Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Best Looking Films of All Time (Color)

As a companion piece to yesterday’s list of the Best Looking Black and White Films of All Time, here is the same list, only colorized.

Picking 11 of my favorite looking black and white films was extremely difficult; picking 11 in color was damn near impossible. A lot was left off, so, again, let me know your favorites in the comments section. Here goes.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Dir. by Stanley Kubrick – Shot by Geoffrey Unsworth
While Citizen Kane is the best shot film of all time, period, and Persona is my personal favorite black and white film (photographically and in general), there is no film that visually inspires me more than Kubrick’s 2001.

Really, I cannot watch the film – with all its tricks and feats and majestic movements – without getting tears in my eyes and chills in my spine. Sure, I could spend a few hours researching how Kubrick and Unsworth used simple gravity to achieve what they did, but honestly, I’m better left wondering.

Aside from its movements, 2001, much like the films of Terrence Malick, tells its story with images. Take, for instance, the extended, dialogue-free sequence of Keir Dullea traveling to Jupiter, or the way in which it is revealed that HAL understands the plot against him. I could talk for hours, days, weeks about the visual wonderment of 2001, but just know: science fiction is my least favorite film genre, so for a sci-fi film to break my Top 5 of all time (as 2001 does), there must be something damn special about it.

Cries and Whispers (1972)
Dir. by Ingmar Bergman – Shot by Sven Nykvist
Bergman and Nykvist dominated my black and white list, and, for anyone who has marveled at the beauty of Cries and Whispers, it should come as no surprise that they make an appearance here as well.

In his memoir, Images, Bergman has said that the idea of this film came from the image of a room bathed in dark red. He spent years developing that image and writing a script based around it. The result is this brutal, horrifying, visually stunning masterpiece. There’s so much going on in Cries and Whispers, and Bergman’s plaguing image, coupled with Nykvist’s cold execution, are essential components to its greatness.

The Godfather (1972)
Dir. by Francis Ford Coppola – Shot by Gordon Willis
As mentioned yesterday concerning Woody Allen’s Manhattan, no one knew contemporary shadows better than Gordon Willis. Take The Godfather’s first scene as a prime example. When studio heads saw that Marlon Brando’s face was mostly shown in shadow, they were furious, going as far as threatening to take Coppola’s film away from him.

Somehow, they were dissuaded, which left Willis to shoot the picture how he saw fit, which is, of course, flawlessly. Don’t get me wrong, Willis could shoot in full light, too. Just look at the gorgeous Italian sequences, or the harsh grittiness of the restaurant shootout.

But honestly, Willis is referred to The Prince of Darkness for a reason.  Critics have been known to bulk at the fact that in more than a few scenes, Brando’s eyes are completely blackened out due to shadows and lighting. Willis said he did this deliberately so that it made Don Corleone more mysterious, and the audience was never be fully aware of what he is thinking. Job well done.

Days of Heaven (1978)
Dir. by Terrence Malick – Shot by Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler
Shot almost exclusively during magic hour, it’s impossible to deny that Days of Heaven is one of the most beautiful films ever conceived.

The opening scene, in all honesty, is nothing too special. But soon after Richard Gere and his family board a train, we cut to a wide shot of the train crossing a long bridge, and are utterly spellbound by its aesthetic. The scene is so breathtaking that it corrects your posture and drops your jaw, two acts that are repeated numerous times while watching the film. It never ceases to visually amaze.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. by Francis Ford Coppola – Shot by Vittorio Storaro
The harsh yellows of the napalm-smelling battlefield, the deep blues of the tiger-laden jungles, the revolving shadows on Brando’s face – everything about Apocalypse Now is pictorially immaculate.

