"Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in," says Ricky Fitts in American Beauty. It's one of those lines that pierces right through you and makes you want to hit pause because you, too, can't take it anymore. But, like sucking on a cavity to double-check if the sweet thing still hurts, you keep going anyway because it's oddly satisfying. The best part of that quote is that the film's earnest budding videographer is talking about the kind of unbearable beauty that's moving precisely because it exists inside the ugliness of day-to-day life.
You'd think he was talking about an otherworldly landscape, but he's actually talking about a trash bag dancing in the wind.
I thought of this scene a few years ago when my cinema professor reminded the class that good art doesn't ask you to sit with it; you just do. It's definitely true about certain movies, the ones that use cinematography as a storytelling tool to draw us in and dazzle our senses. As a writer, it's hard to admit this, but sometimes films with such great cinematography and set design are even good enough to watch it in silence, no dialogue necessary.
Since the whole point here is that beautiful movies can touch and move us in profound ways, we'll let the films below prove it themselves. Read on for 10 striking films whose cinematography will change the way you see the world.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, everything is just slightly outside the pale of normality, a suggestion of the inevitable collapse of one family's perceived perfection and the illusion of safey—that is, until it becomes full-on nightmarish. Take, for example, the young woman who leans somewhat unnaturally against a lone, large oak tree as she performs, in a tone of total seriousness, a breathy rendition of Katy Perry's "Firework" for a one-man audience.
The film is very mood-driven, intellectual, experimental, strange, quirky, and—rest assured—beyond entertaining, following a cookie-cutter family that's thrown off course when the father mentors a young, odd boy who quickly becomes obsessed with him and his family. The whole universe of the movie seems to mimic the father's monotone, bizarrely affectless demeanor, even when the kids start getting sick in an apparent act of revenge.
There are also many clever shots and camera angles that give the audience a bird's eye view—everybody is playing God now, and even you, the viewer, are implicated in what's about to unfold. Behind all the beauty, there's something truly sinister and ugly, which is unsurprising, given the title of the film.
For the wordsmiths… "You have beautiful hands. I never noticed before. Everyone's been telling me lately what beautiful hands you have and now I can see for myself, nice and clean. But so what if they're beautiful? They're lifeless. Sometimes, Steven, you're just an incompetent man who goes on and on saying stupid things like, 'Let's do a scan. Let's do an ultrasound. Let's wear brown socks. Let's make mashed potatoes. Let's go to the beach house.'"
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cinematographer: Thimios Bakatakis
Up Next: Requiem for a Dream, directed by Darren Aronofsky
Not only is every shot indescribably striking, but Moonlight captures a sense of place unlike any other; You can just feel the humidity rising in every shot, a nod to both the oppressive heat of Miami, Florida, but also the tension and oppression the protagonist experiences throughout the film. Grappling with issues of identity formation and belonging amid adversity, it follows Chiron as he grows up and navigates his sexuality and finds mentorship and love from unconventional figures in his life.
Though there are many moments of heartbreak and alienation, Moonlight will ultimately leave you feeling triumphant, thanks to the small gestures of empathy and revealing representations of all sorts of love, both romantic and sexual, parental and platonic, along with the challenge to establish self-love when we can't seem to find it externally. It'll invite you to exercise deep introspection and empathy, and while extremely emotionally moving, it's also introspective, intimate, evocative, and illuminating.
For the wordsmiths… "I should have cried too much. Sometimes I feel like I'm just gonna turn into drops."
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cinematographer: James Laxton
Up Next: Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin
A Single Man
With fashion designer Tom Ford directing it, you know A Single Man is going to be endlessly stylish, with a particular attention to aesthetics and beauty. Thematically, it spotlights a professor living in Los Angeles during the early 1960s as he attempts to maintain his daily routine after the sudden and tragic loss of his young partner.
Taking place over the course of a single day, we get a glimpse into the interiority of an aging gay man living in Los Angeles. The New Yorker describes it as "slowed by its own beauty," which sure, could read like a bad thing, depending on what you're looking for. It's meditative, thoughtful, moving, and bursting with style inspiration.
For the wordsmiths… "Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty."
Director: Tom Ford
Cinematographer: Eduard Grau
Next Up: Her, directed by Spike Jonze
Here's that famously unassuming plastic bag we mentioned earlier. Similar to many of the films released in 1999, this movie explores the male gaze and the sexualization of teenage femininity as well as the simultaneity of dystopia and beauty in a banal suburban existence. As expected with such complex yet accessible themes about the tensions that arose in the new millennium, expect to pause this movie every two seconds just to take in the captivating cinematography.
For the wordsmiths… "It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst… And then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude."
