15 Movie Directors Who Make The Most Visually Stunning Films
So much of what makes cinema so engaging and exciting is the awe-inspiring visuals that they contain. These stirring visuals have captured our imaginations and lit up living rooms, bijous, drive-in, and multiplexes the world over for generations.
Taste of Cinema’s tireless and exciting search for the most visually exquisite filmmakers was no easy charge, and not one we undertook lightly. The assembled list presented here offers up the finest filmmakers of dazzling depth, stirring symmetry, gorgeous framing, and assured grace.
But of course we couldn’t get to them all, and that’s why you’ll find a considerable “honorable mention” section following the list and why we also encourage you to add names of those we overlooked in the comments below. As ever, thanks for reading and enjoy!
15. Wes Anderson
A prominent American filmmaker since he first appeared on the scene in 1996 with his debut feature film, Bottle Rocket, Texas-born director Wes Anderson has amassed a very distinctive, idiosyncratic, and singular body of work.
While his critics and detractors may never warm to Anderson’s sweet-tooth cinema spoils and auteur labelling, his colorful and quirky comedy dramas (such as Rushmore , The Royal Tenenbaums , The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou , and Moonrise Kingdom ) have won critical acclaim, endless plaudits, cult status, and deep devotion from fans.
Other films from Anderson include his highly stylized comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which smartly contrasts that fast-paced and multi-character story with melancholy, dazzling production design, varied film formats (2.35:1, 1.85:1, and the classic 1.33:1), elaborate costumes, and an all-star cast.
And while the Grand Budapest Hotel may well be Anderson’s most exhaustive, integrated and delicious offering to date, it may well be that his stop-motion animated films, The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018) are his universal crowd-pleasers.
Having first dipped his toe in the animated arena with his fantasy sequences in Steve Zissou (those underwater marine life scenes were overseen by A Nightmare Before Christmas  director/animator genius Henry Selick), Anderson has now made two very detailed, peculiar, personal, and zero cool stop-motion marvels.
Love him or hate him (and shame on you if you’re in the latter camp, c’mon!), Anderson makes visually dense and ever-teeming movies on his own terms, and I for one cannot get enough of them.
14. Dario Argento
In his late 1970s and 1980s heyday, Italian horror film director Dario Argento elevated the genre into an immersive and unforgettable experience like no other. A quick glance at Argento’s directorial debut for instance, the groundbreaking giallo picture The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), shows a bold blending of arthouse and suspense horror that audiences cheered and gasped at.
A mingling of Antonioni aesthetics, Hitchcockian strain, Mario Bava’s lien (Argento learned so much from him), and splashes of luxuriant and vivid color, this led Argento and his growing swell of won-over fans into the concluding films of his “Animal Trilogy” (which also included The Cat o’ Nine Tails  and Four Flies on Grey Velvet ).
With Deep Red (1975), Argento’s thriller cycle reached its peak. Not only did the film mark his first pairing with the prog-rock group Goblin (their soundtracks with Argento would soon become the stuff of legend), but this shockingly unsettling tale would inspire a generation of filmmakers all over the world (John Carpenter often sites Deep Red as the film that forced him to up his game, and inspired him to perform chilling scores on all his subsequent films).
The crimson-hued and glowing surreal color of Deep Red pulled Argento into his next and perhaps most famous film, the first and finest of his Three Mothers Trilogy, the supernatural thriller and horror film paragon, Suspiria (1977).
The zenith of sensory cinema, Suspira is a nightmare fairytale set in the ideal Gothic setting, the Tanz Dance Academy––a menacing European ballet institute that doubles as a front for a deadly witch coven––and is Argento’s showpiece.
An endless fusillade of gory and gloriously overstated color, Suspiria’s cinematically charged sequences of over-the-top majesty, appallingly violent deaths (artfully delivered with the baroque virtue of a music video), and strange supernatural elements rightly made Argento an international figure.
Other notable works from Argento include Inferno (1980), Tenebrae (1982), Phenomena (1985), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), and The Mother of Tears (2007).
