Don’t get us wrong; stellar production and costume design or jaw-dropping special effects are great, but they can only get you so far with a film. Sometimes, you don’t even need those things. Every so often, all one really needs is a vision, and the visuals to back it up. This is generally what we find when a particular film is stylish; images achieved simply through cinematography, post-work or even both that hypnotize us – or haunt and horrify us, depending on the flick and a shot’s mise-en-scène. If we look to film as one of our favorite means of escapist entertainment, isn’t being hypnotized perhaps the best thing that can happen in a movie theater?
It doesn’t matter if a film feels slick or purposely unpolished; as long as singular vision is detected, style is certainly appreciated. For more reasons than one, these 20 features are the most visually arresting this middle-aged decade has seen yet.
20 I Saw the Devil (2011)
Though it might not possess the narrative heft of Park Chan-wook’s films, I Saw the Devil still feels like it could be another entry in his catalogue. Director Kim Jee-woon provides a gleefully bloody, über-violent thriller about a demented game of cat and mouse, and as a result, the nearly two and a half hour runtime flies by. Kim had previously directed films such as The Good, the Bad, the Weird and the classic A Tale of Two Sisters, and it seems he felt relatively at home filming something in between those two, genre-wise.
Like Park’s films, the imagery is slick, and the violence in I Saw the Devil is heavily stylized and meticulously choreographed. It’s even a bit of a trip to see Choi Min-sik, star of Park’s Oldboy, wielding a hammer here much like he did so notoriously in the film that brought him to prominence on the international stage. Additionally, the taxi scene is easily one of the best action set pieces of the decade, with its dizzying and hypnotic camerawork.
19 Inception (2010)
Though some might believe otherwise, it is possible for a sci-fi puzzler to contain all of the same action-packed excitement we’re used to seeing, but without much of the same digital stimuli that keeps us reaching for the popcorn beneath our chins. Obviously, a lot of what’s presented in Christopher Nolan’s Inception couldn’t have been accomplished without the aid of digital effects, but those sequences that were conceived and executed practically make for a mystery equally as fun as the film’s notorious ending.
Scenes such as the first dream collapsing, the "kick" Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is given to wake up, and the rotating hallway fight involving Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) were all achieved using practical effects – the latter being especially perplexing given its use of a centrifuge. The scope Nolan was able to achieve (while avoiding mostly many of the digital methods one would think are required to accomplish it) is remarkable in itself.
18 Birdman (2014)
Dearest Birdman haters, we acknowledge your existence and reasonable judgment, but for just a moment, can we forget about its intent in terms of message and focus on its technical achievements? Of course, a film made up of only a few shots of seemingly continuous action has been done before, but director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki certainly keep the proceedings engaging.
On and on, the camera casually drifts from character to character and subplot to subplot, often shifting focus between those who are most important – even when they’re unseen. And even though such an academic approach runs the risk of emanating impersonality, Birdman manages to stray from those feelings for the most part. Birdman is whole-heartedly a film student’s sort of movie. Much of what Iñárritu and Lubezki brought to this film would return in their follow-up effort, The Revenant, a film that won almost as many Oscars (3) as this Michael Keaton comeback vehicle, which snagged 4 golden statues.
17 Spring Breakers (2013)
Most visual representations of the MTV-style spring break are celebratory of the shameless, ritualistic hedonism – engaging in the abuse of alcohol and drugs and the objectification of womens’ bodies – that attracts college students from around the country with enough in their bank accounts (or their parents’ trust fund) to buy pretty much anything they could want. Writer/director Harmony Korine’s depiction of these peoples’ favorite holiday is as slick and polished as any music video that once was shown on the aforementioned television network, and it's unapologetically so.
Korine’s narrative of four – well, actually three – college girls who take their desire for participation in such events to the extreme helps to serve the imagery’s condemnation of such culture. And though this work may not be as overwhelmingly negative in tone as, say, Korine’s Gummo, it does bear resemblance to the scathing contempt he contained in his earlier work. Spring break party culture is a relatively easy target to aim at for any pessimist or cultural critic, but regardless of your thoughts on the film, one has to admit that Korine hit the mark he was aiming for.
16 The Tribe (2014)
In more ways than one, The Tribe is an experience you aren’t likely to forget very soon. It’s gritty, disquieting and one of the most unusually beautiful films you’ll see. Like Birdman, the movie is seemingly filmed in real-time, a bold choice considering its two-hour plus runtime and the fact that dialogue isn’t spoken, but rather conveyed through sign language.
