, Hero is divided into five segments, each with its own color and during that segment, the frame would be filled with that one particular color. There were red, green, blue, black, and white–you are just constantly attacked with these overwhelming colors. The costume designer, Emi Wada, actually also designed for the Korean film The Restless (2006), which I initially intended to put in this list as well. At one time Zhang didn’t like how the red color translates into the screen and eventually had a special color of red dye shipped from England and Wada had to dye the cloth and re-did the costumes. Aside from that, during the shoot at Jiuzhaigou (a wondrous nature reserve located in Sichuan province, China) Zhang insisted on filming only when the lake is completely still. This is definitely a guy who takes his films’ visuals dead serious. And out of all his films, this is the only one where he worked with Christopher Doyle–a frequent collaborator of Wong Kar Wai. Go figure.
BAD EDUCATION (2004)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Director of Photography: José Luis Alcaine
Worked on six out of Almodóvar’s twenty feature films.
Other works include Don Juan (1998), Roma (2004).
Like all Almodóvar’s films, it’s a dark film with dark themes, yet it’s visually colorful. In a dark way. It’s a film noir with a male femme fatale which, in Almodovar’s hands, makes total sense. It features a film within a film, and even a brief film within a film within a film. It’s mysterious, sexual, topped with a plot twist, a quintessential Almodóvar classic.
I was a bit confused picking one Almodóvar film to put on the list because I completely adore The Skin I Live In and I enjoyed Broken Embraces visually. So in the end I put the film that I personally like the most. Bad Education is the first Pedro Almodóvar film that I saw, it introduced me to his genius and for those of you who’s got this on DVD, turn on the Director’s commentary. It’ll blow your mind. This guy thinks of everything.
THE FALL (2006)
Director: Tarsem Singh
Director of Photography: Colin Watkinson
Worked on one out of Singh’s five feature films.
What would this list be if there wasn’t any Tarsem Singh film? (More) irrelevant, of course. After all, this is a director that always focuses solely on visuals. So, to make this list a little less irrelevant and a little more legit, I put the first Singh film I ever watched, The Fall.
All of Singh’s films are visually stunning, and the reason why I pick this instead of the others is probably because The Fall has less CGI and is more.. surprising. Shot in over twenty countries (including Indonesia), this film is an attack of visual feasts so random that you can’t help wondering what the next scene offers and when it actually comes, it defeats all your expectations. The lush natural landscapes, the diverse characters, the costumes.. Singh is just so good at playing with your senses. I never go to a Singh film expecting a great story, but a visual treat. And a visual treat I always get.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)
Director: Wes Anderson
Director of Photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Worked on all of Anderson’s six feature films.
Other works include The Squid and the Whale (2006), Bridesmaids (2011).
People dislike Wes Anderson’s films because they think he’s overdone his “witty, unique style”. I personally don’t get it. He is unique and he does have his own style and I don’t see that as something negative, at all.
Yes, Bollywood movies, travel magazines and Elizabeth Gilbert have all helped us realize how colorful India is. But nothing compares to how The Darjeeling Limited puts the rich color pallette of the country into the screen. The colors, the composed shots, the Marc Jacobs (for Louis Vuitton) luggage, and of course the overhead shots, all made this film such an entertaining film to watch. Of all ten films on the list, this one is probably my most favorite. Not just because of the visuals, but also because of its Wes-Anderson-charm.
DEAD TIME: KALA (2007)
Director: Joko Anwar
Director of Photography: Ipung Rachmat Syaiful
Worked on three out of Anwar’s four feature films.
Other works include Love for Share (2005), Rayya (2012)
Watching this film back in 2007 was an experience I wouldn’t forget. I remember thinking that I had never seen an Indonesian film as gorgeous and as exciting as Kala. The storyline was so intriguing that it literally kept you in your seats, wondering what would come next, wondering what the end would reveal. The most fascinating aspect of the film is probably the anomaly scattered all over the film. It is set in an unnamed country (with dialogues like “I heard the situation over at Southeast is getting better,” “Ever since the separation from the Republic, it became safer.”), with Indonesian names of places (Bendonowongso hill), Javanese history, and Western clothing.
