TV & Movies

12 Of The Best Cinematography Movies Ever Made

By Tim Piccione

A scene from the film

We watch movies to be transported into another world—to forget the moment we're in and jump into someone else's. That feeling is more effortless to experience if a film is visually and strikingly beautiful. But what makes a movie beautiful to watch?

It can be cinematography, colours, settings, lighting, music, composition, or visual effects? And sometimes it's just a simple, but undefinable, quality of visual satisfaction. While beauty is in the eye of the moviegoer, here we've compiled a list of our favourite beautiful movies. We're covering all bases here too, with films that have probably been on your must-watch list forever, films you've seen but could use a revisit in a new light, or some undervalued gems that we guarantee you won't regret watching.

Cosy up on the couch, open your eyes wide, and take in our list of 12 most beautiful films.

Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight tells a coming of age story in three parts: a boy (Little), a teenager (Chiron), and a man (Black), each navigating the inner confusions of his sexuality, living in the impoverished Miami suburb of Liberty City. Moonlight is widely considered one of the 21st century's best films, picking up Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards. But that's not why we think you should watch it.

The script is based on a play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton tried bringing that visual to life, contrasting the rich complexities of their character's skin tones with the surprising depth of vibrant colours throughout the film. It's this contrast throughout the film's colour scheme that makes it so aesthetically unique. Liberty City is saturated with greens in grass and trees, yellows of public housing, white walls striped with dark blues in school, neon pink in the darkness of Chiron's home, and the endlessly colourful Florida backdrop. Our focus is continuously drawn to newly introduced colours as the story progresses, both in the daylight and in the darkness of night—Moonlight is unrelenting in its beauty.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

It wasn't easy choosing just one Paul Thomas Anderson film for this list—movies like The Master or Phantom Thread are both stunning works. But we think There Will Be Blood, his crowning achievement, was most deserving. The American epic drama depicts the life of sociopathic and ruthless oilman Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) and his ceaseless pursuit of wealth and power in Southern California's oil boom at the turn of the century.

The only thing worthy of discussion alongside Day-Lewis' tortured and isolated portrayal of Plainview (which he nabbed a Best Actor award for), is the work of PTA and his long-time collaborator and cinematographer, Robert Elswit. PTA uses longer camera shots and fewer editing cuts to make every scene and every shot critical and tense. The film opens without dialogue for the first 14-and-a-half minutes, forcing us into a dry and arid desert landscape. You need to give extra credit to someone who can visually blow you away with only the dark and bland colours of the American West and can shock your senses with the raging fury and light of an oil well on fire. 

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

In the Northern Italian summer of 1983, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) meets and falls in love with his father's research assistant (Armie Hammer). Beyond the fact that the film manages to be funny, heart-warming, and tragic all at once, while telling an important LGBTQIA+ story, it's an absolute cheat code for beauty.

As well as its idyllic, Euro-summer setting, the film takes us along for the ride, using a lot of handheld camera—making it feel incredibly intimate. You're also given a sense of the era of this summer love, with grainy 35mm giving a real 80s vibe. Here are just some of the things you can look forward to in Call Me By Your Name: bike riding through the Northern Italy countryside, historic architecture and pebble stone towns, Hammer drunkenly dancing in short shorts to 80s pop music, and Chalamet speaking both French and Italian and playing the piano. Surely, we've said enough?

Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan's grand and cinematic style of filmmaking can at times feel overwhelming and confusing—especially as he regularly toys with tricky physics theories like entropy and general relativity. If this year's Nolan sci-fi was a bit too mind-boggling for you, we suggest a watch of Dunkirk. The war thriller depicts the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940, told from the perspectives and differing timelines of land, sea, and air.

