MANILA, PHILIPPINES — As we welcome 2023, cinephiles are looking forward to all the new stories filmmaking has to offer. However, as awards season is picking up and January brings us the opportunity to reflect on the year that has passed, including all the art we’ve been blessed with, many people — from critics to film enthusiasts — are looking back on the year cinema has had.
There are so many elements that go into filmmaking that make a movie great. For this roundup, however, adobo Magazine is kicking off the year with a shoutout to visually stunning films that definitely made a mark in 2022. With advancements in cinematography — whether its new leaps in technology or techniques being discovered and honed — and the growing skillset of both established and emerging talents behind the scenes, it is no surprise that the past 12 months have been packed with films that deserve to be called a feast for the eyes.
Here are just 10 of the many films from the past year with visuals that warrant that title:
1. Everything Everywhere All At Once
If we’re talking about visually stunning films, this movie is obviously the first to come to mind. It’s hard to believe that the visual effects were done remotely during the height of the pandemic by a team of five artists.
This meditation on nihilism, the immigrant experience, intergenerational trauma, and mother-daughter relationships was wrapped in the most unexpected package: an inter-dimensional journey full of tight and immersive action scenes, montages full of crazy-intense colors and transitions, and different bizarre universes with their own distinct and effective visual signatures. Mixing that all together, and you have an experience that’s a dazzling assault to the senses — one that movie buffs were happy to be at the receiving end of.
In a movie that warns us of the danger of turning things into spectacles, Nope perfectly captured both the grandeur that the film’s cautionary message is built around and the euphoric triumph of overcoming the horrors that surround it through its visuals.
From the iconic Neon Genesis Evangelion-inspired design of Jean Jacket to the horrifyingly captivating set pieces, the film was packed with visual delights that you can’t look away from no matter how much you want to. The best part of it all is that the cinematography realized the potential of the desert as a horror setting with beautiful but frightening shots of the vast plains and foreboding skies that highlight the dawning fear of being out in the open, where there is nowhere to hide, and of the possibility of your demise being turned into the spectacle itself.
2022 was the battle of the Pinocchios as the world saw three different adaptations of the classic released last year, while Guillermo del Toro’s take seems to be everyone’s winner.
Although this is definitely the grimy reimagining people didn’t expect from a Pinocchio tale, there wasn’t any less magic, and the visuals are a huge part of that. In fact, del Toro’s iconic visual signature combined with the decision to go with stop motion were exactly the things that brought out the fantasy in a unique way. This effectively expanded on the darkness and more mature peculiarity that the setting of Mussolini’s Italy brings, while also staying true to the exhilarating wonder necessary to the story of Pinocchio’s pursuit for his innocent dream of becoming real.
4. Three Thousand Years of Longing
The grandeur that follows gaining the power of having your wishes granted is something that Three Thousand Years of Longing captured through its staggering visuals.
As the Djinn tells tales of his past, the film didn’t fail to deliver on the alluring and bold set pieces that embody the great desires of wishers throughout history via mesmerizingly explosive visual effects, fun and colorful sets and costumes, and overall delightfully dizzying sequences. This easy watch is an unabashed cautionary tale that doesn’t hold back on the visual wonders and magic you’d expect from a fantasy adventure.
5. Top Gun: Maverick
Regardless of whether you’re a fan of cheesy action franchises from the ‘80s or not, it’s hard to not have fun with and keep your eyes glued onto the spectacle that is Top Gun: Maverick.
36 years may be a long wait for a sequel, but the exhilarating stunts and set pieces that made this second installment a breathtaking visual marvel wouldn’t have been possible in the 20th century. The wonderfully choreographed and gorgeously shot flight sequences with real aircrafts — from the euphoria-inducing training scenes to the heart-pounding final act — delivered the suspense, thrill, and realism that made the movie a joy to watch.
6. Decision to Leave
The plot of Park Chan-wook’s latest mystery is already alluring in itself but the cinematography of the film is what knocks it out of the park.
The film didn’t lack mesmerizing shots of mountaintops and the ocean, but even in more minimalist settings, the film managed to evoke intrigue and thrill through gorgeous scenes with recurring reflective surfaces, intricate camera movements, and lighting and focus choices that train the eye to hints that form the overarching mystery. It’s exactly the precision, restraint, and playfulness of the shots that elevated it from being your run-of-the-mill thriller.
7. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
Apollo 10½ is more about looking into the protagonist’s childhood in 1969 Houston than it is about going to space. However, the animation told the story in a way that lets it make an impact as strong as it would have if it were about a space voyage.
The rotoscoping that made the characters’ movements and expressions hyperrealistic, the cultural visual cues and references that captured the midcentury American zeitgeist, and a well-utilized palette of stripped-back earth tones with accents of bright colors that screamed the late ‘60s — all these grounded the absurd space mission in realism and complemented the blurry line between fact and fiction as the protagonist narrated what he remembers from growing up during the Space race.
Feature-length animation in Hollywood is often thought to be reserved for out-of-this-world stories about wild adventures. Entergalactic, however, is an example of how stunning animation can turn even a laidback love story into a breathtaking visual journey that you’re glad to be on.
From the exemplary color and lighting choices and playful line work that turned the cityscapes and Jabari’s daily life into gorgeous shots, to the delightfully trippy nightmare and dream sequences that invite you to Jabari’s creative psyche, every visual decision the film made pays off and elevates the already-charming quiet romance between the two New Yorkers into a masterpiece.
There was no pulling punches when it came to the making of Babylon. Elaborate camera movements that let viewers take in the landscape of 1920s Hollywood, harsh lighting choices and bright colors that embodied the crazed and high-strung tone of this era of debauchery and glamour, ridiculously lavish sets and costumes that painted the excess and luxury its characters grew addicted to — everything that meets the eye in this film added so many rich, hypnotic elements to this story of the filmmaking industry in the roaring twenties and how it bred depravity, opulence, and dissipation among the elite.
10. Avatar: The Way of Water
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the movie that the world has been waiting for since its predecessor came out in 2009. While it’s hard to fulfill all expectations that are built up over 11 years, it’s hard to deny what a beautiful movie it is.
With visual imagery more jaw-dropping than its predecessor bringing the bioluminescent world of Pandora to life, the effective use of 3D to create an all-consuming immersive experience, and the lengths that CGI has gone in the past decade, this film’s visuals carved out a celebration of color, insane detail, and thrilling action out of James Cameron’s vision and excellent worldbuilding.