In the world of cinema, there is always more than meets the eye. Every prop, every costume, every light source, and every word of dialog is created by a filmmaker for a reason. Often times, the tiniest details in movies will go unnoticed. Who knows or cares about how many buttons are on a character's shirt when you have a big expensive CGI battle going on in the foreground? Audiences can get so swept up in the spectacular effects in a movie that everything else in the production practically gets ignored.
This list celebrates the attention to the insane amount of detail that filmmakers put into their craft. A lot of work goes into making a movie, and in most instances that work will go unobserved by the general audience. The movies on this list spent an exuberant (perhaps too much) amount of time on detail, whether it be perfecting the color of 17th century period costumes or individualizing every piece of armor for an army.
Here are 15 Movies That Focus on the Small Details.
15 The Neon Demon
Fans of Nicholas Winding Refn know that what the director lacks in the storytelling department, he more than makes up for with his scrupulously detailed aesthetic. Channeling the spirit of Kubrick, Refn’s visual flare stems from making each one of his shots like a living, breathing piece of art.This year’s neo-noir with cannibalistic overtones, The Neon Demon, is another visual delight that is equal parts gorgeous and violently sickening.
Subject matter like the fashion industry brings forth all sorts of tiny visual nuances that please the eye, but Refn juxtaposes the high-end world of fashion with that of extreme violence and bloodshed. Focusing on a group of twisted models whose ideals are completely warped, Refn painstakingly sets up one shot after another and forces the viewer to take notice of everything from the actresses’ extravagant costumes to a discarded eyeball on the floor. The constant symmetry and gorgeous costume designs in The Neon Demon are truly something to behold, even if the models in those costumes happen to be satanic cannibals.
14 The Usual Suspects
Though a good twist ending in a movie may seem to come out of nowhere, often times a filmmaker will leave clues sprinkled throughout the narrative that, on repeat viewings, show how we ended on that big surprise. The Usual Suspects often gets credit for containing one of the most compelling twist endings in not just crime films, but of all time. The crime-drama is indeed a warped tale of deception that by the end has the audience guessing if what they watched for the last few hours really took place at all. The story is completely flipped on its head when – spoiler alert – Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint is revealed to be deadly crime boss Keyser Söze.
In a stunning reveal, Agent Kujan realizes all too late that Kint had merely fabricated the story that he had just told police from the mundane details tacked up on the station’s bulletin board. Stringing together events using everything from old mug shots, newspaper clippings and posters about coffee beans, Verbal is able to dupe officers long enough to walk right out of the station scot-free. Kudos goes to director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie for piecing together so many little clues in a collage on the bulletin board, the cherry on top being that a piece of Söze’s story was even constructed using the coffee mug Agent Kujan was drinking out of. How’s that for focusing on the little things?
Creating a movie from a comic book is no easy task. Many films have successfully pulled off the transition from page to screen, but few of them have adapted the source material as faithfully as Zack Snyder’s 300. Though he’s now regarded by some as the guy they hope won’t do any further damage to the DCEU, Snyder was once a director with striking visual style that combined innovative special effects with a comic book edge.
This updated tale of the brave 300 soldiers of Sparta who do battle with a massive Persian Army is certainly not without its flaws, but at its core is an extremely detailed and layered production nonetheless. Watching the soldiers slash their way across screen in slow-motion is like watching Frank Miller’s graphic novel leap from the pages onto the movie screen. Blood is spilt, spears are tossed, and swords clash as Snyder and the rest of his production team bring Miller’s 300 to life. An enormous amount of detail is spent in capturing the spirit and style of its source material, from the costumes down to the green-screen designed sets that perfectly transfer the fluidity of a comic book.
Earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature Animated Film, Henry Selick’s Coraline is a stylized fantasy that combines compelling storytelling with excruciating detail. Stop-motion films are quite the undertaking, considering you have to shoot frame-by-frame, with entire days of filming only amounting to a couple seconds of actual footage. As if the filming wasn’t difficult enough already, the production staff went the extra mile to hand-knit each piece of clothing for each individual character, which were no more than a few inches tall.
Every article of clothing you see in the movie is made painstakingly by costume designer Althea Crome, who made it all possible by using knitting needles as tiny as toothpicks. The amount of detail from the gloves to the undergarments for each distinct character is absolutely mind-boggling and shows how dedicated Crome is to her work, who sat for hours knitting socks that, in the end, most audience members couldn't even see.
11 The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
To say that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are “detailed” would be nothing short of an understatement. Basing three feature length movies on the lengthy novels from J.R.R. Tolkien is a tall order that Jackson and the rest of his production staff will be patting themselves on the back for fulfilling for a long time to come. It’s nothing short of a miracle that this trilogy turned out as good as it did, but the fine detailed work is a huge part of that success.