Nolan and cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, had a big vision for the film. They wanted it to be a visceral viewing experience, aiming for the Imax screen. The pair used the camera to transport us into the cockpit of a spitfire plane, a sinking rescue boat, and the shores of a battle-ravaged beach. Like the characters, you never feel safe or removed from the action of the battle because you're not watching it, you're in it. Don't expect Michael Bay-level explosives—the scenes are practical and without many special effects, relying instead on visuals and sound (a relentless ticking score from Hans Zimmer) to keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Quentin Tarantino described a shot of a foregrounded soldier lying face down in the sand being approached by an encroaching bombardment as "maybe the greatest shot in war movie history". So, if you don't take it from us, listen to QT.

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

Based on the 1970 Roald Dahl classic children's book of the same name, Fantastic Mr Fox is a stop motion animated comedy detailing the story of a fox pitted against the evil farmers he is stealing from. Wes Anderson's unique and quirky filmmaking style perfectly translates into telling stories of affable anthropomorphic animals. Because actors seem to love working with Anderson, we're also treated to having those animals voiced by an incredible cast—George Clooney, Meryl Street, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Michael Gambon, and Willem Dafoe all feature.

But what makes this film beautiful? Symmetry. Maths, in this case, is a sight to behold. Anderson is obsessed with the symmetry of his movies, and that's never more prevalent than in the charming painted tapestry of Fantastic Mr Fox. The precise and balanced shot selections, paired with the film's scenic autumn colour palette of browns, reds, and yellows make for a stunning and calming reimagining of a childhood favourite.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

When his job depends on finding an original photo, negative assets manager for Life magazine, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), escapes the normality of his uneventful existence by adventuring around the world to track down the photographer who took it. Also directed by Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of the more underrated gems you'll find on this list.

Walter's maladaptive daydreaming takes us in and out of the wild, comical, and beautifully crafted creations from his mind. That is until his journey takes him to some breathtaking parts of the world. Most of the travelling shots were filmed in Iceland (including an amazing Stiller fast-paced longboarding scene), which should tell you all you need to know about the film's visual appeal. This is nothing more than an extremely enjoyable, feel-good film with some fun performances, an awesome soundtrack, and some beautiful locations.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Oh yes, you better believe that George Miller's post-apocalyptic, Australian, wild action classic belongs on this list! If any movie has ever demonstrated how fire, destruction, and chaos can be beautiful, it's Mad Max: Fury Road. Don't be turned off by the fact that the film's entire plot centres around a car chase going one way, and then the other way. Underneath the mindless and spectacular action sequences put together by Miller in the unforgiving Namibian desert, is a staunchly feminist story rebelling against toxic patriarchy and the expanding socioeconomic disparity across the world.

While we're trying not to focus too much on Academy Award wins on this list, it is notable that Fury Road swept the 2015 Oscars' technical awards—winning best production design, costume design, film editing, sound mixing, sound editing, and makeup and hairstyling. That technical prowess is what makes this movie so bloody spectacular to watch. A large majority of the stunt work in the film is practical and without much CGI—if you need proof, check out this video. In a 2017 interview commenting on the movie's notoriously difficult shoot, Steven Soderbergh said, "I don't understand how hundreds of people aren't dead". We highly recommend you do this unlikely masterwork justice with a big TV and the sound all the way up.

Free Solo (2018)

We wanted to include the often-unheralded work of documentary makers in this list, and what better film to represent the beauty of real-life captured through a lens than one filmed entirely around Yosemite's incredibly picturesque El Capitan. Free Solo follows the journey of rock climber Alex Honnold as he attempts the death-defying act of climbing El Cap's 3000-foot granite face without the safety of any climbing ropes.

