Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Modern Monochromatics: The 10 Best Black & White Movies Made After Colour Film Became the So-Called Norm in Cinema

Here's a story for all the youngsters in the group. Once upon a time, the majority of movies were made in black and white, not colour. I know that is hard to believe, but it is true. Many modern filmgoers consider black and white to be inferior to colour film. These people shall now be known as freakin' idiots. Yup. You see, colour film goes back as far as film itself does. There are many hand-tinted films from back in the early days. That would be around 1896 or so. Yeah, cinema goes back that far. Believe it or not. Anyhow, I did not gather you all together today to give a lesson on film history. Today is actually about the modern film. You see, once colour film became cheaper to manufacture, more and more movies were shot and released in colour. By the end of the 1960's, the vast vast majority of movies were now being made in colour. For this list, I shall take a look at those films made in this colour era (pretty much from 1970 til now) that were done in black and white, or at least mostly in black and white. So let's get on with it, shall we? Oh yeah, some runners-up first, though.

These black and white runners-up, in no particular order, are: Fassbinder's Veronika Voss; Kairostami's debut feature, The Traveller; Guy Maddin's Archangel; David Lynch's Eraserhead AND Elephant Man; Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise; Chris Nolan's The Following; Aronofsky's Pi; Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon; Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers; as well as more recent fare such as Frances ha, The Artist, Nebraska, the animated Persepolis, Haneke's The White Ribbon, and Francis Ford Coppola's often forgotten Tetro. I do have a few other runners-up to mention, but they will be spoken of within the list proper. And speaking of that list, let's get on with the darn thing. Oh, and one more thing. There is a certain film that will be missing from this list. A film that is on, if not at the top spot, of most every other list such as this. It's a film that is highly regarded (even winning a slew of Oscars), but also a film that I think is just, meh. Yeah, so when you go down this list, and are at a loss for why Schindler's List is not on there, well, that's why. So there.

And awaaaaaaay we go...

Special Mentions: Pleasantville & Sin City

These two films, 1998's Pleasantville and 2005's Sin City, respectively, both use colour and black and white in unique ways. Pleasantville uses black and white to convey the old fashioned ideas of the characters, and colour to express their awakenings. Meanwhile, Sin City contrasts flashes of colour with its mostly black and white palette, to match the intensity of Frank Miller's original graphic novels of the same name. Neither film is fully black and white, so into the special mention column they a-go.

10. Ed Wood

As a director, Tim Burton is known for his grand guignol visuals. Often with splashes of candy-coated colour swathing its way through the dark, Gothic tones of his film. But in 1994's Ed Wood, the bioic of director Edward Wood, auteur of the awful, there is just the crisp black and white tones of his camera. The film is a loving look at the man usually designated as the worst director in film history, and is a gorgeous looking film, and this was back before Johnny Depp became a joke version of himself.

9. Satantango

Granted, I could have used any number of Bela Tarr films for this spot. The Hungarian auteur has made more black and white than colour films in his 30+ year career. I could have put Damnation of Werkmeister Harmonies in here. I could have put his most recent (and possibly final) film, The Turin Horse. But I decided on the 8 hour, 1993 film, Satantango instead. To be honest, I couldn't even tell you which is my favourite Tarr film. They all seem to be in a tie for first, so I went with the most epic of the bunch. This film is not exactly the multiplex kinda film everyone goes to see, and is most assuredly the least known of the films on this list, but anyone who is into cinema, and I mean really into cinema, needs to sit down and watch this film. I mean it. Do it now!

8. Dead Man

Hey, here's Johnny Depp again, and also again, back before he became that joke version of his old self. Made in 1995, and directed by Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man is the tale of a journey. Where exactly that journey is going may be up for debate (oh that esoteric Jarmusch) but there is denying how goddamn gorgeous the film looks in black and white. Wherever that journey may be going (and I happen to like where it may or may not be going) this is easily one of the best films by ole Jimmy Jarmusch, and is a film that should be seen by everyone - even those ne'er do wells who look down on the monochrome.

7. Young Frankenstein

Now this is a film that would have been hilarious in full colour. I mean, the movie is kinda freakin' hilarious. But putting the film in the crisp black and white of its obvious influence, and even adding some of the original's German Expressionism into the mix, makes it all that much greater. This is probably one of the few black and white films that all those aforementioned monochromatic ne'er do wells actually watch and enjoy, so I suppose I should be thankful for that, huh?

