The Godfather Trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990)
Given Coppola's apprenticeship with Roger Corman, the Godfather could so easily have been just another exploitation pic, shot fast and on the cheap. But Coppola had higher aspirations: less of a Mafia thriller and more of a refined study of 20th century American history. So he hired the best in Hollywood - meticulous cameraman Gordon Willis, production designer Dean Tavoularis - to create a rich palette of gloomy mahogany inner sanctums and dazzling Sicilian sunlight. The look of The Godfather Parts 1 and 2 put Coppola into the ranks of the great visualists, so much so that the director nearly went insane trying to better himself with Apocalypse Now.
Why it looks so good: The Godfather’s greatest achievement is its ability to draw audience into its criminal underworld, revealing all its nooks and crannies.
The Lord of the Rings (2001-3)
When New Line announced its $300 million, three film gamble of letting Kiwi gorehound Peter Jackson loose on Tolkien's epic fantasy, most thought the studio had gone insane. What only New Line knew was that Jackson was hoarding a couple of tricks up his sleeve. Firstly, a phenomenal Antipodean technical crew, aided by Aussie cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and the FX whizzes at Weta, who could match - and better - anything coming out of the States. Better still, Jackson had located the mines, mountains, fields and battlefields of Middle Earth in his own backyard; the rarely-filmed splendour of New Zealand was the trilogy’s best special effect.
Why it looks so good: Fantastical vistas, groundbreaking CGI and operatic action sequences; what more do you need?
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
“You’re the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met,” exclaims General Allenby to the titular Lawrence at one point in the movie. An extraordinary man naturally demands an extraordinary biopic, so it's a good thing that Lawrence of Arabia duly delivers on all fronts. Make no mistake, David Lean's black and white, British movies are models of atmosphere and iconic heft. But, here, big really is best. Lawrence of Arabia is a logistical tour-de-force, as Lean marshalls hundreds of extras in the desert, and camera wizard Freddie Young makes good on the enormous responsibility of capturing those dazzling cinematic mirages.
Why it looks so good: As one of the first epics of the 20th century, the nostalgia-steeped scope of Lawrence of Arabia can’t be beaten.
Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull could so easily have been Taxi Driver's neon-soaked urban hell, Goodfellas' Steadicam swing, or The Age of Innocence's elegant grace. Yet Martin Scorsese brings in another masterpiece with his (mostly) black and white dissection of the troubled life of boxer Jake LaMotta.The film remains most notable for its experimental, expressionistic boxing matches (including one filmed on roller skates!), but Michael Chapman's high contrast monochrome is devastatingly good-looking even at LaMotta's kitchen sink. Achingly evocative, with a careworn beauty at odds with the brutality of LaMotta's life, each and every frame of this could take pride of place on your wall as a photographic still.
Why it looks so good: The boxing matches are a veritable feast for the eyeballs, made all the more impressive thanks to the frenetic camerawork.
The Lego Movie (2014)
An unlikely addition to this list but, then again, The Lego Movie managed to surprise everyone when it turned out to be far more than just a cynical advertisement for Denmark’s most successful children’s toy. On the contrary, watching the film is like diving into a pandora’s box of Lego bricks and admiring the many shapes and colours that flash before your eyes. With comedy veterans Phil Lord and Chris Miller behind the helm as directors, smart visual gags fire off at a gleeful pace, but there’s also beauty to be found in the film’s suitably imaginative approach to creating a world made from Lego.
Why it looks so good: The pitch-perfect script is matched splendidly with a delightfully colourful treasure trove of animated goodness.