What Makes a Good Movie?
Whether you are enticed to view a movie because of the cast or the plot, we all have our reasons for watching a film. So, what makes a movie good? I know I’m young and of the generation who believes that I know a lot more than a probably do, but for me, other than the storyline, the actors, and the script, the biggest aspect of a film that makes it good (for me) is the cinematography.
Now, what is cinematography? By definition, it is the art of filmmaking. I’m sorry but that’s a useless answer, that’s like when you try to define a word by using the word in the definition. The Harvard Crimson defines it in their article titled, What is Cinematography?, as “the visual elements of the film.” This means the lighting, depth-of-field, composition, color, the way people and objects are arranged within the frame, as well as a multitude of factors that results in providing a distinct “look” to the movie for every single scene, is cinematography. It’s basically what a photographer does in their photo-shoots. You know when you’re looking at a picture that has a person in focus while the background is blurry? Or when the colors look extra vibrant? Or when the brightness, or contrast is lowered or enhanced? These are all the things cinematography is attempting to capture within a film. Of course directors have visions of how they desire to have the movie look, but the director of photography, a.k.a. the cinematographer, works closely with the director in producing those visuals for the motion picture.
So, enough of this boring talk of what cinematography is, here is a list of some of the films I believe have stunning visuals:
If you don’t recognize the name Christopher Nolan, you may recognize the Batman trilogy starring Christian Bale, Inception and Interstellar. Nolan has produced many other films that can be viewed under the cinematography perspective and it’s difficult to pick a favorite because so many of his films are beautiful in storytelling and visuals, but being a lover of a good period piece, I’d have to say my favorite is Dunkirk. To me, it captures the dangerous allure of hope and the will to survive. This morbid story depicts the struggle of the allied troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with the threat of German forces looming at every corner. The majority of the film is about the bleak failed attempts at an evacuation, which is met with equally somber, yet heartbreakingly exquisite, visuals. Each scene is like a perfectly arranged picture and is captured in a way that makes you feel as though you are there. You hear an impending aerial attack, you see a plane crash in the ocean on the horizon, and you experience the fear of not knowing where an attack will happen next. The simple music score and lack of dialogue places heavy emphasis on the cinematography, and the stunning visuals allows this to happen. If you haven’t had a chance to experience this film, you most certainly should give it a watch.
- Mad Max: Fury Road
I can easily say I did not like Mad Max: Fury Road, but the cinematography was something that I could get behind. That 90s grunge-filled future is not a genre that I typically gravitate towards. Examples of this description involve the plot taking place in a future that is basically apocalyptic or on that spectrum, like 12 Monkeys, Waterworld, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. There’s something off-putting about watching a future that is in shambles. But that’s simply personal preference. Other than that aspect of the film, the visuals are something else. The hues of the film showcase a constant contrast of orange and blue (in color theory they are known as complimentary) and visually a high contrast of light and dark. The special effects and makeup are also an added bonus to creating a new world for viewers to get lost in.
- Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson is by far one of my favorite directors; I can literally fan-girl about each one of his films because they are not only amazing stories but also fantastic works of art. Moonrise Kingdom is one of my favorite Wes Anderson movies, alongside Grand Budapest Hotel and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Moonrise Kingdom in particular feels warm and familiar with its color scheme, youthful with its cast and beautiful in its storytelling. His work is another example of a moving picture. It’s also so notably branded that you can start watching the movie and know that it’s a Wes Anderson film. Each scene is perfectly arranged; usually the objects and people within the frame are either symmetrically placed or directly centered. And each frame is clearly well thought out before the cameras start rolling. His films are truly a visual sensation with its effortless appearance and eye pleasing symmetry. If I continue on about my love for Wes Anderson movies, I won’t be able to stop.
- Pan’s Labyrinth
Just watch the movie. Even though it’s a Spanish foreign film and you’ll be watching it with subtitles, just watch it. It’s setup in 1944 Spain and about a little girl who’s dealing with an ailing and pregnant mother, and a hostile military stepfather. But the interesting thing about this film is not necessarily those aspects, but also the fairytale/dreamlike occurrences that happen to the girl when she enters the labyrinth that’s near her house. In the real world, the scenery is gloomy and dark but in the fantasy world everything is brightly lit and in a different color spectrum. But this isn’t a cutesy movie. Yes, it’s about a girl either literally or metaphorically escaping reality, but there are frightening creatures and beautifully terrifying scenery that we experience as she navigates her way through the labyrinth. Each scene is lush with imagery and detail, as well as laced with something slightly sinister, which is somewhat of a hallmark for Director Guillermo del Toro. He has created many such films like The Shape of Water, Crimson Peak and Hellboy. Pan’s Labyrinth is a perfect example of his directing style, as well as his remarkable ability to establish imagery depicting worlds of make-believe that feel real.
Need I say more? Avatar was literally a breakthrough in cinema, took nearly ten years to make and practically created new technology in the movie making industry. You do not have to like this movie, but if you’re a person who has seen the movie, hopefully you can appreciate the visuals that were displayed. Everything that you see was digitally created. Every plant, branch, person, you name it, was somewhat or entirely digitally enhanced or created to produce this magnificent cinematic achievement. This movie lies under the category of cinematography because it is nothing that anyone has seen before. We have the juxtaposition of a sterile environment of research labs and machinery, with the lush wilderness of the natives. It’s not a particularly dark or light film, and typically showcases a vibrant color scheme, and even fluorescence when the world turns to night, but it highlights a feeling. In the facilities and out of the avatars, we are subjected to the mundane, but within the avatars we are invited into a world of limitless possibilities. To me, it seems as though this happens to be a common theme with director James Cameron, where the protagonist is presented with an opportunity that will change their life. Examples of this can be seen from his work on The Abyss, Aliens and The Terminator franchise. He is best known for working within the sci-fy genre but he is not pigeonhole to one such area. He’s a masterful director, and has an amazing ability to transform imagination into reality through expertly crafted scenery.
Listed below are some other movies that I consider to be quite notable in it’s cinematography, but don’t want to bore you with all of my opinions as to why.
- The Lord of the Rings
- Ex Machina
- The Revenant
- No Country for Old Men
Do you agree? Are there movies on my list that shouldn’t be there, or should I add movies to my list that are not there? Let me know what you think, I’m always down for good movie suggestions.