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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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The Tree Of Life

The Tree of Life” (2011)
How Does It Dazzle? All of the films of Terrence Malick are obsessed with the beauty and inner nature of life, the human spirit, and are sublime and bewitching to look at. Yet, up until recently, Malick had never used the same cinematographer. Three DPs shot “Badlands,” Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler shot the sun dappled “Days Of Heaven” and John Toll shot the shimmering ‘Thin Red Line.’ It wasn’t until 2005 that Malick found a regular DP in Emmanuel Lubezki who shot “The New World” and has lensed everyone of his films since. Lubezki also shot, “The Tree of Life,” Malick’s Palme d’Or winning spiritual paean to family, fathers, mothers, siblings and our great struggle when loved ones have passed. It’s also about the meaning of life and the creation of the universe… or something. So how does it dazzle? In two distinctive ways: through the immersive and gliding cameras (that also became a talking point in “To The Wonder”) which captures all the deeply felt confusion, pain and angst of all the main characters and then the celestial visual effects that VFX master Douglas Trumbull contributed to. Both are splendid, but the visual effects of the cosmos, space and beyond are glorious and something to behold.
Style, Substance, Or Both? Malick’s “The Tree of Life” left a lot of people scratching their heads or wanting something more. And admittedly, up until then, it’s perhaps his most uneven film, not quite blending these too universes as profoundly as he usually does. But to say “The Tree of Life” doesn’t have substance would be criminally wrongheaded. It’s style doesn’t get in its way as much as its ambition. Inside Malick’s movie is a poignant examination of our loved ones, how we can and cannot live without them. How we adore and yet resent them and how those spiritual, physical and blood ties are connected to the metaphysical nature of everything. Deeply felt, “The Tree of Life” may not be Malick’s most wholeheartedly successful movie, but it may be his most personal and as close to divinity as he’s ever come.

Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
How Does It Dazzle? Terry Gilliam has always been one of cinema's premiere fantasists, it's just that often his productions are plagued by problems (as documented in the thoughtful documentary "Lost in La Mancha," which detailed the way his "Man from La Mancha" film broke down) or hit the screen in some creatively compromised way (everything from big studio movies like "The Brother Grimm" to the muddy, borderline unwatchable indie "Tideland"). Disaster struck "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" when Heath Ledger, one of the movie's costars, died tragically during production. But this setback actually added to the movie's visual dazzle, which takes the form of an alternate universe opened up by the titular character (played by Christopher Plummer), a kind of traveling circus performer whose Faustian bargain has gained him access to fantastical realms. The most jaw-dropping scenario involves giant, jellyfish-type creatures who rocket through a pastel landscape. After Ledger's death, three other actors (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law) stepped in to essay the character, which adds an even greater degree of surrealism to the already outrageous scenario. If only Gilliam had worked out a more tangible narrative to connect all of this weirdness together; instead, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" sometimes feels like a really lovely, ornate, jewel-encrusted box, with nothing inside.
Style, Substance, or Both? "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is all style, with little else going on, but even the "style" part seems tenuous – sometimes whole sequences have the feeling of an early-'90s music video or a tired screensaver. The director who once conjured forth such amazing, intricate worlds in everything from "Brazil" to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," seems slack and uninvolved. Your eyes won't pop out of your head. In fact, they'll barely bulge.

