Ten Beautiful Films You May Not Have Seen

by Benjamin Domenech on 3:19 am June 30, 2008

The internet is flooded with movie lists. Search for virtually any variety, any theme, any mishmash of tags and qualities and plot twists, and you can find a top 10, top 20, or even top 100 list. The best Top Films list, by my measure, can be found over at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They – but one of the reasons it’s the best is that it can shift and adapt with time, based on the shifting opinions of critics, writers, and the internet populace. Of course, I fully expect that in the ever more wiki-friendly existence of the future, where everyone’s an equal critic, Battlefield Earth will champion all such lists. So here’s one more static one, purely subjective in every way, of what I consider Ten Beautiful Films You May Not Have Seen.

There are plenty of beautiful films that are quite popular and successful – from the old black and white classics to the Technicolor epics to the modern masterpieces. Many of them are found on lists like this one, from the French magazine Cahiers du cinema.

I thought it might be useful, though, to consider a few films that probably won’t make it high on any list like that one – whether it’s because even if they’re visually impressive, they’re flawed in some obvious way, or have a script that can’t match their cinematography, or they’ve got some unforgivably irritating element that overwhelms the good in them. For the record, I think this describes just about every movie Guy Pearce has ever made – he had a good six films that I considered but rejected for this list, none of them because of him.

There are other beautiful movies that I considered and rejected – usually because they’re too popular (see: Godfather, The), too CGI or effects-heavy (see: Lord of the Rings – it’s great, but this is animation, not reality), nothing that’s only noir (I love dark movies, but something like The Third Man or Thief may be intense and powerful, but since that’s all they do, they can’t really qualify as visual beauty for what they don’t show), or so iconic that anyone who’s a student of cinema has already seen them (hence why there’s no Hitchcock on this list, nor any of the other old classics). Films that missed the cut for the aforementioned reasons include Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben Hur, Patton, The Natural, Night of the Hunter, The Big Sleep, Charade, Roman Holiday, Manhattan, Bullitt, The Getaway (Ali McGraw never looked better), Mystery of Rampo, Blade Runner, The Sand Pebbles, Chinatown, The Sting, Apocalypto, O Brother Where Art Thou, North by Northwest, Miller’s Crossing, Branagh’s Hamlet, The Abyss, Raging Bull, The Right Stuff, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fountain, Sexy Beast, The Last Emperor, Empire of the Sun, George Washington, The Rules of the Game, Heat, Unforgiven, Dark City, The Painted Veil, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Breaker Morant, The Battle of Algiers, The Incredibles, The Mission, Layer Cake, La Roue, Napoleon, and Metropolis.

Oh, and of course, Commando.

I had a hard time with The Life Aquatic, this blog’s namesake and perhaps the last good Wes Anderson film we’re going to get now that he’s actively declared war on the concept of plot (here’s hoping that’s not the case), but ultimately decided it was too much of a picture book. Besides, everyone’s seen it.

I struggled with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America – but ultimately decided it’s too well known, you’d recognize all the people in it, and as wonderful as it is, there are so many other films that capture New York City.

And then there was the hardest one for me to cut of all, Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans – a gorgeous and underrated film which manages to be both the perfect chick flick AND the perfect guy movie all at once – I can see it now, the women walking out of the theater saying, “She threw herself over the edge – so sad, and so romantic!” as the guys say “Did you see that? He chopped that guy in half with that axe thing! It was awesome!” But it will make a prominent appearance on the next list I’m planning, and it was quite popular, so you’ve probably already seen it, too.

So that leaves us with these, in no particular order.

The New World

Just unbroken cinematic beauty, from the first note to the last. When they initially planned to film this movie, Terence Malick and his crew assumed they’d have to find somewhere remote, outside of the United States even – but on a lark, they decided to scout the Tidewater area, and took a trip up the Chickahominy. They ended up realizing that the location near Jamestown was largely unchanged. And so the forests you see are the forests they saw, give or take 300+ years.

