15 Visually Stunning Movies with the Best Cinematography
The art of cinematography is often overlooked when people talk about the best movies of all time or whether this or that movie is successful. But, as you will see today, with all the examples of the best cinematography the world of cinema has to offer, great cinematography can truly make a movie into an instant classic. Before we dive headfirst into the best cinematography, let’s first answer the key question: what is cinematography?
What is cinematography?
Cinematography is the newest and youngest form of visual art. Its features are the ability to use light to shoot on film for subsequent display on the screen of volumetric-plastic forms of objects, their color, depth of space, lighting in their movement, and development. The ability to change the picture on a whim distinguishes the art of the cinematographer from other types of visual art: painting, graphics, and sculpture.
Therefore, without knowledge, forethought, and understanding of the features of the cinematic image, one cannot comprehend all those techniques of mastery that are embodied in the artistic possibilities of this still new, complex, and rightly called a synthetic art form.
The task of cinematography is the expression of the idea and content of the film in an artistic-figurative, concrete, and convincing visual form. The cameraman solves these creative tasks using specific means and the language of their art in accordance with their artistic personality.
Let’s now look into the cinematographer definition and find out what a cinematographer does.
What does the cinematographer do?
The profession of a cinematographer is perhaps the second most important part of film production after the director’s work. If the latter decides what to shoot, then the first tells how to shoot. That is, the director is responsible for the creative component of the film product, and the cinematographer is responsible for the technical aspects of it. He is the director of photography.
Even the screenwriter does not play such an important role in the film industry: many films are made from books, while in other cases, the directors themselves write the scripts. So, you can do without a screenwriter, but you cannot shoot a movie without a cinematographer.
The cinematographer not only conducts the shooting but also manages all the shooting equipment, lighting fixtures, and decorations, as well as participates in the creation of special effects. In fact, they are not only a technical worker but also an artist whose result is a film product that is shown to us, the viewers. Moreover, without exaggeration, we can say that we see any film precisely through the eyes of a cinematographer. This is the creative component of their work: to “see” the frame before shooting, recreate it in reality, and only then transfer it to film.
In addition to complex special effects, the cinematographer is in charge of creating “simpler” effects: rain in sunny weather, moonlight in the afternoon, expressive emotions of actors in complete darkness, all of the minor things that may seem unimportant, but, in reality, they are.
That said, let’s now look into some of the best cinematography movies and the best cinematographers that created them.
15 movies with great cinematography
A good movie should follow its own idea during the production phase on all fronts, and all the crew members need to know what they are dealing with. And the picture here is, of course, one of the most important elements of the movie. Let’s now list some of the movies with the best cinematography in the history of cinema.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
You cannot compile a list of best cinematography films without mentioning his name. Stanley Kubrick's style cannot be confused with anything. Most of his movies are recognized as masterpieces which are technologically and culturally ahead of their time. But most of all his works are remembered because of the cinematography techniques he implemented, and "2001: Space Odyssey” is rightfully considered to be his best movie. He paved the way for so many visually stunning movies of the future that you cannot help but admire this movie’s legacy.
Long, viscous shots, hospital-white and alarmingly red colors, the perspective in long scenes, the use of the golden ratio – all this makes the movie, at a subconscious level, very memorable and amazing, and the cinematographer’s decisions amaze the viewers even half a century after its release.
2. Blade Runner 2049
Without exaggeration, “Blade Runner 2049” is the most beautiful science fiction film of this decade. Despite the fact that the general style was borrowed from the original “Blade Runner,” Denis Villeneuve and Roger Dickins completely changed the approach to the scenery of this movie.
If Rick Deckard wandered most of the time through narrow, cluttered streets filled with crowds of people, then Kay often wanders through open spaces, amid monumental and rather minimalistic designs. A leisurely camera work, coupled with an abundance of contrasting colors, creates a simply bewitching spectacle of a movie.
It's hard to find a crime drama of the 90s that would be better than Scorsese's “Casino.” Such films pop up once a decade or even less. Everything is so good in them that, after viewing, it is simply impossible to imagine what could have been shot otherwise.
Such is the director’s ideal vision, and maybe it’s all thanks to so well-chosen actors that, even if there were some mistakes, you cannot notice them because of the brilliant acting.
4. Sucker Punch
This is Zach Snyder’s lowest-rated film (yes, even lower than “Batman vs. Superman”). But even with controversial content, it’s simply impossible not to admire the approach to the movie. Each of the three levels of reality (psychiatric hospital, brothel, and all kinds of battles) is created in its own color palette, and the action often turns into a kind of a computer game.
Every shot from a shootout with dead Nazis, orcs, or robots is clear, and the surroundings and characters in the hospital will remind you of classic comics from the times of Alan Moore and Frank Miller.
It’s been 40 years since its release, and the movie has not lost its visual freshness. From forms to light – almost everything in it is strictly geometric and cold, which, on the visual level, tells the story of a person forced to pretend to be who they are not. Vittorio Storaro was in charge of cinematography. He is just as important to the world of cinematography as Roger Dickins. In principle, almost any of his work can be put on this list.
This is a classic movie directed by Dario Argento. In places, it feels strange – absurd behavior of the main characters, a confusing plot, replaying the same actors in different roles, but each frame is what makes this movie a true classic. This is the starting point for the visual style of all neon horrors.
7. Only Lovers Left Alive
“Only Lovers Left Alive” is the most visually important movie of Jarmusch, largely thanks to the world of things that were replaced with abstract imagery by the director. Textures of objects, composition work – all of these aspects of cinematography and directing created a truly stunning movie that cannot be forgotten.
