Films have been in color, in one way or another, since nearly the beginning of the medium. From meticulously hand-painted prints like in the films of Georges Méliès to additive color systems like Kinemacolor in the early 1900s, black and white has never been enough for filmmakers. Curiously, however, a significant number of films continue to be made in black and white — and not just low-budget or amateur ones, either. Some filmmakers use it for effect, an aesthetic choice that reflects a theme, or perhaps simply creates a certain mood or atmosphere. Whatever the reason, it’s a surefire way to make your movie stand out amid all the vivid color. Here are 8 modern black and white films (which I have arbitrarily decided to mean post-2000) that are made richer for it.
8) Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)
A movie about a man versus machine chess tournament in the 80s doesn’t sound thrilling, and I found it to be far less so than others. A.O. Scott called it “sneakily brilliant”, and Gabe Toro at The Playlist thought it was “often riotously funny”. We must have been watching different movies because the film is less clever than it thinks it is. That said, it would be hard to argue with the decision to film it with a vintage Portapak camera, a device that actually would have been used years before when the film is set. The novelty of it wears off, but it absolutely captures the film’s ambience and plays off of the technological anxiety (and excitement) of the film.
7) Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)
Despite being one of our most overrated contemporary directors (seriously, the only good thing to come out of The Descendants is Shailene Woodley), Nebraska was a quiet triumph for Payne. With his mind fading, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced he’s won a million dollars, and the subsequent mission of going to get it with his son and interacting with various family members and old friends (and enemies) is a compassionate if somewhat critical look at small town life, family and getting old. The landscape on hand is crucially important to the film (as the title would suggest) and the unobtrusive camerawork in black and white certainly helps to maintain the mood and feel of the film.
6) Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003)
Jarmusch is no stranger to black and white. Many of his most popular films were done in the format, from Stranger Than Paradise to Dead Man. With the connective tissue of coffee and cigarettes, this film is a series of eleven vignettes mostly centring around a conversation. This is one case where the choice to film in black and white has obvious ties to the themes of the film, in that the inherent contrast between black and white reflects the contrasts between the people in each vignette, who disagree (as black and white do) but mostly get along, anyway. It’s also simply part of Jarmusch’s regular aesthetic, and it’s one that always works wonders for his films (think, too, of the black and white images he’s able to capture in Stranger Than Paradise that get across the isolation of its locations).
5) The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2001)
The Coen brothers are so prolific and consistently successful that they have never been afraid to try something new or experiment – with style, content, collaborators, or otherwise. The decision to release The Man Who Wasn’t There in black and white is a small experiment in contrast, but it serves as an interesting case in how doing something as simple as taking the color out of your film can have a profound impact. The film was shot in color and transferred to black and white after, but combined with Roger Deakins’ restrained and traditional cinematography, the effect is really giving the feel of a 1940s/50s Hollywood noir.
4) Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)
Based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis is the stunning story of a girl growing up amidst the Iranian Revolution. A true coming of age tale, the film hoped the match the simple beauty of the graphic novel, and as such there was no other way it could’ve been made than in black and white. A straightforward case of faithfully evoking source material to avoid messing with something that already works.
3) Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2014)
Many of the films on this list are deceptively simple, mostly due to how they’re presented formally. Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida is one of the best examples of this, as it is full of long takes with perfect composition that don’t bring particular attention to themselves (as long takes so often do). The story of a rather devoted young nun (played by Agata Trzebuchowska, who will hopefully get big opportunities after this) trying to find out what happened to her family in the Holocaust, and discover new things about herself in the process, plays out suitably in black and white. As I said in my Letterboxd review of the film, nearly every shot here is “effing gorgeous”, thanks in large part to the sublime black and white compositions.
2) A Field in England (Ben Wheatley, 2013)
Wheatley is one of the most exciting rising directors, and A Field in England is fittingly ambitious and different. A historical drama about a group of Civil War deserters who meet an alchemist and descend into chaos (told you), it’s a disorienting mess of experimental style, horror and comedy. The fact that it’s also in black and white only adds to the madness, as it somehow seems right for such an absurd psychedelic fever dream to be seen not in color for once. The lovely pastoral compositions juxtapose nicely with the reckless insanity and violence, and all of these brilliant black and white images are thanks to Wheatley’s skilled longtime cinematographer, Laurie Rose.
1) Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)
This bittersweet film, Noah Baumbach’s best yet, is about aimlessness and being stuck. Perhaps fittingly, Baumbach chose to film in black and white, and the monochromatic feel immediately likens the film with Woody Allen’s work from decades past, most obviously Manhattan. It’s a comparison that makes sense, with both films using the black and white view of New York City (and Paris, in Frances’ case) to their advantage. It lends a visual poetry to the narrative, hitting its peak with Frances’ dancing to “Modern Love” in the street. As Frances skirts through life as a (mostly) charming woman in search of happiness and experiences, one realizes that the film would still be lovely in color, but here it’s something really special.