Not everyone liked Malick’s film. But the people who liked it seemed to love it, too. I’m glad it has such a strong place in the heart of a few critics, like Jeffrey Overstreet, and I recall Ross Douthat loving it too (but his review, on the old American Scene blog appears lost to the sands of the unsearchable net). It reminds me, as it did him, of the old Robert Frost poem, The Gift Outright.

What’s more, I’ve felt on repeat viewings that the underlying story – the tale behind the gorgeously filmed surface of this movie (all natural light, almost all 65mm stock) – goes much deeper than you might think. The relationship with Pocahontas can be viewed as an allegory for the foundation of America. Bear with me now, it’s not as silly as it sounds: Comparing the personality types of the courageous risk-taking Discoverer in Colin Farrell’s John Smith and the steady, uninspiring, yet tough and reliable Farmer in Christian Bale’s John Rolfe, and you see the two personalities that made the nation possible – the explorer and the maker. Smith, the unreliable rascal whose fear and shady past motivated him to head toward the far reaches of the known sphere, discovers Pocahontas. But you cannot trust this man to build a country, to have the wherewithal to work the land, endure hardship, and make a life worth living in this new world – to be faithful, committed, and make something out of it all. Something like America.

The Searchers

I don’t think it’s all that pretentious to say that if you are an American film buff of any significant level, you’ll have seen The Searchers. Merely a modest commercial success in its time, the respect for this film, its influence and appeal have only grown, chiefly because of a change in understanding of a key relationship and plot point – never spoken of aloud, only implied.

The upshot is: lots of smart people love it. This in itself has sparked a backlash, and a sequence of defenses and analyses, and a weirdly irritating essay by the otherwise wonderful Jonathan Lethem. But the fact that John Milius weeps at John Wayne’s performance should be enough to make you watch it.

Not the perfect western by any means – it plods and halts at points – this is nonetheless a movie of great, epic, expansive beauty. You must see this film, even if you skip all the others on this list.

City of God (Cidade de Deus)

You’ve probably heard of this one. City of God is tragic, ruthless, violent and unforgiving. Only one professional actor is in the whole thing – it’s all on the edge, and there’s no games in this thing. The youngsters that populate this tale are murderous and plotting, and you understand why they have the strength of will to run a profitable drug trade, if only for a few years.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, the tales in this story are continued in City of Men, at least in spirit. But the original film is still the piece of moviemaking that will haunt you for days after you view it.

The Red Violin (Le Violon Rouge)

This is not a particularly successful movie. It tries to do too much – using a violin, its music, and its ownership as the major pieces in an across-the-ages plotline that is a tad ludicrous. The bodice-ripping tendencies of the second act – with the usually superb Greta Scacchi (if you can, dig up her excellent little turn as Lady Macbeth) and the “he’s better as a funny guy” Jason Flemyng – are laugh inducing. And the whole thing seems overwrought and gimmicky, sort of what you’d expect from a director who made his name doing Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

That said, the cinematography is flat out gorgeous at points. The use of color is brilliant, particularly in the flow of character-types through the ages, and the seamlessness of some scenes. The soundtrack, played by the brilliant Joshua Bell, will blow you away. Don’t think too hard about the story – just get swept away by the experience of a beautiful piece of modern cinema.

Barry Lyndon

I never really liked this as a movie – I confess, I don’t love post-black & white Kubrick as much as I should, I still feel like The Killing, Lolita, and Dr. Strangelove are just all-around more watchable and engaging films than 2001, Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket – but I swear, Barry Lyndon is just gorgeous to behold. John Alcott’s work on the film is the stuff of legend (as far as I know, this film still features the use of the biggest aperture in movie history).

It’s still kind of amusing that Ryan O’Neal got this part because he was considered a bigger star at the time than Robert Redford, so it’s the only way Kubrick could get the movie financed. Later, it would turn out that Kubrick offered the part to Redford anyway, only to be turned down. But O’Neal’s not the reason to see this. These beautiful scenes are.

While others may disagree, I truly believe this is the most visually appealing movie Kubrick ever made. And that’s something worth seeing.