8. Valhalla Rising
Nicolas Winding Refn has many stylish films. But among them, I would not choose “Neon Demon” and not “Only God Forgives” but “Valhalla Rising.” There is no neon, synth-pop in the soundtrack. There is no gloss in this movie at all.
“Valhalla Rising” is such an amazing movie that manages to combine simple and beautiful things and mix blood and dirt at the same time. This is a story about a silent one-eyed northerner who wanders with the boy he saved on his way through beautiful Scandinavian landscapes, and then he kills people left and right. This is a story of faith and insanity. The success of this movie must also be attributed to Mads Mikkelsen’s performance, which is silent throughout the film but, at the same time, conveys some kind of crazy flow of emotions. This, after all, is just a very beautiful movie.
9. Isle of Dogs
Wes Andersen's “Isle of Dogs” looks like a giant animated diorama in the midst of which a man-made disaster unfolded. The action here takes place near the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki where the fever of dog flu is raging. Because of it, all four-legged animals are evicted to a huge garbage island – a little boy goes there to save his pet.
Any screenshot from the film could easily become an illustration for a children's book or a comic book – the movie is made so remarkably well. “Isle of Dogs” is a real monument to stop motion animation, so be sure to check it out.
There is no expressive imagery in this movie of Andrei Tarkovsky, and the landscapes here are devoid of vivid watercolor colors – sometimes “Stalker” even becomes black and white for no apparent reason. At first glance, the movie does not carry any “art” to it, but, on the contrary, it is as mundane, gray, and nondescript as possible.
But it is no coincidence that Tarkovsky replaced three cinematographers when working on the movie; it was not a coincidence that he constantly argued with his protégé, Georgy Rerberg, forcing the team to play the same scenes hundreds of times over and over again. Each frame in “Stalker” is the result of hard work and a unique vision of the author which only at first glance may seem simple.
The look of the movie perfectly emphasizes its internal content, and no other approach to shooting would probably give such an effect. In most scenes, the camera is almost static, and the characters often seem to be absorbed by the space around them – a huge and incomprehensible Zone that can both destroy the characters and reveal something new. We really feel the hidden but obvious power of this amazing place, as if we are traveling through it with the characters. "Stalker" acts immediately on the subconscious of the viewer, and there is no point in trying to understand the Tarkovsky film. You need to feel it – and impeccable artistic expressiveness will help you with this.
11. Lost in Translation
The melancholic “Lost in Translation” will not please everyone, but this is the only film that very accurately brought to the screen the mood of a foreigner in Japan. Director Sofia Coppola depicted an atmosphere that literally envelops and absorbs any Western tourist. In Tokyo, unbridled fun and thirst for adventure are replaced by oppressive longing and loneliness. These emotions are experienced by the girl called Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and an actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who is experiencing a midlife crisis. Two tormented souls met in Tokyo and spent several unforgettable days together.
Coppola made an incredibly contemplative film about loneliness in the Japanese metropolis. She has been to Tokyo more than once, so she knows this feeling very well. First, the viewer is shown the cloudy and congested streets of the capital of Japan. Then, you get a break from this scenery and travel to Kyoto where the heroine walks through Japanese gardens and ancient temples just for fun. The scenery changes, but loneliness remains. It pursues her even in a noisy company, during ikebana lessons and in karaoke.
The problem is that not every viewer will be able to feel the atmosphere of this movie. To someone, it will seem depressing and slow. They will perceive it as a well-shot movie but an empty one. But if you’ve been to Japan at least once or are planning to visit this country, the film will either make you feel nostalgic or become an excellent sketch of what awaits you there. Try to fly to Japan without knowing the language, with a bad mood, and without a clear plan – and you will realize how accurate this movie is.
12. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
I sincerely do not understand why Valerian was so heavily criticized. Or rather, I don’t understand why the plot comes to the fore when evaluating a film. This is a deliberately frivolous fiction movie, and you don’t need to wait for something supernatural from it – the cliché is cliché, but so what?
Indeed, visually, the film is simply amazing. Bright, explosive, and very inventive – it’s just a race through an alien market, but it is done very well. The crew has come up with such an interesting world that you cannot take your eyes off the movie.
The Japanese thriller “Confessions” talks about teenage cruelty. I have never seen a really cool Japanese movie (not animation) in my life – and this film is probably my favorite after “Tetsuo.”
The first third of the film is a very intense monologue. I could not even think that monologues can be shot so inventively and stylishly. Otherwise, the crew heavily relied on the visuals. This movie is simply amazing, and you should go out of your way to see it.
14. Citizen Kane
For a long time, "Citizen Kane" regularly won in the polls of film professionals as "the best film of all time." Why? Firstly, the director and leading actor Orson Welles excluded the usual narrative scheme, forcing the viewer to appear in the past, then in the present, then again in the past of the characters.
Secondly, he found new forms of cinematography that were revolutionary for that time. Well, that’s not to mention the brilliant plot of the movie.
Here’s the winner of the Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival. According to the results of many surveys, it is among the greatest science fiction films in the history of cinema. The virtuosity of camera work, which is now taught in film schools, is one of the main reasons for its success.
Tarkovsky managed to prove that, with the help of an artistic atmosphere, much more can be achieved than with the participation of even the most expensive and modern effects. The film is amazing, simply mesmerizing.
As you can see, the beautiful work of a cinematographer can turn a dull movie into an instant classic, and although there are a lot of other things that contribute to the quality of a movie, cinematography stands out as the dark horse of the art of cinema that people often overlook.