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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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"Fantasia" (Various, 1940)
How Does It Dazzle? After only two completed animated features, Walt Disney embarked on something that even today would be considered wildly ambitious: a 2 hour + collection of short films set to pieces of classical music, brought to life theatrically with the use of "Fantasound," a cutting-edge sound system that predated more sophisticated surround sound technologies (it was the first commercial film exhibited in stereophonic sound). The animation was beautiful and experimental – from the luscious bounce of the "Dance of the Hours" segment to the apocalyptic gloom of the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment – it was the result of a collection of animators, at the top of their game, already deconstructing the format they had just invented, led by a man whose restless imagination would go on to inspire whole generations. A sequel (which was something that Walt toyed with and even did preliminary planning for), "Fantasia 2000," was released 60 years later, under the supervision of Walt's nephew, and while that film certainly has moments of wonder, for sheer, eye-popping spectacle (not to mention newness), the original is still the best. And not just because "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is one of the best uses of the Mickey Mouse character in the history of the Walt Disney company.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. "Fantasia" was clearly a stylistic experiment, one that, without some heavyweight visuals, would have been laughed off movie screens (something that threatened to happen anyway – decades went by before this thing ever turned a profit). It was a way of introducing classical music to children that might not have otherwise been exposed, and the changing nature of each piece of music meant that each segment could be wildly different stylistically. Still, some claim that the movie is still too "arty" for a Disney animated feature. They're right. In a good way.

Dark City

"Dark City" (Alex Proyas, 1998)
How Does It Dazzle? Making Tim Burton's appropriation of German expressionism seem quaint by comparison, "Dark City" is a big, brooding sci-fi mystery about a man who awakens to a world where daylight never comes. This world is lorded over by ethereal beings known as Strangers who have psychokinetic powers and the ability to literally reshape existence as they see fit. This man must untangle his past and try to save the future. Also, there are a series of unexplained murders that he might be responsible for. On a sheer visual level it's hard not to goggle at "Dark City," especially when buildings are popping up out of the ground or the Strangers are silently gliding down hallways. The visuals owe a huge debt to film noirs of the forties and the German expressionism that influenced those films; it's one of those sci-fi fantasies where it's simultaneously both futuristic but also classically old school.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both, but leaning towards style over substance. On first viewing, at least, "Dark City" doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and this is after some heavyweights worked on the script (including David S. Goyer and Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs), but its layers and nuances eventually expose themselves (especially if you watch the "director's cut" version, which basically deletes some "Blade Runner"-esque narration and establishes the world with more clarity). Still, the pleasures of "Dark City" exist, first and foremost, on a visual level, something even its biggest supporters (like Roger Ebert, who named it the best film of 1998) would be quick to admit. It's a visual feast and if you want to read more into it, then good for you.

Bram Stoker's Dracula

"Bram Stoker's Dracula" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)
How Does It Dazzle? Taking an agreeably antique approach to the source material (Coppola said that he didn't want to use any technology that wasn't around during the Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula"), Coppola and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus create a gonzo free-for-all of a horror epic, full of sweeping romance and bloodthirsty monsters. The opening prologue of 'Dracula,' which recounts the life of Vlad Dracula features, amongst other things, a battle sequence represented primarily by using shadow-puppet-like cut-outs, rear projection, and good old fashioned buckets of blood, which spew, ooze, and fountain out of a giant cross. It's this histrionic tone, both story-wise and visually, that's carried through much of the movie – the way that Dracula's shadows act independently of his body, his ability to turn into both a wolf and bat, and, in a particularly giddy moment, when young Jonathan Harker is traveling to Transylvania, Dracula appears as a giant, godlike figure watching his train traverse the countryside (wonderfully done with optical compositing). When describing "Bram Stoker's Dracula," the phrase "over-the-top" just doesn't quite cut it. (Supposedly when describing the look of the film, Coppola created an animated short that used sequences from Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" alongside paintings by Gustav Klimt.)
Style, Substance, or Both? Ultimately: both. The sheer luxuriousness and romanticism of many of the images in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" actually lends the movie some emotional weight. What could have been just a straight horror movie, or worse yet, a cheesy gothic romance, is made stranger and more powerful by the images Coppola concocts. It's not perfect, but the unique stylization never takes away from the narrative, it always adds to it, flowery embroidery for a story we all know well.