Scouring its nearly desolated locale in Ukraine, The Tribe proceeds like a Western as it depicts a lawless landscape ruled over by its outlaws -- in this case the ruling cliques of the local boarding school for the deaf -- the leaders of which pedal drugs and act as pimps for their female classmates. The vision is simple, but it’s effective, and allows its narrative to sufficiently build to an explosive final few scenes that leave its viewers gasping in silence. Though its graphic nature might reasonably put off many people, The Tribe is a film that begs to be experienced – especially with an unknowing audience.
15 Melancholia (2011)
Who needs Roland Emmerich’s high tech vision of disaster when you can have Lars von Trier’s brand of bare bones nihilism? Such is familiar territory for the Danish director, as is subjecting his characters to emotional torment – especially for this, his second chapter in the so-called "Depression" trilogy. Whatever you may think of von Trier, whether it may be a pretentious filmmaker, a shameless provocateur, or both, one can’t deny his intelligence in framing a film.
Yes, we do enjoy the moments of stylized slow-motion where the shots are completely symmetrical, though perhaps most remarkable is von Trier’s ability to get intimate with his characters – or even invasive – and yet retain a sense of symmetry and beauty to impending doom. Many shots of the planet Melancholia retain these qualities, and in spite of the overwhelming sadness pervading the final frames, the last in particular bears a peculiar sense of serenity.
14 John Wick (2014)
Much like Drive, 2014’s John Wick is a slick neo-noir action film featuring an enigmatic hero as its centerpiece. Also like Drive, John Wick and its titular star are overflowing with a thick slather of coolness. Prior to the release of this film, it had been pretty easy to ridicule Keanu Reeves and his monotone voice, but though the man is now in his 50s, he has finally found the role he was born to play.
First of all, the scene of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) explaining John’s significance to his son, Iosef (Alfie Allen) shows us somewhat slowed action to enhance the fluidity of John’s bringing the sledgehammer down on his garage floor, and thereby heightening his stature with each blow. And speaking of fluid movement, much can be said about the cinematography during sequences like the bathhouse/club rampage. Though nameless henchmen appear as quickly as they might in a video game, the cinematography and direction are calm, relatively speaking, and assured.
13 Gravity (2013)
Long, continuous takes seems to be a favored cinematographic choice for some directors, doesn’t it? Like Iñárritu and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy (the man who helmed The Tribe), Alfonso Cuarón made this the defining feature of his Academy Award-winning Gravity. In many ways, this choice was actually incredibly genius. The consistently smooth camera movements seem to mimic the feeling of floating through space, so one could say that it adapts to its artificial environment.
Additionally, like George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski says, “You can’t beat the view.” There are fewer environments better to attempt this particular vision than space, and it feeds into Cuarón’s keen eye for stunning imagery. Yes, the fetal overtones are heavy-handed, but damned if the scene isn’t well executed and gorgeous to look at. It should serve as no surprise that the cinematographer was the same Emmanuel Lubezki from Birdman and The Revenant, and he was rightfully given the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for this film. He's now won the award three years running, for those of you keeping track at home.
12 Ex Machina (2015)
Most modern sci-fi features would rather help tell a story through high-octane thrills that are visually and aesthetically pleasing for the purposes of fulfilling the blockbuster requirement they wish to achieve. For the most part, it’s rare to find a sci-fi film more concerned with visuals and camera set-up to help communicate its narrative, and in Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, he employs such techniques to explore power dynamics and normative/progressive gender roles.
First of all, the scenery of Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) private estate is immaculate. But, the cinematography equally emphasizes just how isolating it really is, putting both Nathan and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) inside their own glass box, so to speak, so that we the audience may observe how alpha (Nathan) and beta (Caleb) males interact, much like we and Nathan examine how Caleb interacts with Ava (Alicia Vikander). Secondly, based upon the varied set-up of shots depicting Ava and Caleb, it’s sometimes hard to tell who has the upper hand, making for a more engaging viewing experience.
11 Enter the Void (2010)
Gaspar Noe is certainly a peculiar director, and few others could have created as much of a visual assault as Enter the Void, which is not an insult by any stretch of the imagination. How could it be, when Noe himself has described the picture as “psychedelic melodrama"? For as much of the pretension that may surround the execution, there is equal argument that Enter the Void is a purely ambitious film from one of cinema’s most notorious provocateurs.
First of all, one would be remiss without stating the film is a trip – literally. Let’s try to move beyond its intentional vibrancy and exuberant colors that make this film a no-go for any epileptic. Not only is the switching of point-of-view perspectives -- shifting from Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) hovering over Tokyo and looking over his own shoulder replaying past events before his death -- mesmerizing, it accurately represents the non-chronological recollection of memories, which is severely exacerbated through the use of psychedelic drugs.