6. Clerks

The directorial debut of Kevin Smith, and the debut of Jay & Silent Bob, Clerks is shot in black and white, mainly to look a little like the old style surveillance cameras found in convenience stores. Okay, it was also because it was cheaper, and Smith had already sold his entire comic book collection to finance his film. A fun, and cult film, Clerks is one of those rare black and white films (see the prior entry) of which the younger generations, the ones brought up in a colour movie world, will actually watch, and enjoy.

5. Down By Law

Okay, earlier I had decided to pick just one Bela Tarr film to represent the director, and a little later in the list, I will do the same with another director, but for some reason, Jim Jarmusch managed to sneak a second film onto the list. I guess I wasn't looking when that happened. But come on, and movie with John Lurie, Tom Waits AND Roberto Benigni, and there's singing and prison breaks. Actually, Jarmusch turned the tables on film convention and never actually shows the prison break. Great film, and looking even greater in good ole black and white.

4. Killer of Sheep

Next to Satantango, this 1977 Charles Burnett drama, is probably the least known film on the list. Winner of the Critic's Prize at the Berlin Festival, this film ran into some legal trouble and was never properly released in the US, surviving for several decades in just a few 16mm prints. It wasn't until just a few years back (2007, actually) that Steven Soderbergh put the money forth to restore the film, and it finally got a proper release in theatres. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen during this revival. This is a brilliantly tragic film, as stark in its story as the monochromatic film was to the eyes. 

3. Raging Bull

One of the most revered films of all time, this 1980 Martin Scorsese film won Robert De Niro his second Oscar, and his first one for Best Actor (the other one was for Best Supporting Actor in The Godfather, Pt. II) and was yet another film for which the director was cheated out of Best Director. Yeah, he lost to Robert Redford for Ordinary People. Yeah, he really did. Anyway, I digress. This film is as brutal as any Scorsese film, and the sharp, brutally honest black and white was the perfect tool for what the auteur had wanted to accomplish. Hard hitting indeed!

2. Manhattan

Now here is yet another director who could have slipped in here with several different films. I love his 1980 Felliniesque Stardust Memories, as well as his 1983 mockumentary, Zelig, and his 1984 film, Broadway Danny Rose, but none of these black and white films can equal his 1979 love story to his city, Manhattan. My second favourite Woody Allen film (only Annie Hall tops it, but that one's in colour, so...) Manhattan is seriously the Woodman's love letter to the greatest love of his life, New York City. I know there are a lot of Woody haters out there (those who take tabloid fodder for gospel like truth) but those people don't really matter here. Manhattan (and Woody) is great. End of story.

1. The Last Picture Show

Made in 1971, this is the oldest film on the list, but it was still made well into the colour age of movies. Director Peter Bogdanovich takes a look at the loss of innocence in a small Texas town, and in doing so, he conveys the way of life in this once quaint town, with the kind of black and white one would expect from the Golden Age of Hollywood, an era that is near and dear to film critic and cinephile turned filmmaker, Bogdanovich. I was lucky enough to get to see this film projected onto the big screen, and it was definitely worth it. A gorgeous black and white film, indeed. Easily able to fit in with those aforementioned days of gold. And then there's Cybill Shepherd.

That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


  1. Clerks is hilarious for all the people who have had to work as a clerk. Young Frankenstein is one of my all time favourites and so is Ed Wood. I actually have not seen Raging Bull or Manhattan yet which is a crime considering how many times these films are on the top 100 list. I am one who loves The Artist so glad you mentioned it as well as Pleasantville:) I never thought I would see Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni in a film together

  2. A friend of mine got me hooked into Clerks when it came out on VHS and it so incredibly wicked (I'm not supposed to be here!) that to this day I personally believe that the rest of Kevin Smith's film output pails to this day. Dead Man is without a doubt one of the freakiest Westerns I've ever seen.

    Father Nature's Corner

  3. Thanx for stopping by. Not the most colourful of posts, but hey... Anyhoo, Clerks is definitely the film on here I have seen the most, with approx. 30 viewings or so. Young Frankenstein and Manhattan are at about 10 viewings each.

    See ya 'round the web.

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