Picking 11 of my favorite looking black and white films was extremely difficult; picking 11 in color was damn near impossible. A lot was left off, so, again, let me know your favorites in the comments section. Here goes.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Dir. by Stanley Kubrick – Shot by Geoffrey Unsworth
Really, I cannot watch the film – with all its tricks and feats and majestic movements – without getting tears in my eyes and chills in my spine. Sure, I could spend a few hours researching how Kubrick and Unsworth used simple gravity to achieve what they did, but honestly, I’m better left wondering.
Aside from its movements, 2001, much like the films of Terrence Malick, tells its story with images. Take, for instance, the extended, dialogue-free sequence of Keir Dullea traveling to Jupiter, or the way in which it is revealed that HAL understands the plot against him. I could talk for hours, days, weeks about the visual wonderment of 2001, but just know: science fiction is my least favorite film genre, so for a sci-fi film to break my Top 5 of all time (as 2001 does), there must be something damn special about it.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Dir. by Ingmar Bergman – Shot by Sven Nykvist
In his memoir, Images, Bergman has said that the idea of this film came from the image of a room bathed in dark red. He spent years developing that image and writing a script based around it. The result is this brutal, horrifying, visually stunning masterpiece. There’s so much going on in Cries and Whispers, and Bergman’s plaguing image, coupled with Nykvist’s cold execution, are essential components to its greatness.
The Godfather (1972)
Dir. by Francis Ford Coppola – Shot by Gordon Willis
Somehow, they were dissuaded, which left Willis to shoot the picture how he saw fit, which is, of course, flawlessly. Don’t get me wrong, Willis could shoot in full light, too. Just look at the gorgeous Italian sequences, or the harsh grittiness of the restaurant shootout.
But honestly, Willis is referred to The Prince of Darkness for a reason. Critics have been known to bulk at the fact that in more than a few scenes, Brando’s eyes are completely blackened out due to shadows and lighting. Willis said he did this deliberately so that it made Don Corleone more mysterious, and the audience was never be fully aware of what he is thinking. Job well done.
Days of Heaven (1978)
Dir. by Terrence Malick – Shot by Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler
The opening scene, in all honesty, is nothing too special. But soon after Richard Gere and his family board a train, we cut to a wide shot of the train crossing a long bridge, and are utterly spellbound by its aesthetic. The scene is so breathtaking that it corrects your posture and drops your jaw, two acts that are repeated numerous times while watching the film. It never ceases to visually amaze.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. by Francis Ford Coppola – Shot by Vittorio Storaro
Take the film’s most iconic image: Lt. Col. Kilgore rides high with his platoon in a helicopter, and after a few moments, he begins playing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The music builds and builds and builds as the soldiers on the various helicopters prepare to engage. We cut to the quiet, unaware Vietnam village, and when we cut back to the air, Coppola cuts to a series of wide shots of the choppers nearing the village. One angle, then another, then another. And then we see it. All of the helicopters, framed up perfectly against the blue sky and the crashing ocean. It’s one of the finest shots in one of the most memorable scenes in film history. It’s a shot that solely justifies the film’s inclusion on this list.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Dir. by Terrence Malick – Shot by John Toll
To this day, detractors still lament that The Thin Red Line is a boring, sappy mess, and a shitty war film at that. I understand their criticism, but I have no use for it. The film is a visual poem that encapsulates the true horror of war more effectively than I’ve ever seen. How, by showing blood being sprayed over lush, green grass? By watching a soldier gently pour water onto a giant leaf? Yes, exactly.
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh – Shot by Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews)
There’s the obvious, deliberate use of tones to separate the three stories, sure. But beyond that, Traffic isn’t afraid to do whatever the fuck it wants, which, in this very rare case, produces wholly effective results. Why did Soderbergh shoot the helicopter landing upside down? Because he thought it’d work, and he was right. Why did he shoot the entire picture handheld and purposefully make it grainy? Because he wanted to make the film look and feel real, which it does.
Traffic is my favorite movie of the 2000s for many reasons. It speaks to me on a number of levels, both humanly and as an artist. It was the first film that, after my initial viewing, I wondered aloud if “I could do that.” Who knows, but I’ve been trying ever since.
Dir. by Jean-Pierre Jeunet – Shot by Bruno Delbonnel
That scene is one of the most thoughtful moments ever captured on film. It’s lovely in its selflessness, and glorious in its imagery.
Russian Ark (2002)
Dir. by Alexander Sokurov – Shot by Tilman Büttner
The film is 96 minutes long, the entirety of which is captured in one ingeniously extended shot. As the camera walks through the Russian State Hermitage Museum, we, the viewer, are privy to Russian history in a way no one has ever seen. Open one door in the museum, and we’re looking at Peter the Great screaming at one of his men, open the next door, and there’s a kid with a backpack staring at a painting. Every door opens wide into a different era of history. Hundreds of extras, and two orchestras, are implored, people dance, run, and scream, all to visual astonishment. Russian Ark is necessary viewing for anyone who gets moderate enjoyment from the cinematic medium.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson – Shot by Robert Elswit
Also note Elswit’s penchant for lighting dark areas so tellingly, such as when Plainview chips away at the interior of a massive hole he’s dug, or H.W. prepares to light his cabin on fire. There’s a mystery there, an attention to detail that most filmmakers don’t even bother with. Hell, anyone who can make a goddamn bowling alley look as exceptional as it does here surely deserves an Oscar.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Dir. by Terrence Malick – Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki
The Tree of Life is poetry represented visually. Every shot has thought, purpose, and more depth than most any five films combined. I know Malick is always credited as the writer and director of his films, but director and visualist feels more appropriate. I could, quite literally, take a still frame from any moment in the film, and write an extended essay about its beauty, and what it specifically means contextually to the film. But instead, I want to draw attention to one shot in particular that consistently moves me to the extent of which words cannot explain. As young Jack grows from an infant to a toddler, there’s a brief shot of him running playfully through the dining room after his mother. The shot lasts two seconds, but it’s something that will live with me forever.