10 Under the Skin (2014)
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is, or at least seems to be, unassuming -- until it isn’t. Yes, the opening ten minutes and the imagery provided are undoubtedly strange, but until the site of Laura's (Scarlett Johansson) first victim disappearing into a black abyss, no one knows what to expect. Between the soft, ominously extraterrestrial score and the equally suspicious, ethereal visuals, Glazer’s film begs comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s work. Thanks to these things, it embraces the same philosophical sci-fi tendencies of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The scene of Laura (an alien in disguise) seducing her second victim best exemplifies these qualities. We understand how these unsuspecting men unwittingly, and even perhaps willingly, wade further and further into the black mystery substance beneath them. With her second victim, however, we see the effects it has, deteriorating those who submerge themselves and returning themselves into a weirdly fetal state. The intensely bright images that follow are jarring, but because of that, they force viewers to ponder their meaning.
9 Her (2013)
Normally, stylish films might evoke, or attempt to evoke, positive emotional responses from their viewers, but Spike Jonze’s Her doesn’t seem all too interested in such things. Instead, he’d rather make us confront the sadness and anguish of romantic loss and temporality. But that’s fine, because such an act is ultimately a positive one, and we perform it along with Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he deals with his own fears and anxieties.
The visuals here aren’t complex, and they don’t need to be. The story is wrought with enough emotion that the simplest of images can make the same point without being too intricate. For example, the final time Theodore and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson again) speak to each other, in between Samantha’s explanation of why she and the other OSes are leaving, Jonze shows us a shot of dust particles floating through the air. It’s a simplistic image that underscores the vastness of the physical world, and the accompanying emotions regarding breaking up make it bittersweet – emphasis on bitter.
8 Stoker (2013)
Stoker is for all of those people who wondered – as few as they may be – what a Hitchcock-influenced film from Park Chan-wook would look like. Spectacular cinematography is something we’ve come to expect from Mr. Park thanks to his Vengeance trilogy, though this same trilogy had taught us to expect brutally graphic depictions of violence. Needless to say, Stoker is an entirely different beast from the acclaimed director.
The narrative and its characters are every bit as dark and mysterious as you’d expect from Park – or even Hitchcock – but the marked change in narrative content lends a different quality to Park’s typical visuals. Hitchcock was noted for his geometric, and rather academic staging of his shots, and much of the same can be seen here. Park’s use of the quadrant system during moments such as India (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie (Matthew Goode) playing the piano is completely reminiscent of the "master of suspense" for its calculated approach that doesn't skimp on the sensuality.
7 Macbeth (2015)
Macbeth is perhaps one of the few Shakespeare plays that truly deserve stylish direction. First of all, because it is a Shakespeare play, using evocative imagery would help interpret emotions and context from his particular dialogue. Secondly, because this particular source material is a psychological tragedy depicting Macbeth’s descent into madness, it's rife with opportunity to effectively get inside his head.
Much of the visuals are appropriately dreary given the drama’s setting (the Highlands) and its narrative, painting the scenes -- especially those in the beginning -- with dull blues and greens to lend an overtly cheerless feeling. Aside from the opening, most scenes of violence and madness, such as Macbeth murdering Duncan and his hallucinating Banquo in the dining hall, are given bright or burnt orange tones to balance the scales. And the end, when Macbeth and Macduff finally square off, those orange hues intensify into burning hot oranges and reds, symbolizing that Macbeth’s lunacy has reached its climax and that a new era approaches after he is slain.
6 Upstream Color (2013)
The common conception of many films labeled as stylish is that their primary intent is to depict a grandiose vision of the director’s favored style. Now, there may be many films on this list that fit that description, but Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color proves that stylish can mean low-key, too. Having directed the cult favorite Primer nine years prior, Carruth delivers yet another minimalist, intellectual film that demands attention -- and to be re-watched.
The film focuses much on intertwining and differing memories between people, and Carruth’s use of rapid editing emphasizes his character’s confusion. Memories are shared and conversations repeated and slightly altered, creating a puzzle that’s there for not only the audience to solve, but the characters as well. Additionally, though the imagery may be understated -- and specifically so for the purposes of creating a puzzle out of the film’s cyclical narrative -- much of it is nonetheless alluring, contributing a particularly ethereal nature that complements the film’s philosophical intent.
