Worldwide icon-chevron-right Europe icon-chevron-right United Kingdom icon-chevron-right England icon-chevron-right London icon-chevron-right The best black-and-white films (from the colour era)

The best black-and-white films (from the colour era)

From ‘Roma’ to ‘Psycho’, here are 30 glorious slices of monochrome magic

By Time Out Film
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Why do people still make films in black-and-white? Once Dorothy was transported to Oz in glorious Technicolor, the film format felt relegated to a bygone era. And yet, monochrome remains an essential choice for filmmakers with specific artistic visions. It’s experiencing a recent resurgence too, with movies like ‘Roma’ and ‘The Artist’ and filmmakers like Ben Wheatley, Alexander Payne and Pawel Pawlikowski showcasing the form in all its gorgeousness, nostalgia and (occasionally) menace. We’ve picked 31 of the best of the best black-and-white films from recent years. Some you’ll know – one or two you may not. Our tip? Hunt them down and bathe in the shadows.

BYLINES Tom Huddleston, Joshua Rothkopf, Phil de Semlyen

Recommended: The 100 best movies of all time

The Elephant Man (1980)

Film Action and adventure

It’s impossible to imagine ‘The Elephant Man’ in colour – it’d be grotesque, exploitative, unwatchable. But in monochrome it’s perfect, drawing us into a haunted Victorian world of mystery and shadow, of dark dreams and wondrous, horrifying discoveries. Shimmering, enigmatic and devastatingly emotional, this is still David Lynch’s most beautiful film.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Elephant Man’

Raging Bull (1980)

Film Drama

‘Light and shadow... It had its own style. It had its own meaning.’ It was the ugliness of the gloves – too red, too striking – that inspired Martin Scorsese to shoot his boxing movie in black-and-white. But it was a decision that changes the entire film, from what could’ve been a viciously downbeat kitchen-sink character study into something grander and more classical – an epic, in the Greek sense.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Raging Bull’

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Marco Graf as Pepe, Daniela Demesa as Sofi, Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marina De Tavira as Sofia, Diego Cortina Autrey as Toño, Carlos Peralta Jacobson as Paco in Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Photo by Carlos Somonte
Marco Graf as Pepe, Daniela Demesa as Sofi, Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marina De Tavira as Sofia, Diego Cortina Autrey as Toño, Carlos Peralta Jacobson as Paco in Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Photo by Carlos Somonte
Picture: Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Roma (2018)

Film Drama

Shot in digital colour and graded down to crisp monochrome in post-production, Alfonso Cuarón’s glorious evocation of his own Mexico City childhood is black-and-white for one simple reason: it’s how the director remembers it. The entire film was crafted in an effort ‘to register a memory as pure as I had it’ – not realistically, but emotionally.

Watch ‘Roma’ on Netflix

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Film Drama

The place and the time – small-town Texas, 1951 – dictates the desolate, colourless tone of Peter Bogdanovich’s heartbreakingly nostalgic teen melodrama. This is a story of trapped souls, penned in not by the landscape – the desert is wide and empty, the skies huge - but by social strictures, emotional weakness and their own deep-seated fear.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Last Picture Show’

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She's Gotta Have It (1986)

Film Comedy

Its sexual politics may not have aged well – a fact for which Spike Lee has convincingly apologised – but the style, feel and look of his debut remains box-fresh, 33 years on. Lee may have used black-and-white for budgetary as well as aesthetic reasons, but given the film’s focus on black faces, black bodies and black lives, it’s an entirely appropriate decision.

Dead Man (1995)

Film Action and adventure

The Old West is a place of magic and mystery in Jim Jarmusch’s rambling, immersive psychedelic sort-of-comedy. Shot in pin-sharp monochrome like an Ansel Adams landscape, the film follows Johnny Depp’s monosyllabic accountant William Blake from the relative civilisation of a frontier town and out into the wild, encountering brutal outlaws, sceptical native Americans and Iggy Pop in a dress.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Dead Man’

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Ida (2013)

Film Drama

‘We chose black-and-white because it was evocative of Polish films of that era... We designed the unusual compositions to make the audience feel uncertain.’ That’s cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski discussing his work on ‘Ida’, the extraordinary post-Holocaust drama that won 2014’s Best Foreign Language Oscar. Shot not only in monochrome but in the unusual 4:3 ratio, the film is beautiful but deeply unsettling, and ultimately shattering.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Ida’

Persepolis (2007)

Film Animation

The tale of an Iranian girl’s coming-of-age during the Islamic revolution, ‘Persepolis’ wasn’t made in black-and-white purely to match the look of author-director Marjane Satrapi’s original graphic novel. Just as important was her desire to avoid depicting skin colour, skirting the possibility of her film becoming, as she says, ‘a third-world story’. Instead it’s a universal one.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Persepolis’

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Schindler’s List (1993)

