This article was originally written for Taste of Cinema, you can view it on their website here – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2020/10-beautiful-movies-youve-probably-never-seen-5/
Sometimes, all you really need from a film is some cathartic beauty. Sure, exciting narratives and impressive form will never get old, but sometimes there is a cinematic void that can only be filled by stunning colours, or great wide shots, or even just a story so laid back and focused on heart-warming that it’s hard to focus on anything else. And sometimes a film can do all three – stun you with its beauty, excite you with its narrative and blow your mind with its form… this small list sums up all ten of the films we’re going to talk about in this list, ten beautiful films that you may have missed on your journey through cinema.
1. One from the Heart (Francis Ford Coppola, 1981)
Starting off with the most fantastical of all of the films listed, let’s take a look at Francis Ford Coppola’s bizarre, dreamy 1980s smooth musical classic One From The Heart! Following up his strenuous Apocalypse Now production with something much more laid back, utilising painted sets and an incredibly slick Tom Waits soundtrack, Francis Ford Coppola tried something with One From The Heart that he had avoided with his more prestigious films from the 1970s and focused intently on trying to express these deeply passionate feelings of love and heartbreak through music, dance and colour in this very simple story of a break-up and heartbroken night on the town. To say the film is gorgeous is an understatement.
It is maybe the ultimate 80s musical, taking the charm of its artificiality and wearing it proudly on its sleeve rather than trying to ashamedly cover it up, in turn becoming similar to the most memorable musicals of the 1950s with their beautiful and nostalgic painted backdrops and incredible set pieces. What the film may lack in narrative complexity, it makes up for tenfold in its unmatched formal bravado. Coppola never really made anything like it again, and it’s a damn shame, too.
2. Ludwig (Luchino Visconti, 1973)
Coming from Italian maestro Luchino Visconti, more than likely most notorious for his masterful adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the four hour period drama epic following the life of Ludwig II is almost too beautiful for words… especially whenever snow gets involved.
Visconti is known for his zooms and his stunning wide cinematography, but it seems that in Ludwig both took a new step forward in terms of beauty, to the point that the shots just become overwhelming. Adding this to the general formal mastery and Visconti’s incredible control that seems so effortless over both camera and story, and Ludwig becomes one of the most impressive and difficult to contain/explain films of all time, and certainly one of the most beautiful.
3. Le Plaisir (Max Ophuls, 1952)
Of course, a list trying to collect together some beautiful films simply has to include at least one work of the incredible Max Ophuls – this time, we’ve chosen to talk about his anthology film Le Plaisir. Detailing three short stories and collecting them together in one film, Le Plaisir looks at adapting three short stories by Guy de Maupassant whilst tackling themes of art vs love and the power of secrets. For the most part, the focus is on the gorgeous cinematography, which flexes some of the finest wide shots ever committed to celluloid throughout, especially during the second story La Maison Tellier. Hell, the film even makes use of a POV shot towards the end.
Ophuls is generally a directors-director, having been praised endlessly by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson (Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame De… is supposedly a huge influence on Phantom Thread, for example), and it’s no surprise to see that his influence is lasting to this day considering the power and beauty of not just Le Plaisir but of his filmography collectively.
4. Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)
What is there to be said about Terence Davies that hasn’t already been said? The British veteran could just be cinema’s greatest ever visual poet, to say the least, and Sunset Song is living proof (as well as one other film we’ll discuss later on!) Taking a more relaxed tone in this film compared to many of his others, Sunset Song is just a breathtaking period drama detailing the life of a young Scottish woman (Chris, played by Agyness Deyn) coming of age and becoming a woman, gaining experience around the time of the first World War.
Based on the book of the same name penned by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Davies directs the story of Chris in a blindingly beautiful way, creating such a tender film in spite of the harsher topics and characters (as usual, Peter Mullan is incredible… and quite petrifying when he needs to be) and makes one of the finest films of the 2010s in the process (again – Davies always seems to hit it out of the park and his two other films released in the 2010s were just as great, with The Deep Blue Sea and A Quiet Passion). As said before, Davies could just be cinema’s best poet to ever do it, and each and every one of his films deserves a watch – he is one of the greats.
5. La Cienaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001)
Few films are as tranquil as Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 film La Cienaga. With one of the most beautiful settings close to the titular La Cienaga, the film is mostly incredibly peaceful despite this slight feeling of tension and angst bubbling away beneath the surface. The film is mostly made beautiful thanks to the frankly overwhelming colours (mainly deep greens and surprisingly stunning camouflage colours in general) and the unique use of diegetic sound with the almost constant sound of chirping birds and crickets.
It’s hard to really describe it effectively, but there is such a feeling of comfort and natural beauty generated by this simple ambience that it’s hard to believe that this isn’t something used in most films. It brings to mind the work of other directors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul who rely on the natural (and often making it slightly unnatural, too), but takes it in a new direction that’s exciting enough to make for one of the best films of the 21st century so far, and definitely one of the most beautiful.
6. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, 2009)
After returning from a prolonged absence after the failure that was Jack, Hollywood New Wave pioneer Francis Ford Coppola finally returned in 2007 with Youth Without Youth and made it clear that during his absence he had re-thought many of his ideas about cinema and was now focused on sharing entirely different ideas than he had been at any other point in his career. This was cemented two years later when Tetro released, a film concentrated on Vincent Gallo as the titular character who has reinvented himself in Buenos Aires in an attempt escape his past. When visited by his younger brother Bennie (played by Alden Ehrenreich in his first performance!), the new life that Tetro has built becomes more insecure, shaken at the foundations.
Coppola clearly never lost any of his directing power, and Tetro is proof of this – it has such a control over it, and the Buenos Aires setting along with the digital black and white ensure that the film is filled with plenty of beauty, too. Much like some of the other films on this list, there is a tension to Tetro, one that comes from the insecurity of the characters and the mysteriousness that their past carries, but overall the film is absolutely gorgeous and really marks the return of Coppola (Youth Without Youth is divisive, some seem to despise it).
7. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988)
Maybe the best film on this list overall, Terence Davies’ ridiculously underrated and overlooked 1988 masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives is one of the best films ever produced. As we established earlier, Davies is one of, if not THE, greatest cinematic poet and Distant Voices is the greatest living proof of this statement.
Taking the deceptively simplistic story of a young man reflecting on his childhood after the passing of his abusive dad, but viewing it through such an abstract lens focusing in on presenting the memories in a way that is more surreal and dreamy than concrete, Davies manages to merge together those childhood memories with the present, making use of the sets and completely insane editing techniques as a way to blend the two together in a way so seamless it’s honestly a little hard to believe.
The entire film plays out as if it were imagined, nothing feeling even slightly clunky or out of place, it has an incredible inherent flow that makes it so smooth. The film is one hell of an emotional beating too, equally cathartic (especially during the scenes of singing, something that shows up in most of Davies’ films at one point or another) and heartbreaking, with this personal focus on memory that can be seen in the majority of Davies’ earlier work (especially in his trilogy of short films, which are semi-autobiographical and also utterly brilliant). Davies is one of the best directors to ever pick up a camera, and you really owe it to yourself to at the very least introduce yourself to one of his films and take it from there as a formal introduction.
8. The Music Room (Satyajit Ray, 1958)
One of only two films shot on black and white film to make the list (my love for hyperactive colours is showing – it’s a wonder there isn’t any Brakhage on here!), Satyajit Ray’s 1958 tribute to the power of music as well as the harsh clash between tradition and modernity is as beautiful as it is sharply memorable and really quite depressing.
Following the life of an aristocrat (played by the great Chhabi Biswas) who has found himself feeling that his life has passed without him really realising it until too late, Ray’s film is focused on the desperate clinging to joy through art that comes when our other values are threatened. In the case of our fallen aristocrat, this artistic joy comes from his gorgeous titular music room, where he brings musicians to play for him as he relaxes and focuses on the sounds created. Made even more beautiful by Ray’s patient camera movements that glide around these flashback scenes like a ghost of the past, the film is unforgettable in the best way possible, and further enhanced by the brilliant restoration by the Criterion Collection a few years ago.
9. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
French auteur Claire Denis probably doesn’t need much of an introduction thanks to her recent venture into American cinema for the first time with Robert Pattinson in High Life, but Beau Travail may remain her best work to date. Focusing on the strange beauty that comes with the male body and naturalism in general, largely thanks to the expressive cinematography of the brilliant Agnes Godard, Denis’ highly acclaimed 1999 film is one of the most visually stunning films of all time, and is the best film of 1999, too – a year full of cinematic gold. Denis Lavant, unsurprisingly, gives a phenomenal physical performance as sergeant-major Galoup, a man consumed by a need to get rid of new recruit Sentain to the point that he soon finds himself in ruin, too.
Much like La Cienaga, there is a dark tension under the alluring surface to this one, but the visual beauty seen here remains almost unprecedented, despite the continuous efforts of cinematographers around the world. The ending is also maybe the most liberating moment ever shot, and one of the most arrestingly beautiful – it is one of the finest endings of all time; a perfect summation of the themes and focuses of the film. Denis is a master, and this is one of her (many) masterpieces. It has to be seen!
10. Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa, 1991)
Well, if you need swaying to seek this one out beyond the fact that it’s directed by the great Akira Kurosawa, it has to be said that Richard Gere is actually in this! Who would’ve thought? Concluding with one of the most overlooked works from the cinematic God that is Akira Kurosawa just feels right, just as Rhapsody in August feels quite inexplicably ‘right from start to finish. Set in the peaceful Japanese countryside and set with an incredible ensemble cast, Rhapsody in August is one of the most beautiful films ever made in terms of both its narrative and its visuals, focusing on themes of forgiveness and on moving forward in spite of great tragedy that may seem inescapable.
With a finale that strikes straight to the heart and a focus on family heavily reminiscent of the work of Yasujiro Ozu, Kurosawa is clearly trying something quite different than he usually would with Rhapsody in August, but it has to be said that in this case it pays off tenfold and makes one of the most surprisingly and emotionally resonant entries into his entire filmography. Rhapsody In August is one of the most beautiful films ever made, one so full of peace and simple mundane beauty that it’s difficult to forget even if you actively tried to do so. Very few films are like it.