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Style Or Substance? 20 Visually Stunning Movies That Go For Broke

by The Playlist Staff
May 8, 2013 1:51 PM
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No matter what you think of Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," opening this week in ultra-luxurious 3D, one thing's for sure – it looks pretty spectacular. Filled with lovingly crafted costumes, opulent sets, and computer generated imagery that makes ragtime New York seem like a quasi-futuristic metropolis, it is drunk on its own excess. It feels like the movie Luhrmann has been angling towards for a while and has finally achieved (thanks in part to the added dimensionality of 3D), for better or worse. It's a giant, gilded, vulgar monstrosity that overwhelms more often than it entertains. And it got us thinking about other movies whose similarly excessive styles have either been an asset or a detriment. So put on your 3D glasses, your best pink pinstripe suit, and grab a glass of bootleg liquor, for our list of 20 visually dazzling movies. 

What we intend to do with this list, it should be noted, is describe just why these movies are so impressive visually and then argue whether or not the visuals are style, substance, or both. Clearly some movies are meant to put you in a very specific time and place with all of the embellishments that go along with that, while others, offering flash, fail to deliver substance. We intend to differentiate between the two. 

"Sucker Punch" (Zack Snyder, 2011)
How Does It Dazzle? Zack Snyder is one of Hollywood’s premiere stylists, shellacking everything he’s ever done in a thick coat of music video sheen – from the fluorescent-lit grunge of his “Dawn of the Dead” remake to faithfully recreated comic book panels of “300” and “Watchmen” to the Frank Frazetta-meets-“Happy Feet” animated intricacy of “Legend of the Guardians” – but he has never been more gloriously self-indulgent than in his passion product, “Sucker Punch.” Ostensibly about a group of girls in a halfway house in what we presume to be the '50s, who escape the drudgery and pain of their everyday life (attempted rapes, squalor, lobotomies) via a series of interconnected, increasingly complex fantasy scenarios, the movie is an orgiastic fever dream of disparate influences, like if you combined “Radio Flyer” with a vast collection of fantasy novels, Japanese comic books, and role playing video-games. The video-game thing, in particular, is apparent, since the girls are guided by Scott Glenn as a Basil Exposition-y narrative dispenser, letting them know all about the gorgeously rendered (in high-cost, but still rubbery-looking CGI) dragons, steam-punk Nazis, and robo-samurais they’re about to face. Also: there are musical numbers. The movie intermittently dazzles, but the disjointed narrative that plays more like a ramshackle collection of unrelated scenes often weighs down the fun.
Style, Substance, Or Both? This is all style. Snyder tried to position “Sucker Punch” as a kind of empowering feminist triumph, which others saw as an absolute farce. Snyder, you can tell, gets off far too much on young girls in prep school uniforms wielding large guns and swords (and seems totally unaware of the phallic connotations). “Sucker Punch” is easily Snyder’s most unnervingly personal film – and also his worst.

"Sin City" (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller with Quentin Tarantino, 2005) 
How Does It Dazzle? Robert Rodriguez, a restless techno-tinkerer who works almost exclusively out of his home studio in Austin, Texas, seized upon advances in computer-generated imagery and digital editing as a way to finally bring a long chased-after passion project, an adaptation of Frank Miller’s noir-y comic book “Sin City,” to full-bodied life. The results, especially at the time, were pretty staggering – Rodriguez (and Miller, who’s credited as a co-director and whose input was invaluable) was able to manipulate each frame to perfectly duplicate its comic book counterpart, down to the almost expressionistic use of light and shadow and its washed out black-and-white color palette. Quite frankly, this doesn’t always work – there are a couple of moments that just look uncomfortably cheap, and certain make-up effects and fabric look iffy – but “Sin City” was a genuine trailblazer, an experimental popcorn movie, and such wonky inconsistencies are easily forgiven. Unlike Zack Snyder’s “300,” which also lovingly recreated a Frank Miller comic book, too, the narrative of “Sin City,” featuring interlocking, increasingly violent crime stories, never slows down to admire itself for too long; the narrative unerringly chugs forward. Like a bullet fired from a gun. Or a severed head tossed down a hallway.
Style, Substance, Or Both? The style is the substance in “Sin City.” If the movie had been shot traditionally, in black-and-white 35 mm or something, then it would probably seem like a limp pastiche. Without the digital trickery that Rodriguez, Miller, and his collaborators concocted, it wouldn’t have the same impact. What will be interesting is to see where the upcoming “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” goes, since it kind of seems like the ceiling for this "look" has already been achieved (and maintained) by the original.

