While the debate over Avatar’s cinematic relevance continues into a new decade, one of the contributions it brought to the multiplex (and home theater systems) was the renewed interest in 3D filmmaking, thanks to an advance in the technology. While there have been as many cons as pros, a good number of films stand out in terms of how the filmmakers chose to incorporate the third dimension into the cinematic experience. Here’s a look at 20 films that stood out when it came to presenting a meaningful use of 3D to a movie’s presentation (with an emphasis on technique over overall film quality), beyond just a surcharge at the box office counter.
It is important to note not every film was a pure use of 3D. Many of the features listed were post-converted, which was once a shame but has evolved in a way highlighting what many can do. Still, James Cameron found a way to revolutionize the use of 3D, kicking off a decade full of films attempting to duplicate that sort of quality. A good majority failed. However, I did look at the various films utilizing 3D in an attempt to single out the features using the format well either aesthetically or, in some cases, as an exciting application to the narrative itself.
And now, without further ado:
20. Ant-Man (2015)
From the original Thor and onward, every MCU feature has been post-converted into 3D. Few have truly benefited from the added dimension. Leave it to some of the more inessential entries in the Marvel movie saga to truly take advantage. It comes down to Ant-Man’s special powers and the use of microphotography. These aspects make the 3D actually feel significant, as we watch Scott Lang initially shrink down inside a bathtub, and enjoy the various layers of an action sequence composed of a tiny man trying to figure out what is going on in the absurd apartment tailored to show off all the ways being small can affect things. While Ant-Man and the Wasp relies more on perspective-based gags and getting bigger, the first film seemed more devoted to delving into the smallness of it all, which made for a solid 3D experience.
19. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
If there was an animated feature from a studio during the 2010s, it was most likely released in digital 3D. This most certainly applied to Steven Spielberg’s delightful animated adventure film. While the lack of reverence for the popular comic book series in America meant it had less of an impact in the U.S. than it did abroad, the film still found Spielberg having both eyes open while diving into the world of digital filmmaking. In addition to placing his directorial eye on a throwback caper full of energy, Spielberg also managed to make the most out of letting the 3D push the original 2D images into an enhanced take on the popular Tintin character and his stories. Watching pirate ships go into battle or a wild trip through Bagghar meant having a camera fly all around the screen, capturing plenty of excitement in its own unique way.
18. Tron: Legacy (2010)
Whether or not the surprise announcement of a Tron sequel at 2008 San Diego Comic-Con led to you enjoying the end result, it was one of the many geek-centric event films of the early 2010s that did just well enough at the box office to be a success, without enough of a drive to be followed up with more sequels in the wake of the MCU and Star Wars dominance. Regardless, the film made a lot of sense from a 3D standpoint, given the premise involving a human getting sucked into “The Grid.” Relying on state-of-the-art 3D cameras of the time, these IMAX-enhanced sequences let the film really blow up the world originally seen in the 1982 cult favorite. While the early use of de-aging effects to represent a young Jeff Bridges have not aged all that well, watching lightcycle battles and other action sequences found in The Grid made for a colorful, inventively designed sci-fi Disney adventure. And who better to score it than Daft Punk?
17. Final Destination 5 (2011)
I had a lot of films to consider for this list, and several of them did fall into the horror genre. There was only one I knew fit for this list, and it wasn’t Paranormal: Activity: The Ghost Dimension. The bonus factor of choosing Final Destination 5 is how it’s not only a horror movie making great use of filming in 3D, but it’s also arguably the best of the franchise, or at least right there at the top with the first film (and I’m aware FD2 has its share of fans as well). Really, this was the perfect franchise to lean into the use of 3D, thanks to the over-the-top death setups working to raise the level of tension throughout and deliver on elaborate and gory kills, courtesy of the grim reaper.
16. Gemini Man (2019)
The most recent of a few experimental Ang Lee films. Gemini Man trades off a better-constructed narrative in favor of pushing the technology to the limits. In addition to the 3D component, Lee utilizes the high frame-rate of 120 FPS, as well as a completely CG recreation of a young Will Smith. While the film ultimately leaves more to be desired in how it all comes together, the presentation is quite impressive. Thanks to the addition of the high frame-rate, having an action film in 3D, with Lee’s talents as a director, means having long, fluid shots delivering on the excitement of what it would be like to go through a motorcycle chase. Another sequence involves being underwater, which further shows what one can do with all of these resources. I can only hope Lee finds a better story to pull this all off with in the future.
15. Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
Of course, it makes sense that a film featuring James Cameron as a writer/producer would be successful in the 3D department. Robert Rodriguez is no stranger to the format either, having made Spy Kids 3D before Avatar was out, let alone following up Sin City with a 3D sequel. Between the two of them, a high-octane manga adaptation was always going to look great. Say what you will about the screenplay (which I think does its job), but the film has a lot of highlights involving Salazar’s Alita, which includes the presentation of motorball, a one-on-one fight sequence with stunning finishing moves, and a flashback to a moon war.
14. The Great Gatsby (2013)
Given how big director Baz Luhrmann likes to go with the presentation of his films, it was only a matter of time before he would make a 3D feature. Whatever better film to apply it to than The Great Gatsby, a film with a central character who puts a great deal of effort into showing off his extravagant lifestyle. I may have my issues with the original Fitzgerald story, but it’s easy to acknowledge the tremendous amount of effort that went into establishing the heightened, colorful style of this film, featuring full immersion thanks to the added 3D element to further bring an audience into Gatsby’s world.
13. Despicable Me 2 (2013)
I have not been the biggest fan of the Illumination brand of animated films. However, something that’s continually impressed me about the Despicable Me franchise is its sense of scale. Despicable Me 2 stands out in particular, as it really knows how to find a way of taking the sort of Looney Tunes energy it has and maximizing it. As a result, you have scenes involving huge rockets and other gadgets, let alone monstrous minion mutations. All of this plays well as far as delivering an animated 3D feature that can best communicate the enormity of certain scenes in its own humorous and colorful way.
12. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
I’m finding it a little funny to have so many films that make the 3D format work, despite major issues I have with the films. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is no different. Many of the things I said about Gemini Man still apply to this Ang Lee film as well. That said, the difference comes in the narrative and thematic importance of the presentation. With the intent to present the perspective of a soldier going through a profound change after experiencing war first hand, there’s a cerebral component allowing for the hyperreal presentation to make a lot of sense. The flashbacks to actual combat only help in maintaining a certain level of atmosphere that really makes me wish the overall story was better.
11. The Walk (2015)
While the terrific documentary Man on Wire made this 3D effort from Robert Zemeckis mostly pointless, I can’t deny the astounding experience I had watching this film in IMAX 3D, the way it was intended to be seen. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to see this film outside of that presentation, but hey, that doesn’t take away from what works. If you can get over Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s absurd French accent, watching the film eventually arrive at the big walk between the Twin Towers has the level of suspense and excitement anyone would crave in a film reliant on elaborate special effects to recreate this true event.
Bonus Entry: A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2019)
Bi Gan’s terrific Chinese drama focuses on a look back at a life that continues to haunt a man returning to his hometown. Its most notable element is the film’s second half, which features an unbroken 59-minute long take shot in 3D. Not hurting is the strength of the film as a whole, with strong lead performances, and a delicate handle of the deliberately-paced story the film is telling. All that goes a long way in justifying a very stylistic choice in how to chronicle a nighttime odyssey the lead character takes.
10. Life of Pi (2012)
We’ve finally come to Ang Lee’s best effort in the world of 3D. Life of Pi is a beautiful film about faith, survival, and other concepts. The inventive use of the format found a way to represent the ideas presented in the book, as well as deliver unique visuals speaking to the film format in a way reading words on the page can’t. Thanks to the storytelling nature of the movie’s structure, Life of Pi has a way of inviting the audience into its world to present a fantastical scenario involving a young man, lost at sea, and interacting with various creatures. The tremendous work by Rhythm & Hues Studios did plenty to make the visual effects register as strongly as they do, with some great ways to play with depth as well.
9. Doctor Strange (2016)
The world-bending nature of the action scenes featured in Doctor Strange called to mind Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which is not a bad film to stand against by any measure. That in mind, what makes a fairly average MCU entry all the more impressive is how it manages to stage its impressive action sequences on a large canvass that involves bending reality around our main characters. From the initial trip the Ancient One sends Strange on to the big New York chase sequence, there’s a lot of great ways the Oscar-nominated visual effects work to really deliver on the unique nature of Dr. Strange and co.’s abilities. The 3D feels like a real benefit in this regard, as it only adds to the trippy nature of what is being witnessed, feeling more essential than normal for one of these films. Bring on the Multiverse of Madness.
8. Step-Up 3D (2010)
The best entry of the Step Up franchise (which is mostly quite enjoyable overall) struck while the iron was hot in its use of 3D. Director Jon M. Chu is a proven talent when it comes to his staging of elaborately choreographed sequences, and his dance scene filmmaking is a great asset for this series. The numerous dance-focused set pieces make good use of depth thanks to the 3D format, with one sequence reliant on an extended long take that’s especially memorable.