Every piece of armor and costume from these middle-Earth epics are uniquely personalized and handcrafted. Even the chain link vests worn under the armor, which are impossible to see, are hand crafted link by link. The amount of detail in Return of the King in particular is absolutely staggering. Each extra in every battle has a customized weapon and cut of clothing that is personalized to their creed, and anyone who’s seen Lord of the Rings knows that’s a lot of extras to dress up.
10 Once Upon a Time in America
It’s hard to believe that Sergio Leone’s now revered classic, Once Upon a Time in America, was initially bashed by critics upon its release. It's no fault by the director, as Leone was forced to cut his initial four-hour masterpiece in half, seriously muddling the story and characters in the process. It wasn’t until a few years later that American audiences were treated to the original four-hour version, which brought the Italian director’s stunning vision to life by showcasing every small detailed captured on screen.
Leone was a director known for focusing on the small things, and this movie starring Robert De Niro and James Woods as two rising Jewish hoods in the criminal underworld shows every little detail imaginable. Every shot is painstakingly framed while every moment is drawn out to provide maximum impact. From the bleak and sordid set designs to the flashy costumes and cars of the 1930s, Leone’s extensive shooting schedule was one of the longest ever. When all was said and done, the director had more than ten hours of footage to work with. That may be just too much detail for one movie to handle.
9 The Shining
It comes as no surprise that director Stanley Kubrick would pop up in a list about movies that put every little detail underneath a magnifying glass. The infamous perfectionist was known for taking as many shots as needed to get exactly what he wanted, regardless if his actors or crew weren’t feeling up to the task. From his earliest endeavors like The Killing to his later films Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s movies were like visual poetry on screen-- especially his 1980 horror classic, The Shining.
The Shining is a brilliant study of how isolation can make a person insane. The architecture and spatial elements that Kubrick uses to convey his psychological concept no doubt struck a chord with audiences. Everything from the eerily symmetrical carpets to the number "42" popping up again and again is used to create an almost perfect visual experience (as well as some outlandish conspiracy theories to boot). Though no one can argue with the end results, it is often argued that Kubrick might have been too much of a perfectionist when it came to his films. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
8 The Mirror
One of the most famous Soviet film-makers, Andrei Tarkovsky was known for having an eye for fine detail. His films are known for generating a spiritual and emotional atmosphere quite unlike anything else, and in 1975 he set out to make his most experimental movie yet, The Mirror. It is a dense but personal story of the memories of a dying man, diving into his childhood, his time at war, and as an adult.
If it sounds like a tall order for a movie, that’s because it is. The film’s structure is an interweaving web of one man’s personal journey and the modern history of the Russian nation at the same time. The experimental narrative is only made possible because of Tarkovsky’s eye for nuance and his skill at making the scene completely subdue the viewer. The director uses the camera as a third party that is merely witnessing the events unfold, focusing on the otherwise mundane details like the ruffle of leaves or the dripping of a water spout. Though some have criticized the movie for focusing too much on the small details (a simple shot of falling rain lasts for minutes), it all comes together to create a visual and emotional journey unlike anything else.
Because of their meticulously laid out heists, crime movies have a knack for carrying the small details out to a T.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series perfectly captures the mob life because of its authenticity, while Concrete Jungle is often cited as the blueprint heist movie because of its honest portrayal of the crime world. When it comes to movies about gangsters, often times the more authentic they are, the better they are-- and in our book few crime movies are as authentic as Michael Mann’s Heat.
Expertly filmed to the tiniest detail, the characters and events in Heat are all methodically premeditated. Like the characters in the movie, Mann double and triple checks every decision so it holds up on screen. From obtaining blueprints to banks to buying untraceable explosive charges from a hardware store, the audience gets to see first hand how big-time heists are systematically set up.
Though watching a gangster try to sell negotiable bonds doesn't seem like the most exciting turn of events, Mann keeps the audience on the edge of their seats by taking us through the daily routines of the robbers, allowing us to get to glimpse at the lives of criminals like never before.
Though Alfred Hitchcock has an extensive catalog of films, few contain such lavish visual detail as Vertigo. James Stewart stars as a San Francisco gumshoe who suffers from acrophobia-- the fear of heights– and who falls in love with an old friend’s wife he's been hired to follow. The beauty of Vertigo is that the more Stewart’s character follows the wife character (played by Kim Novak), the more he starts to obsess with every one of her minute details-- something Hitchcock was famous for doing with his films.
For Vertigo, Hitchcock worked together with costume designer Edith Head to use color to heighten emotion. Grey was used for Novak’s suit because it was physically jarring. By comparison, the actress wore white when there was a lull in the tension. Everything from the “nightmare sequence” to the now popularized “dolly zooms” is given level of significance that only a Hitchcock film could have. Unfortunately, for his most personal film, Vertigo was torn apart by the critics and audiences upon release. Only years later was it regarded as the undeniable classic thanks to its enormous level of psychological and emotional detail.
