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The five most beautiful movies ever made

May 21, 2011

Motion pictures are an art-form, I have no question in my mind.  The fame of the masters of still photography such as Ansel Adams or Philip Hyde should be just as easily translatable to the master of the moving form of the art, for in the respect of lighting and composition, the latter is infinitely more difficult, yet the majority of people are totally absent any knowledge of the “greats” behind the camera of their favorite films.  Cinematographers such as Roger Pratt and Laszlo Kovaks are “painters of light” that most folks have never even heard of, but they are responsible for many of the images we embrace and love in our society.

The following five movies are the epitome of the beauty that can be had from the motion picture.  Michael Bay will be conspicuously absent, this is about film-making as an art, not as a business venture.  For sure, most of these movies have made money over their time, but that is a result of timeless beauty, not some Bayesque formulaic method of cookie cutter “summer blockbuster” creation.  I hope you enjoy.

5.  2001: A Space Odyssey – Holy crap!  That is all one can truly say about the beauty of this film.  The scale and grandeur of Stanley Kubrik’s opus do not fail to deliver, this movie is ridiculously gorgeous.  Given that this film was made in 1968, long before the cheap-tricks of computer animation, this movie’s amazing shots are all the more spectacular (eat crap Michael Bay!).  The one shot that really sticks out for me is when Heywood Floyd is landing at the lunar base.  His weird, huge, stubby looking “lunar lander” is coming down to the base and the iris nature of the landing bay opens up to accept this gift from the gods.  The shot is taken from inside the bay upward to see the lander coming down from the pitch black sky, this is 1968 folks!  No one had ever seen anything remotely like this film before, and yet it is still breathtaking today.  The list of amazing shots in this film is too long to list, but they are varied and all are incredible.

4.  Citizen Kane – This movie is frequently listed as one of the best movies ever made, and is considered the top movie in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies, but why?  It’s awfully boring isn’t it?  Notwithstanding one of the few chances to see a skinny Orson Welles, his performance as Kane is not what makes this movie so amazing, nor is the writing, though it won an academy award for that category.  I feel it is the sheer beauty of this film that makes it such an acclaimed classic.  Welles, in his first effort at film-making, did things with motion pictures that no one even imagined possible before this film.  He had special lenses made for his cameras so he could perfect the deep-focus shots so prevalent throughout.  He cut up the floor of the sets so he could shoot from a “worm’s eye view”, a technical trick simple enough to do, but not even considered before.  And it was Welles’ eye for frame composition that makes this film so noteworthy.  His low and high angle shots, usually framed by some geometric construct that conveys a subliminal message to the viewer, are a thing of beauty.  This movie is still studied by film-students to this day, 70 years later.  Rent it, watch it, love it, not for the story, because it is dated and definitely boring, but for the sheer black-and-white beauty of a single instance of Welles’ perfection.  He had nowhere to go but downhill after coming so strong out of the gate, but he gave us a gift with his first film.

3.  The Fisher King – I couldn’t do this list without including a Terry Gilliam film.  His skewed view of life makes his incredibly deep and layered movies a joy to watch not just once, but many times over.  It was a toss-up on which film to include on this list, this movie or 12 Monkeys, but the lighting and quirky off-kilter angles of The Fisher King won out.  Mostly soft-lit (there are some scenes with stark contrasts), this movie is truly a work of art.  My favorite scene is when Robin Williams is following his would-be love, she doesn’t know he exists yet, into Grand Central Station.  As he watches her navigate the crowd, a slow hinting of music begins to pluck at our ears, just out of reach to recognize what is playing.  As it builds in volume, the crowd milling about suddenly organizes itself into 100’s of couple dancing to the beautiful music that we learn is actually inside Williams’ fragmented psyche.  A long crane shot reveals the light of the mid-day sun reflecting off the huge brass clock set in the middle of the newly created ballroom floor, little spots of light dancing along with the players in this most beautiful of set-pieces in film-making history.  It truly is breathtaking, and the movie is worth watching for this scene alone, but it is by no means its only highlight.  The Fisher King is an amazing work of art that I highly recommend it.

2.  Babe – I know, “How the hell is a movie about a pig on this list?”  Well, watch it sometime and look at the photography, its freaking obvious.  This movie is simply beautiful, and I have to think it was all by accident.  The director, Chris Noonan, has done little else since its creation, which is a shame, because he showed some amazing chops with this delightful movie (it was nominated for 7 academy awards, one for Best Director, which is amazing considering its a kid’s movie).  I can not even begin to list the beautiful shots that make this film so stunning, it needs to be taken in completely, not separated into its parts.  Just watch it!

1.  Lawrence of Arabia – This was a tough call for me, Babe was seriously vying for tops of my list, but I had to go with David Lean’s epic biopic.  My God this movie is incredible!  It really is breathtaking, I have a hard time coming up with the hyperbole to describe it.  The wide-angle shots of the stark desert of Arabia,  the plentiful colors of the Arab dress, or the long tracking shots of horsemen and camelmen? all create a film that every person should watch at least once in their lifetime.  To me, the true test of a movie’s beauty is whether or not you could remove a single frame of film and pass it off as a work of art worthy of showcasing in a museum, to say the least, you could fill thousands of museums with frames from this movie.  It is simply an amazing work of art.

