We try not to ask much of you, dear readers, but if you’ve never taken our movie-going advice before, do this much: see Beasts of the Southern Wild, the extraordinary new drama that opens Wednesday in limited release after triumphs at Sundance (where it won the Grand Jury Prize) and Cannes. It’s an astonishingly unique, unexpectedly moving film, memorable not only for its unorthodox storytelling and remarkable performances, but the jaw-dropping, gorgeous cinematography by Ben Richardson, which has a casual beauty that recalls early Terrence Malick, David Gordon Green, and Charles Burnett. Those echoes got us thinking about some of our most beloved “pretty picture” movies — films that simply knock you out with their visual beauty. After much hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing, we picked our ten favorites. Check them out after the jump, and tell us what we left out (and we know there are plenty) in the comments.
Days of Heaven DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick CINEMATOGRAPHERS: Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler
Some of the most beautiful motion picture photography occurs at “magic hour,” that indelible time near sunset and at sunrise that produces a warm, soft, and pure light. Cinematographers Almendros and Wexler aimed to give that look to as much of Malick’s 1978 film as possible, though that would prove logistically difficult, since you can’t really shoot a feature film in only two hours a day (less than that, really; Almendros later said “magic hour is a euphemism, because it’s not an hour but around 25 minutes at the most”); the film’s look was also accomplished with a delicate eschewing of artificial light. The filmmaker’s insistence on visual perfection caused the film to go over schedule and over budget, and its critical and financial reception was lackluster enough to prompt Malick’s two decade exile from filmmaking. But the picture is, in retrospect, a tremendous achievement from one of our most visually adept filmmakers.
2001: A Space Odyssey DIRECTOR: Stanley Kubrick CINEMATOGRAPHER: Geoffrey Unsworth
This list could have easily been dominated by Malick and Kubrick, so we gave ourselves a strict “one film per director” edict, which made for some tough choices. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon was our initial pick—it, like Days of Heaven, is renowned for its natural, candlelit look, which the director had developed for his aborted Napoleon project — but we couldn’t bring ourselves to pass by his most revered picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Argue all you like about the film’s emotional and narrative shortcomings (and we have), there’s no denying the power and beauty of the imagery, from the “dawn of man” prologue to the gorgeous space flights to the “Star Gate” sequence to the oft-imitated but still amazing closing shots.
DIRECTOR: Tarsem Singh CINEMATOGRAPHER: Colin Watkinson
Director Singh (often credited only by his first name) established his bona fides as an elegant visualist with several striking music videos, including R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion.” His first film, The Cell, mixed eye-popping visuals with a rather standard serial-killer narrative; it took eight years for him to release his follow-up, but it was worth the wait. It’s a movie about storytelling — about movies, really — as injured stuntman Roy (Lee Pace) spins epic tales of adventure and fantasy to a young girl recovering in the same hospital; those sequences are seen in vivid, smashing, hyper-saturated color, and present images that are startlingly imaginative (entirely without the help of CGI). It’s not exactly a model for clarity in storytelling, but it is a mind-blowing experience.
Baraka DIRECTOR/CINEMATOGRAPHER: Ron Fricke
There’s something to be said for films that dispense with narrative altogether and simply present an array of images, eschewing individual concerns and telling the broader story of lives lived and a world in motion. Such is the case with the so-called “Qatsi trilogy” (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyquatsi), and with the tremendous 1992 film Baraka, which was directed by Koyaanisqatsi cinematographer Ron Fricke. Shot in 24 countries over the course of more than a year, it was the first film in over 20 years photographed in the high-resolution 70mm Todd-AO format. “The film consists of awesome sights,” Roger Ebert wrote in 2008, “joyful, sad, always in their own way beautiful. By that I do not mean picturesque. A friend came into the room while I was watching the film, saw a close-up of the head of a Gila monster and said, ‘That’s beautiful.’ I asked if she liked lizards. ‘I hate lizards,’ she said, shuddering. She wasn’t thinking about lizards. She was observing the iridescent scales of the creature’s head. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We are the beholder.”