"House of Flying Daggers"

House of Flying Daggers” (2004)
How Does It Dazzle? Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is a director, producer and writer, but first and foremost, he’s a former cinematographer and it shows. His films, like “Hero” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” are utterly stunning, ravishing pieces of work with colors that pinwheel around with resplendent awe. His 2004 wuxia film “House Of The Flying Daggers,” for reference, is like Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” on steroids with a much more expressive and romantic bent. Scenes are often color-coded, ensconced in layers of sumptuous greens, lavish reds, magnificent blues, and striking lavender and white hues. You’ve perhaps never met a director more obsessed with color and slow motion in this movie about a romantic police captain who breaks a beautiful member of a rebel group out of prison to help her rejoin her clan. “House of Flying Daggers” is something out of an elegant ancient Chinese painting brought to life.
Style, Substance, Or Both? This is the rub, isn’t it? As gorgeous and visually arresting as ‘Flying Daggers’ is, it can at times feel like a series of fight-scene tableaus ornately styled and dressed for whatever location the director believes will look the most haunting. Honestly, most of the film works despite it superficial nature, but arguably, (slightly) less style-obsessed pictures like “Hero” (though that’s relative) are more successful Zhang Yimou movies. Ironically, the filmmaker has toned it down somewhat in recent years, with “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” and “The Flowers of War,” slightly dialing back the visual-fireworks-on-11-at-all-times mien, but neither are particularly great.

"The Matrix" (The Wachowskis, 1999)
How Does It Dazzle? Before "The Matrix," The Wachowkis were a couple of dudes from Chicago known primarily for a pricey spec script ("Assassins") and a tiny independent thriller about lesbian criminals ("Bound"). After "The Matrix," they were officially The Shit. There are a number of eye-popping moments contained within "The Matrix" – their dazzling "bullet time" technology, which would capture fractionally slow-motion sequences with 360-degree cameras, the vast robotic world both gooey and grungy, the way that a helicopter crashed into a building and then "rippled" outwards; these weren't just amazing moments, they were things that people had never seen before. Of course, the Wachowskis drew on a number of influences – among them, the "cyberpunk" novels of William Gibson, Japanese anime (particularly "Ghost in the Shell"), Grant Morrison's "Invisibles" comic book, John Woo action movies and dusty old kung fu flicks. The fact that they were able to combine these references, applying a visual aesthetic informed largely by the underground world of S&M culture and developed throughout "Bound," is nothing short of staggering – and that it translated so well to mainstream audiences is almost miraculous. From the very first moment, you realized that, even though you had no idea what you were watching, it was something of a pop art masterpiece.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. "The Matrix" is about an artificial world created by robotic intelligence, fully realized by a pair of dudes who had total mastery of their craft, esoteric personal taste and an unwillingness to simply churn out something they'd seen before. (Keep in mind this was released weeks before the supposedly groundbreaking new "Star Wars" prequel; which one made the greater cultural mark?)

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  • annie | May 13, 2013 3:05 PMReply

    Cloud Atlas left out? That movie was all style and substance. Loved it. Also what about Life of Pi?>

  • Oscar Stegland | May 14, 2013 10:37 AM

    Oh, how I don't agree. IMO, Cloud Atlas was a film that wanted to appear profound and to do so, they dabbled in a lot of style which would 'excuse' the disjointed story. The main theme of the film ("We are a part of a whole") wasn't really strengthened by telling many stories that mostly had very superficial connections with each other. Beasts of the Southern Wild told the exact same story in a much more unique and heartfelt way and for a hundreth of the budget of Cloud Atlas.

    I am surprised though that David Lynch, the master of visual surrealism, isn't on the list once.

  • Fefe | May 13, 2013 2:51 PMReply

    When I saw the article title, The Fall immediately came to mind. But The Cell was picked instead. I thought The Fall is a much better choice, both stylish and has substance.

  • aquarius1271 | May 13, 2013 8:24 AMReply

    spot-on selections, great list! many of these were unforgettable cinematic experiences for me at the time of their release. I was literally hypnotised by The Cell, Sunshine, Dark City and Bram Stoker's Dracula in particular. I am definitely a style over substance person so what a joy to remember all these wonderful visual experiences again.

