We never experience anything other than the outcomes of our brain, our world is subjective and so is the language of cinema; cinematography. There are a lot of components that make a film exceptional, one is how they harmonize “light, composition, and color” all together. Personally, my list of visually-stunning films is never-ending, but I’m handpicking 22 cherries out of the basket that I believe will leave you in awe.
1 . 2001: A space odyssey (1986)
For some, this film might be a bit hard to digest, I don’t know if mothers could pick a favorite child, it is the same for me when it comes to picking a favorite film, but If I had to, I would say this is my all-time favorite, in terms of everything, it’s a piece of perfection for me, a meditative journey. If you notice my website’s footer, you’ll probably know why I wrote it.
2 . Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
I’m sure you’d expect a “Wes-Anderson” on this list, and his Go-To cinematographer Robert Yeoman. You’ve probably watched (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and wondered what to watch next? Well this one is a grand adventure! the satisfying symmetry, the beautiful lighting, and the warm colors, it all serves to create an image both nostalgic and unique.
3 . Children of Men (2006)
This film is a gut-wrenching masterpiece that you’ll absolutely love, the long camera takes are beautifully crafted to make you feel as if you’re walking through this dystopian world, the camera movement brought a powerful sense of imagination for me. It was violent, provocative, and very moving.
4 . Moonlight (2016)
We’ve recently used a wonderful lens at my old job with crazy bokeh and a subtle vignette, inspired by the Petzval Art lens, so as soon as I got home after this movie, I just wanted to read more about the cinematography and the anamorphic lenses they’ve used to capture these breathtaking portraits. The film is so touching, and you’ll notice a slight change in color scheme as you grow older with the character, and as his feelings and character develop.
5 . Arrival (2016)
This isn’t just a visually stunning sci-fi movie, the first scene had me breathless and crying in the theatre. It’s a play on light, even when it’s a sci-fi thriller, the scenes are filled with intimacy, sensuality and fragility rather than blood, action and adrenaline, and this story about humanity is beautifully translated into mesmerizing visuals.
6 . Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
I struggled with picking my favorite four snapshots for this film, I think every single frame here is a masterpiece, Roger Deakins never fails to astound me, I wouldn’t mind creating a dedicated blog post for all the films he had worked on. The film is dark, and the world is insane, and that’s brilliantly rendered in the color-coded scenes throughout the movie.
7 . Samsara (2011)
I struggled to pick my favorite shots for this thumbnail too. Here’s a non-narrative documentary for you, sometimes we get absorbed in the circle of life we often forget to look at the full picture from afar, or in the case of this film, from the top, you’re an alien, and you’re roaming earth to get a closer look at humanity. It’s brilliant, magical, moving and mind blowing. The trailer will get you settled and ready. If you’re in for another visual treat by Ron Fricke, I’d recommend his older creation Baraka (1992).
8 . Amélie (2001)
Amelie is one of all-time favorites, it’s not just a visual treat, red, green, red again. I have so many things to say about this film, but our main focus here is the distinctive visual style Amelie has, one of the things I love about this film is that; it is mainly shot with wide lenses, even for close-up shots and portraits, you can see everything! it allows you to feel like you’re inside the shot, you’re there with the protagonists, and the thing about wide lenses in general, is their depth of field, you can almost include all the details in your scene, and with that set design, who wouldn’t want to include it all?
9 . Interstellar (2014)
Interstellar (ˌɪntəˈstɛlə) adjective / situated between the stars. That’s exactly how you’ll feel after watching this. It’s a Nolan masterpiece, it’ll shake your brain, some would argue, but the beauty of the visuals are undeniable, to lay sight on this marvelous creation of infinite countless space is just indescribable, these scenes aren’t hollywood sci-fi, they’re extremely sentimental, emotional and topped with a hans zimmer score, it’ll leave you in awe. I watched this on IMAX, please try finding the biggest screen possible for this.
10 . Apocalypse now (1979)
Now that’s a monumental film, it’s difficult for me to try and categorize this one, is it war? philosophy? art? it’s a bit of everything and a hint of mad. The deepest emotions of the human soul brilliantly portrayed in a war story, or should I say just a man’s story caught in between? the insanity and decreasing mental stability we face when we’re stuck in the middle. Visuals though? the manipulation of light, the use of colors, the shadows and silhouettes, it highlights these inner and outer battles so beautifully.
11 . Her (2013)
We were on the way back from a trip to Dhana – Jordan, my friend and I spent quite a while discussing how the cinematography of this film should be taught in schools, the futuristic yet dreamy tones, the night interiors, the washed out blacks, the low contrast, and the vibrance of red! you’ll never forget the reds, how else is it a futuristic love story? I also want to mention the brilliant framing and composition, no spoilers, but the film is fixated on a dialogue between two people, yet the scenes consist of one actor, so we’re seeing variations of wide, medium and extreme close ups, this limitation is dense and allows you to view the character as the talker and the listener. It’s awe-inspiring and viscerally emotional.
12. Roma (2018)
It’s not a secret, I love Alfonso Cuaron. There are three creations of his on this list. Roma is a naturalistic digital black-and-white movie, it doesn’t acquire this old film look, on the contrary it has this digital presence with a wide and modern dynamic range, yet the absence of color will take you into the past, Alfonso’s childhood in Mexico. The camera movement has this natural seamlessness, as if you’re going through all of these events yourself, it’s an intimate and emotional story you’ve been through somehow and now you’re rewatching it.