5 The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou marked a grand stylistic shift for Wes Anderson. While the visuals and the mise-en-scène within his earlier films were grounded in reality, from Zissou on, he has mostly traded those things away for garish color palettes and artificial, indie-inspiring set designs. Though these things may be about as twee as an elbow-patched blazer, what has stayed consistent is his particular staging, shot set-up and camera movements, which have become his most widely-recognized aesthetic.
By the premiere of The Grand Budapest Hotel, his "newfound" style had spanned four films, and especially by Moonrise Kingdom, people had gotten a sense of how he would continue as a filmmaker. Detractors of The Grand Budapest Hotel may reasonably point out that its overly ostentatious nature suggests self-parody, and that his tendencies had officially worn out their welcome. However, combined with his typical cinematographic approach, what is arguably his most grandiose picture seems to suggest a particular defiance in the faces of those annoyed by his directorial trajectory.
4 Drive (2011)
Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest effort, The Neon Demon, released to mixed reviews this past weekend, and it seems he's elected to continue with the same slick visual style he utilized in Only God Forgives and first popularized in his first American feature, Drive. Detractors may accuse the latter film for being light on story, but as a film about a mostly mute stuntman/getaway driver, Drive contains all of the thrills one could possibly desire, with some beautiful cinematography to back it up.
Perhaps most notable about Refn’s approach to the material is his ability to slow things down without stunting momentum or impact of feeling. Long takes and slow shot transitions are common here, but the elevator scene bests exhibit the aforementioned qualities. The kiss between Ryan Gosling’s Driver and Carey Mulligan’s Irene is a long enough shot to be romantic and intimate, but not so much that it bludgeons the viewer. Additionally, even when the film speeds back up for Driver to kill his assailant, it still isn’t completely full speed, and yet his killing the assailant is no less vicious.
We can only imagine what he would do with a big-budget superhero flick like the Batgirl film he's reportedly interesting in making.
3 The Tree of Life (2011)
This list is becoming less about the most stylish films of the decade so far and more about Emmanuel Lubezki’s glorious accomplishments as a cinematographer. Anyway, Terrence Malick is one of those New Hollywood directors who cultivated a discerning fan base thanks to his own brand of filmmaking. In his 2011 film, The Tree of Life, the cinematography rivals that of any of his groundbreaking earlier works, particularly the Academy Award-winning Days of Heaven.
Yes, the copious amounts of cosmic imagery are stunning and thoroughly complement the film’s contemplations on the existence of humankind, but perhaps its ruminations are better supported when focusing on the narrative’s central characters and the world they occupy. For example, even though the "Love and Birth" scene presents Jack’s (Sean Penn) parents before his own birth, they’re depicted in fractured, non-continuous shots that seem to represent how we perceive memories. It’s a subtle but effective reminder to the audience that the story of human existence is about more than one central figure (Jack).
2 Black Swan (2010)
In a way, the visuals for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, his companion piece to The Wrestler, are fairly simple. The monochromatic set design primarily comprised of black, white and grey underlines Nina’s (Natalie Portman) inner struggle between control and lack thereof as a dancer, and the light and darkness of her own mind as her pursuit of perfection sends her on a downward spiral. It’s simple in concept, but there’s much more to the film than that.
Understandably, the liberal use of these colors allows others, such as green and red, to pop more intensely. In scenes such as the rave scene at the nightclub, they stand in jarring opposition to what our eyes have been accustomed to – not to mention red and green is a less soothing color contrast than, say, blue and orange. The cinematography is hard to look away from, as well, particularly during dance sequences. The camera may move quickly, but there is a discernible fluidity to it. And for Portman’s Nina, it’s appropriately personal.
1 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Let's all just take a moment to stand and applaud George Miller. We all could probably agree that any day spent watching Mad Max: Fury Road is, indeed, a lovely day. Just how much of a cultural hit this film became caught most people off guard, and it all starts with Miller’s hyperactive vision. From the very first moments of the film, Miller plunges the viewer into top-speed action sequences that verge on blurring and blinding them with their sheer intensity. As dizzyingly exciting as they may be, Miller is intelligent and thoughtful enough to give the audience a brief visual cool-down every now and then, only to unabashedly oppress them further with retina-searing color contrasts.
The oft-used blue and orange color contrast is said to be the least jarring visual option, but thanks to Miller’s modern take on a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the appropriately bordering-on-monochromatic visuals allow the viewer to get sucked into the environment, and thereby connect with the differing emotions and struggles of the characters. Such a quality is rarely seen in action flicks, and some attempt at all costs to avoid it, making Miller’s film stand out in a vast landscape of willful mediocrity.
Which hyper-stylized films from the 2010s did we forget to mention? Let us know in the comments!