If there’s been a message I’ve picked up over the last couple years, it’s been that movies are a life raft in rough seas and that movies are utterly powerless to intercede in concrete matters. In Woody Allen’s masterpiece The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s character learns that cinema can make a drab life worth living and that art (and, fittingly for a Woody Allen, artists) will not hesitate to let you down. That art can be an emotional balm but that there are limits to its power. If there’s a frustration in treacly love letter to the movies like Empire of Light, The Majestic, and even the very popular Cinema Paradiso, it’s that they do not really see the power of art as being complicated or compromised. Part of paying tribute to the power of art, I think, lies in recognizing the ways it can frustrate us and fall short. 2022’s The Fabelmans (a surefire entry on next year’s list) does well to find the nuance in its assessment of movie-making and how it can bring psychic turmoil as well as joy and relief. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s staggering 2021 gem Drive My Car, has a similarly complicated view of art, namely of the theatre. As its devastated play director marks the second anniversary of his wife’s very untimely death, there’s no sense that the play he is directing will be the thing to help him salvage something out of the tragedy. To paraphrase a lyric from acclaimed alternative band Superchunk, art cannot bring people back to this Earth. Producing a successful play cannot undo this man’s heartbreak. Putting on a show does not hold some miraculous power to banish sorrow and pen a new, happier chapter in his life. And it certainly does not hold any easy answers to his loss and how to cope with it. And yet, the three perfect hours of Drive My Car are marvelously healing in the end. Art does not really save the day in the film and one could argue that the directing of the play adds some strife and stress of its own, as the artistic process can often do. Maybe it’s just simply that grief gets shaped and sanded down by time and creating art is something one can do to fill that time. Art, like so much of what is good in life, cannot erase greif. What it can do is distract us and take our minds elsewhere for intermittent moments. As a character says in “Uncle Vanya”, the classic Chekov play our protagonist is directing, we must endure our share of sorrows and live our lives with the hope that we might one day look back on old pain with something like tenderness. We trudge on to a place where trauma does not go away, but simply hurts less. When I saw Hamaguchi’s film back in early 2022, the film’s notion of wrestling with anguish in a tender, almost optimistic way resonated with me a great deal. 2021 had not been easy, and even the return to my beloved movie palace could only do so much to counter that fact. And now at the end of a blistering 2022, with loved ones lost and new ordeals accumulated, the film’s gently walloping power has grown exponentially.
Mickey Rooney’s screamingly racist Japanese landlord makes up close to 100% of the flak against the 1961 romcom classic Breakfast At Tiffany’s and with entirely good reason. I’m not here to make the hot take that any other element of the Truman Capote-penned, Audrey Hep-burn enshrining charmer is as single-handedly damaging to its legacy. But I’ve long had a grip with the film of a more insidious nature. For as much as the film invites the viewer to be delighted and wholly won over by the idiosyncratic and free-spirited Holly Golightly, there can also be little argument that the film judges its bewitchingly flawed heroine within an inch of her life. For not being tied down yet. For being flighty in matters of love. For having the gall to wait until the film’s last minutes to fall into the arms of George Peppard’s dopey, dull beefcake. It’s Holly’s film and yet the choice to have it be about her long walk to settling down with Peppard kind of turns it into his story. Its climax is a floridly written guilt trip delivered by the Peppard character and it reads like an oddly literate chapter of “The Game”. The film cannot help but turn into the story of an entitled, enamored man who patiently (and finally impatiently) waits for the liberated woman next to him to surrender to his love and eventually wears her down. How dismaying that a turn of phrase like “wear her down” is still part of our culture’s romantic lexicon. Holly’s untethered spirit is the juice that animates Breakfast At Tiffany’s (a film solely about George Peppard trying to make it in the Big Apple would be insufferable) but the film’s journey is really about the tamping down of the very spirit that makes the movie. Watching an effortlessly charismatic and witty woman live according to her own rules is a giddy thrill, but we cannot countenance too much of that frivolity. She must make her choice at last. A real choice and not simply taking each day as it comes. Her male handlers (her perseverant suitor, her director, and her screenwriter) must corral her toward what constitutes a real life choice. And real life choices for female characters, even iconically self-possessed ones, have a stubborn way of funneling them toward men. By the end of Breakfast At Tiffany’s sparkling runtime, there is an obligation to be met. Holly has painted the town red and now there is a moral bar tab to be paid. The woman has the right to chose who she ends up with but she owes someone – some male someone – an answer. I like Breakfast At Tiffany’s a whole lot, but the stifling, entitled inevitability of that ending always feels like it denies something of Holly. As hard as Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” swells like its namesake and for as fervently as Blake Edwards’ direction plucks my heartstrings, it always feels like a bummer. Joachim Trier’s energetic and masterful romantic dramedy The Worst Person In the World is stuffed with a great many interesting ideas, but the most quietly revelatory thing about it might be how it acts as an antidote to so many romantic stories about taming an indecisive woman. In Trier’s beautifully sprawling and digressive gem, the year’s most sharply written female character, Julie, is allowed to be fickle, unsatisfied and unsure without ever being judged or losing the audience’s empathy. Unlike Holly Golightly, Julie’s rainbow’s end stretches on past the borders of the story we are watching. It is an ending beholden to neither a romantic partner nor an audience’s expectations. It belongs to her.