Yes, this is a beauty contest. It’s not about the overall quality of the film. This is just about the look of the film. So mostly the way it was shot, the cinematography, the framing, the camera angles, the film stock, the sets, the costumes, the actors, the makeup, the landscapes. In short: The visuals. I know this may sound shallow, but if movies are primarily a visual medium after all. The aesthetic qualities of a film are where a lot of our enjoyment of a film comes from, whether we pay attention to it or not. The great thing about it is that you don’t really have to explain it: The picture speaks for itself.
There’s however a minor detail I’d like to bring up. Sometimes people refer to certain movies as “style over substance“. I always dismissed that argument as silly, but lately I’ve been thinking about it an a different light. What about movies that are so beautiful it’s distracting? Like when you’re talking to a beautiful woman and you’re not really paying attention to what she’s saying, because you’re focussing on everything, but her words. Should these films still be praised for their look? The visuals should be appropriate to the story. It all should work as an ensemble.
Since however we’re discussing achievements in cinematography in this case, we can ignore whether these films benefit from their stylish looks overall. On my list of most visually stunning films I included a couple of films I haven’t seen yet. Based on trailers and stills, and the director’s/cinematographer’s previous work those are safe bets. Still, I will point out whether I’ve seen the film in question or not. Also, while out of simplicity I’ll only mention the cinematographer a film’s look never only depends on cinematography alone, but all the other elements of the mise en scène I’ve mentioned before.
So without further ado, here are the thirteen most visually stunning films of 2013 (in alphabetical order).
13. The Bling Ring (Harris Savides)
Sofia Coppola has always been a director with a great visual flair. The Bling Ring is no exception. While not everyone loved this movie as much as I did, most would agree that it’s beautifully shot. This was cinematographer Harris Savides’ last film, before his untimely departure, and it’s undoubtedly his flashiest: It has to be. Savides’ usually went for a documentary style look, and since the film takes place in Beverly Hills, it looks very glamorous. What I love his how he uses different film stocks, filming both extremely bright and dark scenes. Above I featured of the film’s most iconic and memorable shots: The long break-in scene in Orlando Bloom’s residence.
12. Blue Jasmine (Javier Aguirresarobe)
For his newest film Blue Jasmine Woody Allen collaborated with Pedro Almodóvar’s long time cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. While not as visually intense and glossy, Blue Jasmine is one of Woody’s best looking films (after Midnight in Paris and Interiors of course). The great thing is that you wouldn’t expect a drama like Blue Jasmine to look as good as it does. Usually these type of films are kind of standard looking, boring even, but the use of light and the framing work together to create a stunning image. I’m especially a fan of how bright San Francisco looks, compared to the golden/brownish New York luxury living scenes.
11. The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sourd)
Leave it to Wong Kar-wai and Philippe Le Sourd to create one of the most gorgeous martial arts films ever. Not that I’ve seen many, but I doubt anyone can top The Grandmaster‘s spectacular fight choreographies, William Chang’s flawless costumes and the beautiful actors (namely Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi). Yes, because even if that right there might be the longest train in the history of trains I will be too busy being hypnotized by all the other gorgeous things I just mentioned. Wong’s use of slow-motion never gets boring and him doing rain and snow scenes was just fantastic.
10. The Great Beauty (Luca Bigazzi)
Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty definitely had the most memorable opening scene this year. The camera just kept moving, so fluidly it made my head spin. I’ve never seen anyone film a party scene like that. While the film is almost three hours long and there’s not a traditional plot or three act structure, Luca Bigazzi’s beautiful images kept me more than entertained. The Great Beauty was undoubtedly one of my favorite theater experiences this year and while it also happens to be a great film without all the eye candy, I certainly won’t complain about it.
9. Her (Hoyte van Hoytema)
Okay, so I haven’t seen Her yet, but honestly have you ever seen a Spike Jonze film that didn’t look absolutely spectacular? While I wasn’t necessarily impressed by the few Hoyte van Hoytema photographed films I’ve seen, the trailer for Her looked absolutely flawless. I got a Lost in Translation vibe, the way the city lights at night were shot and there seemed to be hotel room scenes (a huge soft spot of mine). I’m also a fan of the sparklers shown in the trailer, I think it looks really cool, remember the ones in The Bling Ring? Lovely.
8. Man of Steel (Amir Mokri)
For a director obsessed with perfection like Zack Snyder, it’s only natural to make visually immaculate pictures. Cinematographer Amir Mokri previously worked with another visually dynamic director, Michael Bay who studied at the same college as Snyder and another visual genius Tarsem Singh. Man of Steel is easily the slickest looking summer blockbuster. Yes, there’s enough lens flare to make J.J. Abrams jealous, but it all works here. Plus, it helps that the whole cast looks like they could be modeling for Versace.
