Sixty years ago, black and white films were the norm. But with the advent of color film and technology like Technicolor, studios and filmmakers began to step away from the tried-and-true medium to embrace the future of color. In the years since, black-and-white films have fallen out of favor, typically reserved for art-house films and low-budget indies. The reasons for this are many, but the biggest factor seems to be money: Hollywood doesn’t think general audiences want movies with monochromatic palettes (although the recent success of Oppenheimer may change this).
Despite the massive drop-off, black-and-white films are still being made, and most of them are actually pretty good. If you’re looking for a modern film with a classic feel, here are 15 of the best black-and-white movies from the 2010s that you should check out.
Alexander Payne’s touching black-and-white dramedy Nebraska stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, an aging and cantankerous man who believes he’s won a million dollars after receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail. Despite skepticism from his family, Woody and his reluctant son David (Will Forte) embark on an eventful road trip from Montana to Nebraska to “claim” their prize money.
Production company Paramount Vintage originally wanted Nebraska to be filmed in color; given the film’s higher-than-usual budget for small character-driven films, it was considered a financial risk to shoot in black-and-white. But Payne fought hard for his vision, believing it was essential to effectively tell the story, saying:
“It just seemed like the right thing to do for this film…It’s such a beautiful form, and it’s really left our cinema because of commercial, not artistic, reasons; it never left fine-art photography. This modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white, a visual style perhaps as austere as the lives of its people.”
It paid off: Nebraska was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, with emphatic praise given to the film’s lush black-and-white cinematography. The film would go on to earn six Academy Award nominations, including Best Cinematography, Director, and Picture.
14 The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a biographical Finnish film about the life of the fiercely talented yet modest boxer Olli Mäki, who is swept into national stardom as he trains for a once-in-a-lifetime fight against the American World Featherweight Champion Davey Moore – all while navigating a blooming romance with his first true love.
The film is utterly charming, but unfortunately didn’t make much of a splash stateside, where it was submitted by Finland as their official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards but ultimately not nominated. Director Juho Kuosmanen manages to avoid the usual clichés inherent to boxing biopics, and manages to tell a heartwarming story of love and perseverance.
Kuosmanen and his cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi opted to film Olli Mäki on 16mm Kodak Tri-X black and white film stock – originally used in ‘60s and 70s newsreels, and not for films – in an effort to give the movie a vintage look and feel. (Apparently the production team went through the entirety of Kodak’s European and North American reserves, forcing the company to produce more of the film).
Their creative decision paid off, as The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäkilooks and feels unlike any boxing film to come out in quite a long time.
13 The Eyes of My Mother
Nicolas Pesce’s feature debut The Eyes of My Mother is a striking black-and-white horror film that tells the story of Francisca (Kika Magalhães), a young woman who lives a life of isolation after being profoundly shaped by a traumatic event from her childhood. But her lonely lifestyle quickly unravels when her remote existence is interrupted by a mysterious stranger.
Like the most atmospheric horror films of the 60s and 70s, Pesce relies on a steady culmination of dread and disquiet to make the viewer squirm. His decision to film The Eyes of My Mother in black-and-white only serves to exacerbate that creepy-crawly feeling the film conjures in its audience. It’s an impressive horror feature and an even better debut, establishing Pesce as a singular genre talent to watch.
12 The Artist
The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s 2011 silent black-and-white film, takes place in Hollywood between 1927 and 1932, and focuses on the relationship between George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a charismatic silent film star who faces a professional crisis with the advent of talking pictures, and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a rising young actress who is quickly becoming a big name in the industry.
Shot in stunning black-and-white and almost 100% silent (in the lack-of-dialogue sense, that is), The Artist is a beautiful homage to a long-gone era of Hollywood filmmaking. The film was a massive critical and box-office success, especially in its home country of France, where it has received more awards than any other French film in history. Stateside, the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture, making it the first fully black-and-white film to win the top prize since The Apartment in 1960 (Though Schindler’s List was in black-and-white, the iconic “red dress” technically disqualifies it in this very specific case).
11 A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Ana Lily Amirpour’s impressive black-and-white feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an utterly original Iranian-American horror film, and one of the most impressive film debuts in quite some time. The film centers around The Girl (Sheila Vand), a mysterious young vampire who haunts the desolate streets of Bad City, and her budding friendship with a disaffected but kindhearted young man named Arash (Arash Marandi).