Take the film’s most iconic image: Lt. Col. Kilgore rides high with his platoon in a helicopter, and after a few moments, he begins playing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The music builds and builds and builds as the soldiers on the various helicopters prepare to engage. We cut to the quiet, unaware Vietnam village, and when we cut back to the air, Coppola cuts to a series of wide shots of the choppers nearing the village. One angle, then another, then another. And then we see it. All of the helicopters, framed up perfectly against the blue sky and the crashing ocean.  It’s one of the finest shots in one of the most memorable scenes in film history. It’s a shot that solely justifies the film’s inclusion on this list.

The Thin Red Line (1998)
Dir. by Terrence Malick – Shot by John Toll
As a kid, I was always conscious of the camera in films. I knew that for every shot, there were multiple people behind the camera making it happen. I studied film intensely trying to figure out the tricks and the various marvels. But it wasn’t until The Thin Red Line that I realized cinematography could do that. Or, more accurately, that a film (let alone a war film) could show what The Thin Red Line showed. From then on, I was fascinated by the art form. In a sense, you can credit The Thin Red Line for these cinematography posts of mine. It was the first film that made me aware.

To this day, detractors still lament that The Thin Red Line is a boring, sappy mess, and a shitty war film at that. I understand their criticism, but I have no use for it. The film is a visual poem that encapsulates the true horror of war more effectively than I’ve ever seen. How, by showing blood being sprayed over lush, green grass? By watching a soldier gently pour water onto a giant leaf? Yes, exactly.

Traffic (2000)
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh – Shot by Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews)
If The Thin Red Line made me aware, Traffic made me curiously inspired. Yes there are, perhaps, hundreds of more worthy choices to occupy this space, but Traffic is another film that broke all the rules and completely changed my perception of how a film can look, and what it can say visually.

There’s the obvious, deliberate use of tones to separate the three stories, sure. But beyond that, Traffic isn’t afraid to do whatever the fuck it wants, which, in this very rare case, produces wholly effective results. Why did Soderbergh shoot the helicopter landing upside down? Because he thought it’d work, and he was right. Why did he shoot the entire picture handheld and purposefully make it grainy? Because he wanted to make the film look and feel real, which it does.

Traffic is my favorite movie of the 2000s for many reasons. It speaks to me on a number of levels, both humanly and as an artist. It was the first film that, after my initial viewing, I wondered aloud if “I could do that.” Who knows, but I’ve been trying ever since.

Amélie (2001)
Dir. by Jean-Pierre Jeunet – Shot by Bruno Delbonnel
Is there a happier, more hopelessly optimistic film than Amélie? Its positivity is inspiring to the point of being infectious, and Delbonnel deserves much of the credit. Shot in deep, rich hues of varying colors, Amélie is a film that feels alive. Aside from its use of color, pay attention to its swooping camera movements, such as the scene where Amélie grabs a blind man by the arm and describes what they are walking past with vivid detail.

That scene is one of the most thoughtful moments ever captured on film. It’s lovely in its selflessness, and glorious in its imagery.

Russian Ark (2002)
Dir. by Alexander Sokurov – Shot by Tilman Büttner
As far as I’m concerned, Russian Ark is THE example of cinematography as technique. While it may not be the most visually appealing film on this list, it is arguably the best executed. It’s simply impossible to not appreciate its power.

The film is 96 minutes long, the entirety of which is captured in one ingeniously extended shot. As the camera walks through the Russian State Hermitage Museum, we, the viewer, are privy to Russian history in a way no one has ever seen. Open one door in the museum, and we’re looking at Peter the Great screaming at one of his men, open the next door, and there’s a kid with a backpack staring at a painting. Every door opens wide into a different era of history. Hundreds of extras, and two orchestras, are implored, people dance, run, and scream, all to visual astonishment.  Russian Ark is necessary viewing for anyone who gets moderate enjoyment from the cinematic medium.

There Will Be Blood (2007)
Dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson – Shot by Robert Elswit
The camera work in There Will Be Blood is as much of a character as Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview. It moves and tracks and glistens with fervor. Look at the characters’ faces as they watch one of the oil towers burn high in the sky. They are fascinated by what they’re seeing, and we’re fascinated by they way they are seeing it.