13 . Spirited Away (2001)
One of Studio Ghibli’s gems for sure. For those who don’t watch ‘animated’ features, this should reconstruct your idea of animation. It’s impressive the dynamicity in every frame, the liveliness of the characters, the fast paced world, every detail in every scene throbs with motion, we’re tossed in an unfamiliar world and it’s exciting. Therefore, in terms of composition, Miyazaki does a great job in integrating all this with the negative and physical space, the factories, the streets, the skies are massive! this physical plane of existence is as important as the characters. This brilliant use of space in his scenes only enriches the storytelling, I mean, why am I even talking about this? It’s only Miyazaki! the master storyteller.
14 . The Danish Girl (2015)
Personally, I believe this film has such profound resonance and value, an internal struggle with identity beautifully portrayed and adapted. It’s unforgettable, I still have the crying scenes imprinted in my mind. In terms of visual, every scene feels like a different painting, it gives you this impression with the softness of the light, the bleached colors, and the production design. It is captured in wide angles as well to cover all the details, and framed to create this alluring tension and emotional intensity. These frames are delicious.
15 . The Joker (2019)
I could talk a lot about this film, but I won’t. This is not a comic book movie, but a psychological character study. Nevertheless, I’m here for the framing madness and use of color. The use of complementary colors creates more depth in scenes, it’s bold and very evocative. There’s a visual arc here, we understand the character much better with light and colors, whenever we’re closer to his core identity “the Joker”, the colors get brighter and more vibrant, they become stronger and richer, the scenes intense and violent, whenever we’re losing more sanity.
16 . The Tree of Life (2011)
I became familiar with Emmanuel Lubezki after I watched “Children of Men”, I honestly had no idea that he had worked on this film until after. One of the things you’ll absolutely love about this movie, and most of the films with him as DP, is the use of natural light! he has one more film on this list: “The revenant” and it is solely shot with no artificial lighting as well, that’s astonishing. I leave you with a quote:
“When you put someone in front of a window, you’re getting the reflection from the blue sky and the clouds and the sun bouncing on the grass and in the room. You’re getting all these colors and a different quality of light. It’s very hard to go back to artificial light in the same movie. It’s like you’re setting a tone, and artificial light feels weird and awkward after that.”
17 . Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
“Mind-blowing, insane, exhilarating” are my first thoughts when I came out of the theatre after watching this, a lot of action movies we see nowadays are pointless and probably made for the thrill of it, but this is a new standard to me, philosophical, motivating, and visually striking. It’s an adrenaline race across the desert with a purpose and a story, and it’s a visual feast! one thing I learned about this film AFTER I’ve watched it, is that it was mostly framed to have your focus in the middle without you having to shift it anywhere with the fast pace, you don’t have to move your eyes, you’ll absorb all of these action shots and fast cuts easily, extra points for seamlessness and brilliance.
18 . Gravity (2013)
Back to Emmanuel Lubezki, and of course, Alfonso Cuaron. I remember it was my first IMAX movie and it’s for sure one of my favorites. Long meditative camera takes in space, complemented by the sound of silence, her breathing and the ambience. It makes you wander in your mind thinking about everything and everyone, I was actually doing that while watching, and I remember being shocked by the beauty of the “fetus” scene, I was thinking: “I’d hang that up on the wall”, Sandra Bullock was floating there in her spaceship like a fetus, it took me somewhere else, are we infants in space? in the whole universe probably? The scenes are aesthetically pleasing, and the whole movie is so powerful and stirring.
19 . 1917 (2019)
Returning to cinematographer Roger Deakins again, 1917 is quite intense and absolutely genius, it was made to look like a one-shot film. You’re right there with the soldiers, the interactions between them, you’re going through the grim and yet beautiful landscapes, a gun shot goes off and your heart pounds as if you’re actually there. Natural lighting, overcast skies, warm and sometimes dimmed night interiors. The scenes shot at night in the french village with the ruins, were magnificent. The haunting horrors of war, were painted beautifully in these scenes.
20 . La La Land (2016)
I didn’t want this musical to end, I exited the theatre and my heart was broken yet toe-tapping. This city of stars is magical but filled with realism, it’s vibrant but blue, it’s lively but nostalgic, it’s dreamy but heartbreaking. The colors are extraordinary, the play on light in each scene, the long takes, the numerous extras, dancing and tapping, along with surprising transitions. It’s an ode to the city, although you’re not from there but you’ll appreciate and relate to this love story. I think this film is destined to be a Hollywood classic.
21 . The Revenant (2015)
We’ve heard about the challenges in shooting this film way before it was released, it was all shot in natural light, and near-freezing conditions, no artificial light used in any scene, if you’re a cinematographer you’d understand that’s kind of impractical, but the DP wanted this experience to be immersive, he wanted the audience to feel that this is real, like watching everything through a window, no barriers between you and the characters. Emmanuel Lubezki crafted a series of frames that can stand alone without the aid of dialogue. Allowing the imagery to guide us. It’s abstract but still narrative. It’s the human’s relationship with nature, it’s utmost rawness depicted in the language of cinema.
22 . Disney movies
It’s not just your childhood cartoons, it’s beyond the realm of children entertainment, from sketch to screen, this is Disney. Animators have the ability to craft their shots with no challenges when it comes to lighting or weather conditions, cameras and angles, they have the opportunity to blow our minds and craft their shots majestically, and it’s not an easy process. Walt Disney Studios have been injecting these cinematic aesthetics into their films, from Mulan to Tarzan, the Lion King, Aladdin, Toy Story, to Big Hero 6, they’re all masterpieces. It’s amazing how art can have such an effect on human emotions, and for that I am grateful.