Kagemusha

This had to be on here. Yeah, I know that Ran is a better movie – but the first time I saw Kagemusha is still clear as crystal. I’m still torn about which one deserves to be on this list, but I feel like Ran is more popular. Maybe I should just leave it at: see them both, and decide for yourself.

Ronin

Ah, a beautiful car chase movie – and not a stupid one, either. One of the best casts you’ll ever see onscreen at the same time: De Niro, Reno, Skarsgard, McElhone, and a total of three Bond villains – Bean, and Pryce. This movie has characters, yes – but it is all about the cars. Car chases in Bullitt are classic and American, car chases in The French Connection are blunt and urban, but car chases in Ronin are brilliantly varied and elegantly European.

The camera work in this film is excellent stuff, edgy but not overdone. Parisian cinematographer Robert Fraisse, who has a rather odd filmography, makes some excellent choices, elevating this piece far above the realm of the normal shoot-em up. And if this is the last adrenaline rush for De Niro, who hasn’t made a single good action film since (though I’ve got my hopes up about the Michael Mann-helmed Frankie Machine, due out in two years – that is, if he survives what looks like the very flop-worthy Righteous Kill), it’s a classic one.

This is Frankenheimer’s best cinematic work since The Train, and it’s got a pretty good story (albeit MacGuffin centered – but c’mon, even Hitchcock used that) with a great script, though I’m sure all the best parts are from the (uncredited) David Mamet edits. If you’re a guy, you’ve probably seen this already. If you haven’t: grow a pair and do it now.

A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles)

So let’s follow the car chase movie with snappy Mamet lines with a French romance war epic. But it absolutely deserves to be on this list. The trailer is here, but there’s a clip below that’s better for not having the “I’m the important voice trying to sell this to American audiences” voiceover.

I can’t say anything about this movie that does justice to it as a work of art. Just – watch a few scenes. You’ll see it. Oh, and: eat your heart out, Atonement.

Road to Perdition

For being the most profitable film on the list, this is not a great movie. Tom Hanks is poorly cast in it, and uncomfortable with the part of father/heavy. The kid is an irritation. Daniel Craig is one dimensional. Sam Mendes’ directing is decent, but not really that imaginative. It’s based on a comic book and feels like it. It is a cold movie, and a wet, wet movie – dripping with rain. If you want an Irish mob movie, see Miller’s Crossing.

But let me tell you – visually, it’s like watching Edward Hopper brought to life. Conrad Hall won the Academy Award for Cinematography – his first came for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He was a genius. And this is just masterful.

For that fact alone, if this is Paul Newman’s last on-screen part, he can be proud of it. “There are only murderers in this room, Michael. Open your eyes. This is the life we chose. The life we lead. And there is only one guarantee—none of us will see heaven.”

Before the Rain (Pred Dozhdot)

This was the film that started me thinking about this whole concept, when the alert came across my watchlist that Criterion was releasing a newly restored version of Before the Rain on DVD (at last). I saw it years ago in a screenwriting class, and it amazed me at the time. Unlike some of the other films on this list, all aspects of this effort make for a worthy achievement.

It’s hard to make a film about ethnic conflict in the Balkans that speaks to the unending, self-perpetuating, and convoluted nature of these deadly clashes. It seems like so many of the locale-centered movies that you see in America today are in the same places – New York, Los Angeles, the same backgrounds, the same forests, the same hills – to the point where you can go see an average flick like Mission: Impossible 3, and you’ll spot the same bridge setups and Euro backgrounds you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. It’s almost comforting, like seeing the same set week after week on your favorite sitcom, nothing disturbed or out of place, and all the furniture undisturbed.

In a movie like Before the Rain, you may recognize all of one setting or location, and probably only one actor: Rade Serbedzija, the figure at the heart of the sad story. But the performances are complemented by a sense of scale and land that is memorable and striking, and the camera work here – for an inexperienced writer/director in Milcho Manchevski – is just an amazingly well-crafted thing, giving the viewer the impression that they are caught in an ever-swirling trap of time and land and culture. In real life at least, there is always an opportunity to break out of this whirlwind – but not in this film.

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