As solid deposition of auteur theory––Argento is the Sergio Leone of horror cinema–– his greatest works show a hypnotic and self-reflexive powerplay of atmospheric terror. After all, horror is definitely a director’s genre (look at Hitchcock’s CV if you doubt this claim), and here is a visionary whose visual style is so frequently on shrewd, manipulative and monstrous display.
Films like Suspiria and Tenebrae elevate the genre, proving that there really is no other horror films as dazzling, destructive, prismatic and ravishingly refined as these.
13. Lynne Ramsay
Though not at prolific as other directors on this list, thus far there are only four features to her name (Ratcatcher , Morvern Callar , We Need to Talk about Kevin  and You Were Never Really Here ), Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, as the Harvard Film Archive describes her, remains “fascinated by the tremendous power of cinema to appeal directly to the senses and awaken new depths in our audio-visual imagination.
Immersive and at times almost overwhelming, Ramsay’s films abound with uncommon imagery arresting for its remarkable use of texture, composition, color, music and sound.”
Her debut film Ratcatcher, rightly earned plaudits for its kitchen sink neorealism and hauntingly sublime detours, but it was her sophomore film, Morvern Callar, that really established her on the world cinema stage.
A tantalizing and sometimes baffling film, Morvern Callar showed Ramsay to be an artist of intelligence, imagination, and intensity (comparisons to Claire Denis and Agnès Varda were not unfounded), displaying a bold visual sense that was both tender and unsentimental, combining gritty realism with visual poetry.
Viewed alongside her most recent film, You Were Never Really There, and Ramsay offers us another experience that pushes well away from populist cinema and into the risky realms of high-but-approachable art.
Ramsay renews faith in the representation, allure, and importance of cinema as objet d’art, making films that are heart-piercing monuments of intelligence, magnanimity, and hard-fought hope.
12. Zhang Yimou
It’s no surprise that Zhang Yimou, the most celebrated director of contemporary Chinese cinema, specialized in cinematography while attending the state-sponsored Beijing Film Academy.
Exploding onto the scene in the 1980s as part of the Fifth Generation of filmmakers (alongside such esteemed peers as Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang), Zhang’s visually stunning debut film was Red Sorghum (1987). This artful romantic melodrama, a period piece set in the 1920s and 1930s, was shot in stirring CinemaScope and introduced Gong Li, Zhang’s muse and frequent collaborator, to Western audiences.
Red Sorghum performed well in festivals all over the world (it won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival), and was the first modern Chinese film to be released in the US, where it received nothing but critical acclaim and high praise. This also prompted Zhang’s subsequent work from that era, which included historical dramas focussing on female sexuality, and all lead by the ravishing Gong Li.
Of these impressive sensory works, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) are the most notable, impactful, and taboo-shattering. Both of these films were heavily censored in China due to their depictions of sexuality, and art house audiences and critics were won over even more by the audacity, bravery, and visual splendor that Zhang put on the screen.
In more recent years Zhang is most closely connected to his lush martial arts epics; Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Deploying immense casts numbering in the thousands, that include such names as Maggie Cheung, Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Zhang Ziyi, and of course, Gong Li, these films also showcase jaw-dropping cinematography from Christopher Doyle, impeccable production design, and re-worked wuxia genre tropes used to dazzling effect.
In his 2004 review for House of Flying Daggers, late film critic Roger Ebert enthused; “Forget about the plot, the characters, the intrigue, which are all splendid in House of Flying Daggers, and focus just on the visuals. There are interiors of ornate elaborate richness, costumes of bizarre beauty, landscapes of mountain ranges and meadows, fields of snow, banks of autumn leaves and a bamboo grove that functions like a kinetic art installation.”
11. Todd Haynes
Exploring in his diverse body of work the complexity of identity and sexual politics, Todd Haynes is a singular and staggering talent. Born January 2, 1961 in Encino, California, Haynes’s fascinating film career probes via a wide variety of prisms; from Barbie dolls, Jean Genet-inspired prison-set humiliations, glam rock iconography, existential horror, the 1950s suburban homemaker, and pop cult heroes, to the lesbian love story, and more.