7. Moebius (Kim Ki-duk)
Moebius isn’t the first film that sees writer/director/producer/editor Kim Ki-duk as a cinematographer as well. It’s impressive how versatile he is and all the more respect to him because he didn’t even go to film school (for which he is actually looked down upon in his homeland). Not having seen Moebius yet, I’m basing my judgment on the trailer which looked very creepy. To achieve such a tone the right cinematography is of essence. Kim proved his DP skills on both Amen and Arirang which were shot on shoestring budgets, now with more money he should be more than okay, the shot above is proof.
6. Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael)
Being a black & white fanatic, I rejoiced when I heard that one of my favorite directors, Alexander Payne, was shooting Nebraska like it was the 1960s. While here’s another one of those I haven’t seen, Phedon Papamichael’s work on previous Payne films leaves little doubt that this is one of the years most beautiful films. Both trailers and still confirm this, and again the quality of the picture surely will be consistent and in line with those. Also, since it’s a road trip flick, I expect a lot of lush landscapes in b&w.
5. Only God Forgives (Larry Smith)
Only God Forgives might just be the year’s most splendid looking film. While I wasn’t overly impressed with the movie overall, the picture is as close to perfection as it gets. Larry Smith who collaborated with Stanley Kubrick himself, makes Thailand’s seedy underbelly shine by simply using tons of moody neon lights. Actually, when I was thinking about how a film’s sexiness can distract you from the story I was specifically thinking of Only God Forgives. You could pick any random shot of the film, frame it and hang it on your bedroom wall. It’s just to die for.
4. Only Lovers Left Alive (Yorick Le Saux)
Who would have thought that one of the year’s best horror films would come from Jim Jarmusch? With Jarmusch comes a lot of attention to detail and interesting visual flourishes. Every Jim Jarmusch film looks slightly different, yet every single one of his pictures retains a very specific fingerprint which indicates that only he could have created it. Only Lovers Left Alive looks spectacular thanks to Yorick Le Saux magic cinematography, the stunning cast and the meticulously decorated sets (courtesy of Christiane Krumwiede and Selina van den Brink).
3. Pain & Gain (Ben Seresin)
Michael Bay may not care a lot about character development and coherent storytelling in his films, but he is completely intransigent when it comes to his film’s look. Everything looks great in a Michael Bay film. Everything is shot like it’s the coolest thing ever. Everything is shiny and glossy. Pain & Gain is no exception, I would even say it takes it to another level with some crazy camera angles. I just love how he shoots the protagonists here. They’re supposed to be “bad” people, but he makes them look like the awesomest imaginable heroes. Even though this is a slightly “low-budget” film for Bay it looks as good as his $200 million stuff and of course: Explosions!
2. The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (Manuel Dacosse)
I wasn’t necessarily a fan of Bruno Forzani & Hélène Cattet’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, but one thing I’ll say is that Manuel Dacosse nails the Giallo look perfectly. This film looks just as beautiful as Sergio Martino and Dario Argento’s pictures did back in the day. There’s also a clear homage to Brian De Palma with the split screen thing. There’s also a whole sequence in black & white, with a Wong Kar-wai-esque slow motion (you know the one where he manipulates the frames per seconds?), which didn’t necessarily work as a storytelling device, but looked and felt very interesting.
1. The Wolf of Wall Street (Rodrigo Prieto)
Okay, I haven’t seen this one either, but come on: It’s Martin Scorsese and Rodrigo Prieto, who worked with pretty much everyone who’s anyone in the film business. Seeing that this is a film about all kinds of excesses and luxurious lifestyles, I can only imagine this being mirrored in the cinematography. The whole film looks like one giant party and I’ve heard that it has an incredibly kinetic feel, which seems to confirm the overall impression I got from The Wolf of Wall Street.
Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, shot by Brandon Trost (who also collaborated with the director on the beautifully surreal looking Halloween 2) deserves a mention, especially because it was shot on a $1.5 million budget, but looks much more “expensive”.
While there’s seemingly not much to Park Hong-yeol‘s simple and matter of fact cinematography for Hong Sang-soo’s digitally shot Our Sunhi, that might be precisely why the film is so effective. Minimalism can go a long way if used properly. Movies like Somewhere and Young Adult, proved this before.
While I haven’t seen Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave yet, his work with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt has been most interesting so far (both on Hunger and Shame). It’s not surprising that McQueen’s films look great, he started out as a visual artist after all.
Another film I haven’t seen yet, but looks great, just based on the trailers and the fact that it’s Roger Deakins is the Coen Brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis. It looks like the film’s going for a very cold feel, which seems apt, because most of the director duo’s pictures also reflect this feeling emotionally.
I won’t count Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, shot by Gaspar Noe’s long time collaborator Benoît Debie, because technically it’s a 2012 film and also there were already so many other great looking films I wanted to discuss.
Those were some of the most beautiful looking films of 2013 in my opinion, now I’d be interested to hear everyone else’s take on it. What are the most visually stunning films of 2013 in your opinion?