5 The Grand Budapest Hotel
While Hitchcock used detail to play with emotions, sometimes it’s nice to just appreciate the physical beauty of something. The scrupulous detail that goes into the costume designs and art production alone in some movies is enough to have your mouth drop open. Films that come to mind are The Fall’s sweeping aesthetics or the elaborate visuals in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. No doubt director Wes Anderson has his fair share of lavish movies, and if we were pressed to pick one with the most detail in it, we would have to say The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Every shot in Anderson’s 2014 comedy is visually stunning, with painstaking detail that simply oozes through the screen. Everyone from the costume designers to the actors themselves immerse themselves in the final product. Actress Tilda Swinton spent five hours in the makeup chair to play an 84-year-old, and actress Saoirse Ronan admitted that the hardest thing she’s had to do in a movie was make the hotel’s signature dessert. Every shot in Grand Budapest is a distinct work of art, further solidifying Anderson as one of the best visual filmmakers working today.
4 The Departed
Detail in movies isn’t just used for making things look pretty. Often times the subtle imagery is used to convey some sort of symbolism buried under the main narrative, like the association of oranges with death in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Between a fast-paced narrative and rousing action, it’s easy to miss the extra details a director has so painstakingly added. Such is the case with Martin Scorsese’s 2006 movie, The Departed.
For a film about informants on both sides of the law, many viewers likely picked up on the frequent shots of rats in the movie. Harder to notice, however, are the subtle “Xs” placed throughout Scorsese's crime-drama. Usually signifying a character’s impending doom, the “X” is seen from everywhere including apartment windows and airport terminals. It shows up on the elevator walls just before Leo Dicaprio is shot dead, as well as appearing on all the windows when Martin Sheen is falling to his death. Used to seal characters’ fate, Scorsese uses the “X” in The Departed also as a homage to the 1932 version of Scarface, which used the same trick.
3 Once Upon a Time in the West
Since the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Western genre has included an extraordinary amount of detail. John Ford’s entire catalog is like one long detailed shot of the American Old West, while modern westerns like Quinten Tarantino’s Django Unchained are equally thorough, from set designs to dialog. The focus on costumes, six-shooters, and the recreation of ghost towns is prominent in almost all Westerns, but the one that outguns all of them in the department of detail is undoubtedly Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
Often cited as the crown jewel of spaghetti westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West uses long periods of silence where not much of anything happens, which are then broken up by sudden acts of violence. Viewers will often complain that Leone’s film is too involved with the mundane, choosing to focus on everyday events like a gang of cowboys sitting around or a family trying to draw water from a well. It may be boring for some, but the director’s attention to detail adds a layer of realism to the film which is unlike anything in his previous Dollars trilogy. The tone of the movie completely matches its spacious and dry setting, with every little inconsistency, like a fly landing on a gunslingers face, adding to the tension.
2 V for Vendetta
Some movies put insane work into details that you might have never noticed. The Wichowskis’ politically driven film about a terrorist with a message is emotionally resonating as it visually stunning, but the most surprising element of V for Vendetta is that the filmmakers have taken the time to hide the letter “V” in almost every frame of the movie. You probably caught the more blatant instances, like the fireworks spelling out the letter in the grand finale, but there are also tons that you most likely missed.
When Natalie Portman wakes up in V’s dungeon, a tiny cut on her head is in the shape of a “V.” When books are propped up in the movie, they are almost always in the shape of a “V.” The flagpoles, the clock hands, and even blood stains on the wall are in the shape of a “V.” Perhaps the best attention to detail comes from V’s favorite saying: “By the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe,” which translates into Latin as “Vi very veniversum vivius vici,” five words that all begin with the letter “V.” Coincidence? For a movie that spends so much time on the tiny details, we doubt it.
1 Barry Lyndon
Our number one pick for this list incorporates everything from the previous entries and then some, with attention to detail creating beautiful imagery, conveying a piece of symbolism, and creating a resonating psychological and emotional experience for the viewer. When it comes focusing on the tiny details, no filmmaker does it better than Kubrick, and while most of his films have a knack for the small things, the film that goes completely overboard when it comes to detail is his 1975 period piece, Barry Lyndon.
Many of the shots in Kubrick’s drama were composed and filmed in order to evoke certain 18th century paintings, and it certainly shows. Every frame of Barry Lyndon is a sweeping visual experience, from the period costumes to the natural candle-lighting. Principle photography on the picture took nearly 300 days alone. The director would frequently make his actors retake a single scene to get that extra "something" in the shot, often taking as many as 20 to 50 takes. Actors have said that some of the scenes took over 100 takes before Kubrick was satisfied.
Barry Lyndon took home four Oscars in 1976, including a much deserved award for Best Costume Design. Some of the costumes used in the film were genuine antique clothing bought by costume designer Milena Canonero. Post-production on the movie was no easy task either, taking 42 days to edit the final duel between Barry and Lord Bullingdon alone. Though other Kubrick movies have since eclipsed this one in the director's catalog, when it comes to attention to detail, Barry Lyndon is simply without equal.
What other movies give painstaking attention to details? Let us know in the comments.
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