Perspective | I count seven Oscar movies that pull the same stylistic trick

Perspective | I count seven Oscar movies that pull the same stylistic trick

Making your way through this year’s Academy Award-nominated films, you might be forgiven for thinking there’s something a little pale about them. Something starker than usual, maybe, or at least something colorless. I mean that quite literally, and not at all negatively.

When film historians look back on the most celebrated movies of 2023, they may or may not identify shared preoccupations or themes. But they will almost certainly point to a shared formal feature in many of them: sequences that shift from black-and-white cinematography to color — and often back again.

By my count, the technique is on display in no fewer than seven Oscar-nominated films, five of them up for best picture: “Poor Things,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “The Zone of Interest,” “Oppenheimer,” “Maestro,” “The Color Purple” and “El Conde,” not to mention other films that were passed over by the Academy this year, including “A Haunting in Venice” and the unjustly neglected “Asteroid City.” As IndieWire put it, “There’s never been such a concentration of hybrids in a single year.” Plenty of filmmakers have employed this technique before, but this was the year that filmmakers en masse made like Dorothy on her way to Oz, over and over and over again.

By no means are these films a homogeneous crop, and when they pare down their palettes, they do so to varied effect. In “Oppenheimer,” for example, the technique functions primarily as a sort of narrative aid, a magician’s flourish that allows Christopher Nolan to skip back and forth in time without confusing his audience. (Someone should show it to the guy who made “Tenet.”)

By contrast, Bradley Cooper’s shifts from color to black-and-white in “Maestro,” like the film’s other showy experiments with film stock, arguably help it capture something about the texture that Leonard Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre, added to his life. Mostly, though, they signal that this sweaty vanity project is actually a Very Serious Film, capable of going toe-to-toe with the year’s real best pictures. And perhaps it is, somewhere across the Spiderverse.

But compare that leaden performance of technique with the joyous outburst of color in “Poor Things,” an efflorescence that arrives on screen in a libidinous rush of literal pleasure. Here, the transition signifies Bella Baxter’s (Emma Stone) progressive discovery of her own agency, through her investigations of the world and her own body. This experience is, director Yorgos Lanthimos suggests, an Oz of the inner life, a wonderland one need never depart, even if they return to the proverbial Kansas of childhood.

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” meanwhile, sparingly uses black-and-white cinematography in a film reel near the start that depicts the oil-fueled wealth of the Osage. In an inversion of cinema’s traditional grammar, these monochromatic shots — filmed on a vintage camera from Martin Scorsese’s own collection — depict a sort of hyperreal vision of Indigenous freedom and ease, a fantasy that will be dramatically undercut by the real-world violence and oppression in the full color narrative that follows.

The year 2023 may ultimately be recognized as when superhero films fell from the Olympian heights. But if the shift from black-and-white to color is the year’s defining trait, it is evidence that cinema can still partake of spectacle, even in the absence of capes, masks and spandexed musculature. (For the record, at least one recent superhero film — Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” from 2022 — used bleached-out imagery to striking effect in a few scenes.)

Since the early days of modern cinema, the sudden appearance of color film in an otherwise black-and-white story has called audiences to attention. Otherwise monochrome early musicals, for example, sometimes presented special song and dance numbers in color, the abrupt blazon putting viewers on notice that they were seeing something special. (“The Color Purple” explicitly nods to this historical tradition in one pivotal musical sequence.) When the same thing happens (sometimes in reverse) in the year’s Oscar nominated films, they are likewise indicating that here before us is spectacle itself.

Few recent filmmakers have understood this better than Denis Villeneuve, who films some scenes on the militaristic Harkonnen homeworld in “Dune: Part Two” (a 2024 release that was originally planned for last year) in Leni Riefenstahl monochrome. After these scenes, which play out like a Rick Owens runway show at the 1936 Olympics, the desiccated landscapes and drab Fremen uniforms of the planet Arrakis look that much more vital by comparison.

But even “The Zone of Interest,” an always-restrained film, finds an irresistible drama in ambiguous black-and-white sequences — which depict a young Polish woman distributing apples around the margins of Auschwitz before returning to her home — that further underscore the ambivalence of life lived at the margins of monstrosity. This, it tells us, is something from which you cannot look away, a lesson not at all undermined by Jonathan Glazer’s refusal to show us the horrors his camera circles. The film’s scope is deliberately tight, and yet here and there its consciousness of color makes human complicity in the Holocaust loom so large that it fills the whole horizon of the imagination.

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If there’s a single lesson across these varied films, then, it may be that cinema is still prepared to insist on itself at a time when many of us have drifted away from the multiplex. Sure, the films of 2023 are sometimes colorless, but so, too, is a darkened theater in that brief moment before the projector springs to life.

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