Today’s Favorite: Breakthroughs in Big-Screen Visual Artistry

Today’s Favorite: Breakthroughs in Big-Screen Visual Artistry March 15, 2009

The Wizard of Oz enchanted audiences with a wonderland of color that made moviegoing more vivid and exuberantly engaging. When Star Wars opened in 1977, it represented a giant leap forward in the art of visual effects and sound effects. Tron gave us an aesthetic experience through computers that was unlike anything we’d seen before. With Toy Story, the world of feature animation changed.

Recently, I’ve seen three films that I think should be included on any list of groundbreaking, pioneering works of visual artistry: MirrorMask, in which Dave McKean took us into a wonderland with a look and feel as strange and original as anything I’ve seen since The Dark Crystal; The Fall, with its relentlessly surprising visual trickery and painterly style, reminding us of what is possible without digital animation; and Coraline, due to its enchanting, exquisitely detailed use of 3D and unconventional POVs.

I’m not talking about Transformers. I’m getting bored with the Olympics of Kickass CGI. I’m talking about artfulness… films that take us places we didn’t know were possible before, because the artists are discovering new styles, new ways of telling stories.

What films have given you that rush of a whole new kind of moviegoing experience? Share the films that made you gasp and think, “Wow. This is something we haven’t seen before.”

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10 responses to “Today’s Favorite: Breakthroughs in Big-Screen Visual Artistry”

  1. THE GETTY ADDRESS (2006, dir. James Sumner). Truly groundbreaking, the single greatest feat of animation to have been created by a single individual.

  2. Interesting question, Jeff. If there’s any film that belongs on this list, it’s Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (perhaps the most truly cinematic film ever made), which is still as unique and dazzling today as it was in its own time. But for films that are more recent that I found distinctive, even if they’re not quite revolutionary:

    HERO (2002). I think CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is the superior effort in this genre, with a greater narrative complexity, but HERO is more overtly beautiful, with a wonderful use of strong color.

    OLDBOY (2003). Park Chan-Wook’s greatest film to date is one of the most astonishingly bold films from recent years. Its visual style is not overtly striking, but it quickly becomes clear that OLDBOY is like no other film I’ve ever seen, with a mixture of gritty reality and surreality that has haunted me long after I’ve seen it. If someone is to make a list of great films of the last decade or so, this absolutely has to be on it.

    DANTE’S INFERNO (2007). Notable for its clever use of hand-drawn paper puppets. It’s decidedly old-school, but impressive for it.

    WATCHMEN (2009). It has a visual language all its own, largely due to the visual language of its source material, but director Zack Snyder has made – if nothing else – a very beautiful film that never feels like anything else I’ve seen on the cinema screen.

  3. I can think of two movies where I came to the party late, but still saw that spark that generated countless other creators and imitators.

    I saw Koyaanisqatsi about 10 years ago, well after it came before but before it was easy to find on DVD. While the techniques I saw were the stuff of ads today, it still seemed alive and full of innovation. From what I read of reviews, it wasn’t anything people had seen before in those days. Even some of the Phillip Glass pieces and time-lapsed moon were moments I rewound often.

    The other was Spirited Away, a Miyazaki movie that wasn’t as groundbreaking as Totoro or Nausicaa, but was still my first one. Much of it was based on motifs we’d seen before, but the methods and storytelling Miyazaki used seems very unique to me. When this came out I was already tired of the “Olympics of Kickass CGI” that was plaguing film and knowing that he was still dedicated to hand-drawn animation seemed to be both a throwback and an innovation.

  4. “Children of Men.” It is an achievement in terms of cinematography alone with the multiple 10 minute long uninterrupted sequences. But the film as a whole was a triumph of cinema. The dreariness of the setting was complemented beautifully with a story that was ultimately redemptive and hopeful.

    I left the theater that day knowing I had seen something I would never forget.

  5. Something about Terry Gilliam’s film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen really struck me when it came out. I remember coming out of the theatre on the Upper East Side of New York feeling like anything could happen at all. I’m not sure if it was the editing, the ingenious theatricality of the film making, or the way the story kept subverting the relationship between the imaginary and the real, but I thought then and still do that it was really something special.

    A second example would be Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece. The first shot of the mist on the forested mountains and later, the rain falling on the ox train as it moved along the mountain side, it was animation but it seemed to me to capture the feeling of being outdoors in a way many, many live action films I’d see failed to.

  6. I just saw Star Wars Empire Strikes Back on tv today and was thinking, Wow! Even to this day I wish films could have the “feel” that Star Wars still has.

    A fairly obvious Wow for me was LOTR.

  7. Greetings from Venezuela. I’ll mention the most recent ones I can remember. I’m no expert and I can’t make justice to any of these films but FWIW:

    Recently, “Hellboy II” was an experience I can only equal to watching the original Star Wars when I was 6. Of course “Pan’s Labyrinth” can arguably be considered a superior work fo art, but HII was a delightful assault on my imagination. One may discuss the story and characters and such, but for instance the opening sequence with the bedtime story will always stay with me as something of strange and sheer beauty. No one mixes CGI and animatronics to serve a story better than Del Toro.

    “Children of Men” may not be an S/F ridden blockbuster, but through perfect direction/art direction it did transport me to a world that was both troubling and disturbingly plausible. Never have I felt more threatened by a movie’s immediacy.

    “Moulin Rouge” was truly something to behold. A hiperkinetic experience that left me breathless and struggling with a myriad of beautiful ideas. When I saw Romeo+Juliet my thought was that Luhrmann was enamored with the aesthetics of sin, but didn’t mind much about telling a story, so the source material seemed like an excuse to show off his visions. In MR I think he managed a bold synergy between medium and message.

    “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” introduced me to the genius of Michel Gondry. A movie that left me drunk with visual pleasure. The childhood sequence in particular brought tears to my eyes as I remembered that combination of unexplicable needs, discoveries and simple wonders that childhood is. I simply cherish that sequence. It made me reconsider Jesus’ words about being like children to enter the Kingdom. Of course, there is a lot more to say about “Eternal…”, but space prohibits.

    I could go on and mention 2001: A space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Princess Mononoke/Spirited away, Triplets of Belleville and even Revenge of the Sith (/me ducks under a desk), but I’d better stand still and listen to more authoritative opinions!

  8. I felt that way about Casshern and Avalon. Both of them are very heavy in the special effects department, and are equally on par with any CGI-filled Hollywood blockbuster (try watching Avalon without making at least one Matrix reference). But the way in which the films use the effects felt so much more artistic and graceful. The films aren’t perfect — Casshern especially suffers due the sheer weight of its melodrama — but the amount of ambition and style on display really got to me.