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By David Young · January 30, 2023
A movie is a visual experience — that much is always true. Often enough, films that take an extra step typically stand out in our minds. Movies of the highest visual caliber should be recognized, whether spectacular, otherworldly or even a kaleidoscopic, trippy vision. We know many movies have strong visuals, but it takes a different level to create something truly jaw-dropping — and each of these narratives found a way to do exactly that. These visually stunning movies have left a lasting impact on audiences and have established themselves as some of the most memorable and iconic films in cinematic history.
Let’s explore ten movies with absolutely stunning, stylistic, or outrageous visuals that will (or already) keep people talking for years!
First up on our list of visually stunning movies is A Space Odyssey, a movie dedicated to time and space. Stanley Kubrick outdoes himself by creating a story that not only explores science fiction as a visual buffet — but also creates dilemmas that are increasingly meaningful for the world we live in now. Everything from recreating zero gravity to the iconic scene where Dave travels through a rip in the space-time continuum involves visual ingenuity.
There’s also an authenticity to this film that spoke to people before and after the Lunar Landing. This includes the very representation of life in the space age was accurate enough to stand up to scrutiny even today. We may not be facing a literal monolith, but this film uses the vastness of space and the surprising nature of time in visual moments that still strike into viewers’ hearts over 50 years later.
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Dystopia didn’t have a look before Blade Runner. Many movies and shows did what they could to showcase different future scenarios. Moreover, Ridley Scott’s imagination takes the cake with the dark, dank, gritty Los Angeles overrun with people and others — such as replicants in hiding that Deckard is meant to hunt down. Ridley Scott’s densely populated, tech-riddled dystopia featured glittering windows from each towering dark building in the city at night and massive digital advertising screens.
Even the lighting, both neon and directional, fills the world with an atmosphere that feels relative to film noir tradition and the “futuristic” aesthetic that would define many a movie afterward. Blade Runner’s contributions in terms of visual elements include such a powerful atmosphere that ultimately could be recognized, remembered, and treated like a world of its own — despite seeing Los Angeles.
Read More: From Mad Max to Blade Runner: How to Make a Long-Awaited Sequel Work
The artists of this animated feature bring comic book aesthetics to life on the big screen, achieving unique visual accomplishments. They use blur that mimics offset printing processes and a mobile camera that recreates comic-book visuals in each shot. This movie serves as a love letter to comic books everywhere and pushes the boundaries of what film looks like, often resembling a picture hanging on the wall, picture-perfect and powerful, able to deliver narrative in the true graphic novel fashion.
Additionally, whether it’s high-level shots of New York’s bustling activity or deep dives that showcase the city’s unique textures, there are levels to this production that needed multiple teams and multiple efforts, to pull off a beautifully layered experience.
With some stunning impacts on the horror genre, Hellraiser is seemingly a standalone narrative that opened up a world full of hellish dimensions and creatures that have populated nightmares since 1987. Even the practical effects, like watching Frank’s body reform from biological sludge, make it clear what gripping possibilities can be accomplished with a little effort. Memories of chains, hooks, and torture plague anyone who remembers this movie — and though they may be horrifying, the visuals here are also spectacular and well thought-out.
Read More: 10 Horror Scripts That are Scarier Than the Movie
From black and white to full technicolor, a transformation that we see up close and personal in The Wizard of Oz has been a fan-favorite for generations. Of course, other things at play define what audiences will never forget: the iconic witch’s feet curling, an army of flying monkeys, and the Emerald City on the horizon. However, the most riveting and mind-boggling scene of the time might have been the tornado — and naturally, the things being carried with it to Dorothy’s confusion and fright.
Thus, the use of vibrant colors, imaginative sets, costumes, and special effects, such as the tornado, all contribute to the dazzling aspects of the film. Making it a timeless classic that continues to captivate audiences of all ages as one of many visually stunning movies.
The gorgeous, rainy world of Caladan and the vast, aggressive deserts of Arrakis are two proving grounds for Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of the planets designed and presented by the late author Frank Herbert. Dune, as a book, often focuses on the alienness of this future scape, and this first film of a two-part creation does this as well. The oddly built aircraft and spacecraft, visual vibrations to represent the shields, or even the immense maw of a sandworm become an opportunity to impress. It instills awe and creates a sense of grandeur in this distant future fantasy.
