The Big Picture
A movie’s setting plays a major role in how a movie feels. Many horror movies take place in limited physical spaces, such as a basement, a haunted house, or a woodsy campground made to feel small by the lack of other sane human characters.
And so it makes sense that many high-minded movies that aim to tackle some big issues tend to take place in vast, beautiful settings.
This is exactly the case with every one of the movies on our list below. These are some of the best movies with beautiful scenery for watching alone or with some friends who don’t mind being occasionally bored.
Before Midnight – 2013
Richard Linklater is the director and co-writer behind the Before trilogy. And while Linklater has built up a dedicated following of arthouse types who turn up for every release, much of his career has existed under the radar.
Sadly, his movie Boyhood (“It took 12 years to make”) was the closest he’s come to winning a Best Picture Oscar.
And don’t forget that this is the same guy who made School of Rock, a 2000s comedy classic.
Anyway, the Before trilogy is pretty fantastic. Each movie follows the same two characters and their conversations with each other, and each movie takes place 10 years after the previous movie, both in the world of the movies and the real world.
Before Midnight, released in 2013, was the final installment in the series. Our heroes, Jesse and Celine, are vacationing in Greece.
We follow the two as they traverse some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
And sure, the movie was probably shot in Greece to take advantage of tax credits, but it still works as a visually stunning backdrop for a turning-point in the relationship we’ve been following for 20 years now.
Days of Heaven – 1978
If you’re already familiar with arthouse films, then you’ve probably heard of Terrence Malick by now.
He tends to be a pretty polarizing filmmaker, for a few different reasons. But perhaps the biggest reason in Malick’s apparent love for confusing and ambiguous storylines.
To give you just a quick example, this is the fella who made Tree of Life, a movie that has become a kind of shorthand for confusing, artsy movies.
Days of Heaven is a period piece about farm workers struggling to survive. The man does his best to convince his lovely lady to marry the dying owner of the farm to try and make some dosh.
But we’re not here to focus on the story. Not at all. Instead, let’s talk about the visuals.
Days of Heaven features some of the most gorgeous cinematography in the history of the medium.
According to legend, almost every scene of the movie was filmed during Golden Hour, a specific time of day when the natural sunlight achieves a beautiful golden color.
If you’re having a hard time getting through the movie, try muting the volume but leaving the picture on in the background. Sit back and appreciate the flooring visuals on their own.
Stalker – 1979
Andrei Tarkovsky was a Russian filmmaker of note who was famously contemplative, hot-tempered, and immensely skillful with a camera.
You should watch all of his movies, but for now we’re gonna stick with Stalker.
It’s a simple premise: a few guys travel into an area called the Zone, aiming for a room that grants wishes.
But even that shoestring plot really isn’t that important, and you may even forget about the story halfway through. The visuals and the dialogue are more important here.
And here’s the part where we explain that beautiful scenery does appear in the movie, but not in the same sense as, for example, Days of Heaven.
The setting here feels like the site of a nuclear catastrophe. And maybe the real wonder is how Tarkovsky was able to make it all look so beautiful.
There Will Be Blood – 2007
Paul Thomas Anderson is a talented fella, even if his last few flicks have been borderline incomprehensible and also fairly average.
I’m hoping I’m wrong but right now it feels like There Will Be Blood might have been his peak.
He takes a period piece and makes it feel familiar and easy to understand. Daniel Plainview and Eli are towering characters that spend well over two movie-hours duking it out, and it’s fun to watch.
Best of all, we’ve got some fantastic scenery in this one, namely the lovely desolation of the California desert sometime in the 1800s.
And it’s handled well. It isn’t easy to get great shots in the desert, but the cinematography here is fantastic, and it finds a way to show Daniel for the monster he truly is.
Call Me By Your Name – 2017
Northern Italy in the 1980s. You can’t ask for much more when it comes to beautiful scenery.
It also helps that the movie as a whole isn’t incredibly tense. It’s a lesson on enjoyment, a very specific depiction of a life of culture and passion.
It’s an escapist wonderland for most of us. For the length of a feature film, we get to imagine that we summered in the Italian countryside as teenagers and could pull off cuffed acid wash skinny jeans.
Overall, we should be impressed that the crew was able to pull off such interesting shots that made many scenes look more like moving classical paintings than film.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – 2004
The movie was shot off the coast of Italy, and it works perfectly for this character: a slightly wise, fading older man with little left to do with his life.
He has his own boat, his own island, and his own helicopter, at least for most of the movie.
But none of it can make him happy. The gorgeous scenery is almost forgotten about, taken for granted, because that’s how our protagonist feels about everything in his life.
The ocean scenes are beautifully shot and make ample use of stop-motion animated fictional sea creatures designed and animated by Henry Selick, the fella behind The Nightmare Before Christmas.