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The Essential Black-and-White Movies of the 21st Century

Unsettling horror movies. Kinky noirs. A Joy Division biopic. Who says you need color to make a great film?

At the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, director Martha Stephens premiered To the Stars, a delicate character piece about two teenagers (Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato) who form a friendship that might lead to something more. I thought it was really lovely, and I was also quite taken by its black-and-white look, which emphasized the isolation and melancholy of its 1960s Oklahoma setting. 

Well, the film is finally getting a digital release at the end of this month… but something about it is noticeably different.

Yep, this black-and-white drama is now a color film. What happened? It’s unclear, but apparently the distributor (Samuel Goldwyn) decided it would have a better chance finding an audience if the movie weren’t quite so monochromatic.

This sort of weird switcheroo happens very rarely considering that the vast majority of films are shot and then released in color. If a movie is in black-and-white in 2020, there can be resistance from some viewers, who will assume it must be “arty” or “pretentious.” Added to that is another moronic stigma surrounding black-and-white, which is that it’s something you only see in “old” movies. These cultural biases remain so pervasive, in fact, that directors sometimes have to prepare a color version of their black-and-white movie for contractual reasons.

A famous example was Alexander Payne’s Oscar-nominated Nebraska, which everyone saw in black-and-white — except when it premiered on Epix, which boasted that it would be broadcasting the color version. This wasn’t Payne’s preference: He explained that, to satisfy the producers, he had to contend with “television deals around the world which stipulate, ‘only color.’” Oftentimes, foreign television channels will insist on showing all movies in color. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean that filmmakers have to retroactively “colorize” their movies, like in the bad old days when Ted Turner turned black-and-white classics into garish color films. Nowadays, because movies are shot digitally, a color version exists automatically.

Yet there’s something undeniably evocative, even cool, about a black-and-white film. As accustomed as we are to movies in dazzling color, a monochrome film automatically catches your eye because of the novelty. It can also add an automatic air of stylishness or grit — so much so that, in recent years, smash films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Logan and Parasite have all been rereleased in black-and-white versions. As director Bong Joon-ho said when asked why he decided to strip away the color from his alternate Parasite, “I think it may be vanity on my part, but when I think of the classics, they’re all in black and white.” 

In this century, there have been plenty of notable black-and-white movies that demonstrate the power of eschewing color. (And don’t forget that one, The Artist, even won Best Picture.) So I decided to pick 10 standouts — not necessarily the best, but the ones that illustrate the wide range of possibilities for black-and-white photography. From horror movies to noirs to animated films, a monochrome visual palette can be utterly beguiling. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine these movies looking any other way.

One quick caveat: I only selected films that you could rent through a major service (Amazon, iTunes and/or YouTube), which meant having to exclude two outstanding entries: the Oscar-winning Roma (only available for Netflix subscribers) and the bittersweet romantic drama Cold War (only available for Amazon Prime subscribers). But that gave me room to feature a couple under-the-radar choices that tend not to show up in these lists. Soak in the beautiful images.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

What’s It About? A stoic barber (Billy Bob Thornton) decides to blackmail his wife’s boss (and clandestine lover), but his scheme doesn’t quite go as planned. 

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? This underrated Coen Brothers gem is very much indebted to noir. (Thornton’s character narrates the story like a hardboiled 1930s detective.) And so it makes sense that their longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins would drape The Man Who Wasn’t There in black and white — especially since the film is set around 1950, when many movies still weren’t using color photography. But beyond being period- (and genre-) specific, the choice adds a level of poignancy to this story of a man so withdrawn that he can’t really feel anything — only a dull ache where his emotions ought to be. It’s fitting that this barber walks around in a world of black and white — the color seems to be (literally) drained from his life. 

Sin City (2005)

What’s It About? The sordid denizens of Sin City lie, cheat, steal and kill, all while trying to stay alive themselves. 

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? Drawn from the graphic novels of Frank Miller, who co-directed the film with Robert Rodriguez, Sin City very much aspired to be a comic book brought to life — not like a Marvel movie but, rather, incorporating all the stylized production design and moody colors you see on the page. And that meant rendering the movie in black and white, which enhanced the story’s hyper-real quality. Most of the films on this list are low-budget indies or foreign-language titles, but Sin City is one of the rare studio-backed black-and-white movies. (Nebraska and Good Night, and Good Luck are two other examples from this century.) Color occasionally puts in an appearance in this violent, sexy crime saga, but those moments only highlight how striking the monochrome is.

Persepolis (2007)

What’s It About? During the Iranian Revolution, a young woman named Marjane comes of age.

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? Based on filmmaker Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical comics, Persepolis is an animated movie that’s probably better suited for adults and teenagers than young kids. (Marjane hooks up with guys and gets involved with drugs.) But beyond mirroring the layout of the original comics, the film’s monochrome design effectively creates the sense that what we’re seeing are memories from the older Marjane looking back at her adolescence. This is such a well-worn device, but it works: Black and white often signals that we’re looking at the past, in flashback. Persepolis is a memory piece, but it’s also a document of a turbulent time in Iran’s history — especially for women, who were repressed by the new regime after the Shah’s removal. Satrapi’s film feels like that history coming alive.

Control (2007)

What’s It About? In the mid-1970s, a sensitive young artist named Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) forms the post-punk band Joy Division.

