With the advent of new technologies, it’s perhaps expected that their predecessors will fade into disuse, but not so with black and white films. Despite the vast array of options available to filmmakers today, the monochrome look still holds appeal, with Korea’s Bong Joon-ho recently rereleasing his Oscar-winning film Parasite in black and white.
Making a black and white film these days is a very deliberate choice. The vast majority are filmed in colour then converted in post-production. This process is cheaper than using stock black and white film and it avoids some of the difficulties such film can throw up around image quality and lighting. This list is an introduction to just some of the modern black and white masterpieces made over the last two decades that you should know.
1. Cold War (2018, Pawel Pawlikowski)
Music is at the heart of this glorious love story set throughout Poland, Yugoslavia and France as two lovers part and reunite across time and borders.
Based loosely on the story of his own parents, Cold War features Mazowsze, a famous Polish folk ensemble established during Soviet times. Director Pawel Palikowski chose to shoot in black and white to bring to capture the ambience of Poland in the 1950s and 1960s, which he has described as “so grey”. The lack of colour also ensures all focus is firmly on the couples’ tumultuous and tender relationship, regardless of the time or place the two find each other in.
In 2018, Cold War was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film but lost out to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which was also made in black and white.
2. Nebraska (2013, Alexander Payne)
In Alexander Payne’s touching comedy drama, an elderly man (Bruce Dern) and his son (Will Forte) drive from Montana to Nebraska to collect a dubious million-dollar sweepstakes win. Along the way, they travel through the father’s hometown, spending time with extended family as the son tries to connect with his dad.
The naturalistic lighting used gives the film a washed-out look, complimenting the melancholy blandness of everyday life in the austere little towns and farms making up a Midwest that has clearly seen better days.
It combines with a laugh-out-loud script to create a film ripe with nostalgia, featuring career-best performances from the entire main cast. Dern and June Squibb – who plays his wife – both received Oscar nominations. It was a first for Squibb, then 84, who was thrust into the spotlight by the film after decades as a little-known character actor.
3. Blancanieves (2012, Pablo Berger)
High contrast and high drama abound in Pablo Berger’s retelling of Snow White. Blancanieves transports the fairy tale to 1920s Spain, where the daughter of a bullfighter comes under the care of her wicked stepmother after a series of misfortunes. She escapes an assassination attempt to find herself taken in by some “dwarves” who perform as travelling bullfighters. Before long, the girl is following her father’s footsteps into the bullring.
Here, Snow White is less the star of the show than those around her, particularly her “dwarves” and Maribel Verdú, who is seemingly having the time of her life in the role of the wicked stepmother. The silent film features uproarious flamenco music among its score and was almost a decade in the making. Its release was boosted by the success of Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist a year earlier.
4. Control (2007, Anton Corbijn)
Black and white was the natural choice when Anton Corbijn swapped his photographer’s camera for the director’s chair with his first feature. Having made his name snapping monochrome portraits of musicians like U2 and Nick Cave, Corbijn kept the subject and format familiar in his biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis.
The film was a passion project for Corbijn – a devout fan of the band who had photographed them in their early days. The director put up half of the project’s €4.5m budget himself. He chose to produce the film in black and white to better reflect the mood of Joy Division’s music. Unusually, Corbijn did not use recordings of the band in the film; instead the actors – some of whom had to learn how to play instruments beforehand – performed the songs on set.
5. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour)
Feminist. Vampire. Western. Yes, you read that right. Although it was shot in the United States, this moody story has the claim of being the first vampire film set in the Middle East. It follows a lonesome vampire (the titular ‘Girl’, play by Sheila Vand) and a man (Arash Marandi) struggling to find his place in Iran’s ‘Bad City’.
The film is shot in a high-contrast style reminiscent of comic books and there’s more than a whiff of the classic vampire flick Nosferatu about it. It is also notable for the playful subversion of the chador – a floor-length cloak worn by some Iranian women – into a vampiric cape. Ana Lily Amirpour plays with audience expectations even more by making The Girl the dangerous night time presence, stalking (or rather skateboarding) through the streets in the style of a spaghetti-western lone vigilante.