While world cinema is trying its hardest to catch up, we must admit that American cinema has a monopoly on visual effects. With heavyweight studios such as Industrial Light and Magic, Dreamworks, and Pixar running the show, the rest of the world has its work cut out. However, some truly breathtaking films didn’t come from Tinseltown, and here are a few worth watching.
1. Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang’s German expressionist film sits atop many prominent movie critics’ best-ever lists. Its special effects in 1927 were groundbreaking, using a mixture of miniature sets and matte painting to create a towering cityscape. Moreover, forced perspective techniques allowed Lang to achieve his desired dystopian future cityscape, making Metropolis one of the most silent influential movies of its time.
2. Playtime (1967)
French director and actor Jacque Tati was famous for his visual impact, slapstick choreography, and dramatic irony. The 1967 masterpiece is Playtime, an aesthetically pleasing — and chaotically charming — comedy about people coming to terms with modern city living. Characters struggle to communicate with each other as they navigate their unfamiliar surrounding, and societal angst is tangible in each visually stunning scene. The use of everyday phenomena such as traffic, elevator doors, and office cubicles makes the film uncomfortable yet mesmerizing.
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Ang Lee took the cinematic world by storm with his epic Chinese Western-style revenge movie, shot in some of China’s most iconic landscapes. The movie is almost a tourism ad for the country, so its treatment of visual aesthetics and visual effects is astonishing. The crowning glory is the film’s flying fight sequences, involving a complex network of wires, removed through CGI for a flowing, experiential dynamic.
4. District 9 (2009)
Neill Blomkamp made his feature film debut with District 9, a sarcastic look at South Africa’s societal woes, using aliens as the focus for other issues. The talented science fiction director adopted a hybrid shooting approach for his alien creatures, with motion capture suits, practical effects like animatronics, and puppetry to bring his futuristic satire to life.
5. Moon (2009)
Duncan Jones was only known as David Bowie’s son until his movie debut, and a testament to British filmmaking, Moon. The film revolves around a lonesome industrial worker pondering his existence in a lunar mining colony. The film uses practical effects and models mixed with miniature sets and motion control cameras to achieve its realistic lunar landscape. Jones’ fanatical on-set attention to detail makes Moon a treat for any science-fiction fan.
6. Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The world wasn’t ready when Peter Jackson dropped his first Tolkien trilogy. It may look dated next to the hyperrealism of today, but in 2001, Lord of the Rings was the gold standard for CGI. Gollum’s lifelike character was central to the fantasy; his captivating part was only possible through a blend of motion-capture technology and Andy Serkis’s world-class character embodiment.
7. Hero (2002)
An often overlooked masterpiece, in my opinion, Hero features beautiful, sweeping bird’s eye shots of the Forbidden City, endless natural landscapes, and some of the most extraordinary martial arts scenes ever made. Moreover, the movie’s color scheme acts as a storyteller, with China’s love of color adding emphasis to each scene — red, for example, is seen in any scenes featuring passion or love. This film is a must-see, immersive movie experience for any discerning moviegoer.
8. Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men is a film set in 2027 Britain, in which society is ending due to women’s inability to have children. The set design, high-tension plot, and thrilling pieces complement the film’s epic scale. One scene that captivates is the car chase scene, in which the protagonists escape downhill in neutral gear. By removing the interior details in post-production, they could film up close, capturing the urgency of the tense moment.
9. Elysium (2013)
Neill Blomkamp gets his second nod of approval with his later movie Elysium, a film that further cemented Blomkamp’s rank in South African cinema folklore. His future imagines Planet Earth as a second-class habitat, fit only as a location for the industrialists to exploit their workers. The movie’s action sequences used the Digital Molecular Matter technique for realistically impressive explosion effects. The result is a convincing, visceral depiction of a brutal dystopian world.
10. Paddington 2 (2017)
While critics may scoff at Paddington 2’s inclusion, the team behind this British movie’s CGI made it one of 2017’s slicker offerings. Their motion capture technology laid a foundation for the team to focus on the furry cast’s finer details, such as their fur’s movement, clothing, and facial expressions. Consequently, Paddington 2 is still one of the most underrated films to leave Britain.
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