I am a big movie watcher. I am subscribed to no cable at all, not even 5 basic channels, and am always completely out of the loop as far as tv shows go. Yet, I could easily watch 4 movies a week on netflix. I swear the difference is that television shows tend to ride on dialogue, where most movies depend more heartily on visuals. Being more of a visually-thinking person in every sense, I find that many movies are truly moving pieces of art, filled with beauty and intrigue if you take the time to train your eyes to pay attention to the details. Since the time I was a child, there were certain scenes in movies that I could rewind and watch again and again simply because of the captivating details to be found in a camera angle, an interesting pattern in the background, the decoration on a costume … I’m not going to get into the plots of the films in this list too much because a) I’m focusing on sources of visual inspiration, not story-writing and b) You should go watch any of these you have not seen for yourself :). I’m starting with the films that inspired me as a kid, and working my way forward. Many of my childhood favorites have stood the test of time and I’m sure you have seen, but I think sometimes we overlook the actual artistry that goes into media aimed towards children.
Beauty and the Beast
I still have a big spot in my heart for this movie. The detail of the quaint little village Belle comes from at the beginning of the movie, as well as the intricacies of the Beast’s castle later on, and even the emotive illustration of each of the unique characters themselves is unmatched. My favorite part of the whole movie was always the ballroom scene, where the view pans up to a grand painted ceiling with fluffy clouds and little cherubs. It was like the Sistine Chapel to me at 5 years old.
The Little Mermaid
Another Disney, the brilliant colors of this fantasy undersea world captured my imagination. I could pause the film and stare into Ariel’s grotto for hours, spying at each piece of salvaged treasure she had stacked upon the tall rows of rock shelves. As odd as it may seem, another thing I always remember about this movie visually is the strong lighting. Throughout the film, sunlight streaks contrasting colors across each scene just as I imagine it would shining through the water if one did live under the sea. Each framed looked like a beautiful painting, be it a children’s cartoon or not. Though I’ve come around a bit more with some of the newer Pixar films, I’m not fully sold on solely digital animation yet, as we seem to have lost that quality.
The Princess and the Goblin
This last film from my childhood stuck out to me because it wasn’t Disney, very uncommon for fantasy children’s animated films. The style featured far more pen strokes and outlines, unrealistically pink/pale skin tones, and a constant flowy, ethereal quality to the drawing that lent itself well to fantasy. It was a lot more outright whimsical than Disney. The grandmother was just regal – unbelievably gorgeous and a bit haunting all the same. It was nice to see an older woman not portrayed as a witch, also (Thanks a lot, Disney!).
The Wizard Of Oz
This is one of those movies that back in the days of VHS, I watched again and again until the tape nearly disintegrated. Ahead of its time in the use of sepia tone to represent Dorothy’s normal, mundane day to day life and the use of brilliant super-saturated color to represent the fantasy dream-land of Oz, this film is iconic in the way it used color and pattern to communicate meaning, which is something I and many of my fellow artists and designers need to understand how to do in their own work. The kooky whimsy of Oz created a world every child (and adult) wanted to climb into through their television screen, even with all the not so pleasant bits like green-faced witches and flying monkeys.