Both unbelievably tense and inspiring, Honnold's story and climb are captured by directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who recruited elite climbers and filmmakers to capture the climb and the training leading up to it. When you're shooting a film at Yosemite National Park, you don't need much else other than the backdrop to say the film is mesmerisingly beautiful. But Vasarhelyi and Chin manage to shoot Honnold's spectacular feat without interfering while giving us an intimate sense of climbing alongside him.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Since 1968, Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi classic has been studied, deciphered, and discussed as a piece of film history as much as any movie ever made. Its technical ingenuity, pioneering special effects and genre-defining cinematography have cemented it as one of the greatest films of all time. It's safe to say that most of your favourite sci-fi space films, like Gravity, Ad Astra, or Interstellar are all one way or another directly influenced by 2001. But there's one very simple reason it belongs on this list, despite being over 50 years old—it's unequivocally beautiful to look at. Roughly half the movie is without actual dialogue, so the entire story is extremely visual. 

Don't worry yourself too much with the film's plot, just know that it takes you on an indescribable cinematic journey depicting the evolution of humankind. It's the kind of film where you might not know exactly what you've experienced the first time, but you know you've watched something spectacular and important. If you can, try and get to a cinema and catch it in glorious 70mm. Trust us. It's worth it.

Hero (2002)

Amongst the seven divided kingdoms of China, a Nameless man (Jet Li) has an audience with the King of Qin and recounts his stories of defeating three great assassins—each who would otherwise have killed the King. The stories are told in a series of flashbacks, each taking place in different coloured worlds: black, red, blue, white, and green. Hero (originally titled Ying Xiong) paints beautifully choreographed fighting sequences with visually spectacular scenes of colour. Director Zhang Yimou and Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle have said the selection of colours representing different points of view and timelines are not symbolic, but merely aesthetic. Picking colours because they look nice is exactly how you land yourself on this list. 

Now, here's the part we didn't want to tell you: this movie is not currently available anywhere on our internet. Like lots of incredible older foreign films, it's not on any Australia streaming or downloadable libraries (but don't let us stop you from using a VPN). Maybe it's like Red said in The Shawshank Redemption: Some movies are not meant to be caged, that's all. Their colour palettes are too bright, their musical scores too sweet and wild. We're pretty sure that's the quote…

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Let's be honest, we could have just made this list all films that cinematographer Roger Deakins has worked on, but we tried our hardest to be a bit more balanced. Anything the man touches with his lens is immediate gold, and more often than not, strikingly beautiful. Again, we're trying not to reference the Academy Awards here, but we have to mention Deakins' 15 nominations for Best Cinematography. He is a living legend of modern cinema, so we chose to present his most visually beautiful work, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Consider this our top pick for hidden gems.

Andrew Dominik's American Western epic tells a revisionist version of Jesse James' (played by Brad Pitt) last years before being murdered by a younger, resentful member of his gang who spent a lifetime idolising the famed outlaw. The entire film is a masterclass in capturing the essence and beauty of seasonal change, from the autumn landscapes of the American Midwest to the harsh depths of its winters. Yet, it's at night, in the candlelit darkness, that Deakins' true genius shines as he finds an indescribable beauty in lighting people and nature. Many (including Deakins himself according to some unsubstantiated internet quotes) consider the night time train robbery scene at the beginning of the film to be the cinematographer's single greatest achievement.

Waves (2019)

If this list has shown anything, it's that sometimes the saddest and darkest stories are told in starkly contrasted beauty. That fact is not lost on writer-director Trey Edward Shults and his 2019 romance drama, Waves. The film, told in two separate stories, follows a South Florida suburban family's journey before and through an unthinkable moment of horror, as well as their struggle to stay together in its aftermath.

Waves is a visual collaboration of intriguing camera work, natural lighting, and striking settings. The movie feels most genuine because it draws from Shults' real life and family, but it also gives a sense that the lens is capturing reality and improvisation. It's like the camera is gliding through the scenes rather than shooting them. That feel also comes in large part thanks to the thoughtful and emotional performances of the entire cast. Finally, the film's soundtrack, including the likes of Frank Ocean, Tame Impala, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance the Rapper, was embedded by Shults into the script and feels as important for scene-setting as the dialogue itself.

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Image credit: Sony Pictures

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