A pioneer of the New Queer Cinema that sprang from the 1980s breakout phase of American indie film, Haynes has largely since relinquished much of the overtly gay themes––though still present in places––opting instead to cleverly subtextualize these insights within mostly female protagonists or by dint of androgynous celebrities.
As you can see, no short sentence on Haynes’s distinct CV can avoid the intricacy and intelligence contained therein. While he may not be the most prolific of filmmakers––he patiently takes his time between projects, and perhaps they’re all the better for this––Haynes is so original an auteur that by now we certainly know that whatever he chooses to present to us will be deep, elaborate, intensified, impossible to shake, and incredibly ornate.
His most notable works include his existential horror film Safe (1995), his visual decadent treatise on glam rock artifice and Oscar Wilde, Velvet Goldmine (1998), his Douglas Sirk-style weepie Far From Heaven (2002), the self-described “ferocious musical romp” about Bob Dylan, and perhaps his greatest (if not most ambitious) film, I’m Not There (2007), and his return to Sirkian 1950s-set melodrama but with a lesbian slant, Carol (2015). With Haynes at the helm, you really can’t go wrong, and you’ll undoubtedly be presented with something beautiful to behold.
10. Ingmar Bergman
One of cinema’s most accomplished and influential filmmakers, Swedish icon Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) is a legendary figure. Time Magazine editor and film critic Richard Corliss put it perfectly when he wrote; “For a lot of us, the discovery of Ingmar Bergman in the late ’50s was as exciting as the arrival of The Beatles would be a few years later. Suddenly we could see the difference between ‘movies’ and ‘film’, between the Hollywood product we assimilated like hamburgers and the haute cuisine food-for-thought of European cinema.”
Bergman’s endlessly engaging, enduring, and forever meaningful body of work includes such masterpieces as The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Silence (1963), Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Fanny and Alexander (1982).
All of these films showcase what Bergman’s best remembered for; staggering depth, astonishing breadth, and a wide variety, and all of which defies easy categorization. Furthermore, his flair for surreal, dream-like, and more often than not nightmarish imagery cinches his status as a visual stylist.
“Pretty much the last word in cinematic profundity,” wrote New York Times critic Terrence Rafferty, “[Bergman’s] every tic was scrupulously pored over, analyzed, elaborated in ingenious arguments about identity, the nature of film, the fate of the artist in the modern world and so on.” The man’s legacy, and affecting perceptions may never cease.
9. Stanley Kubrick
A meticulous craftsman and film school fanboy favorite (I was always the odd man out for not drooling over his every frame of film), American expat filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999) is consistently cited, and with good reason, as one of cinema’s greatest and most influential of directors.
Kubrick’s unique approach to cinematography, the technical aspects thereof, his elaborate and extensive set designs, his jet-black humor, and dips into arenas both real and surreal, are his hallmarks.
With films like the sweeping historical epic Spartacus (1960), the satirical comic tour de force of Dr. Strangelove (1964), the innovative sci-fi arthouse spectacle of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)––his grandest achievement, in my opinion––the controversial confusion of A Clockwork Orange (1971), the sumptuous candlelit splendor of the 18th century-set Barry Lyndon (1975), and the technically stellar but emotionally stone-cold chiller classic The Shining (1980), amongst his most lasting works, it’s no wonder that he’s so admired and adored.
Cresting the wave of the New Hollywood movement, film critic and historian Michel Ciment calls Kubrick’s films to be “among the most important contributions to world cinema in the 20th century.” And with filmmakers as diverse and demonstrable as Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Jonathan Glazer, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Ben Wheatley, and Steven Spielberg, regularly citing him as a principle influence, Kubrick’s films (most of them, anyway), are deeply deserving of celebration and study.
Paul Thomas Anderson, while on the press junket for The Master (2012), summed it up rather well when he said that “it’s so hard to do anything that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to what Stanley Kubrick did…”
Pages: 1 2