Despite a lack of recognition from the Academy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was easily one of the best-looking films of 2014. Equally inspired by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, comic books, and Nosferatu, Lyle Vincent’s cinematography is visually-striking and transfixing. The film’s monochromatic tone serves to exaggerate the desolate, otherworldly atmosphere of its remote setting, and also gives the movie its own distinct feel.
10 A Field in England
How does one begin to describe Ben Wheatley’s weird and genre-hopping film A Field in England ? It’s a historical drama, a psychological thriller, a psychedelic horror romp, and an adventure flick all rolled into one experimental, black-and-white package.
Set during the English Civil War in the 17th century, the plot follows a group of deserters who flee from battle and find themselves in a vast and desolate field. There, they meet a mysterious alchemist named O’Neil (Michael Smiley), who is in search of buried treasure. The deserters quickly fall under the control of the alchemist, who uses brute force (and maybe a bit of mysticism) to get the men to help in his search. As tensions rise, violence – and the mass consumption of magic mushrooms – ensues.
Although the film has received mix reviews from critics and general audiences, Laurie Rose’s sharp black-and-white cinematography has been universally praised. Much like David Lynch’s early use of black-and-white, Rose’s monochromatic palette lends the film a historical and insidiously surreal quality that would be missing had Wheatley opted to shoot in color.
9 Frances Ha
Gerwig stars as Frances Halladay, a 27-year-old free-spirited aspiring dancer living in New York City. ]When her best friend and roommate, Sophie, decides to move out and get married, Frances is left to navigate the challenges of adult life alone and forced to find a stable job, a new place to live, and most of all, her place in this world.
Frances Ha is celebrated for its humor and authentic portrayal of young adulthood. Gerwig’s performance is endlessly charming, and manages to tap into the voice of a generation; one that is a desperately trying to figure out their life in a world of uncertainty and constant change.
Inspired by the work of French New Wave directors, Noah Baumbach decided to shoot the film in black-and-white to emulate the low-budget, scrappy style that defined the film movement. The result is a movie that feels both classical yet totally modern.
Tim Burton’s black-and-white stop-motion film Frankenweenie is a delightful revisionist take on Mary Shelley’s novel. The film follows Victor Frankenstein, a young and introverted boy who is devastated when his beloved dog, Sparky, is tragically hit by a car and killed. Inspired by a science experiment at school, Victor uses the power of electricity (and love) to bring Sparky back to life. However, when the townspeople discover Victor’s reanimated pet and try to replicate his experiment, whimsical chaos ensues.
Taking inspiration from James Whale’s classic adaptation of Frankenstein, Burton decided to shoot the film in black-and-white. The result is striking and quite unique, especially for an animated film. (In fact, Frankenweenie holds the distinction of being both the first black-and-white feature-length film and the first stop-motion film to be released in IMAX 3D.)
7 The Turin Horse
Béla Tarr, one of the forefathers of so-called “slow cinema,” a style of film defined by operatic runtimes and intense focus on character over traditional plot, delivered another artful entry to the genre with his 2011 black-and-white drama The Turin Horse.
Co-directed alongside his wife Ágnes Hranitzky, The Turin Horse depicts six days in the life of a farmer and his faithful horse, which is rapidly declining in health. The movie is repetitive and bleak, focusing on the farmer’s arduous existence, and his coping with the death of his trusted steed. In Tarr’s own words, the film is about “the heaviness of human existence,” in regard to both our imminent demise, and the inconsequential nature of our lives.
The Turin Horse can be patience-testing, but it’s also gorgeous: the stunning black-and-white photography from cinematographer Fred Kelemen makes even the most mundane acts – like retrieving water from a well – look absolutely breathtaking.
Paweł Pawlikowski’s powerful black-and-white drama Ida stars Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna, a young nun living in post-war Poland who was orphaned as an infant during the German occupation. On the verge of taking her vows, she is instructed by her Mother Superior to visit her only living relative, Wanda (played by Agata Kulesza), a former Communist state prosecutor who informs Anna that her real name is Ida and her biological parents were Jewish. The two women then set off on a road trip to uncover the secrets of their family’s past and learn the fate of her parents.
According to the film’s cinematographer Lukasz Zal, he and Pawlikowski chose to shoot Ida in black-and-white using the 4:3 aspect ratio because it was “evocative of Polish films of that era, the early 1960s.” The result is both transportative and intoxicating, as the film’s minimalist style allows for the powerful human emotions to take center stage.