That is my list, and if you will notice, every director on it would be considered an “auteur”.  Difficult men to work with, men of singular vision whose goal is hard-described but attainable if only his followers will bend to his will.  Film-making is a collaborative process, but moving artwork has to come from a lone source.  Credit is definitely due the cinematographers that helped convey their visions to the film, but the end result is creditable to the directors first and foremost.

If you have any movies to add, please comment below and tell me what you think.  =)

29 Comments leave one →
  1. JustFacts permalink
    May 21, 2011 8:55 am

    Good choices Fleece.

    One movie, always credited as a “Feel-good Flick,” but had wonderful cinematography for a “sports” film was Hoosiers. The basketball action shoots are superb and the Fall scenic shoots of small-town, mid-America countryside provide a magnificent contrast that, coupled with the excellent soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith, paint a visual and audio masterpiece that was never given the credit it was due. Director David Anspaugh (also made Rudy) and Cinematographer Fred Murphy teamed to make this a really beautiful film throughout. Anspaugh disowned the TV-edited version, so if you want to watch it, get the full video.

    Another movie that was “made” by its visuals was Bullitt). Of course, I may be influenced a little on this one by my favorite actor, Steve McQueen. The filming of the chase scene was pure brilliance. Not “beautiful” in the “pretty” sense, but in the sense that it portrays the true feeling of the movie at that point in the script. You “are” in the car. Director Peter Yates and late Cinematographer William Fraker (Rosemary’s Baby, Paint Your Wagon, Tombstone) combined to make this film one of my all-time favorite. When you mention “chase scene” the first film any movie buff mentions is “Bullitt.”

    • May 21, 2011 9:58 pm

      I love Hoosiers, but I think it was constrained by what the director was trying to convey, an idyllic 50’s Indiana farm community. The film is so constrained, it almost would look better in black and white. This is not a knock on the film – I am sure it was a conscious decision by the director to showcase the small town team that went all the way. Camera tricks and flashy photography would have been out of place, as would garish colors and extreme contrasts. If Hoosiers were a painting it would be American Gothic, or a Rockwell.

  2. May 21, 2011 10:00 am

    Thanks for sharing your time, thoughts and efforts. Great list!

  3. May 21, 2011 10:04 am

    Pretty much everything Kurbrick would be on my list. No way I could narrow this down to just 5.

  4. KatWing permalink
    May 21, 2011 1:39 pm

    I would like to add “Patriot” with Mel Gibson. I watch this movie over and over just to enjoy the Cinematography. Such as the cannon ball landing and bouncing straight at you. I also love to see the outdoor scenery of the plantation. I think they captured the sights and feeling of the American Revalution era.

    • May 21, 2011 10:01 pm

      Excellent! That is the point of this list. These are movies we watch not because we like the story, or the acting, or the “special effects”, but because they are just beautiful.

  5. May 21, 2011 4:31 pm

    2001 was and incredible film, and it does stand up rather well today.

    • May 21, 2011 10:05 pm

      I think it easily stands up with anything the “masters” of special effects try to create on their computers nowadays. It is easily the most realistic science fiction film ever made. The lack of sound when the viewpoint is originating from space, the very conscious and very detailed use of gravity, and the flight controls all detail an accurate portrayal of space even more incredible considering we landed on the moon the same year this movie was released.

  6. May 22, 2011 11:11 am

    I hadn’t realized that Fisher King was Terry Gilliam’s work. I’m a big fan of his movies.

    And I completely agree about Babe. Lush and gorgeous that film. Cute too.

    • May 25, 2011 10:33 pm

      Yep, Gilliam is fantastic.

      And Babe is one of my favorites. It was one of the first movies I got on laser disc back in the day, lol.

  7. May 23, 2011 9:52 am

    Good list. 2001 is one of my favorites. And I’m not just saying that because I keep asking HAL to open the pod bay doors.

    • May 25, 2011 10:34 pm

      Ohh, that HAL never listens.

      Its rather boring, but I can never take my eyes off it. 2001 is so incredible. Kubrick could have never made another movie and I would still consider him one of the all time greats just for this movie.

  8. May 24, 2011 12:02 pm

    Great list.. I will go with Lawrence as my fav. It is so appropriate for what is going on now in that region.

    • May 25, 2011 10:35 pm

      Thanks, and Lawrence of Arabia is definitely a fave, not only for its beauty. David Lean was such an amazing story teller.

  9. May 28, 2011 6:47 pm

    No argument with your choices.

    My favorite movie is Awakenings, but I wouldn’t call it a beautiful movie — except what it reveals about the compassion of the human heart.

    • May 28, 2011 11:23 pm

      I don’t think I have ever watched that movie in its entirety, I must give it a good viewing sometime.