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Read More: 10 Movies That Made It Out of Development Hell, From ‘Dune’ to ‘Avatar’
Speaking of grandeur, Villeneuve has another such movie that presents things as larger than life: Joi as a giant interactive advertisement, K walking through the sand-struck, colossal remains of bygone Vegas, and so on. These visuals all point to the exaggeration of dystopia. As it continually adopts more of the cyberpunk aesthetic and distances itself from the settlement’s roots. Using atmospheric fog and other elements — like sand, for example — add to the broadly stunning and decisive look we see in every new film setting.
Additionally, the cinematography in Blade Runner 2049 is masterful, with each frame carefully composed to maximize the impact of the film’s breathtaking visuals. From the neon-lit futuristic cityscapes to the desolate, post-apocalyptic wasteland, every shot is a feast for the eyes. The use of color is also noteworthy, with the film utilizing a muted, desaturated palette to reinforce the bleak, oppressive atmosphere. The film’s attention to detail is evident in every frame, further adding to its visual grandeur. As a whole, this visually stunning masterpiece is a visual tour de force that truly immerses the audience in its dystopian world.
As always, Wes Anderson should receive kudos for his stylistic consistency. His attention to composition and mise-en-scène is unparalleled, and his love for striking color choices and compelling framing is absolutely clear in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even his changing aspect ratios deliver a feeling of being transported to a different time alongside the characters. With strong perspectives and playful camera movements (looking at you, whip pan), Anderson creates a whimsical experience that catches the eye every time.
The hotel itself, with its pastel pink facade and ornate decor, is a standout character in the film. The interiors are just as captivating, with richly detailed rooms and hallways. The use of miniatures, matte paintings, and forced perspective techniques further enhance the film’s fantastical feel. The costume design is also noteworthy, with the hotel’s iconic uniform standing out in particular. Overall, the visual elements of The Grand Budapest Hotel are a feast for the eyes and contribute greatly to the film’s unique and memorable aesthetic.
Read More: The Fascinatingly Small Worlds in Wes Anderson Films
The single-shot style and the effects needed to carry the narrative create a singular experience in 1917 — one that strikes an audience as impressive, immersive, and nigh impossible. To increase the sense of authenticity, putting the story in the hands of the cinematographer is the main power move. It allows for movement to set the stage without the feeling of “consciously watching a movie” that comes from the artificial composition.
Additionally, the use of practical effects, such as real explosions and pyrotechnics, adds to the audience’s immersion. By using these effects in conjunction with the single-shot style, the audience can fully engage in the story and feel as though they are a part of it. The use of practical effects also adds a level of realism that is not possible with computer-generated imagery, making the experience all the more impactful. This, coupled with the decision to put the storytelling in the hands of the cinematographer, allows for a truly immersive experience.
Last but not least, anime and western-inspired scenes are showcased in the iconic sci-fi thriller The Matrix. The Wachowskis focused on images that conveyed a world of digital creation and some other striking visuals. Genres like horror and high-octane action come to fruition in different scenes with stark imagery. For example, the terrible pods harvesting humans when Neo awakens or the surrealism that pairs flawlessly with every fight scene.
With its use of cutting-edge special effects and striking imagery, it has cemented its place as one of the most iconic sci-fi films of all time. The Wachowskis’ direction, combined with the talented cast and crew, has created a film that continues to be celebrated for its visual storytelling and groundbreaking effects.
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Overall, not every film indulges in the visual language to the ninth degree — but these sure do. Remember the visuals from these movies as you’re looking for inspiration on how to make an audience’s jaws drop. As they are fantastical, trendsetters of style, or even bizarre– they all earn their place as top visual contenders in cinema history.
In addition, these visually stunning movies are not only memorable for their impactful imagery. They also push the boundaries of what is possible in cinema. They showcase the power of visual storytelling and how it can be used to evoke emotion, convey meaning, and create an immersive experience for the audience. Whether it’s through the use of cutting-edge technology, bold artistic choices, or a unique visual style, these films have set the standard for what is possible in cinema. They inspire filmmakers looking to make an impact with their visuals and leave a lasting impression on audiences.