Ang Lee’s The Life Of Pi tells a fantastical story of a young man who is shipwrecked and must survive alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean while sharing a lifeboat with a tiger. Lee, working with director of photography Claudio Miranda and a talented crew, expertly mixes a human actor, CGI animals, and top-notch visual effects to create a magical world. A beautifully shot film, it follows in a long tradition of gorgeous-looking movies that tell great stories.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
An early three-strip Technicolor presentation, the riot of vivid primary colors are captured beautifully by cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito. The eye-popping imagery was created by part by art director Carl Weyl, who won an Academy Award for his efforts, working on location in California and on studio sound stages. The splendor of the visuals matches the colorful characters, led by the unforgettable Errol Flynn.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Filmmaker John Waters has said that he cried at the end of this movie because he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to leave the wonderful land of Oz! Surely that’s in part because of the dazzling, Academy Award-nominated Technicolor photography by Harold Rosson of what is, after all, a fantasy world, filled with shimmering artifical landscapes and unlikely color combinations. Yet it remains incredibly inviting.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Reportedly, director David Lean watched The Searchers repeatedly for inspiration in his preparations for this mammoth production, which was filmed in multiple countries, including Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Spain. Much like John Ford’s seminal Western, Lean’s landscapes take on a life of their own, most memorably in Omar Sharif’s entrance in a desert mirage. Director of photography Freddie Young won his first of three Academy Awards.
The Searchers (1956)
The story itself stirs strong emotions, and has been criticized for its lead character’s virulent stance against Native Americans, but there is no doubt that this is one of the most starkly beautiful Westerns of the period. Much of the film was shot on striking locations in and around director John Ford’s favorite location -- Monument Valley, Utah -- by Winton C. Hoch, who had already won three Academy Awards.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s philosophical, mind-bending science-fiction epic begins with a long, wordless, breathtaking sequence of scenes set at “The Dawn of Man” -- and filmed almost entirely on sound stages in England. Kubrick himself was responsible for the seamless, Academy Award-winning visual effects, which took nearly two years to complete. All the meticulous work paid off in creating a gorgeous vision of the universe.
Days of Heaven (1978)
Director Terrence Malick has become notorious for his perfectionist nature, but it’s hard to argue with the sheer, unique beauty of his films. Cinematographers Nester Almendros (supposedly going blind at the time) and Haskell Wexler (the latter uncredited) used available natural light on location in Alberta, Canada, including remarkable scenes captured during “the magic hour” after the sun sets and before night falls.
The Natural (1984)
The game of baseball has never looked more gorgeous than in Barry Levinson’s ode to the national pastime. Much of the movie was shot in and around War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, New York, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel matched the mythic tone of the story with sublimely flattering photography that evoked a past era of glory.
The Last Emperor (1987)
For this sweeping epic that spanned decades of history in modern China, Bernardo Bertolucci called upon Academy Award-winning director of photography Vittorio Storaro. Inspired by reading the titular character’s autobiography, Storaro designed his color scheme to reflect the character’s up-and-down journey through life, beginning with warmer colors and adjusting his palette accordingly. Storaro earned another Oscar.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) received his second of nine Academy Award nominations for this off-beat crime movie directed by the Coen Brothers. Deakins found the chilly beauty in winter settings that stood in stark contrast to the sometimes-gruesome subject matter. As it happens, the weather was unseasonably mild during production, and the crew often had to use fake snow, which nonetheless looks fabulous.
What Dreams May Come (1998)
Superlative visual effects makes up for any dramatic shortcomings of the story, which follows a man (Robin Williams) who dies in a car wreck and then searches for his family in the afterlife. The film’s imagining of heaven and hell tended to divide audiences, though Eduardo Serra’s photography, using a type of film stock noted for its highly-satured colors, won praise.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
With Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on the way, it’s a good time to revisit his original foray into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. Wisely taking full advantage of the splendor of his native New Zealand, Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie navigated through uncharted regions of untouched nature and computer-generated effects to produce a fantasy masterpiece.
It’s all about the colors in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s utterly charming tale of a shy Parisian pixie who wants to make the world a better place. She lets her imagination run wild as she plays matchmaker and seeks to help others find happiness; her imagination is fueled by whimsical visual effects and enhanced by the lovely palette of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel.
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Explosions of beauty erupt every so often throughout this romantic martial arts epic by expert Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. He promoted Zhao Xiaoding from camera operator to director of photography for this film, and his trust was well-rewarded. Highlights include a brothel-set game involving drums (and costumes that must be seen to be believed), a vivid bamboo forest fight, and a climactic sequence set during a white-out blizzard.
The Fall (2006)
Filmed entirely on location in 28 countries over a period of four years, and financed largely by director Tarsem Singh out of his own pocket, the movie spins a series of fantastical tales, born from the vivid imagination of a 6-year-old girl as she listens to a Hollywood stunt man in a hospital where they are both recuperating from injuries. Freed from the bounds of reality, director of photography Colin Watkinson contributes his own sort of magic.
The Fountain (2006)
Darren Aronofsky tackled life, love, death, myth, and mortality in his sometimes-mystifying movie, which starred Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in three different stories that spanned centuries of time and space. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique decided on a more restrained color palette, primarily gold and white, each representing different themes and characters.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Robert Elswit’s Academy Award-winning cinematography enhances the terrific performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, and the powerful story told by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Shot mostly on locations in Texas and California, Elswit makes great use of the rural country settings, and the rare outbursts of primary colors -- as when an oilfield fire erupts -- look all the more stunning.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
How do you re-create a beloved, illustrated children’s classic on the big screen? Director Spike Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord respected the vision of writer/artist Maurice Sendak, but, with Sendak’s blessing, Jonze added his own creativity to the mix, and Acord helped realize a somber, sober, yet ultimately beautiful and unique work of cinematic imagination.