Also note Elswit’s penchant for lighting dark areas so tellingly, such as when Plainview chips away at the interior of a massive hole he’s dug, or H.W. prepares to light his cabin on fire. There’s a mystery there, an attention to detail that most filmmakers don’t even bother with. Hell, anyone who can make a goddamn bowling alley look as exceptional as it does here surely deserves an Oscar.

The Tree of Life (2011)
Dir. by Terrence Malick – Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki 
Malick occupies three spots on this list for good reason (and believe you me, his New World almost made it four). His films speak to us in many ways: the acting, the narration, and, most significantly, the cinematography. You may not agree with Malick’s philosophical methods of telling a story, but to deny that his films look perfect is to be, well, wrong.

The Tree of Life is poetry represented visually. Every shot has thought, purpose, and more depth than most any five films combined. I know Malick is always credited as the writer and director of his films, but director and visualist feels more appropriate. I could, quite literally, take a still frame from any moment in the film, and write an extended essay about its beauty, and what it specifically means contextually to the film. But instead, I want to draw attention to one shot in particular that consistently moves me to the extent of which words cannot explain. As young Jack grows from an infant to a toddler, there’s a brief shot of him running playfully through the dining room after his mother. The shot lasts two seconds, but it’s something that will live with me forever.


72 comments:

  1. Such, such good choices!! Amelie and The Tree of Life and There Will Be Blood are all fantastic! Love it!

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    1. Thanks Ruth! Really glad you dig them.

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  2. No debate here are at all.

    I watched The Tree of Life the day before last and I was in awe of Lubezki's work. It is one of the greatest feats of photography I have ever seen. The lives of these characters are exquisitely conveyed through his his camera and every shot feels like a mini masterpiece in itself.

    As for the others, well The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven are unquestionably two of the most beautiful films as well. I will be including Vittorio Storaro on my list of cinematographers (when I get it finished) and Apocalypse Now, from a visual perspective, one of my favourite films.

    There Will Be Blood. Kudos my friend!

    I love all of Bergman's work, but a lot of his that I have seen are in B+W. Cries and Whispers, though tough going (I need to watch it again), was undeniably beautiful.

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks buddy! Love that we're in agreement (per usual haha). I love the look of Cries and Whispers, with Fanny and Alexander being a very very close second to my second favorite color Bergman film. Great stuff all around.

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  3. Good list, Apocalypse Now is STUNNING! I also like the look of "The Red Shoes". Great use of technicolor.

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    1. Ah, I was THIS close to adding The Red Shoes, which, yeah is probably my favorite looking technicolor film (well that and The Searchers).

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  4. Any list with Malick as far as cinematography is concerned has to be in there.

    I also second The Red Shoes by Powell/Pressburger that was shot by Jack Cardiff along with another Powell/Pressburger film in Black Narcissus.

    Additional mentions should include Ed Lachman's work for both Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides and Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, Anything that Chivo did for Alfonso Cuaron like Solo con Tu Pareja, A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Children of Men is a must see.

    Nykvist's work in Cries & Whispers is among the reasons why it's my favorite Bergman film so far.

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    1. Oh God, isn't Far From Heaven just...well, heavenly? Those Powell/Pressburger flicks are right up there with the best of them, just gorgeous.

      Chivo and Cuaron do amazing work together, I can't wait for Gravity.

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    2. And unfortunately, we probably will have to wait a little longer as Gravity is being pushed for 2013. Fucking test screenings.

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    3. Ugh I saw that. Well, let's hope for the best there. In fact, how the hell do they pick their test screening audiences? I'd love to be privy to one of those.

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    4. I don't recommend ever going to one. I went to one for Love Actually. It's an OK film but that whole experience was clearly one of the worst experiences I had watching a film. You have to judge a film that could be or couldn't be finished. You have to fill in a questionnaire and such. It's horrible.

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    5. Shit that does sound horrible. Not for me.

