Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946). Cocteau’s take on the famed French fairy tale is elegant and unsettling, standing as a cunning exploration of the ways in which imagery and mood can reshape a familiar story. Beginning with opening credits written on a chalkboard (and then promptly erased) and an explanatory that calls for the film to be viewed with the appropriate childlike wonder, Cocteau also establishes a terrific playful quality. The resulting mix of the sublime and the goofy gives Beauty and the Beast (or, if you prefer, La Belle et la Bête) an absolute surplus of charm. Through it all, Cocteau also has a tender eye for the achingly cinematic — capes billow in slow motion, smoke wafts from paws like a need for connection made manifest — giving the film an appropriate dreamlike quality. This is the product of a haunted subconscious of a soul lulled to sleep by a dog-eared story that’s scarier than it seems.
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942). Following the free hand he was given on Citizen Kane, the second film by Welles introduced him to the sort of bloodily damaged relationship he would have with the entertainment industry through the rest of his career. Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons showed how the American epic unfolded in small towns and venerable families. The film was famously victimized by the studio, RKO, going through significant edits and revisions while Welles was away shooting another film in Brazil (that was never completed). What remarkable is how much of Welles’ boundless creativity and artistry remains intact. The film could be messed with, but the genius couldn’t be obscured. In some ways, the story is less important than the telling of it, the techniques Welles brought to, say, illustrating how the triumphs and travails of a single family could seep into the fabric of an entire community. Those who champion it as a superior film to Citizen Kane are likely projecting added brilliance on the unseen complete vision of Welles, falling for the romanticism of a betrayed artist. It’s not better than Kane, but it is a fascinating companion piece and high art all on its own.
The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949). This is the most Wellesian film that the great creative force appeared in without directing it, enough so that it seems right to slot this into his personal canon as the necessary link between his peak in the early nineteen-forties and the vital, compromised Touch of Evil. The story concerns a pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) who travels to Vienna to meet his old college cohort, Harry Lime (Welles), only to find himself defending his friend’s honor and investigating the supposedly unsavory circumstances behind his reported demise. It’s a moody, noirish wonder, defined by Reed’s perpetually unsettled camera and the gloomy, inspired sense of humor found in Graham Greene’s screenplay (he also published the story as a novella). Welles gives a magnificent performance. A thespian with a hampering weakness for the gummy application of heavy stage makeup and some affectations to match, Welles rarely allowed himself to get so much out of his natural presence and charisma.
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014). The excellent feature directorial debut from Kent, an Australian actress whose biggest stateside credit is Babe: Pig in the City, spins a jolly horror tale around a kid’s pop up book called The Babadook, which has some vividly creepy images to go with its starkly unsettling story. The real triumph of Kent’s film, however, is the way she wrenches the most grueling moments from the everyday challenges of life, particularly toiling in a dismal job and dealing with a difficult child. As a beset mother, Essie Davis gives a performance of exhausting intensity. Certain stretches push her so hard that she looks like someone who’s just completed a marathon by the time the mercy of a scene change arrives. She stays true to the tremulous emotion of each moment, which is especially affecting when Kent’s storytelling (she also wrote the screenplay) artfully swarms with ambiguity. The end of the film cleaves a little too close to horror film convention — except maybe for the wry punchline of the coda — but there’s enough daring in the rest of The Babadook to forgive that touch of the expected.
The Navigator (Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp, 1924). Two offspring of wealthy families inadvertently set out to sea on a stolen ship meant for a skirmish between nations. There’s some passing social commentary in Keaton’s film — co-directed with Crisp, who eventually won an Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley — mostly in the mockery of the ineptness of the moneyed class. The real appeal is watching the intricate physicality of Keaton’s onscreen inventiveness. If it lacks the sort of dazzling centerpiece present in Keaton’s best-known films, that absence also creates an appealing evenness to the film. It’s equally pleasing from stem to stern, never feeling like the whole production was pulled together as an excuse for a single trick.