Ida garnered significant critical acclaim upon release, and would go on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015, making it the first Polish film to win the prestigious award.
5 Cold War
Paweł Pawlikowski followed up his Oscar-winning Ida with another universally-acclaimed black-and-white film, the romantic drama Cold War. Loosely inspired by the lives of the filmmaker’s parents, Cold War is set in Poland and France during the political and cultural upheaval of post-war Europe, and follows the decade-spanning love story between a conservative musical director (Tomasz Kot) and a younger, more free-spirited singer (Joanna Kulig).
Much like Ida, Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal chose to shoot Cold War in striking black-and-white, although they were initially reluctant to repeat themselves. However, both men agreed that the film’s setting demanded a monochromatic palette, as 1950s and 60s Poland was “drowning in different shades of gray,” according to Zal.
The result is another visually-sumptuous work of art from Pawlikowski and Zal. Cold War would again be nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, as well as Best Director and Best Cinematography, losing in all three categories to the next film on this list, Roma.
A long-in-the-making passion-project for director Alfonso Cuarón, his 2018 film Roma is an intimate semi-autobiographical portrait of the director’s childhood in 1970 Mexico City, focusing specifically on the relationship between him and his upper-middle-class family’s indigenous (Mixteco) housekeeper.
Given the film’s intensely personal subject, Cuarón served not only as the director, but as writer, producer, co-editor, and even cinematographer (his usual collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki, was unavailable). To evoke the feeling of memory and nostalgia, he opted to film Roma in black-and-white. (The film was actually shot in color, but corrected in post to allow Cuarón more control over the depths and vibrancy of the images.)
Roma would go on to make waves when Netflix debuted the film in 2018, amassing ten Oscar nominations and three wins, including Best Cinematography.
3 Hard to Be a God
Aleksei German’s grisly black-and-white sci-fi film Hard to Be a God, based on the 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, is a visually and thematically challenging work of art. Set on a distant, Earth-like planet stuck in a perpetual medieval era, whereby those of higher intelligence are instantly executed, the film centers around Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) and his small team of Earthly scientists. The men live undercover on the alien planet as noblemen, their mission to observe and subtly influence the society’s development. But the scientists soon become entangled in the planet’s violent and superstitious culture when Don finally decides to intervene and stop the senseless murders of brilliant thinkers.
German’s film is a grueling exploration of authoritarianism and human nature. It’s both a philosophical and visual tour de force, with its long, unbroken shots and intricate world-building, brought to visceral life by Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko’s stunning black-and-white cinematography. The film is as garish as it is mesmerizing, but if you have the stomach for it, Hard to Be a God is a truly show-stopping film.
2 Embrace of the Serpent
Embrace of the Serpent is a singular work from director Ciro Guerro. The striking black-and-white film tells the story of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last of his tribe. Over the course of forty years, Karamakate serves as the guide for two Western scientists who have come to the jungles of the Amazon in search of yakruna, a sacred healing plant.
The movie is both transfixing and devastating, as Guerro shows the gradual destruction of the Amazon and its indigenous communities by ravenous colonizers. But the film also highlights the rich tapestries of cultures that still exist in the Amazon, and what the world stands to lose should our destructive ways continue.
Embrace of the Serpent is a visually beautiful film. David Gallego’s hypnotic black-and-white cinematography, coupled with the film’s gradual pace and dreamy atmosphere, lend the rainforests and rivers of the Amazon an almost otherworldly feel; as if this world exists somewhere outside of time and space. It’s nothing short of spellbinding.
1 The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse, Robert Egger’s incredible follow-up to his equally-impressive debut The Witch, is a hard film to describe. It often leaps across genres, at one moment a psychodrama, the next a biting comedy, before descending full-fledged into Lovecraftian horror.
Set sometime during the 19th century, the film tells the story of two lighthouse keepers – a hardened captain (Willem Dafoe) and a mysterious rookie (Robert Pattinson) – who become stranded on their remote island by a nasty, seemingly never-ending storm. Tensions escalate to explosive and violent levels as both men unravel from madness.
Working alongside frequent collaborator and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers is able to summon up a truly dread-inducing atmosphere. The striking black-and-white photography (captured using 90-year-old camera lenses for even greater authenticity) and the boxy 1.19:1 Academy aspect ratio make The Lighthouse feel like a relic of a bygone era. It’s one of the most audacious independent films to be released in quite some time, and is easily one of, if not the best black-and-white movie of the 2010s.
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