The 15 Most Beautiful Oscar Movies Ever
Best Picture, Cinematography, and Art Direction winners
Not very often is the film that the Academy deems the Best Picture also the year’s most beautiful. In fact, in the 87-year history of the awards, only 15 have won Best Cinematography and Best Production Design in addition to the top prize. See the most beautiful films, ahead.
Released near the end of MGM’s run of grand musicals, the Vincente Minnelli-directed film indulges in all of the trappings of the era. The reds are redder. The blues bluer. The extra-wide CinemaScope allows for as many ornate furniture pieces to be crammed into the frame as possible.
The love story between Jack and Rose took them from the opulence of first class steerage to the harsh reality of third class and finally to the icy waters of the north Atlantic. In James Cameron’s mega-hit, each setting is distinctive, believable, and stunning in its level of detail.
Mahatma Gandhi’s life, in terms of sheer scope, was epic by even cinematic standards. It’s no surprise that the Richard Attenborough-directed biopic would be a colorful portrait of India with a cast of thousands and a few aesthetic notes from David Lean, who was attached to direct at one time. There simply was no other way to capture the breadth of the man’s influence.
12. My Fair Lady
The look and design of My Fair Lady captures both sides of Eliza Doolittle’s rise from soot-covered street vendor to society-ready respectable lady. The film revels in the class-obsessed period, presenting the two phases of Eliza’s life with absurdity and charm, from the city markets to the spiral staircase and unusual instruments of Henry Higgins’ cavernous home. Because in Edwardian London, perfectly appointed hats and dark wood-adorned studies are just as important pronunciation.
11. On the Waterfront
The beauty of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is found in the places you wouldn’t expect. Shot extensively on location in the alleys, on the rooftops and, yes, waterfronts of picturesque Hoboken, New Jersey, the film’s gray-sky days and noir-lit nights mirror the naturalistic and heartbreaking performance from Marlon Brando. Both favor realism over what was expected from Hollywood, changing how movies look and feel forever.
10. Gone with the Wind
Historically minded viewers will point out that Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s antebellum South never existed in the genteel form we see in the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Reality wasn’t as lavishly soaked in the rich hues of Technicolor, either. Nor did the blinding orange flames in Atlanta grow as tall. And maybe the endless rows of wounded Confederate soldiers didn’t stretch out along train tracks as they did here, but damn, if it doesn’t look incredible.
9. The English Patient
No film on this list owes as much to another entry as Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel. Because without Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient wouldn’t have had a model for its grand desert vistas. That is not to denigrate the work by cinematographer John Seale, production designer Stuart Craig, and set decorator Stephenie McMillan, who created a romantic vision of World War II that stands on its own.
8. Schindler’s List
Filmmaking is never just a question of what you show, but how you show it. For his piercing look at the reality of the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg let go of modern cinematic techniques. With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the director captured one of the ugliest chapters of human history in a black-and-white style that gave a documentary-like realism to the images and set up the unforgettable gut punch of the girl in the red coat.
7. Out of Africa
If an entire continent could be nominated for an Academy Award, Africa would have shared in the Sydney Pollack film’s seven-Oscar haul. So many aspects of the land — the mountains, savannahs, and plains — play a vital role in the romance between a baroness and a hunter that it’s hard not to wish for an extra flight sequence in a biplane or another shot of a lone figure silhouetted by a sunset just because.
6. How Green Was My Valley
The Citizen Kane snub aside — though, we’ll never get over it — John Ford brought the same sense of scope that most people associate with his use of Monument Valley to the hills and valleys of South Wales. Much like Ford’s beloved westerns, How Green Was My Valley is a painterly ode to a land that no longer exists, brimming with nostalgic images of beauty — that was appropriately filmed on location in the sunny Santa Monica Mountains.
5. An American in Paris
A 17-minute expressionistic ballet is a lot to ask of an audience by modern standards, and yet, the conclusion of Vincente Minnelli’s staging of George and Ira Gershwin songs is a visual feast. And not only because of Gene Kelly’s dancing. The climactic sequence — and its many beautiful matte backgrounds — takes the painter Jerry Mulligan through a theatrical reimagining of his love and the city around him, with all of its history, culture, and color.
Director William Wyler notoriously hated the extra wide frame the studio insisted he use for the Biblical epic, reportedly saying “Nothing is out of the picture, and you can't fill it.” But he tried his hardest. Even modern films are dwarfed in comparison to the mammoth sets MGM built in Rome’s Cinecitta, which were packed with thousands of extras and over 80 horses to create one of the most visually epic films of all time.
3. West Side Story
The colors of West Side Story are burned into the collective brains of movie lovers, making it impossible to forget the exact shade of yellow in Tony’s coat or the burning red in Bernardo’s. In addition to the film’s palette, the detail in the movie musical, like the foggy focus in the mambo hall, elevate the love story from a rehash of Romeo and Juliet to one of the most iconic cinematic romances of all time.
2. The Last Emperor
For their portrait of the life of Pu Yi, director Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro built off of a relationship they'd fostered over the years to capture China's Forbidden City. "I had worked with Bernardo Bertolucci since 1969," Storaro told EW. "We were very young, and we discovered there some interior relationship in a movie in a way that everything was portrayed in a movie. Several things he would leave as suggested, to make it more mysterious and use symbolic elements. It worked more or less in the same part for me. I try to use light and shadows."
1. Lawrence of Arabia
What other film can be credited with creating the cinematic language for an entire biome? Decades later, Lawrence of Arabia owns movie deserts, and homages still hit the big screen today. (Looking at you, The Force Awakens.) There’s more to the beauty of Lawrence of Arabia than dunes, though. Everything from the toppling train engine to the impossible orange of the slow sunrise. Movies are more gorgeous because of Lawrence of Arabia.