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  5. I love this list! Very happy to see the brilliant Days of Heaven on this. Such a stunning film. Same with The Tree of Life.

    I would add the Three Colours trilogy. Stunning use of colour in those.

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    1. Ah, good call on the Three Colors, especially Blue, the dark tones of which match the content so perfectly. Thanks for reading!

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  6. Not surprised to see three of Malick's work here, all of them are amazing, especially Days of Heaven. I also LOVE Amelie and yes it's definitely gorgeous. I'd add Tarsem's The Fall and Yimou Zhang's House of Flying Daggers.

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    1. I was pretty close to including something from the Crouching Tiger/Flying Daggers/Hero school of cinema... I love the look and feel of those flicks. The Fall was INSANE, but in a good way.

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  7. Oh God yes on The Thin Red Line. As for my choices, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes all the way. (Seriously, they're the reason why Blu-ray was created.)

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    1. Oooh I haven't seen those on Blu-Ray... I must amend this now.

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  8. Great post!

    I agree with essentially all of your choices especially on the films of Malick. They are all so beautifully shot. I do have one question though. Considering how big a fan of Bergman you are I was left wondering where is Fanny and Alexander on this list? It's the only other film that I would add to the list. Again, great post!

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    1. Ah I knew someone would call me out! Fanny and Alexander, my friend, is one of the best looking, most jaw-droppingly gorgeous films of all time. It made the initial cut, but then two things happened: I rewatched Apocalypse Now on Blu-Ray over the weekend, and realized there's no way it couldn't be on here. And I remembered the creative impact that Traffic has had over my life, which has been significant to say the least.

      In short, Fanny is number 12. Love everything about that film. Thanks so much for reading/commenting!

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  9. It's great that you have three Malick films on here. The dude's phenomenal.

    2001 and Cries and Whispers would easily be in my top three for colour cinematography.

    If I had to make a few suggestions:
    Cache: This movie absolutely masters the "cold stare" that I love about Haneke.
    Three Colours: Blue: Let this film stand in for the whole Colours trilogy, and The Double Life of Veronique while I'm at it. Slawomir Idziak is one of my favourite cinematographers.
    Gerry: Personifies what I love about the arthouse genre, and so much more.
    Inland Empire: The movie that made me approve of filming with digital cameras.
    Le Quattro Volte: Just... wow. Holy fuck, I mean... wow.
    Koyaanisqatsi: The movie that made my head explode.
    Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles: In this 200 minute movie, the camera never moves once. It only cuts. Think about that. Something else to consider: there is virtually no plot, and very little dialogue. Another thing to consider: I FUCKING LOVE IT.

    I could go on, but for the sake of space, I'll stop there.

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    1. Dude, Jeanne Dielman is a fucking amazing film. I simply don't understand the notion that if a film doesn't have a plot, it is automatically labeled boring by the majority of people. Lame.

      Anyway, all excellent choices and excellent reasoning behind those choices. I know how much you love Le Quattro Volte and Koyaanisqatsi, which are two I need to see ASAP.

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  10. Ooh great list. I've seen most of these and couldn't agree more. 2001 is just mind-boggling, and I love the ability of Tree of Life to capture moments that have been present throughout the lives of everyone and show how magical it can be.

    One of my personal favourites is Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette- I think everything in it, from the locations to the costumes to the music just helps it to look so pretty and enticing. I also think A Single Man is gorgeous, though I guess that's camera work. And Veronique definitely.

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    1. Oh oh and In the Mood for Love- just saw it, completely bowled over.

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    2. I LOVE what Ford did in A SIngle Man, the way he changed tones to depict George's current mood. And that giant close-up of the Psycho one-sheet... Jesus, that's just marvelous.

      I'm surprised you're the first to mention In the Mood for Love, which was definitely close to making this list. Marie Antoinette is the only Sofia Coppola film I haven't enjoyed, but maybe I'll go back and give it a fresh look. Good choices!

