With Alexander Payne’s patient and oddly mystical new film, Nebraska, out this weekend, I thought it’d be fun to list my favorite contemporary films that were released entirely in black and white. Much of Nebraska’s minimalist charm is that it was captured through cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s stark lens. Here are a handful of other films that took risks by telling their tales in sharp monochrome.
The Mist (2007)
I mentioned the black and white version of Frank Darabont’s The Mist in my recent list of the best Stephen King film adaptations, but I’m mentioning it again for good reason. By releasing the film in black and white (as a special feature on two disc DVD/Blu-Ray), Darabont made a good film great. I really wish Darabont had the opportunity to release this version theatrically, but alas, it waits patiently to be discovered.
10. The Turin Horse (2011)
Béla Tarr makes complex, emotional films using very few editing cuts, sparse dialogue, and bleak black and white photography. The Turin Horse, as described by its maker, is about a man, a horse and the “heaviness of human existence.” It’s said to be Tarr’s last film, which is a damn shame. For those of us who appreciate Tarr’s work, The Turin Horse, in all its metaphorical, transcendental patience, is a film of great importance, helmed by a man who clearly still has something to say.
9. The Artist (2011)
The chief reason I appreciate this Best Picture-winning love letter to the silent era of cinema is because of its audacity. If you told me 10 years ago that a near-silent, black and white independent film would nab Best Picture in a few years time, I would’ve laughed you off. But Michel Hazanavicius had the stones to tell this story his own unique way, and damn if it didn’t pay off.
8. Frances Ha (2013)
Noah Baumbach’s latest film is about a young New York woman trying to make it on her own. Frances, as played to perfection by indie darling Greta Gerwig, is aimless, confused and equipped with an utter lack of drive. Watching the movie, and Sam Levy’s gorgeous, digital photography, it’s so clear that Baumbach adores his conflicted heroine. And, as a result, we can’t help but feel the same.
7. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
A shared trait of the films on this list, aside from their look, is that the majority of them were experiments in narrative storytelling. Jim Jarmusch spent more than 15 years capturing vignettes of people engaging in random conversation. The result is a mostly sublime deviation from conventional storytelling. No, not every segment in Coffee and Cigarettes fully works, but the many that do work, delight to no end.
6. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
In recreating the reign of Joseph McCarthy, as seen through the eyes of fearless reporter Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney devoted his film to those few brave people who stood their ground and made one hell of a difference. The film, with its tight script, impeccable cast and lush photography, still remains Clooney’s finest directorial effort.
5. My Winnipeg (2007)
How does one exactly describe My Winnipeg? Wikipedia calls it a surrealist mockumentary, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, documentary and narrative feature. The film is, essentially, director Guy Maddin (who has yet to make a film that meets the standards of convention) showing us his hometown, Winnipeg, by blending “documentary” footage with recreations of people, places, and events. My Winnipeg is a little wild, totally weird, and completely worth your time. You’ve never seen anything like it.
4. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
Another Béla Tarr entry, this time his magnum opus, the quietly devastating, uniquely gratifying Werckmeister Harmonies. The film, again shot with Tarr’s distinct style of extremely long takes and narrative patience, tells the story of how a small Hungarian village slowly comes to ruin after a circus arrives. But, as is always the case with Tarr’s work, plot is nonexistent in the world of Werckmeister Harmonies. This is a film about mood and feeling. A film about silent regret and slow dilapidation. I can’t say I find the need to revisit the film often, but when I do, I am utterly transported.
3. Control (2007)
It took me a while to get to Control. I heard critics and fans hail this Ian Curtis biopic as the finest music biographical film of recent memory. I heard star Sam Riley captured the essence of the Joy Division singer perfectly. I heard nothing but great things, yet I put the film off for years. Upon finishing Control for the first time recently, I realized that all of those things I heard were correct. If, like me, you’ve neglected Anton Corbjin’s film for too long, then trust me when I tell you it’s time well spent.
1. The White Ribbon (2009)
The time: just before World War I. The place: a seemingly quaint northern German village. The mood: immediately chaotic. But Michael Haneke isn’t interested in creating chaos in a formal way. Instead, he lets it slowly brew until the tension is palpable. As this small village continues to experience inexplicable and anonymous violence, we as an audience begin to fear every passing scene. We have no idea where Haneke is going to take us, or how far he’ll go once we’re there. Much has been made about the ending to this picture, a conclusion that I find daring and perfect. The scariest form of fear is the fear of the unknown.