  10. May 29, 2011 7:46 am

    I would go with Blade Runner. Haven’t seen it in a while, but back in the day it was amazing.

    • May 29, 2011 11:20 am

      Good call. Ridley Scott and his brother Tony both have a distinctive style to their films, Tony moreso now, though he used to be a vanilla director with such lame fair as Top Gun and such, but with Man on Fire I believe he truly came into his own.

  11. JustFacts permalink
    May 29, 2011 1:24 pm

    Hey Fleece, how about a list of movies where the soundtrack fits the movie theme the best. Not the “Best” soundtrack. Ones where the soundtrack “fits” the screenplay the best.

    • May 29, 2011 2:50 pm

      Hmm, I might be able to swing that, though I never had the best ear for music. Any suggestions?

  12. mike permalink
    May 29, 2011 8:34 pm

    i havent seen every great color movie yet, i’m working on it on a daily basis, but of the color movies i have seen so far, the best are, in no particular order…war and peace 1967…lawrence of arabia 1962…2001 a space odyssey 1968…leave her to heaven 1945…black narcissus 1947…umbrellas of cherbourg 1964…the river 1951…days of heaven 1978…singin in the rain 1952…gone with the wind 1939…kwaidan 1964…wizard of oz 1939…magic box 1951…red shoes 1948…blood and sand 1941…heaven can wait 1943 dersu uzala 1975…cries and whispers 1972…house of flying daggers 2004…shane 1953…curse of the golden flower 2006…legend 1986…all that heaven allows 1955…apocalypse now 1979…gangs all here 1943…vertigo 1958…south pacific 1958…north by northwest 1959… ryans daughter 1970…trouble with harry 1955…bram stokers dracula 1992…doctor zhivago 1965…there you have it, the 32 best color films ever made …i’ve been working on my color film list for over 10 yrs and have been watching movies for30 yrs,so far i have about 180 color movies that are really good ,out of a couple of thousand that i have watched to see if they are worthy, but these 32 that i listed above are the best of the best, but, to me ,the greatest color movie ever made and the best movie that i have ever seen is easily , war and peace 1967, made in russia directed by sergei other film is better than this magnificent,shimmering ,haunting,masterpiece

    • May 30, 2011 9:04 am

      Good list. Going through it, I see the Wizard of Oz is one that probably deserves to be on my list, such a lush and colorful movie, foiled against the black and white scenes that book end the film, great stuff. =)

  13. mike permalink
    May 30, 2011 9:36 am

    thanx for your reply! sorry for my rather lengthy list. but the choices i made are from the result of watching many hundreds of classic movies over many years and slowly compiling them.but ,to narrow it down,the 3 best color movies i have ever seen are… war and peace,1967…lawrence of arabia,1962…and 2001 a space odyssey,1968…these three films are my very favorites you can switch them around i guess they all tie for first in a lot of ways… david lean was such a master film maker and my favorite director of all, his ryans daughter and doctor zhivago and bridge on the river kwai are all luminous beautiful movies as well as lawrence of arabia,all made back to back!!! think about this ,is there really anything more beautifully and colorfully made then the stargate sequence in 2001 a space odyssey? probably not and done with no computer graphic imaging ! wow!!!! an honorable mention must go to, apocalypse now 1979,

    • May 31, 2011 6:13 am

      Yes, David Lean was amazing wasn’t he? He is one of my favorite directors.

  14. mike permalink
    May 31, 2011 8:15 am

    david leans epic films have no rear screen projection, in a time when all epics had some use of it ,look at, how the west was won 1962, for instance,theres rear screen projection used again and again,i guess for finacial and technical reasons, but it sure looks fake, with bridge on the river kwai 1957, david lean went ” into” the jungle and filmed ,not on a hollywood back lot.what a master director to have made brief encounter and great expectations,then suddenly start making these panoramic epics,if you havent seen his ryans daughter,watch it,theres a new widescreen digital remaster thats flawless!!! this could be his most beautiful film

  15. mike permalink
    May 31, 2011 8:49 am

    my 5 favorite directors would be, david lean, alfred hitchcock, stanley kubrick, francis coppola, ridley scott…and think about william friedkin, he made the greatest crime drama ever , the french connection, and the greatest horror film ever , the exorcist and he made them back to back ! and he never made these types of movies before, i love the french connection and that car/elevated train chase ,its awesome! gene hackman kicks ass in that movie , the exorcist has a genuine sense of gloom and doom and dread, real horror at its best, this film must have flipped people out back in 73, look at the scene when reagans mother goes into her daughters bed room in broad daylight and theres all these objects flying through the air and weird shreiks and snarls are heard ,then the demon posessed girl grabs her mothers head and shoves it between her legs and growls eat me! after having just penatrated herself with a crucifix, then bashes her mother face, now covered in blood,sending her screaming and crying across the room, then telekinetically moves a heavy bureau towards her, wow !!!!! i would put william friedkin in my top 10 directors list just for these two movies alone and both these movies in my top 20 movie list


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