Speed Racer

"Speed Racer" (The Wachowskis, 2008)
How Does It Dazzle? After the critically derided "Matrix" sequels, the Wachowskis, instead of retreating into some safe, "easy" project, decided to go full throttle into madness with their candy-colored, eye-popping, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink adaptation of beloved '60s Japanese cartoon series "Speed Racer." They were unwilling to rest on their laurels and so attempted to do the unthinkable – the response from both critics and audiences was a befuddled "huh?" To explain: in order to appropriate the look of the anime, the Wachowskis shot each actor and element separately and then edited them together so that everything would appear "flat," like a two-dimensional cartoon. Editorial flourishes from the cartoon like the use of giant heads, blurry backgrounds and extreme wipes were also employed. The Wachowskis pushed things even further, with multiple races happening in both present day and in flashback at the same time. Additionally, the cars would "fight" each other on the racetrack, something the Wachowskis described as "car-fu," the results of which come across like "Wacky Racers" meets "Mario Kart" (not that that is a bad thing). "Speed Racer" was genuinely unlike anything you'd ever seen before, not that anybody cared all that much. The most amazing sequence isn't the final race, but a cross-country road rally that takes place during the middle of the movie and features a number of atmospheres and environments; it's truly breathtaking stuff.
Style, Substance, or Both? There's no real defense for the overabundance of visual excess. As in the case with "The Great Gatsby," you could have probably made an adaptation of the material that didn't induce seizures in unknowing viewers. But, that said, what The Wachowskis did here was big, bold, and oftentimes brilliant – almost five years later and there still hasn't been a movie that's come close to achieving the same sustained stylization. Watching it is an absolute blast and what sabotages the movie more than its goopy visual effects are the kiddy subplots and tonal wonkiness. It seems a movie ripe for reappraisal and genuinely ahead of its time.

Tron: Legacy Garrett Hedlund

"Tron: Legacy" (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)
How Does It Dazzle? The original "Tron," released nearly thirty years before the sequel/reboot/spin-off/whats-it, was hugely influential on a visual level – its sleek, neon-lined designs and chilly computer-world aesthetic would be mimicked and poorly replicated for years to come. But the movie itself was kind of forgotten, a slow and plodding adventure that couldn't hope to eclipse (or even match) its processed visual majesty. "Tron: Legacy" is similar in that it's both visually awe-inspiring and, on a narrative level, wholly inert. Joseph Kosinski is an architect and protégé of David Fincher's, whose cleanly composed lines and set-pieces are pretty phenomenal; he imagines the computer landscape as being rougher and bleaker, with everything (including rain jackets and banisters) with neon-lit piping. After a while, things become more abstract, and the sleek dreaminess of the images starts to mesmerize to the point of hypnosis. That's when "Tron: Legacy" becomes less a movie than a $200 million video art installation (amplified amiably by the pulsating Daft Punk soundtrack that's so prog-rock arty that you can practically picture the smoke from the fog machine swirling around your ankles). We also really love Jeff Bridges' apartment.
Style, Substance, or Both? This is all style. If the creative team had put as much emphasis into making the script even slightly coherent as they had into making sure the light cycle chase was as dynamic as it ended up being, then it would be an entirely different story. As it stands, "Tron: Legacy" is all sizzle, no steak. Still, if this thing was projected on the wall of a museum or art gallery, it would rightfully be applauded for being an anti-narrative, something in which the images don't tell a story as much as they actively defy one. 

Sunshine, Danny Boyle

Sunshine” (2007)
How Does It Dazzle? Danny Boyle’s restless nature makes for hopped-up, kinetic picture with a style and energy that’s often criticized for resembling a music video. It’s not a completely invalid criticism, but Boyle’s predilections mostly hew closer to the rhythms of music, editing and capturing a visceral moment rather than putting a premium on capturing beautiful images. There are exceptions throughout his career obviously, but the most obvious one is his 2007 science-fiction thriller, “Sunshine,” which is set 50 years from now and follows a team of scientists and astronauts who are sent to re-ignite the dying sun. So with the brightest star in the galaxy at the epicenter of this story, you can guess that the movie -- tellingly not shot by Boyle’s regular, more low-tech DP Anthony Dod Mantle (instead it’s Alwin H. Küchler who shot “Code 46,” and “Movern Callar”) -- looks utterly radiant and breathtaking.
Style, Substance, Or Both? This is up for debate in some circles, but visually, the film is completely apropos. It’s not Boyle’s favorite of his films because he had a tough time making it, and where its quality is concerned, many feel the movie is compromised by its silly third act that gets a little less “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more “Event Horizon” or some Hollywood space thriller. We won’t argue that point so much, but the celestial look of “Sunshine” is never gratuitous and fits the material like a glove. The utterly incandescent glow of the movie is luminous and to be honest, its shining brilliance may have blinded you from some of the film’s problems as that first experience in the theater was perhaps the dictionary definition of “dazzling.”

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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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