Screen Robot writers discuss the visual stunners that have stuck with them from the past 14 years.
The request was simple: pick one film that we each consider the ‘best-looking’ to have been released since the year 2000, and briefly explain what we so admire about what we see on screen. Of course, ‘best-looking’ is a vague term – we could be talking about well-composed cinematography, finely-crafted design work, even a particularly handsome cast – and as open to wide-ranging subjectivity as one would imagine. Here’s what we came up with.
Joel Durston: Hero
It’s a rare feat that a film earn all-round approval from my family in my childhood. My brother and I, like any self-respecting young teens/pre-teens, hankered for explosions, wisecracks and boobs – or, even better, all three; our parents sought worthy dramas and arthouse stuff mostly. So it’s to Hero’s great credit that we all fell in love with it. It’s a fantasy so dripping with vision and ambition that it can beguile anyone. The special effects, for all the jaw-dropping airborne fighting, were stunning at the time and still hold up to this day, a dozen years on. And it’s a cinematographer’s wet dream – costumes (the cast is very attractive too), buildings and landscapes all shot in striking shades of red, yellow and orange. In fact, there is very little dialogue, director Yimou Zhang wisely letting the visuals speak for themselves.
Josh Radburn: Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2
From its emphatically saturated brawl in the suburbs, to the black and white gladiatorial affairs at its climax, Volume 1’s action is a rich display of brutality. By the second outing, every element of cinematographic style and essence had fully matured into something as equally deadly and engaging as its more action packed predecessor. All held down by consistent odes to the great martial arts and femme fatale flicks of old, this two-part series, lathered in Tarantino grit, carries a highly undervalued aesthetic that brings the madness of anime to life in the most grounded and beautifully bloodthirsty way possible.
Gareth Wood: Renaissance
There’s something starker about black and white than full colour. It’s a medium full of hidden complexity. Detail becomes subtler. That’s clearly what appealed to the minds behind Renaissance. This 2006 animated film shows us a semi-recognisable Paris of 2054; a city where a neo-brutalist modernism of glass is sweeping through Haussman’s classical boulevards like a weed. So too do its people favour the vitality of youth over the wisdom of age, to the point where they live in hock to the vicious Avalon Corporation. Their lives drained of colour by the way, they have surrendered their reason to their vanity.
Matt Lee: The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life divided audiences; some labelled it pretentious, while others hailed it as a modern 2001: A Space Odyssey. Either way, its visual splendour and unique filmmaking style has had many filmgoers reflect upon its imagery and themes. Never has such a film captured man’s minuscule place within the cosmos and conveyed the high magnitude of a parent-child’s relationship via the child’s perspective – both in its immediacy and in retrospect. The Tree of Life is a visual marvel of creation, significance and love. It is Terrence Malick’s most beautiful work, as well as a 21st century masterpiece.
George Storr: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Yes, choosing Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers does seem like either a cop-out answer, or an uncultured one. But the way the film captures Tolkien’s massive fantasy world while finely balancing the film’s impressive scale, with elements grittier than the other two parts of the trilogy, is undeniably impressive. New Zealand’s splendour is displayed perfectly, and the battle for Helms Deep creates an atmosphere that really grips, making it by far the high point of three films that were astounding on a visual level, and that still set precedents today.
Garrett Glass: Inception
While Nolan nods to architecture throughout Inception, he takes the lines of a blueprint and stretches them beyond the page to create the surreal foundations used for fascinating set pieces like the rotating hallway. Since dreams are surreal experiences, Nolan could have easily used CGI to create the hypnagogic special effects. Instead, he opted to build the actual sets and pair them with camera tricks, resulting in a more immersive film. It’s almost as if Nolan’s goal with Inception was to bring his dreams to life on the big screen while simultaneously creating one of the best looking films of the 21st century.
