Denzel Washington strides down a castle corridor ominously carrying a knife. A boy brandishes a wooden sword in 1960s Ireland. Two women exchange furtive looks in an upscale New York City tearoom. Joaquin Phoenix gets upstaged by a precocious boy playing his nephew. All of these scenes and stories gain another level of meaning and resonance for having been filmed in black and white.

This has been a banner year for films released in this artistic style, including “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “Belfast,” “Passing” and “C’mon, C’mon.” We had one prestige project last year, “Mank,” but I don’t recall any other big black-and-white films in 2020. The directors of these four films had to fight hard to realize their stories outside the norm of our standard color films. Why was the effort so important to them and was it a worthwhile endeavor?

Joel Coen shot his Shakespeare adaptation almost as a horror film. The witches are featured prominently in the trailer, and Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington look ominous in the footage. The cinematography fits the macabre mood and setting perfectly. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will be released at Christmas.

Kenneth Branagh opens his film with modern, color scenes of his hometown, Belfast. The movie transitions to black and white as we travel back in time to when he was a boy. “Belfast” gives life to Branagh's memories of the late ’60s, when he was living in an integrated neighborhood. The film's cinematography brings us in close to these characters. In their world, there’s not religious segregation, not a clear-cut black and white of Protestant and Catholic. The story's not a rosy one but this isn’t a polemic about The Troubles. The focus is kept on this one family and how their lives are affected by the violence and tension. The story is richer for not trying to offer a history lesson.

Mike Mills has made another film exploring family dynamics. He focused on his relationship with his father in his film “Beginners.” His film “20th Century Woman” seemed to be a tribute to his mother. Now that he's a father, we get the film “C'mon, C'mon,” which features a son. A graphic designer and photographer, as well as a writer and film director, Mills takes a film that travels across three cities, with flashbacks and video calls from additional locations and still maintains his central concept of three people exploring how to be in the world. The black-and-white cinematography bridges all the spaces to create the intimate space between these three characters.

Rebecca Hall, in her directorial debut, wrote the screenplay for her film “Passing.” Hall fought hard to have her vision of the book “Passing” (Nella Larson, 1929) shot in monochrome. It's a story of two women, both of them African American, who've chosen to present themselves to the world in very different ways. One woman, Clare (a luminous Ruth Negga), is "passing" for white and even marrying a racist man in Chicago. She's a childhood friend of our central character Irene (Tessa Thompson), who lives a seemingly more authentic life in Harlem in 1920s New York City.

As the film "Passing" progresses, we see that Irene is suffering from headaches and is increasingly needing time to rest. Clare has insinuated herself into Irene's life, but she's living a lie. Irene warns her that she's playing a risky game. Yet Irene's idyllic life of marriage to a doctor, two lovely boys and a maid does not satisfy her. Even her social work, her crusade for a racial justice organization, leaves her judging others and their intentions. Much of the inner life of these women is told through looks exchanged between them; lingering glances that are heavy with tension. Here are two women navigating race, and their own authenticity. And all in a time when a wrong word or glance could get a person lynched. Sadly, it’s a statement that echoes into our present day.

Joel Coen, Kenneth Branagh and Mike Mills choose to limit the color in their films for both artistic reasons and storytelling enrichment. Each of those films is a class affair. As a first-time director, Rebecca Hall stood firm and waited till she could afford to have her film shot in black and white. “Passing” needed that essential element to tell the story. Her film had the clearest reason for this artistic choice and earns its prestigious place among the best films this year.

Drinks With Films Ratings

Three martinis at a Harlem jazz club out of 5 for “Passing.”

Three-and-a-half Slurpies with lots of burping and shooting paper straw liners across the diner counter out of 5 for “C’mon, C’mon.”

Four shots of Irish whiskey with a beer chaser in a working-class bar in Belfast out of 5 for “Belfast.”