Why it means so much that Life of Pi, Skyfall, and a few other fall releases look so good

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Life of Pi, Cloud Atlas, and Skyfall (Fox, WB, Sony)

The movies fought a Lincoln-sized civil war over aesthetics this year. Our basic perception of the moving image as an art form was nearly left for dead in the first half of 2012, in a sea of blurs, quick cuts and a general pervasive drabness.

This was when pragmatic studios, drunk off the immense profitability of found-footage blockbusters like Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity series, fired off a deluge of grainy, jumpy iMovie experiments. And not just for horror films (the hugely successful The Devil Inside). The technique also infiltrated superhero myths (Chronicle) and even that most treasured of American genres, the teen sex comedy (Project X).

This visual revolt (as in: "Eww. These visuals are revolting.") had been brewing for a while. Perhaps nostalgia for the carefree, Clerks-and-camcorder days of the 1990s is to blame, when the grotesqueries of DIY filmmaking were excused in light of the uplifting, can-do attitudes of the amateur filmmakers themselves.

But it doesn't matter who started it. Terrible-looking movies are cheap to make, and today's youth are used to spastic editing in their media. The uglification of the cinema, this perverse style that is not only not pretty but actively represses the concept of beauty, seemed poised to conquer all. Soon we would acquiesce to the belief that the look of a film just doesn't matter. The cinematographer would take his place behind the glass wall in a Dinosaurs of Hollywood exhibit, next to the matte painter and the organist.

Thankfully, one look at Ang Lee's marvelously alive Life of Pi is enough to topple the mindset that the image is dead. Based on Yann Martel's 2001 novel about a South Indian teenager drifting through the ocean in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, the film bleeds its spirituality into every frame, embracing the beauty of nature at its cruelest and most unforgiving, like a National Geographic fever dream.

The imagery in Life of Pi is more than simply picturesque. Lee and his cinematographer Claudio Miranda manage to reinvent the storytelling power of shot compositions, shoving the audience's lifeboat gently through disheveled space and time.

As an elder Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrates his story from a park bench, the tranquil scenery in front of him dissolves into an explorer's map of the Pacific Ocean, and we zoom into the complete and unforgiving blueness that provides the basis for the film's revelatory palette. We see man and beast swim through water so clear it ceases to be distinguished from sky. We see, through a murky underwater haze, the shipwreck that robs Pi (Suraj Sharma) of his family, as the hero's laughably small body hovers helplessly in the foreground, overcome by the wreckage that's warped his life into a tragedy.

These sorts of moments abound with refreshing consistency in Life of Pi, and their transfixing beauty reaffirms that this movie is first and foremost designed to be looked at. The stunning clarity of the images is in fact part of the film's message, reflecting a hero who can find wonder and awe in the world, even at the darkest moments.

A glance at some of 2012's other awards contenders shows Lee's not the only striver for visual spectacle. This summer's Beasts of the Southern Wild, an epic vision on a miniscule budget from the fresh-faced director Benh Zeitlin, boasts what may be the shot of the year when its tiny protagonist (Quvenzhane Wallis) tromps through her bayou burg at night, a whizzing sparkler in each hand, and the dreamy tones bend to the sparkles in a magical way. The 70mm travelogue Samsara and partly animated French-language mortality meditation Chicken With Plums also made a stand for visuals in front of smaller, more specialized crowds. Even the Wachowskis' pompous, six-tiered folly Cloud Atlas knew how to work the camera, splicing together six distinct visual styles—from gauzy retro-future dystopia to squirrel-pitched screwball escape comedy—through a rousing if workmanlike use of montage.

And the action movie industry, too, has realized it cannot continue to barrage the senses with quick cuts ad nauseum. The great visual artist Roger Deakins was employed in Her Majesty's Secret Service this year for Skyfall, and made James Bond's run-and-shoot travails seem almost otherworldly—a neon-drunk Shanghai sequence plays like a deleted scene from Blade Runner.

It's true that movies tend to look a bit more polished come holiday season, but there's something especially nice about seeing such exceptional images arriving at a moment when the rest of the industry seems to care so little about looks. These films and their visuals are so important because they reclaim our concept of a movie as a series of meticulously orchestrated images, not merely as whatever happens to flitter past a fast-moving lens. The former is an art form; the latter is any idiot with a camera.

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