7. Dredd (2012)
It’s a true shame Dredd did not take off with audiences. The film is a terrific representation of the 2000 AD comic and was oozing with style. While the film’s story certainly called to mind The Raid, Dredd managed to head down its own path thanks to the heavily stylized sequences involving the use of a futuristic drug. Filming with Phantom cameras, the super Slo-Mo sequences are incredible to watch thanks to a combination of the actors, colors, and the nature of what’s taking place (one final death is particularly magnificent). It’s a perfect justification for the 3D format, along with the use of the massive apartment high rise as a way to enclose the characters, pulling you into their situation.
6. Pina (2011)
While a few Step Up films did a fine job relying on 3D to emphasize the choreography, leave it to Wim Wenders to trump all of those films with his dazzling 3D documentary covering (the now deceased) contemporary dance choreographer Pina Bausch. Thanks to the presentation of a series of extracts from notable dance pieces, Wenders gets very creative with how to put these routines on display. He lets the camera really play with the positions these characters place themselves in, with the 3D adding to the exact positions they occupy. It allows for various reveals that are achieved thanks to the depth the added dimension creates.
5. How To Train Your Dragon (2010)
One of the great feelings that Avatar was able to deliver to audiences was that they were flying on those winged creatures. How to Train Your Dragon practically matches that feeling, which is why the film soars high in 3D. The first adventure with Hiccup and Toothless was a sleeper success thanks to the unexpected quality of the story, and it was only made better by the quality of animation and real effort to present dragons as magnificent creatures gliding through the skies above. The result is a thrilling journey teaching audience how to experience what’s it’s like to be on the back of a dragon, ascending high into the air, let alone engaging in thrilling dogfights with bigger dragons, all while John Powell’s terrific score plays.
4. Gravity (2013)
Gravity gave audiences cinema at its finest. A drama set just outside of earth’s atmosphere, relying on spectacular visual effects and a wild sense of momentum. It all keeps the pulse pounding while watching Sandra Bullock’s astronaut character do all she can to survive the unforgiving nothingness that is space. Director Alfonso Cuaron’s efforts to make this film a reality for audiences to experience is a true accomplishment that does a fantastic job of letting the 3D further pull in audiences. The way the camera constantly floats around Bullock’s character, keeping us alert to the disasters unfolding and the intense nature of the situation means being constantly pulled in by all the elaborate work to make every moment as immersive as possible.
3. Jackass 3D (2010)
Winning an Oscar for directing a massive sci-fi blockbuster was nothing compared to what Johnny Knoxville and the boys pulled off for Jackass 3D. I would not have expected much to come from what was being viewed as a gimmick. And yet, these films (an extension of the TV show, respectively) work as a strange sort of performance art that’s somehow enhanced by the 3D format. It has to be the effort to blend the occasionally violent goofing around with some artful ideas, such as the recreation of album covers in the designs of some of these stunts, messing with Phantom cameras to capture these antics at 1,000 frames per second. Even the use of the “1812 Overture” to help close out the film, while seeing a series of explosions go off, is presented in a manner that feels wonderfully captured by the 3D equipment being worked with. They may be a bunch of jackasses, but they had a vision.
2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
I’ve talked a lot about immersion throughout this article, and here’s a film where the term really applies. Werner Herzog’s awe-inspiring documentary relied on custom-built 3D cameras to capture footage from inside ancient caves, featuring the oldest human-painted images that have been discovered. Relying on precise techniques, Herzog was able to capture what he believed was the intentions of the painters. With the added dimension, the documentary can present the contours on the walls of the caves, really adding to the spectacle that is seeing sights few have been able to look at in reality. Given Herzog’s considerable skills as a director, it is no surprise to have such an incredible feature put together and make the best of a format I could only imagine the filmmaker describing in an eloquent soliloquy relating 3D to death.
1. Hugo (2011)
It’s still fascinating for me to think about Martin Scorsese looking at the rise of 3D and saying to himself that it’s something he’d love to experiment with. Leave it to the Oscar-winner to find a way to not only utilize the format in the best of ways but also involve it in a story where the 3D actually enhances the narrative. Thanks to the effort in making a film celebrating the beginnings of cinema, and spotlighting film pioneer Georges Melies, it’s truly brilliant to see a film depicting the earliest days of special effects by utilizing the latest and greatest effects. Involving the old footage of the train approaching a camera that actually scared audiences in the theater, only to feature the same event in the reality of the film (in a dream sequence), only further shows what kind of great fun Scorsese has in working this way, with a lively and colorful film built around these visually compelling elements.