10 Great Black and White Movies of the 21st Century
Black and white movies eschew colors to their advantage. It is a conscious choice, deliberated upon stubbornly, that the filmmaker indulges in. The monochrome palette instills a sense of nostalgia. Melancholia impregnates the screen with washed-out images. The films cradle a reminiscent undertone. It breaks away from the temporal thread of narrative that the human eye is accustomed to and envelops itself in a mystique heightened by the lack of color. The dimly lit room would prolong the black and white of the film. The darkness softens the contrast between the real world and cinema.
Here is a list of black and white movies to feast your eyes on and tear away from the world of color:
1. Blue Jay (2016)
This film is evocative of a bittersweet reflection between two high school lovers over a cup of coffee. The sheer simplicity of the storyline leaves a lingering smile on your face. The monochrome imagery is skillfully used to induce nostalgia while gazing at a lake and reflecting on their love strewn past. The tone of the movie is drenched in regret for what might have been.
Sarah Paulsen plays a character named Amanda who emits undeniable emotional electricity through the entirety of the film towards Mark Duplass’ character – Jim who is steeped in an unending void of middle-aged angst and disappointment.
The movie turns into a wistful tale interspersed with cassettes blaring songs from the courtships of the two lovers and conversations that remain etched in one’s memory. It allows them to live an alternate reality that could have unfolded if they would have walked down a different path and taken decisions differently.
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Watch Blue Jay online on Netflix
2. Roma (2018)
Director Alfonso Cuaron who originates from Mexican roots recreates with extraordinary detail an autobiographical piece while injecting it with painstaking emotion. A pellucid black and white imagery are used to depict Mexico in the early 1970s. The motivation to use the large format of black and white digital photography rather than color is suggestive of wanting to peer into the past through the prism of the present; it is an objective experience seen through the lens of the present. Cuaron has said that this film was a tribute to the women in his life and “the elements that forged me”.
It wraps the everyday monotony with extreme monumentality into larger than life imagery. A substantial part of the film takes place in a house that is a recreation of Cuaron’s childhood home, filled with bicycles, birds, and stone walls. The camera anticipates the next move of the house help Cleo and follows her with unwavering loyalty as she is seen flitting around the house performing everyday chores. An air of purpose is suspected in her movements shaped by the wight of the colonial past. Cleo becomes inexorably intertwined with Sofia, Antonio, and the children; as it seems the family would cease to function without her. From waking up the four cacophonous yet charming children, tending to dinner, picking up the droppings of the cherished family dog off the tiled driveway, and assuring that everyone has clean clothes to wear. Everything is upended when Antonio runs away with his mistress and Cleo finds out that she’s pregnant.
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Watch Roma on Netflix
3. The Lighthouse (2019)
The stark black-and-white cinematography deepens the film’s shadows and unease, but it also throws these grizzled faces into relief, reminding each of the inevitability of death brought emphasis upon through their facial creases. The perennially grey sky leaves a washed-out effect on the entire film. Time becomes immeasurable and lends a feature of magical realism to the film as the thin line of reality and fantasy blurs. “The erosion of sanity is so incremental that you almost don’t realize it’s happened”, Empire, an online site remarked on the film.
The film begins with two lighthouse workers: Wake – Willam Dafoe and Winslow – Robert Pattinson, who arrive on a desolate island which seems like the beginning of a sweat-soaked fever dream. Their tongues are loosened by alcohol and the lack of companionship. It becomes a vicious circle of high tempers and conversations between two men eased when alcohol hits their tongues. They converse. They fight. They converse again.
The air is curdled with sour moods and interspersed with tongues that loosen after the consumption of alcohol. The lengthening time spent on the island, endured in seclusion, and the intense labor forced upon the two men, triggers a descent into madness. It resembles a routine of increasingly absurdist horror. “Boredom makes men into villains,” as Wake enunciates through a grimace, and by the end, something resembling boredom sends these men down dark paths.
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4. Frances Ha (2012)
The black and white cinematography seems to romanticize the inevitable end of relationships and insists on depicting its transient nature. It outlines the ambitions and frustrations through a series of tribulations that befall Frances. Frances, the protagonist of Noah Baumbach’s film, Frances Ha – played by Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote it. It is a journey of finding oneself in a warp of unachieved dreams and mangled friendships. Yet, throughout the movie, Frances wears a smile and carries herself with a blithe bounce that contrasts sharply with her actual situation, as if to mask her agony. She can’t bring herself to complain, to admit her troubles, or to take many actions to remedy them.
The film has a tantalizing effect on the viewers. It borrows and gets directorial inspiration from The French New Wave. The film is made in black and white reminiscent of the new wave period; it is adorned with music from Truffaut’s films (such as the twangy theme from “A Gorgeous Girl Like Me”) like a pine tree with a bauble or a stocking stick out of its prickly end-; It borrows iconography and remakes an iconic scene from Leos Carax’s “Bad Blood” with the same music, David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The title too is a New Wave reference: characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Made in the U.S.A.” make frequent reference to someone whose last name is never heard in its entirety but is blasted over by dubbed-in gunshots, ringing phones, or horn honks: “Richard Po—”. The entire name of our character isn’t revealed until the last few minutes of the film unwraps, Frances Handley- written on a piece of paper that won’t completely fit into the panel beside the door of her new address.
