5 Most Visually Stunning Films of 2013

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We’re now reaching the tail end of 2013 and its been a stellar year for cinema in general. So it feels like an appropriate time to look back on this year’s highlights, focusing on films that really went the extra mile in terms of visual panache.

Soon enough, it’ll be awards season and who knows if the movies selected here will be nominated for best cinematography category at the Academy Awards or the Independent Spirit Awards. From black and white homages to the French New Wave and dayglow crime sagas set in Bangkok, to the seedy underbelly of Florida’s Spring Break culture, we’ve got all the best looking movies of 2013 listed at Illusion.

Top: A wordless poster for “Spring Breakers” (2012).
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Film stills from “Frances Ha” (2012) starring Greta Gerwig.

Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach’s gorgeous black and white tribute to New York, Greta Gerwig and over educated, underemployed 20-something flows together like a dream. Shot with a lo-fi indie sensibility, “Frances Ha” shimmers and shines up on the big screen, as New York is transformed into a hipster paradise with Brooklyn as its beating heart. Coming across as “Manhattan“’s cooler younger sibling, “Frances Ha” captures the city’s streets, cool restaurants and TriBeca lofts in stunning cinematography: the blacks and whites are so rich and deep and you can feel the warmth coming off the screen from the natural light used on the exterior shots. When the action switches to Paris and California, the film doesn’t lose its visual richness.

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Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas in “Only God Forgives” (2013).

Only God Forgives

Nicolas Winding Refn is a filmmaker respected the world over for his highly visual and peculiar works, from his early “Pusher”(1996-2005) films set in Copenhagen’s underbelly through to his international breakout hit, “Drive”(2011). He places cinematography, colour and design above all, in some cases. “Only God Forgives” really pushed his fans and filmgoers to their limit when it was released early in the year. This is a Refn film taken to the absolute extreme! The visuals are suitably stunning, by far the strongest part of the movie: Bangkok is painted in hallucinogenic, dayglow shades and most scenes take place either at night or in lurid karaoke bars. It’s like watching a dream in slow motion. The seductive cinematography and sparse dialogue lure you into a twilight state, and while it’s not always satisfying as a whole, “Only God Forgives” is still a photographic delight.

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Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska get caught up in the supernatural styling of “Stoker” (2013).

Stoker

The English language debut of South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, “Stoker” might have received mixed reviews upon its initial release but there’s no denying the quality of the cinematography, production and costume design in the film. Set in a Gothic manor house somewhere in the American Deep South, Mia Wasikowska plays India, a maudlin teenager with special gifts which come to light when her mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes into her life. The glossy, highly stylised interiors in alluring tints of mint green and black contrast beautifully with the sweltering green landscapes outside: we see India skip across verdant lawns and climb old trees, as she learns to understand her abilities. The visuals are sensuous and intoxicate and excite in equal measure.

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Stills from Harmony Korine’s day glow extravaganza “Spring Breakers” (2013).

Spring Breakers

Like “Only God Forgives” this raunchy, sex and booze saga by art house director Harmony Korine is photographed in a gorgeous neon sheen: tutti fruity shades of fluorescent pink, yellow and orange continuously sweep over a sun drenched Florida as four bored college girls (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashely Benson, Rachel Korine and Selena Gomez) rob a bank and flee south with the proceeds to PAR-TAY! There are some truly stunning, and crazy, visual sequences in the film. Take for example the scene where our college heroines are lounging by the pool in matching pink balaclavas, the same colour as the sky behind, as gangster/rapper Alien (an unrecognisable James Franco) sings Britney Spears ballads. Has to be seen to be believed.

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Small town Oklahoma and the prairies photographed beautifully in “To the Wonder” (2012).

To the Wonder

It’s no great surprise that a new Terrence Malick film should make it onto a best looking films list. His cinematic poems are after all awash with staggering cinematography. His most recent, “To the Wonder” released back in the spring is set primarily in the wide, open expanses of Oklahoma and we are treated to beautiful vista after beautiful vista of sun drenched fields, occasionally dotted with herds of wild horses and buffalos. Shot by regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, known for his experimental approach with the camera, “To the Wonder” is a staggering visual achievement.

Honourable Mentions:
Gravity,” “Mud,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Upstream Color,” and “Blue Jasmine.”

All Images © respective film studios

Christopher Smail

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Christopher is assistant editor of Scene 360 (Illusion) and also founding editor of White Coffee Magazine. As an arts journalist and film critic, he’s been published in a number of online publications including Gorilla Film Magazine, Hi! Magazine, The Flaneur, subtitledonline.com, and Trisickle Magazine. Follow the author @WhiteCoffeeMag, and see more articles here.

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