The 1990s were a decade of money, mega-spending and special effects, but it was also the time for different approaches opposing to this paradigm. The digital revolution led to experimentation in digital-video films and imagery, aided by famous actors and a boost in eccentricity.
Some filmmakers, such as the ones on this list, were an exception to the rule when coming up with such projects. They looked for shelter in more traditional filmmaking tools and methods, sometimes as true artistic homages to classic monochrome cinema, and other times for low-budget reasons only.
Either way, they stood out for both their style and storytelling, for their simplicity and ultimate prowess. Here are the most notable efforts on this unfortunately limited category to the general public.
Particularly, these films weren’t necessarily as lucrative as other long features from the same decade that included scenes, shots or characters that actually had some color – see “Schindler’s List” (1993) or “American History X” (1998). This list pays only attention to films fully in black and white.
Note: these films are not ranked in any particular order, as all of them offer unique qualities when using B&W.
1. The Institute Benjamenta (Stephen Quay & Timothy Quay, 1995)
“Institute Benjamenta” can be described as a Kafkaesque fairy tale with a surreal sense of humor. The title refers to the imaginary academy that is the setting to the Quay Brothers’ first live-action film, a training ground for butlers placed in a forest in central Europe. Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance), aspiring butler, enrolls to learn “the divine duty of servants” along with very few other students.
The rituals installed by the school’s founder Herr Benjamenta (Gottfried John), and his sister, Lisa (Alice Krige), involve the firm belief that none of the characters will amount to anything in life, and instead will live as true subordinates.
The visuals are poetic, and the story relies on them to really bring out a mood, carrying a resemblance to expressionism. Although the story might seem weak, the cinematography is exquisitely powerful when it comes to a symbolic and metaphoric sense. The mystery brought in black and white adds tension and keeps the viewer intrigued, though being more suitable for the artistically-inclined.
2. The Girl on the Bridge (Patrice Leconte, 1999)
In this case, black and white strives to underline the beauty of places such as Paris, Athens, Istanbul and Monaco, resembling a collage of foreign cinema-sets from famous directors like Godard, Truffaut and Fellini.
It’s not by accident, either, that the film has this new wave romantic feel: shooting in monochrome was the perfect way to bring out the story of Adele (Vanessa Paris), a young woman on the brink of suicide. She meets Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), a philosophical man who approaches her by saving her life and persuading her to follow him in his knife-throwing business. Together, they conquer European casinos and cabarets.
The film states that these free-spirits, this kind of melancholic, unsuitable love, belongs in the past – it’s nearly outrageous, even, when aiming to portray knife-throwing as more sensual than sex. The continuously gorgeous shots and framing certainly complement the splendor of great storytelling, and it’s perfectly evident here.
3. Pi (Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
In his directorial debut, Aronofsky wrote and presented the story of Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), who believes that mathematics can be found anywhere, being the ultimate language of the universe.
Max, who lives alone and lacks no real social skills, spends his day locked in a fully equipped room, programming and looking for patterns in everything. He believes he can find the key to God, the weather, the future, baseball scores and, obviously, the stock market. The plot revolves around his genius and, therefore, his madness.
The rough black and white joins what can only be called an excellent camerawork, and the editing is brilliantly maneuvred in making everything tie together effortlessly. The fact that this was the director’s first feature film may have influenced his use of b&w for finance reasons, but the high-contrast was a big help in making it exactly as grim as it is.
4. A Midwinter’s Tale (Kenneth Branagh, 1995)
It is well known that Branagh understands and loves Shakespeare seemingly more than any current filmmaker, but that is best represented in this particular film. As a comedy piece, it’s brilliant, and it’s well represented as a mild melodrama, too.
Following the failure of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), one could argue his ability as a director, but he finds solid ground when portraying England in a low-budget, Shakespeare-inspired production. It’s a story about characters, and the true love for performance as opposed to a paycheck.
Filled with contrasting images and shadows, this black and white feature is a stylistic accomplishment in all kinds, putting to best use the memory of British comedies from the 1950s.
5. Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994)
On a tight budget for his debut, Smith resorted to black and white – cameras were cheaper than color cameras – and it really didn’t have any artistic purpose at all. Also good for a limited budget: 16mm film with natural light only, and shot at the store where Smith worked in New Jersey. The result is a cult film to an entire generation of slack-offs who hated their job but don’t know what else to do with their lives.
“Clerks” follows a day on the job of hero Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), a clerk in a convenience store, and Randal (Jeff Anderson), his friend from the video store next door. Smith, who plays a minor character as drug-dealer Silent Bob, shot the entire movie in and around the convenience store but managed to keep it fresh in terms of set-ups, showing great invention in smaller aspects.
The simplicity of film, which may be harder to watch for some for its extensive dialogues, culminated in a great partnership with its ingenuous use of black and white.