A Trip To The Moon
Watching this film birthed my love of the “silent film” aesthetic – harsh contrast black and white, vintage hair and makeup, DIY props and backgrounds with lots of moons, stars, and ocean waves on painted pieces of wood or cardboard. I have always been a fan of creepy-beautiful, and there is something fundamentally haunting aesthetically about even the most cheerful silent film, because of the harsh blackness of the background, the heavy drawn-on makeup around the eyes and lips, and the fact that often times animated details that seemed darling back then, like old moon face up there, seem way creepier to us now (This will be confirmed if you’ve ever looked at old toys or dolls in an antique store) because the fashion of what is considered cute or pleasant has changed. The two portrait drawings I have used as my design logo, current and former, were certainly inspired by this aesthetic.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
I had to include more than one shot for this film so you can fully grasp the aesthetic since it is certainly lesser known. I was perusing one of those “Weirdest movies you’ve never seen” lists online one rainy evening, and this Czechoslovakian film from 1970 was listed, along with the thumbnail of a smiling, fashionable vampire draping herself in jewels in front of an ornate little shabby-chic round mirror I have shown first above. I knew I needed to find out what this was all about. The first time I watched it I didn’t yet own a Netflix subscription, and the only version I could find on YouTube was subtitled not in English but Spanish, so I had to use my limited knowledge from grade school to try to figure out what was going on. The good news is, if any, this film is certainly more visually driven than plot driven. The plot revolving around the nightmarish oddities accompanying the protagonist, a young girl’s, first week of “womanhood” is rather bizarre and convoluted whether presented in your native tongue or not. Every still frame looks like an avant-garde fashion editorial, and the monochromatic color palette rather in whites, ivories and beiges, or blacks symbolically represents innocent purity, legalistic and puritanical piety, and corruption.
In another life where I had more patience with a sewing machine, I could totally have seen myself as a fashion designer. The first thing I thought after absorbing this movie was, “I could build a comprehensive clothing collection and smashing runaway show off of this film”. It looks like I’m not the only one who had that idea, as hand-sewn gowns inspired by Valerie can be found on etsy, and so many clothing and accessory sets assembled with this film as inspiration can be spotted on polyvore.
In this sci-fi satire by Terry Gilliam, a government bureaucrat attempts to correct a ridiculous administrative error caused by a fly landing on a typewriter key, and in the process becomes a suspected terrorist himself. Though some of the special effects undoubtedly scream “1985!”, The sets and of course the main character’s iconic robotic flying suit are unique and surreal. Gilliam is never one to skimp on atmosphere, after all, and one can always expect in his work to see a world they have never seen before. Also, those creepy, creepy giant baby head masks in the interrogation room … I don’t know how on earth he came up with that idea, but for some reason it works.
Not surprising that this movie struck me artistically as Dave McKean, a well known illustrator and comic book artist, directed the film, also written by Neil Gaiman – what a winning combination. It is almost like a modern, darker and twistier, “Wizard of Oz” actually, following one young girl’s struggle through a fantastical dream world to find her “home”. Visually, watching it is a bit like viewing a moving comic book.
The Science of Sleep
Of all the films here, along with “A Trip To The Moon”, I’d have to say this film most captures my preferred aesthetic. The story itself is at times touching, at times awkward and funny, and at times awkward and stressful – it pretty much runs the gamut of emotions present in any real-life friendship or romantic relationship. Now for the fun part – EVERYTHING IS MADE OUT OF CARDBOARD AND PAPER AND CELLOPHANE AND FELT WITH BIG, CHUNKY, APPARENT STITCHES! I hate total realism. I love work that shouts “Look! I am handmade! I am not, in fact, real!” That charming, DIY aesthetic I love in old movies that mainly occurred due to lack of budget and technology, was here done intentionally with what I’m guessing is a pretty decent budget seeing as Michel Gondry directed it. I am in love, that’s all I can say. Sir Gondry also made one of my favorite music videos ever. Enjoy.
Across The Universe
I know most hardcore Beatles fans despised this movie, arguing that the film turned the band’s culture changing music into a sort of 1960s “High School Musical”. I know many of these harsh critics personally. However, I am not hardcore and I say, pish-posh! thought this movie was just lovely. Double exposures, a surreal use of green screen, and incorporating repeated visual tropes such as “strawberries” to not only reinforce the story line but the iconic music itself, made this one a winner in my book. The visuals were crazy, but not so much so that they took away from the emotions behind the characters’ story arcs. They were unique and creative but didn’t distract, and that can be a hard balance to achieve.
