The Most Striking Black-and-White Movies Old & New

elizabeth taylor and richard burton in who's afraid of virginia woolf
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With the premiere of Wizard of Oz in 1939 and the widespread proliferation of technicolor, Hollywood’s familiar monochrome was bathed in brilliant shades of electric yellow, icy blues, burning crimsons, and for the first time - cinema at large could be imagined in color. Despite the innovation of technicolor, much of film and television remained in black-and-white through the 1950s largely due to cost restraints, technological incompatibility, and limited mass accessibility. By the mid-1960s, much of film and television had been brought to life in full color, forgetting the conventional black-and-white schematic that typified the earlier half of the century. Despite the introduction of color, black-and-white films have remained a quiet constant in the world of cinema, morphing from cost effective pragmatism into conscious aesthetic choice as color films became less cost prohibitive. Regardless of the either visually or literally dated nature of the black-and-white film, these black-and-white productions have proven able to enrapture and excite audiences and critics alike.

The Lighthouse (2019)

Starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse follows two lighthouse keepers on their staggering descent into madness as they weather a raging squall on a remote New England outpost. An amalgamation of elements of black comedy, psychological thriller, and horror; The Lighthouse above all is a compelling examination of man’s psyche amidst total seclusion. Inspired by early 20th century French cinema, The Lighthouse was shot entirely in black-and-white using a 1.19:1 aspect ratio allowing the film to fit within a perfect square and affording it an unnerving congruity.

2019 morelia international film festival
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12 Angry Men (1957)

Based on the hugely popular teleplay by Reginald Rose, 12 Angry Men follows the deliberation between 12 jurors on whether or not to convict or acquit a teenage boy accused of murdering his father. The case seems clear-cut at first, but Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda) withholds his “guilty” vote and invites debate over reasonable doubt into the jury room. Often cited as one of the greatest American films ever produced, 12 Angry Men was nominated for two Academy Awards and later inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

12 angry men
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Nebraska (2013)

Starring Bruce Dern, June Squib, and Will Forte in career defining performances, Nebraska is a 2013 dramedy following Woody Grant, an elderly retiree played by Dern, on his journey from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect what he believes to be his one million dollar prize won from a magazine subscription sweepstakes. A poignant and heartfelt portrayal of the complexities of familial bonds against a striking backdrop of a fading Middle America, Nebraska was a huge critical success, earning nominations for six Academy Awards and five Golden Globes.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Adapted from Edward Albee’s 1962 play of the same name, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a searing examination of the dysfunctional marriage between a college professor named George (played by Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (played by Elizabeth Taylor) in the company of a young couple, Nick and Honey, whom they invite to their home for drinks after meeting at a party. The drama received a staggering 13 Academy Awards nominations with the entire film’s cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis) each securing independent nominations for their performances. The film won 5 of the 13 awards it was nominated for, awarding Elizabeth Taylor her second Oscar for Best Actress and Sandy Dennis her first for Best Supporting Actress.

segal, taylor, and burton in who's afraid of virginia woolf
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The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

An adaptation of the Shakespeare classic directed by Joel Coen, The Tragedy of Macbeth is an eerie, austere adaptation of the famed play shot in black-and-white on sound stages dressed with stony, brutalist architecture. Starring Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand, as Lady Macbeth, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a rare solo endeavor for director Joel Coen who typically directs alongside his brother, Ethan. Washington’s haunting portrayal of the Scottish king was a career best, earning him nominations for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award.

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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Complemented by the enduring feud between stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 psychological thriller based upon Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel of the same name. Following the lives of a washed up child star and her paraplegic sister rotting in a decaying Hollywood mansion, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is best described as if Grey Gardens and Psycho were fused in a fever dream. Despite their acrimonious relationship, both Crawford and Davis put forth incredible performances, helping in part to revitalize both of their careers. The film’s campy black comedy and impeccable casting helped solidify it as a cult classic in the decades following its release.

baby jane
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Eraserhead (1977)

The first feature-length film from the legendary David Lynch, Eraserhead is a surrealist horror film following Henry Spencer, a socially awkward loner, after discovering he’s sired a disfigured, monstrous child he’s now tasked with caring for. Shot in black-and-white and set in a barren urban sprawl, Eraserhead is renowned for its use of nuanced sound design and employment of dark, chimeric dream sequences to craft an unsettling, uncanny atmosphere. Despite its initial release garnering little attention or critical buzz, Eraserhead later achieved cult classic status and has been described as a simulacrum of Lynch’s trademark eerie stylings and unconventional filmmaking.

