10 great modern black-and-white films

Black and white is the new colour in cinemas this year, with Frances Ha, A Field in England and Much Ado about Nothing all joining the trend. But black-and-white films have never really gone away – here are 10 monochrome masterpieces of the past 20 years.

25 July 2013

By Sam Wigley

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha’s UK cinema release was supported by the BFI Distribution Fund.

Look around at the current crop of independent releases and everything’s in black and white. Ben Wheatley transported us back to the time of English civil war in painterly monochrome in A Field in England; Joss Whedon updated Much Ado about Nothing to a Southern California setting, tying Shakespeare to the Hollywood screwball tradition of the 1930s by filming in black and white; while Pablo Berger’s black-and-white Blancanieves is a Spanish neo-silent-melodrama version of the Snow White story.

Frances Ha, the new film by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), is the latest to ditch colour, channelling the free-and-loose spontaneity of the French New Wave for its story of a directionless 27-year-old dancer (played by Greta Gerwig) living in New York.

French New Wave. Silent melodrama. Screwball comedy. Can the sudden surge of black-and-white filmmaking be down merely to an attempt to relive the glories of the cinematic past?

Though the first full three-colour Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp, arrived in 1935, it took several decades before colour completely overtook black and white in numbers, with colour initially being reserved for expensive prestige films, or westerns and musicals that were seen to benefit from the lustrous new technology.

When Billy Wilder’s The Apartment won the 1960 Oscar for best picture, no-one thought twice about it being in black and white. Even in the early 1960s, it was still often a case of either/or. But only two black-and-white films have ever won best picture since then: Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and Michel Hazanavicius’s jubilant tribute to silent filmmaking, The Artist (2011). Sometime during the 1960s, black and white began to be associated with either artiness or cheapness.

Still, there has been a steady stream of truly great black-and-white movies since then. The tap is currently running on full, but there’s never less than a trickle. Presented below are 10 of the very best from the past 20 years, in the time since Schindler’s List broke the best-picture monochrome moratorium in 1994.

Ed Wood (1994)

Director: Tim Burton

Ed Wood (1994)

Tim Burton made his first cinematic steps in black and white, with his two ghoulish stop-motion animated shorts Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984). By 1994, with the blockbuster successes of Batman (1989) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) behind him, he had enough commercial clout to embark on a feature-length monochrome production, a biopic of the bargain-basement exploitation filmmaker behind such infamous productions as Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956): Edward D. Wood Jr.

With a manic glint in his eye, Johnny Depp stars as the cross-dressing auteur, while Martin Landau plays Bela Lugosi, the washed-up horror star who finds a new home in Wood’s schlocky rubber-monstered fantasies. Burton returned to black and white for a full-length version of Frankenweenie in 2012, surely the world’s first monochrome 3D stop-motion animated film.

La Haine (1995)

Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

La Haine (1995)
La Haine (1995)

French cinema of the 1980s and early 90s was defined by the extravagantly coloured, hyper-stylised and visually slick films of directors like Luc Besson and Léos Carax – originators of the so-called Cinéma du look.

A bolt from the blue, Mathieu Kassovitz’s urban drama La Haine (literally, ‘Hate’) arrived in 1995, its sit-up-and-listen force amplified by its story of disaffected youth in the suburbs of Paris being filmed in steely monochrome. Inspired by a real-life case of police brutality, it introduced Vincent Cassel to the world, playing one of three rage-filled twentysomethings living in a multi-ethnic housing project. A corrective to the bourgeois, glamour-filled vision of life in the City of Light so commonly depicted in the cinema, Kassovitz’s searing youth film is a compelling slice of life. It dares to counter the image of ‘la vie en rose’ with a confrontational portrait of a society characterised by violence and racial segregation.

Pleasantville (1998)

Director: Gary Ross

Pleasantville (1998)

This delightful comic fable begins in full colour in 1998, when an introverted, TV-watching teen, David (Tobey Maguire), and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are magically transported into reruns of a 1950s black-and-white sitcom called ‘Pleasantville’. Everything seems just so in this cookie-cutter small town, where family values rule, nothing ruffles the primped surface, and the firemen are mainly employed scaling trees to rescue little kittens.

Like time-travelling classic Back to the Future (1985), Gary Ross’s film plays on nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the 1950s, but cleverly subverts this backward-looking impulse by showing how this world of conservatism and small-mindedness is transformed by its visitors from the future. As David and Jennifer’s modernising influence is felt in the community, Pleasantville gradually introduces splashes of colour into its monochrome palette, a wonderfully cinematic ploy to prove that – where some things are concerned – time is never best standing still.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Director: Béla Tarr

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

From Damnation (1988) via the seven-hour Sátántangó (1994) to his most recent film, The Turin Horse (2011), black and white has always been essential to the mood in the unique, apocalyptic universe of Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr.

Starting with an impromptu barroom demonstration of the movement of celestial bodies (one of the all-time great movie openings), this deeply mysterious film hinges on the events occurring in a remote community after a circus of attractions brings the body of a whale into town. Composed in Tarr’s trademark, hypnotically slow-moving tracking shots, Werckmeister Harmonies is a bleak yet bewitchingly atmospheric vision of life at the end of its tether, such as no one else but Tarr could have made. Coming after Pleasantville on this list, it’s fun to imagine what teens David and Jennifer would have made of this languorous world of anomie and dread, had their TV transported them instead to this bitterly cold outpost on the Hungarian plains.