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  11. All fantastic choices, I agree. Also,I need to see Days of Heaven and The Russian Ark, plus other classics...damn, am I behind!

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    1. Ha it's okay! Slow and steady... you can only watch one at a time.

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  12. Another nice list and great screencaps,I love 2001 but I would leave the spot for Kubrick's Barry Lydon.Also,there should be a technicolor film here,either The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus deserves to be here.

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    1. I thought about having a technicolor film here (I did have The Searchers, but it was quickly replaced), but alas, here's what I go. Aside from Fanny and Alexander, Barry Lyndon was the last film to get crushed off the list. I fucking love the look of that film.

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  13. Fantastic choices! I loved the look of Requiem for a Dream. Might be a bit overly stylised for some and I'm including editing in the 'look' as well as the cinematography. Also loved the look of Tarsem Singh's The Fall.

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    1. Requiem is definitely stylized, but it was also most definitely a game changer visually, which I appreciate. But, yeah, I think a lot of the look and feel of that film is in its editing. Either way, great flick.

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  14. I'm just happy I've seen majority of these!! Will have to finally get around to checking out 2001: A Space Odyssey soon.

    Great list mate! Tree of Life was a movie I didn't really like but did enjoy the visual stunningness of it a lot. Cafe de Flore was very similar in it's visual greatness (but with more of a story) so hopefully you enjoy it when it eventually comes out in the US!

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    1. Man, I've heard nothing but great things about Cafe de Flore.. I cannot wait to see that!

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  15. In The Mood for Love! :(

    But I can't disagree with any of your posts really. That same scene from The Tree of Life gets me too. When I saw it in the trailer, damn.

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    1. Ah it's just mesmerizing. It nails me everytime. I most have watched that sequence 10 times last night while editing this post. Magical.

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    2. why didn't in the mood for love make the cut, man? you're killing me here.

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    3. It was close... but the heart wants what it wants, my friend.

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  16. Agree with Evan: In the Mood for Love would be in my list too.

    Otherwise, this is a wonderful list with some wonderful explanations - I haven't known your blog for a long time, but I really like your (current?) focus on the visual aspects of film. In the end, that's what's most special about films.
    I've only seen The Tree of Life of Malick's work, so I'm very eager to see more, as it's one of my favourite movies already, and one of the most beautiful films I've seen.
    When I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, I almost cried because of its beauty. I mean, there are no words for it.

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind words! I'm fascinated by each and every aspect of film, and I suppose I've articulated my love of cinematography on a basic level on here before, but yeah, never this head on. Your words about 2001 are EXACTLY how I feel about its visuals everytime I watch it.

      I visit your site often, so glad to have found it!

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  17. Another awesome list, my friend. So happy to see 2001 included -- I am waiting ever so patiently for that to be screened somewhere around here. Would love to see that on the big screen.

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    1. Oh my god, I'd shit myself if I saw that on the big screen. Can you imagine seeing a 35MM print of that? Heavenly.

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  18. Excellent choices man, and certainly I agree with them all. I love the fact that there are 3 Malick films and also that you gave Traffic a nod. (That movie never seems to be the respect it deserves.) If I were to make this list, our choices would basically be the same, but a film I would have to include for its looks would be Vertigo.

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    1. Ahh Vertigo was damn close to making the cut here.

      Dude, I cannot tell you how happy it makes me when others give praise to Traffic. Oh how I love that movie. Its power continues to stun me.

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  19. I would have had Lawrence of Arabia at the top of my list. If ever there was a film to show to people to make them understand what "cinematography" means, it's this one. The ship moving through the desert is a mindblower.

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    1. Oh God, the look of that movie is flawless, isn't it? Definitely very very close to being on the list. Love the long shot of Lawrence walking in the desert toward the camera.

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  20. I've heard many good things about Amelie, and to hear it was shot very well motivates me want to investigate it more! As for "Days of Heaven", you had me at the words "magic hour".

