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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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"Watchmen" (Zack Snyder, 2009)
How Does It Dazzle? The fact that there was a "Watchmen" at all is something sort of astounding, especially considering the heavyweights throughout the years who unsuccessfully mounted adaptations (among them: Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky). That it was as slavishly faithful to the source material as Snyder's version was, is almost beyond belief. Snyder lovingly recreates entire pages from the comic book (look no further than the opening sequence that shows the murder of former superhero The Comedian), with each panel serving as inspiration for a super-slow-motion moment in the feature film (the director's cut would eclipse the 3 hour mark, an even-more-extended version that included an animated version of the "Black Freighter" subplot, was even longer). Snyder included it all (the eternal-Nixon eighties setting, the owl ship, the glowing blue scientist Dr. Manhattan) adding only slight flourishes (an abundance of Snyder-approved ultra-violence) and alterations (the giant squid monster isn't included and, honestly, almost cripples the entire third act). If there's one thing that Snyder understood, without a doubt, it's how "Watchmen" should look. What remained elusive was how it should feel and resonate. It's like a child reading a thematically complex comic and simply being astounded by the visuals without thinking about what it actually meant.
Style, Substance, or Both? "Watchmen" is a really amazing looking movie and we've watched it over and over again for that simple reason (the history of Dr. Manhattan scene is one of our favorites ever – love the Phillip Glass musical cue), but it never ceases to frustrate. It's style without substance… and it nags. Why keep the eighties setting if you do so little with it? Was the "Dr. Strangelove"-esque war room really necessary? What's with the bad actors wearing historical characters make-up? And how long would the movie be if there weren't as many slow-motion shots? These are just a few of the questions that come up while watching "Watchmen," which will undoubtedly go down in the history of film as one of the most gorgeous missed opportunities ever.

"Moulin Rouge!" (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
How Does It Dazzle? Baz Luhrmann originally made his mark with this rococo conclusion to his nonstop "Red Curtain" trilogy (which began with "Strictly Ballroom" and continued with "Romeo + Juliet"), a series of movies so excessive that you thought they might spill off the screen and into the audience. With "Moulin Rouge!" he took everything he was developing with the previous films and pushed it to the brink, with more costumes and gags and melodrama than than several seasons of "Masterpiece Theatre," encased in an editorial style so schizophrenic that it would make the rapid-fire style of early MTV seem positively laidback by comparison. Adding to the sense of overkill is the fact that, while the movie is a period piece, Luhrmann decided to score it using songs (and bits of songs) familiar to contemporary audiences, in a kind of "mash up" approach that would predate the actual coining of that phrase by a good five years or so. Everything is more in "Moulin Rouge!," whether you like it or not, brimming over with embroidered additives and visual splendor (the color red has rarely been used as effectively). At the time, "Moulin Rouge!'s" boldness seemed almost revolutionary. Watching it today, it still kind of does.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. Like the best of these movies, the style and the substance are so intertwined that pulling one apart would cause the whole thing to collapse. For "Moulin Rouge!," without its style, it could have easily fallen into the category of limp soap opera. With its lavishness, though, it's something new, something bold, and something different.

"Transformers" (Michael Bay, 2007)
How Does It Dazzle? Michael Bay had always been someone who could make even the grimmest of subject matters (like, say, the bombing of "Pearl Harbor") sparkle like a Coca-Cola commercial, but with "Transformers," based on the beloved action figure/cartoon/comic book series, he kicked things into overdrive, creating a world so bustling with visual activity that you could actually watch a car transform into a giant robot and not only believe that it was happening, but you could count the individual car parts as they were being reconfigured into robot parts. The depth and degree that he used visual effects was something even the most hardened lover of animation had to realize was a pretty incredible feat. Things like the first time Optimus Prime transforms or the way that a scorpion-like bad robot leaps out of the desert sand, are genuine moments of awe and wonder, worthy of Steven Spielberg's executive producer credit. And this kind of techno-mechanical mastery is never more apparent than in the climactic battle sequence that happens at the end of the movie and takes place on the mostly deserted streets of downtown Los Angeles (compared to the level of mayhem that the subsequent movies produced, it seems kind of quaint now). There's a kind of crazed inventiveness that the sequels, for all of their heightened antic energy, can never eclipse (or even match).
Style, Substance or Both? Probably both. Sure, it is a movie based on a series of action figures. And while the series did devolve into a series of bloated, hyper-violent set pieces, the first film at least managed to merge the concept with something close to heartfelt – the feeling of attachment to your very first car. It's probably the most identifiably human movie in Bay's oeuvre in addition to being his most visually dazzling.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" (Sam Raimi, 2013)
How Does It Dazzle? Sam Raimi, coming off of his original "Spider-Man" movies (which weren't exactly boring-looking), tackled the world of L. Frank Baum's Oz, with 21st century technology and a visual palette borrowed from Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" (the two share a production designer and, of course, studio) but pushing things into much more extreme, overgrown territories. He makes the imaginary world of Oz denser, more textured, and more dangerous than it was in the original "Wizard of Oz," creating a lush fantasy world that seems easy to get lost in. Raimi basically took a class in 3D photography and it shows onscreen – there are some moments that are immersive in ways that few 3D movies actually are. Other directors would have been overwhelmed and perhaps swallowed up by the abundance of technological derring-do, but Raimi equips himself admirably – there's an appreciated lightness to the movie and that buoyancy is all Raimi and his winking references to the original film are welcome and witty. You can, apparently, teach an old dog new tricks.
Style, Substance, or Both? With 'Oz,' it's both, since for the first time ever you're truly able to go on the journey of someone who is walking into a fantasy world with all sorts of craziness jutting out at them. (Until, of course, the eventual Disney theme park attraction.) Raimi is singularly committed to capturing that experience and he does so wonderfully. You can practically feel the yellow brick road under your feet.

"The Cell" (Tarsem, 2000)
How Does It Dazzle? Like many of the movies on this list, "The Cell" takes place in an alternate dimension – in this case the dream world of a serial killer, who has another victim locked up. So a psychologist and FBI agent decide to descend into his subconscious to see if they can figure out where he's hidden his latest victim. Commercial director Tarsem uses a whole host of influences (everything from Metallica music videos to horror movies to French cartoons to Damien Hirst pieces) to achieve a disorienting sense of unease and dread, occasionally making things too glacial and beautiful to actually be horrifying. Still, there are a number of unforgettable sequences in "The Cell" and it was an aesthetic that Tarsem continued, in his incredibly wonderful fantasy period drama "The Fall," to his back-to-back mainstream movies "Immortals" (which has about 15 minutes of sheer brilliance and some of the best 3D ever) and "Mirror Mirror" (Bollywood-inspired and infinitely more enjoyable than the self-serious "Snow White and the Huntsman"). At the very least, "The Cell" is the most distinct son-of-"Silence of the Lambs" thrillers, one that takes adventurous visual and narrative chances while still hedging closely to the conventions of the genre.
Style, Substance, or Both? Total style. The first time we saw "The Cell" we wanted to rip one of the seats out of the theater and hurl it at the screen. In time we've mellowed and come to appreciate the orgiastic, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach that Tarsem employs and admit, begrudgingly, that, for the most part, it works. It's just that it's also incredibly hollow and for all of it striking visual curlicues, it doesn't mean much of anything. Tarsem's grasp on long form narrative, even after "The Cell," remains rickety and uneasy.

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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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