The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

Director: Guy Maddin

The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

Guy Maddin is another modern director who’s made the majority of his films in black and white, all the better to replicate the flickering, shadowy world of the silent films and monochrome melodramas he loves so much. This 2003 film is set in wintry Winnipeg (Maddin’s hometown) at the end of the Prohibition, when beer-brewing baroness Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) announces a contest to find the saddest music in the world, which finds chanteuses and musical troupes from around the world competing in a kind of world cup of musical woe. The prize? 25,000 “Depression-era dollars”.

Filtered through a nostalgia for a bygone era of filmmaking, the scratchy, antiqued visuals induce a heady, narcotic dream-vision of this eccentric outpost of humanity, essentially as morose as Tarr’s in Werckmeister Harmonies, but madcap and frenetic where the Hungarian’s is flinty and solemn.

Mutual Appreciation (2005)

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Mutual Appreciation (2005)

Where chess is concerned, who needs any colours but black and white? Director Andrew Bujalski shot his latest film – Computer Chess, the story of a 1980s chess contest between man and machine – on vintage analogue cameras, revelling in their grainy, retro aesthetic. But he’s no stranger to monochrome, following his 2002 debut Funny Ha Ha with this lo-fi story about the knotty lives of young New Yorkers.

Typical for films given the ‘mumblecore’ tag, the dialogue in Mutual Appreciation stops, starts, falters and fumbles, its nervy young metropolitan protagonists stammering their way to expressing their thoughts. In both sound and image, however, Bujalski’s film is even more rough and ready than those of his contemporaries, harking back to the John Cassavetes of Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968) with its high-contrast, handheld 16mm filming. The story rambles on with much of the same lack of direction shared by its characters; instead Bujalski lets their foibles and feelings do the talking.

Control (2007)

Director: Anton Corbijn

Control (2007)

When you listen to the stark, desolate music of Joy Division it seems to be in portentous black and white, so it was apposite that, when he turned to a biopic of tragic frontman Ian Curtis for his directorial debut, photographer Anton Corbijn (who shot the band during his early career) would choose high-contrast monochrome – the better to capture the band’s post-punk shows in all their smoke-filled, strobe-lit intensity.

Starring Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his beleaguered wife Deborah (who co-wrote the screenplay based on her memoir Touching from a Distance), it charts the band’s rise to prominence in late 1970s Manchester, followed by Curtis’s increasingly fractious mental health and eventual suicide. Done with an unerring eye for period detail, it makes for blistering drama in which the visuals’ dynamic power and the pitch-perfect performances help to counter the underlying sadness. As critic Peter Bradshaw remarked in The Guardian: “Control is a film about England, about music, about loneliness and love; there is melancholy in it, but also a roar of energy. I thought it might depress me. Instead I left the cinema walking on air.”

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007)

Director: Alex Holdridge

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007)

Alex Holdridge won the 2008 Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for his charming feature debut about a down-on-his-luck 29-year-old, Wilson (Scoot McNairy), relocating to Los Angeles, only to find himself lonely and penniless as the celebrations of New Year’s Eve approach. Persuaded to post a personal ad, he encounters kooky Vivian (Sara Simmonds) and the pair stroll the city getting to know each other as the year plays out its last hours.

Reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), it’s a talky, mumblecore romance that succeeds cinematically because of its glorious two-tone images of downtown LA. Though the City of Angels isn’t famous for its walkers, the couple’s street-level perambulations give Holdridge excuse to conduct a black-and-white love-letter to the gleam of the metropolis at night, mapping the lights, signs, marquees, amusement parks and rundown theatres that other films forget. Full of the offbeat quirks typical of current US indie cinema, Holdridge’s film nonetheless becomes unexpectedly affecting as this long night of two souls passes gently into the dawn. 

The White Ribbon (2009)

Director: Michael Haneke

The White Ribbon (2009)

Period drama made with a scalpel, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’or-winning masterpiece is a subtly creepy lifting of the rock on an ostensibly peaceful Protestant village in rural Germany in the years before World War I. Beneath the calm surface, unexplained accidents are occurring to children, as if some of kind of organised punishment is being meted out to the community. But by whom? And what for?

Haneke’s film offers no easy answers; instead, returning to his favourite themes of repression, guilt and denial, he mounts a claustrophobic sense of anxiety and insidious morality that draws a whole society into its whirlpool of culpability. Haneke’s regular cinematographer, Christian Berger, matches the Austrian auteur’s exacting gaze with crisp, gin-clear monochrome visuals.

Tabu (2012)

Director: Miguel Gomes

Tabu (2012)

Just as The Artist returned us to the age of silent filmmaking with its loving tribute to the coming of sound in Hollywood, Miguel Gomes’s one-of-a-kind fantasia Tabu riffs on F.W. Murnau’s late-silent-era tropical island romance Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) for a story of unrequited love in colonial Africa.

Filmed in black and white throughout, it begins in full sound in contemporary Lisbon, where Aurora, a glamorous octogenarian who knows she is dying, asks her neighbour to look up an old acquaintance from her time in Africa. In flashback, we are then told the tale of Aurora’s illicit love for an explorer at her farm at the foot of Mount Tabu. For this second half of the film, Gomes mimics the wordless drama of silent cinema, but includes the ambient sounds of the savannah, creating an original and utterly beguiling texture for his melancholic, hilarious and resolutely offbeat saga of past lives in the bush.

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