Top Ten: B&W Films Since 1980
In recognition of the wider release of Noah Baumbach’s new film, the Greta Gerwig-starring Frances Ha, I wanted to look at modern black & white films. Avowedly emulating the look of such Gordon Willis-shot Woody Allen works as Manhattan, Baumbach is in a long line of filmmakers who chose against the grain, whether for aesthetic or budgetary reasons, to eschew the now-conventional color palette. Some films attempt to capture a bygone era while others simply think it’s “cool”; in any case, films in the past few decades made in black & white tend to stand out as striking. So let us know in the comments which of your favorite modern or contemporary movies fit this stylistic mold.
10. Camel(s) (2002)
Park Ki-yong mixes aesthetic distance and emotional intimacy in his relatively simple tale of adultery Camel(s), starring only the superb Lee Dae-yeon as a hospital worker and Park Myeong-shin as a pharmacist, both frustrated in arranged marriages and craving release in a tryst at a seaside resort. The digital black & white cinematography keeps us at a remove from the couple, only framing relative close-ups in an early dinner scene where the camera slowly pans back and forth independent of their oblique conversation. The inability of men and women to communicate may make Park’s film sound like those of his countryman Hong Sang-soo (who made several fine black & white films in this era too, including Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and The Day He Arrives), but Park eschews Hong’s trademark bleak humor and bifurcated structure for steely-eyed examination, even framing from a much farther distance than Hong the anti-climactic lovemaking the couple so desperately craves. Painfully straightforward, Camel(s) distills two people’s ordinary disappointments and sadness into crisp images drained of color.
9. Tabu (2012)
Two remarkable, and remarkably different, stories (three if one counts the fabulistic prologue) coalesce in Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, melding contemporary Portugal and colonialist Africa together in quietly melancholic black & white. Where the contemporary tale of socially-conscious Pilar (Teresa Madruga) and her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral) is empathetic and dryly witty, the remembered narrative of young married Aurora (Ana Moreira) and her explorer lover Ventura (Carloto Cotta) in Africa unfolds as a silent film narrated by an aged Ventura with patient romanticism and gorgeous scenery. Like Gomes’s previous film, Our Beloved Month of August, Tabu complements its evocative images with energizing music, in this case a recurring Portuguese cover of “Be My Baby.” Personal longing and nostalgia playfully mingle with a complicated national history.
8. Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)
The debut feature from Thai wunderkind Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an unclassifiable marvel. It employs the Surrealist pastime “exquisite corpse,” a game where a story thread is continually picked up by a new person without care for coherence or plausibility; a film crew traveled through Thailand letting random participants carve out their own parts of the running story, then went back and reenacted some of the story chunks with nonprofessional actors. The final result overlaps these segments and uncovers surprising undercurrents, mythic parallels, and fantasies of the various apparently unrelated storytellers. All of this is captured in striking 16mm black & white, melding documentary and fiction with little respect for their traditional boundaries, a mode Weerasethakul has been working in with great success in his subsequent color films.
7. Damnation (1988)
Breathtaking in incomparably moody black & white, Béla Tarr’s Damnation (his first collaboration with fellow Hungarian and novelist László Krasznahorkai) sets the visual and aesthetic tone for his subsequent films: portentous, purposeful camera movements in bracingly long takes follow or encircle doomed protagonists in waterlogged Eastern European bars and alleys. This noirish tale concerns a love triangle between a loner (Miklos Szekely), his elegant but trapped torch singer lover (Vali Kerekes), and her husband (Győrgy Cserhalmi), but its foremost strength is in the tense, focused cinematography by Gábor Medvigy, who captures a world seemingly independent of the plot with flickers of joy (a melancholy ballad, a raucous dance) amidst crushing desperation. Tarr would purify these tendencies to the utmost in Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man from London, and The Turin Horse (I have yet to tackle his monumental Sátántangó), but Damnation is a fitting and influential statement of intent.
6. Rumble Fish (1983)
Rife with wide-angle lensing, expressionistic lighting, deep focus, time-lapse photography, and canted compositions, Francis Ford Coppola’s energetic adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s classic for young adults Rumble Fish was a notoriously misunderstood flop upon its release, especially when compared to its 1983 companion from Coppola and Hinton, The Outsiders. Yet its relatively experimental style and high-contrast black & white cinematography has aged surprisingly well, its baroque and theatrical look fitting within Coppola’s subsequent oeuvre, especially as a prelude to the much later, equally brotherly Tetro. Rusty James (Matt Dillon) tries to live within the shadow of his legendary older brother “the Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke), while delving into the elder sibling’s mysterious absence. The young cast of Hollywood up-and-comers, many from The Outsiders including Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Vincent Spano, and especially the James Dean-esque Dillon and soft-spoken Rourke, never looked so classical.
