As some, but not all, cinephiles will tell you: style is substance. The formal choices made by filmmakers are just as (if not more) important than the stories films tell and the characters in those stories. Film is a visual medium, and images are meaningful, whether that means emphasizing the film’s themes or simply looking incredible for the sake of visual pleasure.
So when one film lover asks in an online forum for “films with amazing color palettes,” there are too many great movies to choose from. But with the help of some responses (and my impeccable taste), I’ve compiled a list of twelve of the most visually stunning films ever made.
1. The Fall (2006)
Tarsem Singh’s The Fall is one of the most important and underappreciated movies of the 21st century simply because it is so visually stunning. The film brings to life a fantastical story of five heroes on a quest for revenge that’s told to a young girl by a man who is in the hospital with her.
2. Hero (2002)
Hero tells several stories, and some versions of the same story, each with a different color palette. These stories are told by a warrior to the emperor as he recounts his battles with the emperor’s would-be assassins. But it’s not always clear which stories are true. The film offers one of cinema’s most visually stunning and narratively valuable uses of color.
3. Sin City (2005)
Not all films that are remarkable for their use of color are doused in it. Sin City, adapted from the comics of the same name by Frank Miller, is primarily an extremely high-contrast black-and-white film. But that monochrome is punctured by flashes of color: a beautiful woman’s blue eyes, red blood, and the garish yellow of a villain’s skin.
4. 300 (2006)
Another film adapted from a Frank Miller comic of the same name, 300 delivers audiences a different kind of highly stylized color palette. The film is mostly dark browns and golds, with bright red capes and splattered blood popping through that muddy background. One sequence shifts into gray and blue hues, but no scene in the movie is anywhere close to reality, and that’s very much a compliment.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Many of Wes Anderson’s have striking color palettes, but none quite so much as Grand Budapest Hotel. The film takes place mainly in the eponymous hotel, featuring lovely, bright pastels of almost every color.
6. Suspiria (1977)
Many people joke about the theme of Suspiria being “red,” and it’s fair enough. The film, which follows a young ballet dancer who arrives at a ballet academy only to discover it may be run by witches, is incredibly red in almost every aspect. From the academy’s walls to the hues of the light, nothing in the movie is untouched by red. But some scenes feature that red intermingling beautifully with blues, leading to gorgeous purples.
7. Speed Racer (2008)
Few movies actually feel like live-action cartoons and Speed Racer may be the best among them. Based on the cartoon of the same name, the Wachowski sisters’ adaptation of Speed Racer looks like candy in every frame. The film is hyper-crisp, avoiding the usual blurring of foregrounds and backgrounds to allow viewers to focus on one, instead opting to have every piece of the screen pop with eye-popping reds, yellows, greens, etc., etc., etc. It’s an amazing movie, unlike anything else.
8. Wolfwalkers (2020)
Wolfwalkers is one of the best animated films of recent years, and its cohesive color palette certainly plays a part in that. The film, which centers on the relationship between two tweens during the English occupation of Ireland in the 17th century, is full of beautiful golds, greens, oranges, and blues that draw viewers into its world.
9. Tron (1982)
While Tron: Legacy certainly deserves mention for its striking neon blue and orange color palette, the original Tron is a revolutionary classic and remains a stunning achievement. The film follows the adventures of a human who is sucked into a computer world and must save it from an authoritarian program and uses early CGI combined with amazing practical costumes and sets to make that world feel real, or at the very least look incredible.
10. Only God Forgives (2013)
All of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films are full of awe-inspiring colors, but Only God Forgives may be his most intensely colorful film yet. The movie, about an American drug dealer in Bangkok who comes into conflict with an almost mystical police lieutenant, is covered in piercing blue, red, purple, and orange neon lights that color every inch of the screen. It’s a film with a style that’s almost as aggressive as its characters.
11. The Red Shoes (1948)
More than fifty years after its release, The Red Shoes remains one of the greatest films ever made in technicolor. Based on the fairy tale of the same name by Hans Christian Anderson, the film maintains that fairytale feeling through bright reds, glorious golds, and deep blues and blacks.
12. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a wild movie not only in its plotting (which features eroticized cannibalism at one point) but also in its formalism. The film takes place on only a few sets, each of which is highly stylized in color and decor, and as characters move through them, their costumes change to match the different sets, even if there’s no narrative reason or explanation for the change.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Kyle Logan is a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Alternative Press, Cultured Vultures, Film Stories, Looper, and more. Kyle is particularly interested in horror and animation, as well as genre films written and directed by queer people and women. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.