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? The monochrome images capture the bleak power of Joy Division songs like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “She’s Lost Control,” but director Anton Corbijn (a longtime music photographer) wanted black and white because it’s how he remembered the U.K. group, which morphed into New Order after Curtis’ 1980 suicide.

“All my memories of that period and Joy Division in particular are black-and-white memories,” Corbijn once said. “If you go back to try to find official references, old photographs, of Joy Division, I would say without exception you’re going to find them to be in black and white. So combine that with their album sleeves being in black and white, the clothing being not very bright in the sense of colors, it just felt appropriate.” 

Indeed, Control’s visual scheme seems to reflect the dour worldview of its protagonist, who briefly was able to channel his pain into incredible music before taking his own life.

The White Ribbon (2009)

What’s It About? In the buildup to World War I, a quiet, rural German community is beset by disturbing occurrences — which all seem to be instigated by the children of the town.

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? This Palme d’Or-winning drama from Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke is, like many of his films, about the evil that exists all around us. But while the use of black and white might seem appropriate for the material’s starkness — without Haneke ever making it plain, we can surmise that the seemingly-angelic local kids are behind the story’s strange deaths and weird pranks — the filmmaker had another reason to avoid color photography.

“The use of black and white [creates] a distance from a false naturalism that suggests we know exactly what happened and we’re going to show it to you,” he once explained. And indeed, the device makes The White Ribbon feel less like history and more like an allegory for the rise of fascism in Germany in the early decades of the 20th century. We shouldn’t take this pseudo-horror story literally, but Haneke suggests that what happens in this community is, essentially, what happened in the buildup to the Third Reich.    

The Turin Horse (2011)

What’s It About? An elderly farmer (János Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bók) live a miserable existence out in the middle of nowhere. 

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? With a cheery plot description like that, who needs color? The Turin Horse is the final film from Hungarian director Béla Tarr, who made several black-and-white art-house classics before his retirement, including Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies. By his austere standards, The Turin Horse might be the most accessible, in part because it doubles as a metaphor for a post-apocalyptic dystopia, which has been very much in fashion this century at the movies. Color would have provided some small measure of hope — of humanity — to this story of a family trying to survive. Instead, we accept early on that no happy ending is waiting for these two — but you’ve never seen such forlorn characters so beautifully shot.

Frances Ha (2012)

What’s It About? Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a twentysomething woman looking for an apartment (and love) in New York. 

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? Directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written with Gerwig, Frances Ha captures everything that’s romantic and euphoric about living in the big city as a young person with your whole life in front of you. New York has always looked gorgeous, elegant and alive in black and white — think of Sweet Smell of Success or Manhattan — and Frances Ha works the same way, making the main character’s story almost like an urban fairytale as she segues from one mishap to the next.

But this coming-of-age comedy’s monochrome look also imbued the story with charming exuberance. “I wanted it to feel like a first film, quick and scaled down,” Baumbach said at the time. The black and white lends Frances Ha an air of unbridled amateurism — like Frances herself, you don’t know what the movie’s capable of.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

What’s It About? A vampire (Sheila Vand) walks the streets of Bad City, falling in love with Arash (Arash Marandi), a human who doesn’t know she’s a bloodsucker. 

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? Billed at the time as “the first Iranian vampire western,” A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a movie that’s drunk on its own atmospheric vibe. First-time writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour crafts a world that feels like it could be a dream or a nightmare, mashing up genres as it goes along. By avoiding color, Amirpour connects her vampire story to some of the greatest ever, like Nosferatu, but it also adds to the film’s generally otherworldly aura. As Elijah Wood, one of A Girl’s executive producers, put it, “It’s black and white, it’s in Farsi, it’s set in Iran, it’s a genre movie without really resting on its horror elements. But I think it’s literally all those things that made it really exciting for us.”

The Eyes of My Mother (2016)

What’s It About? Young Francisca (Olivia Bond) and her parents are visited by a strange salesman (Will Brill), who turns out to be a serial killer. Francisca takes him prisoner, and as an adult (Kika Magalhães), she has plans for him.

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? Horror just works better in black and white. (For one thing, the gore and blood somehow feel even more gruesome when there’s no color.) Writer-director Nicolas Pesce’s big-screen debut goes a long way on its air of mystery — we aren’t always sure exactly where The Eyes of My Mother is going — but when the shocks come, the black-and-white images make the terrors incredibly upsetting. (Warning: If you’re squeamish about body parts — like, I dunno, let’s say eyes — this may not be the movie for you.) The eerie blackness of the shadows in The Eyes of My Mother just wouldn’t be the same if they were in color.

The Lighthouse (2019)

What’s It About? In the 1880s on a remote New England island, two shut-in lighthouse keepers (Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe) battle mermaids, seagulls, horrific storms, cabin fever and each other.

Why’s It So Great in Black and White? If you want your movie to look ancient, black and white is one way to do it. When getting ready to make The Lighthouse, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jarin Blaschke knew they had to shoot on actual film — almost all movies are captured digitally these days — because it would help create the right feel for this maritime tale. 

“[It’s] what we photography nerds would call ‘micro-contrast,’” he said last year. “[The look] was never going to be a romantic black and white. It was more of a dusty, crusty, rusty, musty black and white.” And, truly, filmmaker Robert Eggers’ bizarre buddy comedy feels like it was found at the bottom of the ocean, buried in an old treasure chest. It’s an impressive achievement of making the past seem very present.

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