The Fountain

"The Fountain" (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
How Does It Dazzle? When Darren Aronofsky first attempted his ambitious sci-fi tale that involved three timelines and heady notions about reincarnation and eternal life, it starred Brad Pitt and carried a budget of nearly $70 million. When Pitt bowed out right before production began, the film was shuttered and Aronosfky originally released his screenplay in comic book form, thinking a feature would never happen. The feature did eventually happen, of course, but with a much smaller budget ($35 million), a condensed script, and an entirely new cast. Still, even a micro-sized "Fountain" is mightily impressive. Not only is the section set in the deep future something that you've never seen before (instead of a spaceship, our hero travels in a terrarium-like bubble), but the way that Aronofsky mingles and merges the images is astounding – things like a wedding ring becoming the space bubble becoming the pattern on the floor of a hospital cancer ward. You can tell this is the kind of stuff that Aronofsky would have brought to his doomed adaptation of "Watchmen" (and we would have been all the better for it). Images and sequences last and linger in your memory long after you're done watching.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. Aronofsky is so good at putting these images together that the movie, which could have been clumsy and unfathomable, becomes surprisingly relatable and emotionally resonant. Images that could have been merely beautiful, when overlapping with other images, become profound. And the whole thing has an inventive wittiness to it that prevents it from ever being burdened by the weight of its ideas. It's mercifully snappy.

Pan's Labyrinth

"Pan's Labyrinth" (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
How Does It Dazzle? While Guillermo del Toro is currently being fashioned as one of Hollywood's leading big budget fantasists, his most interesting work comes from his independent output, like "The Devil's Backbone" and the Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth." The film involves a young girl who, in order to escape the horror of the Spanish Civil War, dives into a fantasy world inhabited by supernatural creatures that set her on a magical quest. It's telling that the real world is so devastating that a realm inhabited by a "Pale Man," with eyeballs in his palms and an insatiable appetite, is more attractive. Del Toro, influenced by a number of things (including a 1953 3D B-movie shocker called "The Maze," Goya paintings and Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" books), gives the movie a singularly musty, earthen feel, which is in stark contrast to the overly sparkly and clean fantasy worlds of Hollywood (like "Oz the Great and Powerful"). Things are dangerous in the real world and in the fantasy world, with an emphasis on goopy, mossy textures. Audiences responded strongly to the movie the world over because it was so different and unique.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. Without one you would not have the other. And unlike del Toro's Hollywood output, with things like "Blade 2" or the "Hellboy" films, it doesn't feel like he's belaboring something unworthy of his considerable talents. This is a universe built from the ground up by del Toro and it shows. The movie wouldn't be nearly as heartbreaking without the fantasy elements, brought to rich visual life by a master of the craft.


"Avatar" (James Cameron, 2009)
How Does It Dazzle? While his dream of using completely computer generated actors didn't get to happen, there's no lack of pixels in James Cameron's hugely expensive gamble on what is essentially Pocahontas in space. It's easy to forget that what we take for granted now -- 3D and epic levels of CGI, yawn -- was something of a groundbreaking, game-changer only four years ago. At that time, 3D was still viewed as somewhat of a novelty, with studios unsure if audiences would fork over extra dollars to wear glasses and a look at a dimmer screen (surprise, they did). Even more, no one was quite sure how Cameron's ambitious digital work was going to turn out. With supercomputers and a team of 900 all working to make it right, it's pretty safe to say "Avatar" matches Cameron's vision. The lush world of Pandora is realistically brought to life and the mix of mo-cap, live action, animation and various other visual effects are near seamless. And yes, the 3D is integrated with some thought and skill. And earning a couple billion space dollars, everyone on the planet was taken with the movie. 
Style, Substance, Or Both? Stylish yes, and while the tremendous work on "Avatar" are an inherent part of the narrative, it's just too bad it dresses up such a dull story. For all of the technical wonder, the actual movie feels a bit lacking, if only because it feels familiar, which should hardly be a surprise considering Cameron admitted to being inspired by "every single science fiction book" he's read. It shows. Hopefully for the next two movies, he'll have something truly surprising in the script to go with whatever boundary pushing technology he uses next.

Other movies with rock-em, sock-em visual panache include Luc Besson's candy-colored sci-fi romp "The Fifth Element;" Stephen Norrington's "Blade," with many stylistic elements that predated "The Matrix;" the films of director Joe Wright, which beautifully culminated in last year's "Anna Karenina;" David Fincher's cutting-edge "Fight Club" and stylish "Se7en"; the films of director Tony Scott, who pushed musty masculinity into areas of genuine surrealism; Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," which finally gave 3D the psychedelic swirl it so desperately needed; and the works of international directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Kim Jee-Woon and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, filmmakers who aren't content unless they're consciously blurring the line between style and substance. -- Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth

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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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