  • Kenny Fong | May 11, 2013 9:19 PMReply

    How about Michel Gondry's works?

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 11, 2013 2:59 PMReply

    "Bram Stoker's Dracula" is my shiiiiiiiit -- in spite of Keanu Reeves.

  • Vince | May 11, 2013 1:01 PMReply

    I just saw The Mill and the Cross, and was stunned at how beautifully it was shot. Substantive as well, examining the battle between fundamental and reform elements in religion.
    The Nightwatch/Daywatch combo from Timur Bekmambetov is also visually amazing. Whether you find the story about the eternal struggle between light and darkness substantial or not...

  • jake | May 10, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    So this author hates Avatar for its reliance on familiar story (read between the lines: ecological themes) and Sucker Punch because the story centers around girls.

    Tell me, are you a Republican conservative?

  • Oscar Stegland | May 14, 2013 10:41 AM

    This author never said he hates Avatar, just that the story is too familiar. I agree wholeheartedly. The problem isn't its reliance on a familiar story, it's that what I'm left with after seeing it is 'why did they make this film'? It's unwarranted, seeing as how the same story has been told countless times and better than here. Plot point by plot point is literally just recycled from better movies, and it's not really even sci-fi either. It could've taken place on earth and perhaps it wouldn't feel like Cameron is trying to "subtly" (altough he probably doesn't know the meaning of the word) jam a point down our throats.

    Basically, Avatar is literraly not a film but a massive effects-experiment where they've taken a story everyone has heard a thousand times just to be able to try what's possible. Fantastic for cinema-tech but terrible for cinema.

  • jake | May 10, 2013 10:29 PMReply

    So this author hates Avatar for its reliance on familiar story (read between the lines: ecological themes) and Sucker Punch because the story centers around girls.

    Tell me, are you a Republican conservative?

  • Chelsea | May 10, 2013 12:44 PMReply

    Dark City smells like Sprite and Cheetos. And the editing sucks.

  • MOC | May 9, 2013 8:40 AMReply

    Some interesting films in there, must rewatch some of them. Given you mentioned German Expressionism, where were The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis, and Nosferatu?
    Blade Runner should also surely be in there.
    Quite enjoyed Sucker Punch, though with low expectations. Was very disappointed with The Fountain, albeit with high expectations. Looked good in fairness.

  • MIKEY | May 9, 2013 1:39 AMReply

    Watchmen is, in spite of flaws, still absolutely amazing to me. Also quite glad that Speed Racer isn't still dismissed as an ultimate bomb, because outside of the really silly kids stuff, it's totally unmatched in look and scope, and certainly didn't deserve to be buried. Kudos also to throwing some love at The Fountain.

  • joe | May 8, 2013 5:49 PMReply

    Watchmen is a masterpiece. Completely disagree with your criticism.

    Coppola's Dracula is a pile of shyte, worst vampire movie ... ever. Substance? Then man ruined Dracula. How hard is that to pull off?

  • Michael | May 9, 2013 10:21 AM

    I would hardly consider anything that Zack Snyder produces a masterpiece. He's def. not in the same league as the true masters of film (Bergman, Scorsese, Renoir, Godard, Hitchcock, etc.)

    Besides the graphic novel shits on the cinematic adaption every day of the week.

  • Rodrigo | May 8, 2013 7:31 PM

    Yeah, i gotta go with Joe. Dracula is aPOS. Though I think the same about Watchmen.

  • Eamon | May 8, 2013 5:17 PMReply

    Ok Sucker Punch, TERRIBLE movie but its Scott Glenn (Great actor) not John Glenn (Great Astronaut)

  • Lou | May 8, 2013 3:19 PMReply

    The Duellists, for style&substance.

  • brace | May 8, 2013 2:42 PMReply

    what about Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow?

  • Chris | May 8, 2013 2:29 PMReply

    No Cloud Atlas?

  • 3534256 | May 8, 2013 2:17 PMReply

    Bram Stoker's Dracula came out in 1992, not 1991

  • Nolan | May 8, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    Has history turned in favor of the Fountain yet? It definitely has it's issues, and it does dip into melodrama, but what Aronofsky did with $35 million is a genuine cinematic achievement. Hell, COMEDIES these days cost upward of $70 million to make. The visual effects in that movie are breathtaking, and done with so few resources.

  • Chris | May 8, 2013 1:58 PMReply

    Tony Scott's films had "genuine surrealism"? That's a good one.

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