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    1. Oh Amelie is just delightful. Cannot recommend it highly enough. And Days of Heaven... its look will spellbound you.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. Aidy - I'd like to add my recommendation for Amelie. It is a wonderful film.

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  21. An interesting and eclectic list, I always believe it helps when a film is shot nicely and the colours help add atmosphere or emotion to the film

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  22. Hitchcock.......North by Northwest, The Trouble With Harry, Vertigo, To Catch A Thief!
    Kubrick..........A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Barry Lyndon........sumptuous!
    The Powell/Pressburger films were pretty easy on the eyes too!

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    1. Great choices all around. When I first drafted this list, I assumed more than one Kubrick flick would make the cut, but the visual perfection of 2001 will have to do!

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  23. Shane.........strange choice you might think! Have another look. Just beautiful!

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    1. Oh not strange at all, Shane is Technicolor at its finest. Love the look of that film!

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  24. How about films where color is almost the star? Ran and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg leap to mind.

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    1. Great idea. I'll have to think on that one.

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  25. Yea- so I saw Persona in 35mm tonight :D I can completely see where you are coming from. That movie is one of the best looking straight up ever- let alone in monochrome. That light is just sooo perfect.

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    1. Man, what I would give to see that in 35mm. Must have been amazing.

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  26. Clicked on the wrong list... fuck >:( You get what I mean.

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  27. In my opinion, Marketa Lazarová looks better than all of these.

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    1. This list was only for color films, but I get your point.

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    2. I actually meant to post that comment on the black and white list. My bad!

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    3. All good! I need to rewatch Marketa Lazarová actually. Haven't seen it in years.

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  28. Its certainly hard to argue against any of these picks: They all look phenomenal- but did you consider any Tarkovsky for the list? I know the mixed stock and stock footage might exempt them technically or something but I re-watched both Stalker and Mirror yesterday and they made a pretty damn convincing case for their place ;D

    Happy to say I've seen all of these movies now. Amelie was just as gorgeous as you said it would be.

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    1. Sad to admit, but before writing this post, I hadn't seen a Tarkovsky (!), or at least that many. But, today, yes, I'd say at least one Tarkovsky film would be listed. Man, I really need to have a new Tarkovsky marathon soon.

      So glad you've seen all the films listed here.

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  29. Hi! I stumbled onto your blog and have been reading your posts for the last three hours or so- even for movies I've never even seen. I haven't watched that many films, but your posts are on the verge of making that change.

    For very beautiful films: The Fall is my go to. It blew my mind (and my heart) when I was a kid. It set the standard for me. Then there's Jodhaa Akbar which, while a 'meh' to 'OK' film plot-wise, the cinematography (and the ecstasy inducing soundtrack) was out of this world! Especially for an Indian film which are known for their colours and music. I'd rewatch it for that reason alone. There's also something about Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. While I'm not exactly a fan of the film, the cinematography had a certain ethereality that made it simply unforgettable.

    I'm sure there were other movies I've seen that could be considered incredibly beautiful, but I can't remember! Because most of the movies I've watched I watched when I was younger and had nothing better to do and 1. had barely any idea what was going on at the time and 2. can rarely even recall the name of. The fact that we didn't have cable listings that could assist if we'd missed the opening credits probably contributed to that.

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    1. Wow, thank you SO MUCH for spending so much time on the site and leaving such a nice comment. I really appreciate it! I love the look of The Fall and Marie Antoinette. They are both such visual marvels. I haven't seen Jodhaa Akbar, but your description makes me want to seek it out right away!

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  30. Glad to know you liked the comment! Now that I think about it, there's also Curse of the Golden Flower. The costumes make up a lot of its overall beauty, but when there's a wide shot- gahdamn!

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    1. Oh yeah, totally with you on that one.

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  31. 2001 is gorgeous. For me, the best looking movie has to be the Fall (2006).

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    1. Ohh that is a great choice. Tarsem Singh has such a distinct visual style.

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