Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The most stunningly beautiful movies ever made

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Mono Lake in Mono County, California, USA. A scene from Samsara.
Mono Lake in Mono County, California, USA. A scene from Samsara.

This week saw the New Zealand release of Samara, director/cinematographer John Fricke's follow-up to his 1992 eye-gasm Baraka.

Like Baraka (and 1982's Koyannisqatsi which Fricke worked on), Samsara is a meditative and uplifting collection of a wide variety of stunning imagery set to music.

Filmed over four years in 25 countries, it features the inner workings of a sex doll factory; thousands of writhing worshipers at a religious festival and everything in between.

Less a pretty montage than a visual poem on an operatic scale, it's an amazing movie that absolutely demands to be seen on the big screen, so don't miss the opportunity to do so.

Watching it got me thinking about which narrative films I consider to be the most stunningly beautiful ever made - films with undeniably breathtaking imagery which may or may not be matched by their storytelling prowess.

Every film from director Tarsem Singh (often credited as simply 'Tarsem') features a surfeit of lushly composed images. Though the films themselves don't always work as a whole (The Cell, Mirror, Mirror), Tarsem's extreme affinity for visual beauty always comes through and there's always something to appreciate.

His most artistically successful work is a cult film from 2006 called The Fall in which a crippled stuntman (Lee Pace from The Hobbit) tells a fantastical tale to a young girl (the insanely cute Catinca Untaru) while recuperating in a sanitarium in 1920s Los Angeles.

The story he is telling allows for all sorts of crazy visual set-pieces and Tarsem's very identifiable aesthetic (dude loves long horns and shiny things!) has never been more effectively applied. Some of the visual motifs on display here can be seen in later works by the director, particularly the 2011 Greek legend film Immortals, which was pretty darn beautiful itself.

The versatile Ang Lee's most recent film, Life of Pi, just earned him his second Oscar for Best Director. Much of Lee's oeuvre features pretty amazing visuals (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain most notably; also Hulk), but Pi has to count as one of the most visually stunning films ever made.

If ever there was a story that lent itself to a painterly eye, it's Pi, but Lee must be credited for keeping the whole thing afloat. Ahem.

The enigmatic Terrence Malick (Badlands; The Thin Red Line) is another director whose films always contain unspeakably beautiful images. His most recent work, the divisive 2011 'story of everything' film The Tree of Life is arguably his most visually lyrical film yet.

There's something of a Tarsem influence in the work of fellow former commercials director Zack Snyder, who is fantastic at picking a specific aesthetic and really running with it. His 300 wasn't universally adored, but nobody would accuse it of being an ugly film.

In my view, Snyder's most visually stunning film is 2009's Watchmen. Like Lee did with Pi, Snyder managed to adapt a difficult story and fully exploit its visual possibilities. The Watchmen film got something of a muted response when it was first released, but I feel like time will be kind to it.

Incidentally, some of it's most beautiful scenes are set to music from Phillip Glass' iconic Koyannisqatsi score.

Maybe 'beautiful' isn't quite the right word to describe Robert Rodriguez's 2005 film Sin City. 'Sexy' isn't right either, but the right description is somewhere between the two. There's such a confidence in the black and white neo-noir aesthetic of Sin City that I had to include it here.

I used to consider Tim Burton a visual master of the highest order, but he's really run his pop gothic aesthetic into the ground over the last ten years. His last great film (in my opinion) is also his most beautiful - 2003's Big Fish.

A gentler Burton is on display in the fantasy drama, and while the film may not be as visually audacious as Batman or Edward Scissorhands, it's certainly an achingly beautiful experience.

David Fincher's films are defined by a slickness which doesn't always necessarily translate into my conception of the word 'beauty', but his underrated 1997 The Game features the most visually-pleasing application of that aesthetic. San Francisco hadn't looked so gorgeous since Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic Vertigo, the master of suspense's most beautiful film.

Vincent Ward's early New Zealand films (Vigil, The Navigator) present a sustained, fragile beauty that has helped define Kiwi cinema. The visual ambition glimpsed in those films came to full fruition with his 1998 film What Dreams May Come, in which Robin Williams played a widower searching the afterlife for his dead wife.

Renaissance art informs Ward's conception of heaven to the point where the film is actually designed to look like a painting. While What Dreams May Come is a tad cloying at times, it's very much worth watching for its visual splendor.

There's some insanely beautiful stuff in the little-seen British effort Cashback (2006), but you have to wade through a mildly pretentious (albeit finely crafted) film to get to it.

Here's a NSFW taste. I'm sure I don't remember it being so nudity-centric. That's not why I think the movie is beautiful. Honest.

Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle always tries something visually interesting in his movies, but his most beautiful movie is one of his least successful - 2007's criminally underrated Sunshine.

Boyle took some aesthetic inspiration from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick's films have often been described as 'clinical' or 'detached', but the profound beauty on display in all of them suggests a director very in touch with human emotions.

Staying with the sci-fi theme, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is arguably the most beautiful film ever produced in the genre. It's definitely Scott's lushest film, which is saying something considering the beauty that spews forth in films like Alien, Legend and even Prometheus.

You could chuck any film directed by David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) in here too. Plus Forbidden Planet, Hugo and Avatar, because why not? Plus anything with Raquel Welch in it.

Gaspar Noé's heady 2009 film Enter The Void is challenging at times, but worth it for the insanely beautiful stuff peppered through it.

Does anything else think the Wachowski's Speed Racer is a beautiful film? I'm kinda on the fence about whether it qualifies. Definitely bold and vibrant, but stunningly beautiful?

What about The Matrix movies? Or Tron? Or Labyrinth? Is The Black Hole beautiful? I say yes.

Agree? Disagree? What do you think are the most stunningly beautiful films out there? Gonna see Samsara? Comment below!

-nzherald.co.nz

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