The Passion of Joan of Arc DIRECTOR: Carl Theodor Dreyer CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rudolph Maté
The films we’ve singled out thus far have all been full-color visual extravaganzas, filled with gorgeous, wide exteriors. But there’s no automatic formula for cinematic beauty; take, in stark contrast, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is a black-and-white feature composed entirely of close-ups and medium shots. Dreyer’s landscape was the human face, and he used a new panchromatic film stock to better capture the textures and tones of those faces; those faces, in turn, were unburdened of the heavy make-up so often used by silent film actors to keep their features from being washed out by the heavy lighting of the day. Thanks to these advances and a (rightly) iconic performance by Maria Falconetti in the title role, Dreyer employs his photographic style to heighten and intensify the audience’s emotional engagement with the events onscreen.
The Man Who Wasn’t There DIRECTORS: The Coen Brothers CINEMATOGRAPHER: Roger Deakins
Deakins has photographed some of the most beautiful movies of the modern era: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Revolutionary Road, The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun. But he’s best known for his work with the Coen Brothers; he’s shot every feature they’ve made since Barton Fink (including Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit), and as many gorgeous pictures as he’s lensed for them, we’ve always had a soft spot for The Man Who Wasn’t There, their silky, luminous film noir riff, in thick, rich black and white. The real surprise is that it wasn’t shot that way; like the similarly gorgeous (and similarly smoky) Good Night, and Good Luck, Deakins shot in color and then transferred to black-and-white, maintaining a masterful control of the limited palate and invoking the film’s 1950s period with ease.
Chinatown DIRECTOR: Roman Polanski CINEMATOGRAPHER: John A. Alonzo
You don’t always have to do black and white to do noir, though, as John A. Alonzo (Harold and Maude, Scarface) proved with his elegant photography of Roman Polanksi’s brilliant 1972 detective mystery. Alonzo stepped in, on very short notice, after Polanski clashed with his original director of photography, Stanley Cortez (Night of the Hunter, Shock Corridor); Cortez wanted the film to have a more traditional style than Polanski envisioned. “He [Polanski] said, ‘Johnny, please no diffusion on the lens; I don’t want a Hollywood look,'” Alonzo told the LA Times in 1999. “So I borrowed an idea that the great Jimmy Wong Howe had told me about. I used Chinese tracing paper to shift the light and color so that it turned beige and gold. Roman liked it.” So did his peers, who gave him the Academy Award for Best Cinematography at that year’s Oscars.
Road to Perdition DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes CINEMATOGRAPHER: Conrad L. Hall
Hall won the Best Cinematography Oscar for the 2003 crime drama Road to Perdition posthumously, but this was no sentimental win; his final work was his crowning achievement, which is no mean feat from the man who lensed In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and American Beauty. Hall’s Edward Hopper-esque photography uses a muted, somewhat desaturated color palette (further tamped down by the film’s frequent rain), while placing singular objects in sharp focus within his wide compositions. The results are staggering; every image in the movie is suitable for framing.
DIRECTOR: Jean-Pierre Jeunet CINEMATOGRAPHER: Bruno Delbonnel
If Perdition looks good enough to frame, Amélie looks good enough to eat — its whimsical tone is mirrored perfectly by photography of cinematographer Delbonnel: candy-colored, but with a lovely amber hue, as well as frisky camerawork that lovingly matches the picture’s bouncy warmth. The film’s look and feel certainly hit a nerve: the American Society of Cinematographer’s 2010 online poll selected Amélie as the best-shot film of the last decade.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog CINEMATOGRAPHER: Peter Zeitlinger
The cave paintings at the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France were one of the most important prehistoric discoveries of the recent era, but in order to continue preserving them, the caves could not be opened up to the general public. Enter the great Werner Herzog, who arranged with the French Minister of Culture to shoot documentary footage inside the caves — albeit for only six days, for four hours a day. With the help of a specially designed 3D camera (take note: 3D isn’t always used for evil), Herzog and cinematographer Zeiglinger capture the quiet majesty and eerie beauty of the caves, taking the viewer on a walk through one of the most astounding sites in the world.
And those are our picks — let us know yours in the comments.