Shot in four cities (including big ones like Jakarta and Semarang), the film had 27 locations and 70 sets. The filmmakers managed to not include any landmark of the cities and thus, created their own world. They used old, dusty, unoccupied buildings for sets. From using a warehouse as a studio to transforming an old train station into a cafe, they did everything to put a unique look to the film. For all I care, this is something the Indonesian cinema has never had before and it deserves to be the benchmark for all other films in the future.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008)
Director: David Fincher
Director of Photography: Claudio Miranda
Worked on one out of Fincher’s eight feature films.
Other works include TRON: Legacy (2010), Life of Pi (2012).
I worship David Fincher. I do. But the reason why this film is in the list is not because of my devotion towards the Church of Finch, but rather because it is a beautiful film. And not only does it star present-day Brad Pitt, it also manages to feature a 20-something year-old-looking version of him.
I’m aware that CGI has a big part in the film. From stamping Cate Blanchett’s face onto a professional dancer’s, attaching Brad Pitt’s head on top of an old man’s body, until sceneries and backgrounds in general. But everything is done so smoothly and beautifully that it doesn’t take you away from the story itself. There is such an impeccable craft shown off by the make-up and visual effects team, you can just sit back and enjoy the film fully, undisturbed. No weird, unsynchronized head-and-body like Captain America that keeps bugging you throughout the whole film or anything like that. Both Pitt and Blanchett look absolutely beautiful and it’s also difficult to not fall in love with New Orleans.
A little trivia from IMDB: The montage of Pitt backpacking through India and Cambodia was shot by Tarsem Singh (who was credited as a second unit director).
A SINGLE MAN (2009)
Director: Tom Ford
Director of Photography: Eduard Grau
Worked on Ford’s only film.
Other works include Buried (2010), The Awakening (2011).
Okay, first of all, this film is directed by Tom Ford. Tom Ford, people. I am fighting the urge to stop writing and just leave you at that. But let’s not be lazy and discuss about it a bit more.
Watching A Single Man is like walking into a fashion magazine. A modern, posh fashion magazine featuring editorial photoshoots, 60’s style. Everything is so clean, so composed, as flawless as we perceive people in the fashion industry are. Almost all scenes are shot with a static camera, nothing messy, nothing taints the perfection. Every character seems to be dressed and prepared for a Vanity Fair photoshoot. And there are some black and white scenes of Firth and Goode with what feels like an Ansel Adams photograph as the backdrop.
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)
Director: Terrence Malick
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Worked on five out of Malick’s nine feature films.
Other works include Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Burn After Reading (2008).
One of the most beautiful films last year (if not of all time) is The Tree of Life. Everything about this film is just beautiful. I adore how Malick tries to capture the origins and meaning of life by centering on one ordinary family in the suburbs and interposing images of the earth and the beginnings of the universe so elegantly. And the way the sun’s natural lighting is used is just absolutely beautiful. Not to mention the radiant Jessica Chastain, who embodies the role so gracefully.
It is said that a lot of the special effects in the film is actually not CGI. Malick consulted with Douglas Trumbull, who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (whuuut) and whose last work, before The Tree of Life, was 1982’s Blade Runner. Similar to The Fountain (2006), the filmmakers used chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, etc, experimenting with cameras and lenses for the creation of the universe scenes.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
Worked on five out of Scorsese’s 25 feature films.
Other works include Inglourious Basterds (2009), World War Z (2013).
Like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I am well aware of the fact that this film relies heavily on CG. But instead of exclaiming “ooh cool effects!” you would probably sigh “beautiful”, which is exactly why this film is in the list. It’s breathtakingly beautiful to the point of magical. In the first scene, where they show 1930s Paris in the snow, they take us to the Champs-Élysées in the night, with the traffic time-lapsed and turned into colorful streaks, then on to the Eiffel tower, and then zooming in to the train station, where the main character is introduced. But no, those breathtaking first few seconds aren’t enough. We are then shown how Hugo moves around inside the clock tower, in what looks like a flawless one-shot, but is actually a knit of five takes at five different sets involving a lot of green screen, a body double, and a whole lot of intelligence and imagination.
There are so many things to love about Hugo, my personal favorites include the blue uniform of the Station Inspector that always stands out, and the moving mouse toy in the beginning of the film that is created using stop-motion, instead of CG. Dubbed as Scorsese’s homage to films and shot in digital 3D, Hugo is a perfect blend of old cinema nostalgia and excitement of the future. It’s enchanting, it’s magical.