Brogan Morris: The Master
Eclipsing even the cinematography on PT Anderson’s previous masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, DoP Mihai Malaimare Jr colours Anderson’s The Master a vibrant, sunny daydream, and a pastel-hued stab at 50s Americana. Malaimare excels when scoping out the details of a landscape, but the close-ups especially astound when they take focus on The Master’s lead subjects, played by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman performing on rocket fuel. The anguished face of an animal Phoenix is as mesmerising as any image in Malaimare’s gorgeous tapestry, which ventures from the blue froth of the Pacific to the scorched dust of the California desert.
Ed Perry: Avatar
I appreciate the beauty of traditional 2D cinematography as much as the next movie nerd. Yet, no matter how brilliantly composed the framing and colour palate in Skyfall, or how incredibly long that tracking shot is at the end of Children of Men, those films still didn’t manage to leave me speechless in quite the same way Avatar did. If you missed Avatar, on the big screen and in 3D mind you, then you don’t know the meaning of the word immersive. Yes the story is derivative, but the 3D visuals are a magnificent and unsurpassed technological achievement.
Mariana Siqueira: Enter the Void
I was lucky enough to watch Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void in a movie theatre for the first time and get the full effect of its visual and emotional intensity. The whole film is shot from the main character, drug dealer Oscar’s, perspective; using handheld cameras and dramatic shifts in camera angles, Noé recreates the states of alteration lived by Oscar. That, paired with the director’s use of bright neon colours, makes the film look and feel like an acid trip. From its opening credits, to shots of Tokyo’s nocturnal cityscape, the film immerses you in a state of hypnosis – even as hopelessly depressing as it is, you can’t look away. The visual contrast crafted by Noé (between flashbacks of the main characters’ childhoods and scenes of their adult life) is also extremely poetic, evoking reflections on the film’s main themes of life and death, sexuality and emptiness.
Ciaran West: Her
A deliberate decision by Spike Jonze to avoid using the colour blue led to Her’s refreshing, non-dystopian vision of the future. Landscapes, interiors, and skin tones are given a golden glow, and this warmth permeates both the plot itself, and the viewer’s mood throughout. More is told in a 30-second close-up of Joaquin Phoenix’s face than Michael Bay manages in four Transformers movies. Every scene is painted with simplistic beauty, which at times had this Screen-Roboteer close to tears. Director of Photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema, was also behind 2008’s immaculately shot Let the Right One, and Christopher Nolan’s stunning-looking Interstellar.
Zachary Boren: The Great Beauty
In his search for life’s great beauty – the intangible truth of existence – writer Jep Gambardella lives amid Rome’s rich colours. He is dancing below the neon lights from the iconic Martini sign atop the city’s skyline, he is admiring the lush greenery of cathedral gardens, he is walking beside the serene pastels of the Roman canals. Paolo Sorrentino’s masterpiece lives up to its name; his camera captures the city’s great beauty, but more than that: it delicately and deliberately paints the artist’s soul.
Jeremie Sabourin: Skyfall
Skyfall is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. The criminally underrated director of photography, Roger Deakins, created a work of art in nearly every shot of the film. From the skyscraper in Shanghai and the casino in Macau, all the way to the dilapidated estate at Skyfall, each and every shot looks like it could be its own individual painting. Although Claudio Miranda won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Life of Pi that year, Roger Deakins was more than deserving of his nomination in the category, as well as of the award itself.
Andrew Barry: Pacific Rim
Considering just how terrible the acting was, the fact that it scores 7.1 on IMDb and 72% on Rotten Tomatoes should be testament to how much impact the visuals in Pacific Rim carry. Guillermo del Toro went to an extraordinary length to try and create a visual experience akin to what all kids have dreamed of at one point or another. He even created a physical simulator of the inside of a Jaeger (I’m still waiting for it to be released as a theme park ride). I saw this movie three times on release, and every time I left the cinema with my hair standing and their tips singed. It’s the cinematic equivalent of watching an atomic bomb test.
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Featured image: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Inset images: Miramax; Miramax; Miramax; Fox Searchlight; New Line Cinema; Warner Bros; The Weinstein Company; 20th Century Fox; Wild Bunch Distribution; Warner Bros; Medusa Film; MGM/Columbia; Warner Bros