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The Artist (2011)

Chronicling the relationship between a young actress and older silent film star in Hollywood’s Golden Era, The Artist is a 2011 black-and-white silent film written and directed by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius. The first primarily silent film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards since 1929, The Artist was a critical sensation, receiving nominations for 10 Academy Awards, 6 Golden Globes, and 12 BAFTAs. An excellent use of anachronistic production, The Artist is a sublime exploration of themes like fading fame, social upheaval, and the unstoppable progress of technology.

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The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

An adaptation of the famed John Steinbeck novel of the same name, 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family, who after losing their farm during the Great Depression are forced to abandon their Oklahoma farm and journey to California in search of work. Starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine, the 1940 drama was nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. A fairly faithful interpretation of Steinbeck’s original work, The Grapes of Wrath has often been described as one of the greatest film’s of the 20th century and was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1989.

henry fonda in the grapes of wrath
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Roma (2018)

A semi-autobiographical drama from director Alfonso Cuarón, Roma stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, a live-in maid to a wealthy family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood. Taking place between 1970 and 1971, Roma was shot entirely in black-and-white and in sequence throughout late 2016 and early 2017. The Mexican drama was met with rave reviews from critics and scored 10 nominations at the 91st Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign film to win the Oscar for Best Director.

netflix roma premiere in mexico city
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Persepolis (2007)

An adaptation of the autobiographical graphic novel series of the same name, the 2007 animated drama follows Marjane through her experiences growing up amidst the Iranian Revolution. Earning Academy Award nominations for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Animated Feature, Persepolis was lauded as a captivating, emotionally charged depiction of 1979’s Islamic Revolution. Marjane Satrapi, the film’s writer and director, has said she chose to present both the film and graphic novel in black-and-white to highlight the universality of her experiences and provide stark contrast for the conflict’s respective sides.

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Psycho (1960)

The Alfred Hitchcock classic based upon Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, Psycho follows Marion Crane through her fateful stay at the Bates Motel. Arguably one of Hitchcock’s most influential and recognizable films, its unforgettable imagery and aesthetic are still frequently invoked in countless contemporary horror productions. Starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in career-best performances, Psycho’s nuanced direction and palpably sinister atmosphere marked it as one of the greatest horror films of the century and forefather to the modern slasher.

janet leigh screaming in psycho shower scene
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Mank (2020)

David Fincher’s Mank is a 2020 biopic centering on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz throughout his development of the screenplay for 1941’s Citizen Kane. Based on a screenplay by director David Fincher’s late father, Mank stars actor Gary Oldman in the titular role alongside Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, and Arliss Howard. The film received 10 nominations at the 93rd Academy Awards (the most of any production that year), winning both Best Production Design and Best Cinematography. Originally imagined as Fincher’s follow-up to the 1997 thriller The Game with Kevin Spacey and Jodie Foster in leading roles, the film spent years unable to be brought to fruition in large part due to Fincher’s insistence it be shot in black-and-white.

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Citizen Kane (1941)

We’d be remiss to include Mank without paying homage to its inspiration and Mankiewicz's real life magnum opus, Citizen Kane. A mainstay at the top of nearly every list of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane undeniably shaped much of modern cinema. The semi-biographical drama centers on Charles Foster Kane (a synthesis of business tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer) throughout his life and rise to prominence. Despite its critical success, Citizen Kane performed poorly at the box office and faded into relative obscurity before being re-released in 1956 and undergoing critical reexamination.

orson welles in citizen kane, 1941
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Casablanca (1942)

Produced and set during World War II, Casablanca stars Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, and Paul Henreid as a trio embroiled in a ruinous love triangle amidst the Nazi’s conquest of Europe. Based on an unproduced play titled Everybody Comes to Rick’s written by Murray Bennett and Joan Alison, the 1941 drama was a surprise success, taking home the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director at that year’s ceremony. Originally slated for a 1943 release, Casablanca was rushed to theaters in 1942 to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the Allied Forces invasion of French North Africa in 1942.

on the set of casablanca
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Frances Ha (2012)

Directed by Noah Baumbach and starring his wife, Barbie director Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is a 2012 dramatic comedy following Frances Halladay, a struggling dancer living in New York City. Co-written by Gerwig and Baumbach, Frances Ha marked the pair's second cinematic collaboration and premiered to critical acclaim at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival. Though initially not intending to star in the film, Gerwig assumed the lead role after Baumbach convinced her she was perfect for the part. Drawing inspiration from French New Wave cinema, the dramedy was shot using amateur-grade camera equipment and a skeleton crew to allow production to shoot in public spaces easily and inconspicuously.

screening of ifc films' quotfrances haquot red carpet
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