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5. The Artist (2011)
The wordless piece – or almost wordless piece of anachronistic interspersed with an immaculate score curated transfers you to a pre-talkie era. Some words are spoken sparsely, and a continuous orchestral score by Ludovic Bource. Each actor speaks in a native tongue different than the other as language is deemed unnecessary owing to the nature of the film.
George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, is a lovably preposterous silent movie star, endowed with accentuated handsomeness and eyebrows and mustache resembling strokes of a cartoonist’s pen. This older established star helps a talented young woman on the path to fame, only to see her career decline as she, Peppy Miller, played by the Argentinian-born actor Bérénice Bejo hits the big time.
George in his egotistic way believes talkies are just crass, and that he is an artist. Susan Sontag, an American writer observes with zeal “So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience… Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as a patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.” And the movie quixotically seems to agree with George by being silent, with intertitles for dialogue until the very end.
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6. Persepolis (2007)
Based on the four-volume series graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, bringing static images to life through the illustrations and co-direction of Vincent Paronnaud. Autobiographical in nature, it is unabashedly authentic in its narration. It is a realistic account of the draconian treatment of women and individuals who lived opinionated lives different from that of the establishment in pre-revolutionary Iran.
It traces Marjane’s growth from a child to a young woman. Hers is a charming character who is scampering around the legs of grownups striking martial art poses inspired by Bruce Lee and listening to Iron Maiden as a teenager; while she is indulged by her family, her country turns into a hostile place for someone who refuses to fall prey to the inhumane restrictions; but its sharp stabs against the women-hatred of the Iranian governing classes are enough to trigger rage.
She longs for a home that never existed. At home, she feels suffocated by the multiple roles the society asks her to conform to. The stylized bold black and white drawings are nuanced with grey shades heightening the mood of the film. There is a fierce independence of spirit that is contrasted by an equally strong force trying to contain the independence.
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7. Nebraska (2013)
Exploring the relationship of a father and son and the vanity of the father to believe that he won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize that arrives at your doorstep, that one usually discards in the form of scam with a customary glance. The movie focuses on the quixotic quest of Woody Grant, a Korean War veteran. He is insistent on collecting his winnings personally by making the 900-mile trek from his home in Billings, Montana, to the prize office in Lincoln, Nebraska. On foot.
The family tries dissuading him but to no avail. Woody’s son David sees this as an opportunity to spend some time together, and maybe even enjoy some long-overdue father-son bonding. The emotional complexities of the plot are searing and powerful enough to acquire a position among the best black and white cinema of the 21st century.
Watch Nebraska online on MUBI
8. Control (2007)
“Control,” is one of the most perceptive of rock music biopics owing to the two people who knew him very well and created the film with their bare hands adding intuitive moments of vulnerability. It is based on a memoir by his wife Deborah (played by Samantha Morton), a teenager when they married, and directed by the photographer Anton Corbijn, whose early photos helped establish Curtis’ image as young, handsome, and sorrowful.
Ian Curtis is an introverted teenager who would look at his life passing by with an open-mouthed stare. He would lie on his narrow bed smoking cigarettes surrounded by music and novels which are a gateway to his dreams. He would become the object of cult veneration as the lead singer of the late 1970s band Joy Division, and he would commit suicide by 23. Ian’s marriage is, of course, a focus of the film, since his wife was not only its source and co-writer but co-producer. He was clearly not ready for marriage. It captures music with an eerie intensity. Ian undergoes fits of epilepsy which seems to be triggered when on stage and winds him into a depressive state and a continuous warp of self-blame.
9. In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007)
A slice of modernity is offered to you in a monochrome accentuating Los Angeles as a city that blossoms with love. The film is laced with a quick wit and a desperate search for love which edges on the verge of humor.
The film never ceases to surprise you with painfully earnest conversations that would send you into peals of laughter in the most innocent situations. An undertone of a romantic comedy can be seen in flitting moments through the film. The film makes it hard to tear your eyes away with an increasingly thickening plot and makes you want to root for the characters and hope that they finally get their midnight kiss as suggestive in the movie title.
10. Mutual Appreciation (2005)
It has an artless, underground vibe to it that makes your heart swell. It is reminiscent of the east village film scene from the 1980s. His characters have multiple layers of paradoxes attached to them, that makes them human- infuriating yet caring, have their lives together but you can see crumbling pieces. It follows the life of Alan Rice, a musician whose band has just broken up. Alan shows up in New York to pursue his burgeoning rock and roll career.
The events feel naturally unfolding before your eyes with little or no effort instead of a tightly controlled narrative. Alan feels attracted towards Ellie but tries to contain his feelings like sitting on a suitcase with clothes bulging out that refuse to shut. The overly analytical characters refuse to take the first step despite being mutually attracted towards the other and they end up relying upon and talking to themselves when frustrated or scrutinizing a situation. A stylized black and white lend a dreamlike quality to the screen. Concerned with the essence of the film rather than the details.