1 Vera Drake
I had never seen the actress Imelda Staunton until Vera Drake. She was very impressive. She embodies the average matron and yet she packed such a punch in this film. She evokes sympathy and, at the same time, frustration.
Vera Drake is a 2004 British film that tells the story of Vera Drake; a working class, middle aged matron who cares for her family and performs illegal abortions.
The film relied heavily on improvisation; only Imelda knew that the film was about abortion before filming started, and none of the actors playing her family members knew that her character would be arrested. In this way, the film moves beyond the idea of the politics of abortion and towards another idea; what happens when a family member has a gigantic secret? What happens when people are not as you suspect?
The film is by no means a comedy, but provokes difficult questions and challenges preconceived assumptions about people, families, and relationships.
2 Song of Bernadette
The Song of Bernadette tells the story of St. Bernadette, a young girl in 19th century Lourdes (a small town in the South of France) who had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. The part is played by Jennifer Jones, who plays Bernadette from a teenage girl to the time of her death from tuberculosis in a convent. The film follows her and the town, which is transformed by these visions.
The film is very much a product of its time. Jennifer Jones is far too old to play young Bernadette, and she plays her like an adult trying to play a child. This was common at the time. The soundtrack relies heavily on strings, which are overly emotional and rarely subtle. People should be aware of these trends in old movies before they watch this film, or other old films. Once viewers accept these trends, they can move past them.
This film is a pleasant surprise. Despite the theme, The Song of Bernadette is surprisingly grounded. The people in the village are delightfully real, and show mixed motives in the face of the apparitions. The mayor, originally opposed to a girl seeing visions of a beautiful woman, eventually supports them when he realizes how much money his village can make. The film also presents a woman, who, on the surface, is a cardboard villain; but as the film progresses, we are allowed to understand her motivation and see her point of view. How often can we say that about a film?
3 Beauty and the Beast
And now for a complete change of mood.
This is one of my all time favorite films. I adored it as a child; and it holds up even today. It was the first (and I believe the only) animated film ever nominated for Best Picture. I am putting this film on the list, because I feel that Belle is the protagonist. I also feel that she is one of the most splendid women characters I have ever seen.
Many films either make women objects or warriors. Belle is neither. She is feminine, and yet she has wants and personality. She is sweet, (perhaps a little too sweet) but she is perfectly capable of making choices and driving the narrative of the film. It is because of the choices that Belle makes that the story happens, unlike Sleeping Beauty who just happens to be cursed and then just happens to be kissed.
The film has an excellently structured story, a complex villain, wonderful music, and effects that were groundbreaking for its time. The ballroom scene made use of computer generated effects that would help pave the way for the modern film era. All that and a happy ending to boot!