Film

There’s a story that Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock asked Steven Spielberg to shoot his long-gestating Holocaust drama on colour film and grade it to monochrome later, giving them the option of a colour version for VHS. Spielberg refused, citing the risk of ‘beautifying’ the horrors of the era. For the director, shooting in black-and-white wasn’t just a creative decision, but a moral one - and the result is a film drained of life, of grace, of any kind of beauty.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Schindler’s List’

The White Ribbon (2009)

Film

Another film that uses black-and-white to evoke images of the past – in this case Germany between the wars, where the spectre of fascism is evident in the disturbing behaviour of one remote town’s children. Director Michael Haneke claimed he used monochrome to create a distancing effect between the film and its audience, but ‘The White Ribbon’ remains entrancing and deeply disturbing.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The White Ribbon’

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Down by Law (1986)

Film Comedy

A key template for the modern hangout movie, Jim Jarmusch’s near-horizontally laid-back prison-break comedy employs the scuzzy, grainy monochrome beloved of his New York art-scene contemporaries. But it was actually shot by a German, Robby Muller, the legendary cinematographer who’d worked with Wim Wenders on ‘Alice in the Cities’, and the undisputed master of gritty but gorgeous street-level black-and-white.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Down by Law’

Frances Ha (2012)

Film Comedy

‘I really just wanted to make a movie in black-and-white.’ That’s the straightforward justification for director Noah Baumbach’s decision to shoot this simple-but-deep comedy about a young woman’s struggle for meaning in stark monochrome. And it works, both aesthetically and emotionally – there’s a nostalgic richness to ‘Frances Ha’ that might’ve been missing in plain old colour.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Frances Ha’

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Ed Wood (1994)

Film Comedy

‘This was a movie that had to be in black-and-white.’ It’s impossible to dispute Tim Burton’s assessment of his glowing tribute to the worst filmmaker of all time. Gently satirising Wood’s life and work, Burton depicts the deluded but determined director as he saw himself – as a shimmering icon of the silver screen. Colour just wouldn’t have cut it (though the pink angora sweaters would’ve looked nice).

Buy, rent or watch ‘Ed Wood’

A Field in England (2013)

Film Drama

Inspired to shoot in black-and-white by the work of groundbreaking British director Peter Watkins, whose monochrome mock-doc ‘Culloden’ recreated the Jacobite rebellion in all its filthy glory, Ben Wheatley’s micro-budget psychedelic horror show is set during the English Civil War, where a band of soldiers find themselves marooned in a mysterious meadow. The shot of a black sun rising over a bleached landscape is unforgettable.

Buy, rent or watch ‘A Field in England’

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Man Bites Dog (1992)

Film

Anticipating not just the reality TV era but the countless screen comedies that cropped up to satirise it, this bruising mock-doc follows a group of Belgian students as they accompany a local serial killer on his rounds. Shot for pennies on grainy black-and-white stock, the film begins as breezy black comedy and gradually descends into a bloody nightmare, as the filmmakers – and by extension the audience – are drawn into the action.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Man Bites Dog’

The General (1998)

Film Drama

An often overlooked late-career peak for the mighty John Boorman (‘Deliverance’), this sprightly biopic of Troubles-era Dublin crime lord Martin Cahill must be the only example of a crime biopic being directed by one of the victims – Boorman was robbed by Cahill in the ’70s. Shot in soft monochrome and shot through with genuine affection, ‘The General’ warrants rediscovery.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The General’

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The Mist (2007)

Film Horror

Adapted from a novella by Stephen King and crammed with tentacled terrors, man-eating insects and monster mayhem, ‘The Mist’ was director Frank Darabont’s tribute to the creature features of his youth. So it was appropriate that, when the film came to DVD, it was released in a special black-and-white edition to make it feel as old-school as possible. RKO would never have signed off that brutal ending, though...

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Mist’

Psycho (1960)

Film Horror

Yes, black-and-white was still the norm when Alfred Hitchcock made his bitterly funny serial killer classic. But Hitch had been working in Technicolor for years by this point, and his decision to shoot ‘Psycho’ in grubby monochrome – not to mention using a TV-trained crew – was very much an aesthetic one. The result is a film that feels cheap, nasty and exploitative – just as its director intended.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Psycho’

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Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road – Black and Chrome Edition
Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road – Black and Chrome Edition
Jasin Boland

Mad Max: Fury Road – Black and Chrome Edition (2016)

Film Action and adventure

‘Mad Max Fury Road’ was a riot of colour, all richly saturated desert browns and reds. So why release it in black-and-white? Because that’s what director George Miller wanted all along - but naturally, the studio wouldn’t let him. The result is more brutal, more bruising, more convincingly post-apocalyptic, and a perfect compliment to the single best action movie of the century so far.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Mad Max: Fury Road – Black and Chrome Edition’

Frankenweenie (2012)

Film Family and kids

Adapting and expanding his own 1984 short – itself a loving tribute to James Whale’s 1931 ‘Frankenstein’ – this inventive and witty stop-motion cartoon is the best thing Tim Burton has made in decades. The story of a boy, his dog and a bolt of lightning, the film recasts Mary Shelley’s Gothic horror story as good-natured black comedy, and the monochrome animation is simply gorgeous.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Frankenweenie’

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Sátántangó (1994)

Film

The severe Hungarian director Béla Tarr – master of the long take and the wince-inducing social critique – has only made a single feature in colour. The rest, including this seven-plus-hour-long drama, are suffused in shades of grey, all the better to throw his commentary into slightly stylised relief. It’s impossible to imagine this punishing but essential film in anything but the colours of night-time.