This movie makes it onto lists for “most beautiful films” or “most beautiful scenes from a film” consistently for a reason. The colors and contrast of both the scenery and wardrobe literally make the characters in the story who they are, and since this film is all about stories, that decision is pivotal. I don’t want to give too much away, just watch it if yourself if you haven’t. See that little girl right there? She’s absolutely the cutest. Just wait until she speaks, she has an accent which makes it even better.
This is one of the few movies that I thought was better than the book. After watching the movie and becoming simply obsessed with it, I decided I should definitely read Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel on which it was based. I absolutely hated it. The movie itself is a quirky, aloof, slice-of-life type feature and the backdrop is a pretty normal town, nothing notable. I included this film in the list only for the main character, Enid’s, wardrobe. From 90s-tastic fuzzy headbands to leopard print pencil skirts to odd, vintage old-lady dresses to fishnets with everything to the awesome keyhole yellow and black orient-inspired number shown above, I need all of her clothes from this movie. The purple polo above looks handcrafted and has an overflowing trash can made of felt embroidered on one side with the letters spelling out “RECYCLE” crookedly affixed on the other. I have no words.
Howl’s Moving Castle
I started with animation, I figured I’d come full circle back to animation – this time, animated films that I have enjoyed as an adult. Anything Miyazaki does is gold. Studio Ghilibi is like Japan’s Disney/Pixar, only it’s kind of way better. This movie can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike. The imaginative mechanical details are what really get me. Now isn’t Howl’s bedroom a major upgrade to Ariel’s grotto?
This film may be a cartoon, but there is nothing childish about it. See above, people are literally shedding their skin and morphing into different people, while one tries to strangle the other. His arm is also part tree branch. Yikes. At it’s core, however, this film is more a surreal, thrilling action drama tale then anything remotely horror. The premise of a device called the “DC Mini”, which allows psychiatrists to enter their patient’s dreams as a form of therapy, falling into the wrong hands allows for many magical, zany scenes to take place, both playful and beautiful as well as dark and terrifying, just as within the world of dreams. I’ve always secretly wished some technology like this actually existed even before I knew of this film or anything like it, so that is another one of the reasons I so loved this movie. Satoshi Kon was simply a brilliant artist as it is, and this film seems like it should have far too much going on for it to actually work as a story, but he has pulled it off and it is truly a masterpiece.
Mary and Max
My love for DIY as I’ve touched on a bit earlier has given me a soft spot for stop animation. I tried to make a silly, simple stop motion on paper once over a summer break from college and I threw in the towel after a couple days, lacking the patience. This film follows two pen pals; a shy, lonely little girl with a troubled family life and no friends and a middle-aged man with severe Asperger’s Syndrome, overwhelmed and bewildered by the very act of existing. The two connect by a pretty funny turn of events, and their relationship faces many ups and downs over the years, even as the young girl becomes an adult woman. Each of their somber, frustrating worlds they attempt to make sense of in their letters to each other are depicted in stunning monochromatic, hers warm sepia tones and his deep greys, both with flashes of bright red. It is one of the most adorable and also the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. By the end they are not made of clay but entirely real, flesh and blood.
Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart
I just watched this movie a couple months ago when it popped up on Netflix. It is a French children’s film that I was initially drawn to because the style of the figures reminded me of a merging of Tim Burton and Mark Ryden. It never stops being visually stunning, and the characters especially appear inventive and entrancing. It doesn’t hurt that the music is also awesome. Unlike the grating, overly simplistic, repetitive tunes often present in kids movies, the songs spread in between the action of the film actually sound like real songs.
Take a look at my absolute favorite…
I hope if there is even just one film on this list that sparks your interest, you go try it out! For the local folks, it looks like it’s supposed to rain all the next few days so here’s your chance :). Fellow creatives, movie buffs, anyone at all … do you have any films that have visually left you speechless? I’m always looking for suggestions of new things to watch, and like seeing what makes others’ creative wheels turn.