5. Disorder (2009)
Disorder director and editor Huang Weikai culled over a thousand hours of amateur video into an hour-long city symphony of anxiety and disaffection in contemporary urban China. In an interview at one of the film’s first screenings, Huang explains that his decision to transform all of his color footage into black & white contained multiple purposes, both objective in that the varying footage qualities mixed better in that format, and subjective according to his aesthetic sense as a former brush painter. Huang embraces the wide variety of incidents from the many vantage points, generally tied together by an intimate depiction of societal breakdown. Disorder shows that black & white remains a useful style for portraying the gritty, crowded reality found by these amateur filmmakers illicitly and on-the-fly.
4. The Elephant Man (1980)
Perhaps tied with The Straight Story (the final film of The Elephant Man‘s English director of photography Freddie Francis) as David Lynch’s most classical and understated movie, The Elephant Man depicts the Victorian life of the deformed Joseph (“John” in the film) Merrick (John Hurt) and his relationship with surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). With only minor versions of his trademark surrealistic touches, Lynch mines the essential humanity beneath Merrick’s blighted exterior against the crass commercialism of modern freak show culture and just-beginning Western industrialization. Francis, best known for the realism of Sons and Lovers and Room at the Top and the Gothic elegance of The Innocents, brings a refined sensibility to Lynch’s only period movie, expertly using shadows and light to hide or reveal the protagonist according to the audience’s directed fascination and sympathy.
3. Chan is Missing (1982)
Scruffy and charming, Wayne Wang’s debut Chan is Missing features a mismatched cab driver and his nephew (Wood Moy and Marc Hayashi) on an odyssey through San Francisco’s Chinatown in search of their mysterious fellow cabbie Chan Hung, a structuring absence of a character. The central mystery of why Chan is missing, and who Chan even is, proves an irresistible conceit for investigating the film’s true themes, the multifaceted and particular immigrant experiences of Chinese in America. Like the early features of Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch, Chan is Missing is in black & white for both budgetary and aesthetic reasons, blazing a trail outside the studio system and newly capturing on film the contours of a thriving subculture. Writing with Isaac Cronin but undoubtedly with improvisatory input from his actors, Wang captures the pulsing contradictions of his milieu through both witty banter and documentary-like footage on the streets, notably filming through shop windows and in restaurants. The film ended up low in budget but high in ideas.
2. Eureka (2000)
A haunting tinted monochrome, like the drab Kansas of The Wizard of Oz crossed with the Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, characterizes the look of Shinji Aoyama’s bleak, masterful Eureka. A bus driver (Kôji Yakusho) and a teenage brother and sister (Masaru and Aoi Miyazaki) are drawn together as survivors of a tragic, violent bus hijacking. With intensity and focus, Aoyama captures their eerie lack of communication and emotional stasis as the film transforms from a domestic drama into a kind of road movie. Their plaintive struggles to escape the cyclical repercussions of their collective emotional trauma are captured in vivid, novelistic detail, unsparing but also non-judgmental of their flaws. A central murder mystery and the appearance of the siblings’ cousin (Yôichirô Saitô) compounds the group members’ isolation and essential inscrutability, even to each other. Only a beautifully panoramic burst of color at the conclusion hints at a release of the agonizingly pent-up tension.
1. Dead Man (1995)
Every element of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man pins it as a psychedelic revisionist Western: the poetic allusions to William Blake and references to modern 20th-century pop music; the transcendence of stereotype in its portrayal of the central Native American, “Nobody” (Gary Farmer); Neil Young’s gnarled, feedback-laden score; sudden but unexciting violence; hallucinatory moments and characters; and renowned Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller’s exquisitely beautiful images of unconscionably ugly things and ideas like racism, industrial destruction, and widespread slaughter, all in stark black & white. Having made films in both black & white and color, Jarmusch more clearly has a purpose to this style here than in previous works: not only does visual monochrome clearly evoke the past but it complicates our relationship with it, revising well-worn myths not only about the cinematic Western but about western progress as a whole.
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