The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

Film Comedy

Guy Maddin lives in the past: His delightfully subversive melodramas speak in the retro grammar of the silent era, but have a modern spin. This one – starring a hauteur-drenched Isabella Rossellini as a beer baroness and double amputee – is the perfect gateway drug to your new addiction. It’s time to change your idea of Canada.

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A still from the film ‘Wings of Desire’
A still from the film ‘Wings of Desire’
Foto: Cortesía de la producción

Wings of Desire (1987)

Film Drama

As starkly gorgeous as movies get, Wim Wenders’s art-house breakthrough shimmers with dreamlike cinematography, courtesy of the late French giant Henri Alekan (also responsible for Jean Cocteau’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’). ‘Wings of Desire’ concerns itself with the ghosts of Berlin’s past – and also its pain – and its spell would have been broken in a colour film.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Wings of Desire’

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)

Film Drama

By the mid-’60s, making a black-and-white film was a statement in itself. While no one would ever accuse Stanley Kubrick of shying away from horror, his nuclear folly enters the realm of dark comedy with these images – sourced from the final newsreel of a self-destroying civilisation. Interestingly, Kubrick insisted that his war room table be green, like a poker game, just for the actors’ sake.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb’

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GIORGIO ALBERTAZZI, DELPHINE SEYRIG, LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD, 1961
GIORGIO ALBERTAZZI, DELPHINE SEYRIG, LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD, 1961
Alamy

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Film Drama

Less a black-and-white film than a white-and-black one (watch it and you’ll know what we mean), Alain Resnais’s crypto-mystery blinds you with its stark, decorative contrast. Beautiful people loll around an expensive chateau: This movie has had more of an impact on fashion and advertising than any other. It might strike you as the most pretentious thing ever but you need to reckon with it.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Last Year in Marienbad’

The Artist (2011)

Film Comedy

It’s still amazing to remember how a black-and-white silent movie conquered the Oscars so recently. Cynics might chalk that up to a cute dog, a swooning romance and the pre-scandal Weinstein publicity machine at its most effective. But it was also the power of cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman’s purely imagistic storytelling, paring down the story to its simplest, most essential beats.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Artist’

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NEBRASKA
NEBRASKA
Photo credit: Merie W. Wallace

Nebraska (2013)

Film Drama

Even Alexander Payne, the maker of ‘Election’, ‘Sideways’ and ‘The Descendants’, has to fight for his vision once in a while: He insisted that his father-son road movie be released in black-and-white to achieve what he called an ‘iconic, archetypal look.’ Payne was right – the movie has a grandeur to it – even though the studio, Paramount, made him shoot it in colour just in case. Let’s hope we never see that version.

Buy, rent or watch ‘Nebraska’

La Haine (1995)

Film Comedy

There’s a theory that debut director Mathieu Kassovitz’s visceral race drama was filmed in black-and-white because that’s the way the banlieue kids at its heart – Vinz, Hubert and Saïd – perceive the world around them: in binaries of good and bad – where bad ends up in jail. But it’s a film of greys, too, and its monochrome bleakness has helped it endure as a still-relevant slice of urban despair.

Buy, rent or watch ‘La Haine’

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Pi (1998)

Film

Darren Aronofsky’s first film was made for a meagre $60,000. It took visual inspiration from Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City’, with Matthew Libatique’s black-and-white cinematography capturing a surrealist study of maths brilliance and madness with a starkness that only comes from stripping a film of all colour. ‘We didn’t want it to end up looking like “Clerks” and be all grey,’ says Aronofsky. ‘We wanted it to be black or white.’

Buy, rent or watch ‘Pi’

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Film Comedy

This loving pisstake of the classic Universal monster movies sees Mel Brooks recreating the style of James Whale’s 1930s filmmaking, right down to its lack-of-colour palette. Brooks and his star Gene Wilder had to resist a ton of studio pressure to make it in colour. ‘We said, “If we make the monster green, it’ll be [like] a Halloween mask,”’ says Brooks‘It won’t have the power of the James Whale movie.’ He was dead right.

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The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Film

A film noir straight out of the golden age of Lang and Huston, the Coen brothers’ tale of blackmail, murder and dry cleaning is an exercise in pin-sharp monochromatic magic by Roger Deakins. The great cinematographer actually shakes off the stylistic comparisons with those old noirs. ‘I wanted to have more tonal range,’ he tells Indiewire. The Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake movies, they’re quite bold, the mid-tones are reduced, very black-and-white. I wanted to use a wider palette.’ The result is as starkly beautiful as it is giddily cynical.

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Man Who Wasn't There’

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