Who couldn’t use a shot of extreme beauty in lockdown? Get it by streaming one or all of these exceptionally gorgeous movies.

The loosening of lockdown might mean that many of us are getting out a little more for a fix of springtime beauty, for which we are endlessly grateful. Yet nonetheless, we remain at home a good deal more than usual and, chances are, watching more TV than in pre-pandemic life. Why not then spend the extra screen time watching something aesthetically inspiring?

Whether you’re into 18th-century paintings brought to animated life or visions of the future evoked to jaw-dropping cinematographic effect, there’s something to stir the soul in our edit here. And yet there is beauty in the fact that this list is just a starting point for explorations into the most achingly gorgeous films ever made. Happy watching.

Barry Lyndon

Amazon




Between his arresting and acclaimed classics, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, Stanley Kubrick filmed another, less well-known movie: Barry Lyndon. It’s a picture that splits opinion, but we come down firmly in the camp that says the 18th-century epic, made in 1975, is a masterpiece. In no small part, this is down to its sheer beauty. Barry Lyndon was filmed entirely using natural light, with the interior scenes illuminated only by candlelight. In order to achieve this effect, Kubrick used an extremely powerful lens which had only been used to capture the moon hitherto. His aim was to give the film a visual quality akin to the great 18th-century artists, making watching it feel extraordinarily as though you’re inhabiting a painting. All of which works exceptionally well as the backdrop for its tale of the Irish rogue and confidence trickster protagonist’s rise and fall after he inveigles himself into the aristocracy. Featuring suspenseful gun and sword duels, and the beautiful pairing of Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson. Exquisite.

Phantom Thread

Netflix




Set in the 1950s haute couture world of an obsessive society dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), Paul Thomas Anderson’s gothic romance is aesthetically sublime. In addition to the beauty of the clothes themselves – and indeed of the House of Woodcock – the compellingly beautiful dark fairy tale thread that runs throughout is sewn into every frame, much as Woodcock sews meaningful messages into the lining of the clothes he makes. When the compellingly vulpine Woodcock meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress, he imagines that she’ll be the latest in line of passing fancies to be dressed up and then discarded on the cutting room floor. And yet through this fascinating examination of nuanced power and its shifting balance, she proves a match for him. Dark and beautiful, Phantom Thread is a fittingly stunning swan song role for Day Lewis, who announced before release that this would be his last film.

A Room With A View

Amazon Prime Video




Day-Lewis also features in A Room With A View, the very first film from director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. And although the Merchant-Ivory moniker may later have come to be a byword for cliché, rewatching underlines just how unfair that dismissal really was. A fresh re-telling of the EM Forster novel about the awakening of an Edwardian young woman coming of age in a repressed society, it is swoon-inducingly beautiful, sharp, funny and romantic. And how could it not be an aesthetic delight? Florence and Bruneslleschi’s dominating duomo is, after all, the sublime backdrop for it all. The movie follows Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) on a Baedeker-led tour of Florence, shepherded by her cousin, played by the magnificent Maggie Smith. When they encounter the free-thinking and entirely lovable Mr Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and his eccentric son George (Julian Sands), father and son cause all manner of social distress when the duo discard etiquette in favour of generosity. The moment that George kisses Lucy Honeychurch in a Tuscan cornfield couldn’t be any more visually gorgeous if it tried. Merchant-Ivory, we vow to rediscover all of your gems.

Call Me By Your Name

Amazon Prime Video




Another vote for Italy as the backdrop for the most beautiful of all films. Call Me By Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino, tells the love story that arises between a young man and his father’s post-graduate student in the summer of 1983. Set in Lombardy – or ‘somewhere in northern Italy’ as the caption in the film tells us – it is both a very moving narrative of a sudden and powerful romance and a vehicle, in these locked down days, that wholly transports the viewer to a glorious Italian idyll. It is little surprise to learn that the adaptation of André Aciman’s novel is by none other than our old friend, James Ivory.

Lawrence of Arabia

Amazon Prime Video




David Lean’s account of the real-life odyssey of T.E. Lawrence won him some seven Academy Awards in 1962, including Best Picture. It would be hard to argue that it isn’t a masterpiece. Its evocation of the desert is probably the best in mainstream cinema, as it recounts TE Lawrence’s part in the Arabs’ rebellion against the Turks after he befriends Sherif Ali Ben El Kharish (Omar Sharif), who makes one of the most stunning entrances in cinematic history. Peter O’Toole in the title role is astonishing. As is the mesmerising blue of his piercing eyes.

Talented Mr Ripley

Amazon Prime Video




Twenty-one years on from Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr Ripley remains as intensely brilliant as it was upon first release. And boy, is it beautiful. And that beauty is an integral plot point, not just eye-pleasing gloss. For it is the pristine, privileged glamour and effortless elegance that surrounds the wealthy – and, of course, beautiful – Dicky Greenleaf (Jude Law) and his equally decorative girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow), seen through the eyes of sociopath Ripley (Matt Damon) that drives his obsession to not only live it but consume it and ultimately destroy it. Its centre is utterly dark; its surface is exquisite.

Blade Runner 2049

Amazon Prime Video




Any film that legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins has ever touched could qualify for this list, such is his genius. Blade Runner 2049 was ¬– astonishingly – the first for which he was garlanded with an Oscar, despite some thirteen previous nominations. And justly so. Every frame in the Denis Villeneuve-directed movie, which came thirty years after the first, is a breath-taking vision of the future, simultaneously beguiling and terrifying. Starring Ryan Gosling and, returning from the original, Harrison Ford.


The Grand Budapest Hotel

Amazon Prime Video




You can reply on Wes Anderson to create movies of such visual delight that you could pause every frame and sigh at the sheer perfection of it. So distinctive is his eye that there even exists an Instagram account - @accidentallywesanderson – dedicated to the colours and symmetry that characterise his work. For us, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the very best of him. Both stunning and laugh-out-loud funny, no lockdown afternoon would not be improved by watching this. Ralph Fiennes is pure joy.

Pride and Prejudice

BBC




We have to caveat this recommendation by saying that, for us, the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, remains definitive. And yet this 2005 Joe Wright-directed re-make is such a visual feast that it makes the list. We defy you not to fall in love with Pemberley (and we also have a soft spot for the moated Bennet’s Longbourn, which is a more romantic prospect than the – also stunning – classic Georgian manor in the BBC version). Like this? Also try Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina and the devastatingly brilliant Atonement, with cinema’s greatest-ever green dress. All star Keira Knightley; all are exquisite to look at.

By Nancy Alsop
June 2020

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Nancy Alsop

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