The 20 Most Visually Stunning Films of 2016

7. Jackie


Director Pablo Larraín and DP Stéphane Fontaine capture Jackie with precision and passion in one of 2016’s most emotionally resonate films. An introspective biopic detailing the heartache and mental strain endured by Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) following her husband’s assassination, much of Jackie is tactfully subversive in its visual approach. Heightened coloring, lucid lens flares, nonlinear narrative detours, add to a kind of operatic choreography, like a lithe ballet.

Jackie is a shrill spectacle of dread and horror showing bereavement and sorrow as the First Lady decommissions Camelot. Has a wife’s anguish and a viewer’s contretemps ever been detailed in such breathtaking measures?


6. The Handmaiden

A distinct visual formalist, Park Chan-wook, the mad genius behind Old Boy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005), whose idiosyncratic yet technically complex style is assuredly at the fore of this ambitious and sweeping erotic thriller, based off of Sarah Waters 2002 historical crime novel, Fingersmith.

Set in 1930s Korea, with elaborate and impeccable period details, The Handmaiden follows Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who has been targeted by a slippery con man named Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) and a provocative pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri).

The lush lensing of Chan-wook’s regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon provides painterly strokes to the artful yet explicit lesbian love scenes, providing lurid and memorable minutiae, and shocking set pieces, in what may just be Chan-wook’s most entertaining and saga-like work to date. A dark but delightful gem.


5. Moonlight

Writer-director Barry Jenkins, who grew up in Liberty City, Miami, adapts fellow Miamian Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” with staggering results. With able assistance from up-and-coming cinematographer James Laxton they gorgeously capture the tropical grandeur of the Magic City; the purple-blue night sky, the azure ocean, all emblematic of the multifaceted experiences young Chiron must endure.

Laxton’s lensing captures the chimeric euphoria, the sensual longings, and nostalgia-specked heartache, and grace of sensual experiences. And when has a fistful of sand clutched in a chill night held such delineative tenderness, like an act of prayer? Moonlight is high-minded magic that dazzles the eye and excites the heart.


4. Arrival

Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi spectacle Arrival is an intelligent and cerebral coup de pop cinema that looks, feels, and aspires to be a big-ticket extravaganza with mass appeal.

Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) detail a blue-grey palette that’s muted yet suitably histrionic in the melancholy mood it settles on straight away. Beyond this ethereal approach both Villeneuve and Young have found very suitable collaborators in visual effects guru Louis Morin and perceptive production designer Patrice Vermette.

This dream team of visual storytellers explore numerous expressions from unexpected noir-like angles, and spacey, zero-g sequences and set pieces that toss the viewer off balance, not just visually but mentally as well.

There’s so much to ponder in this ingenious epic of speculative fiction; an emotional dreamscape ambience and Malick-like atmosphere. Arrival is wonderfully and tangibly brought to life in one 2016’s most unapologetically romantic tearjerkers that doubles as the best alien contact film since 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A stirring masterpiece.


3. La La Land

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The gliding camera of cinematographer Linus Sandgren eddies and whirls with a stately simplicity in Damien Chazelle’s old-fashioned yet present-tense musical La La Land. Not since Jacque Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) has so visually distinct decor, primary-colored scrims, and aerated mise-en-scène looked so miraculous.

Sure the engaging ensemble choreography and dreamy close-ups of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone add to the novelty, nostalgia and cinematic sorcery on bright and brilliant pedantry.

La La Land is a knockout that makes the “City of Stars” shine in a Cinemascope rhapsody, full of feeling, in a musical in the noble and imposing tradition of Busby Berkeley. It may not quite reach those impassable heights but it dares to, and that’s enough.


2. Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent

Man’s connection to nature, the tragic loss of a conquered people, and the mean mysticism that’s carried along with it are at the heart-stirring center of Ciro Guerra’s Heart of Darkness-like adventure odyssey, Embrace the Serpent.

The winner of Art Cinema Award in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival––it wasn’t released cinematically in North America until 2016––this Amazon-set saga of spirituality and enveloping atmosphere is an opulent black-and-white affair that is fittingly plush in 35mm.

This is one of those great and tragic epic jungle films, like Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and like those films was also made under extremely difficult conditions made palpable by David Gallego’s immersive cinematography.

The Colombian landscapes are as majestic as they are menacing, making the forests a crazy-quilt of textures and ancient radiance. This isn’t just cinema, it’s a feat of luminous and everlasting strength.


1. American Honey

Sasha Lane in American Honey

Arranged with radiant, tantalizing possibilities, unsettled questions, and youthful exuberance, Andrea Arnold’s road movie/coming-of-age odyssey captures the American dream like so few films have ever been able to.

Paired with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Arnold illuminates her shaggy dog narrative with athletic long takes, continuous tracking shots, and glowing close-ups on mostly non-professional yet highly-effective young actors dovetailing through the Midwestern and Southern states. Energetic, intoxicating, and unpredictable, American Honey is so immersive and mesmeric that it feels like you’re living it while it so artfully and engagingly unfolds.

Sasha Lane shines as Star, an unfettered 18-year-old who escapes her abusive scumbag father and joins a mysterious young man named Jake (Shia LeBeouf). Soon Star hits the road with Jake and other teens; a tattooed and glitter-bombed crew who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door as they zigzag across America, singing along to the radio and daring to dream with heads held high.

So attuned is American Honey to its young leads that they, and perhaps even us by proxy, move with a meteoric energy, like they could just leave the scene or even exit the movie altogether on a whim, if they wanted. And by the end, this meteoric energy hasn’t dissipated, it’s grown and moved on to Star in some sort of cinematic transmigration. And that’s American Honey; a narratively audacious, picaresque pageant of youth, exhilarative spectacle and aspiration with lasting symmetry and an easy, endless grace.

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.