8.) Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
Traditionally the coming-of-age story is not one which lends itself the need for aesthetic beauty; think of the stripped-down colour scheme of The Breakfast Club (1985), a film confined to one room so that it may carefully observe dialogue. Y Tu Mamá También is much more interested in the physical coming-of-age, however, as Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) receive their sexual awakening at the whim of Ana (Ana López Mercado), a lonely woman with whom they embark upon a road trip. It’s a sexually explicit, tender and often funny film, and one of astonishing visual beauty thanks to DP Emmanuel Lubezki. One image in particular has stuck in my mind. After an angry (and borderline homoerotic) swimming contest between Julio and Tenoch, the loser is left in the pool, covered by a layer of fallen autumn leaves. Tenoch sinks into the leaves and they ripple around him in a stunning lingering shot. Just beautiful.
7.) I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009) [Main Picture]
I Am Love or Io sono L’amore. Whichever way you say it, the effect is grand. Opulent, magisterial, traditionalist; the world of the Recchi’s is impeccably furnished, and the centrepiece of their bourgeoisie design is the family itself, led by the beautiful Emma (Tilda Swinton). Director Guadagnino evokes passion through every frame, especially at a restaurant scene where succulent prawns are imbued with a lustful red, and a later love scene set amongst nature which leaps into the soul of the viewer. The film has an incredible sense of wealth and space, harking back to the days of Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and the camerawork is sublime throughout – especially the shot which tracks Emma down into the kitchens so that she may kiss her lover Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). From the snow-cloaked shot of Milan that opens this ravishing melodrama to its exasperatingly surreal ending, I Am Love is a film of overwhelming emotion, intensity and tragedy. A masterpiece, basically.
6.) 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
Fellini’s 8½ is a film which strikes you in its opening moments, captivating the viewer with the best dream sequence ever committed to celluloid. A foregrounded car, cloaked in shadow, is approaching the light. The camera gently sweeps over the cars, revealing a traffic jam that goes on for miles. The heat is sweltering; we feel it not because the light is overexposed, or because we’re focused on beads of sweat, but because of the intensity of movement and the ever-increasing surrealism of the images. Soon Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is floating through the clouds, which swirl beautifully around him. There’s an ethereality, but also a danger. Then he plummets from the sky into a vast ocean. Unbearably cool and impossibly stylish, 8½ is a film of swelling passion and emotion, evoked equally through music and performance but especially through the gorgeous black and white cinematography. In a word? Breathtaking.
5.) Lé Mepris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
The above shot is one of the best composed in all of cinema. Look at the way, for example, those marble steps match the statue in the centre-left of the frame. Notice that the red of the sofa is the exact same shade as Brigitte Bardot’s towel, which evokes passion and lust. See how bland and lifeless the white walls are, as if to amplify the power of those reds. Look at how profound the division between the left and right of the frame is, as the panel in the centre separates the rooms. The depth of the colour palette is also astonishing; its vibrancy providing a perfect juxtaposition to the bubbling emotions between a fracturing couple. The beauty in Lé Mepris does not exist purely in photography, which is stunning, but also in how carefully framed and edited shots are. On a technical level, it’s flawless.
4.) Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)
After viewing Baraka for the first time on Blu Ray I described the experience as “profound” and one which “transports the viewer to a world which is beautiful, wondrous, multicultural and transcendental.” It’s an experimental film at heart, toying with documentary convention and at one point employing Eisenstein’s Intellectual Montage theory to juxtapose the bustling Japan cityscape with the grouping and tagging of young chicks. Those guys on the subway? They’re on a production line, except that they’re under the illusion of being in control. Baraka says all of this without words; each image speaks a thousand. Just take a few seconds to absorb the depth of the image above. Your eyes are instantly drawn to the centre of the frame, but stare into the valley. Stunning isn’t it? One shot sees birds resting on clear blue water, reflecting the sky above. It’s as if we’ve entered another universe, but this beauty exists on Earth.
3.) Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
Are you skimming the images? If not then I really shouldn’t need to go on; that shot could captivate for hours. Kubrick’s most beautiful film was photographed by DP John Alcott, who also lensed A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). Alcott has an incredibly sensitive eye, almost ethereal (although that ethereality was spiked with haunted insanity in Kubrick’s King adaptation), and it’s never been better than in this stately 18th Century drama. Some people mistake long scenery shots for beautiful ones, but the landscape here truly is beautiful. Why? What separates it? Because it feels like every blade of grass has been painted, even those miles into the distance. It feels like several shots have been composed in such a way as to overlap each other, and give it a completely three-dimensional effect. So I ask again, with this image as my argument: what’s the point of 3D?
2.) Il Conformista (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
Although many are put off by its politics very few can deny the pure visual poetry of Bernardo Bertolucci’s impressionistic masterpiece, shot by his regular DP Vittorio Storaro, and starring the magnetic Jean-Louis Trintignant. Political context is vital in truly understanding the story, which finds a fascist Italian travelling abroad to assassinate his old teacher, but one could easily watch the film silent as a series of progressive images. A dance hall sequence stands out; because of the lucid symmetry of the movement, but equally because of the way costume complements set design, creating images which would feel at home in a gallery. But sweeping camerawork, especially the use of overhead shots, is what really lends the film beauty and a sense of space that envelopes the viewer. That said, one of my favourite shots in the film starts at floor level, observing crisp autumn leaves dancing into the air. It’s incredible.
1.) Claire’s Knee (Eric Rohmer, 1970)
Néstor Almendros, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, is my favourite cinematographer. Alongside this masterpiece from nouvelle vague filmmaker Eric Rohmer he’s also lensed films like La vallée (1972) and Days Of Heaven (1978), the latter of which won him an Oscar. He truly has an artist’s eye, and can capture seasons like no other DP in cinema history. In Claire’s Knee he evokes summer, indulging in its flowering buoyancy, spirited liberties and laid-back breeziness. The conversation flows as freely as wine and Almendros’ bright (but never overpowering) tones perfectly match the location work and set design. A sparkling lake ripples next to the house where Rohmer’s drama unfolds, and the sun reflects off of it beautifully, illuminating Laurence de Monaghan’s lingering legs (hers is the titular knee) and golden locks. There’s no other word to describe the film but beautiful, because it is beauty personified. You’ll need a glass of lemonade when it’s over…