Director: Sam Mendes
Cinematographer: Conrad Hall
Next Up: Y Tu Mamá También, directed by Alfonso Cuarón
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Though it's considered a thriller, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn't too scary to watch if you're not normally drawn to the genre. It offers an incredibly fresh take on the horror genre, presenting the audience with one of the strongest female leads around, and the film could even be classified as a romance drama. It’s about a lonely vampire in the town of Bad City, which reeks of rot and decay (if you watch closely, you'll spot corpses in the periphery of many scenes), so you should expect some frightening elements.
But it also sheds light on contemporary power dynamics and gender inequality in an unconventional narrative. It's clever, entertaining, empowering, intelligent, artful, and thought-provoking… the list goes on.
For the wordsmith… "If there was a storm coming right now, a big storm, from behind those mountains, would it matter? Would it change anything?"
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Cinematographer: Lyle Vincent
Next Up: Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Unlike many of the other films on this list, The Grand Budapest Hotel isn't a serious movie. In fact, it's beloved for its whimsy and wit. That's not to say the script and plotline aren't ambitious and gripping—they definitely are, it's just one of those movies that you can literally watch on mute and get just as much out of it, thanks to the revolutionary color palates, costumes, set designs, and cinematography.
For the wordsmiths… "You're looking so well, darling, you really are. They've done a marvelous job. I don't know what sort of cream they've put on you down at the morgue, but… I want some."
Director: Wes Anderson
Cinematographer: Robert Yeoman
Up Next: Edward Scissorhands, directed by Tim Burton
In the Mood for Love
Brace yourselves: In the Mood for Love will quietly break your hearts. It's about two lonely neighbors, a young man and woman, who find solace in each other when they both start feeling more and more suspicious and disconnected from their own partners.
It may sound like a familiar storyline, but what's so brilliant about it are all the visual cues that bring us inside the suffocatingly cramped apartment brimming with florals, shattered mirrors, and other conventional domestic symbols, reflecting the sense of simultaneous claustrophobia and distance.
For the wordsmiths… "You notice things if you pay attention."
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Cinematographer: Mark Lee Ping-bing, Kwan Pun Leung, and Christopher Doyle
Up Next: Grey Gardens, directed by Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer
The Neon Demon
There's a lot going on this movie, and its almost exclusively communicated through visuals, whether it's through the symbolism of a mountain lion that ravages a seedy yet alluring Hollywood motel, through the blaring lights at a nightclub, the city lights twinkling in the distance while an ethereal Elle Fanning dances over the skyline from Giffith Park, or in sickeningly brightly lit studios during grotesque, dehumanizing photoshoots and castings.
If you like satires that border on campiness, you'll love this horror-meets-fashion film, and you'll want to pause the movie during each scene to really soak in the eerie beauty, loaded symbolism, gorgeous color palates, and covetable style.
For the wordsmiths... "True beauty is the highest currency we have."
Director: Nicolas Refn
Cinematographer: Natasha Braier
Next Up: The Virgin Suicides, directed by Sofia Coppola
The use of color, light, and depth in this movie give the viewer such an intimate connection with the characters and storyline. The celebratory scenes have beautiful flickering orbs of color and glitter while the painful ones are visually bleak and gritty, so it really feels like a full sensory experience, taking us inside the emotional journey.
Indeed, Pariah is one of the most visually striking films of our time, but it digs way deeper and goes far beyond aesthetics alone. It follows an intelligent, curious, and confident young woman as she navigates her sexuality and what it means for her relationship with the rest of the world. Watch this if you love family dramas and moving coming-of-age tales with seriously strong female leads.
For the wordsmiths… "Heartbreak opens onto the sunrise for even breaking is opening and I am broken, I am open. Broken into the new life without pushing in, open to the possibilities within, pushing out. See the love shine in through my cracks? See the light shine out through me? I am broken, I am open, I am broken open."
Director: Dee Rees
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
Next Up: We the Animals, directed by Jeremiah Zagar
Loaded with metafiction, Nocturnal Animals is ostensibly about a woman reading the manuscript her ex-lover sent her over the course of the weekend, but then we step inside his screenplay (or her interpretation of it, anyway, which seems to mirror her parallel life—the one she would have lived had she chosen to spend her life with him rather than pursuing a life with a wealthy businessman in Malibu).
The screenplay feels even more real and compelling than the storyline about the affected but successful art curator. Like the opening scene, which is simultaneously a grotesque critique and reaffirmation of American consumerism, you'll question the point of art, and whether or not we need it.
As indicated, this film works on multiple layers of reality and will have you wondering what the hell you just watched, and which storyline and characters you were actually supposed to get attached to and care about.
For the wordsmiths… "Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It's a lot less painful."
Director: Tom Ford
Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey
Next Up: We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay