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Top 20 Films of 2022: #17- Armageddon Time

James Gray is a director of eclectic sensibilities. So even though his latest gem is set in the 1980s and mostly makes use of golden age hip hop and Clash-style punk for its soundtrack, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me busting out a little 90’s skate punk as a jumping off point for digging into his film. I enjoy the band NOFX quite a bit, in all their goofy, major chord glory. I am particularly fond of their 23-minute opus “The Decline”, a fiery, tonally diverse suite song that calls out the evils of everything from gun violence to anti-intellectualism to draconian marijuana laws. But its central thesis critiques a certain kind of myopic selfishness that feeds on fear. It’s the kind of frightened covetousness that turns garden variety self-interest into an all-consuming blaze of egomaniacal survivalism. One which transforms “my family comes first” into “my family comes only”. The idea that we only have the resources to care for our own, regardless of the consequences of that mindset. In the song’s rousingly cynical closing act, the learned emeritus Fat Mike roars out, “Fellow members, Club We’ve Got Ours. I’d like to introduce you to our host. He’s got his. And I’ve got mine. Meet the Decline.” This sprawling punk anthem came back to me as I watched James Gray’s autobiographical account of liberal New York Jewish family negotiating and painfully compromising their principles at the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Gray’s story is one of 2022’s most intellectually rigorous and deeply disquieting films because the people it most strongly takes to task are basically decent. The powerful advocates of classism and racism are mostly tucked away in the shadows and unseen. Gray alludes to the unscrupulous and the powerful intermittently (particularly by using the 1980 Presidential election as a loose framing device), but Armageddon Time is really the story of people who want to do the right thing. It is about people who want to be seen as compassionate but find themselves tripped up by the hurdles of prejudice, opportunism, generational trauma and moral cowardice. It is a potent and dismaying look at how American society prioritizes some people while stigmatizing others, and how even the well-meaning can be separated from their morals by the strong paternal hand of that society.

It’s the autumn of 1980 in New York City and a good-hearted but headstrong young Jewish boy named Paul Graff has just begun the sixth grade. Paul dreams of being an artist but his talent gets him sent to the blackboard on the first day when he draws a (quite good) rendering of his balding teacher. He doesn’t have to suffer his punishment alone for long, however, because another student all but volunteers to be punished with him. The teacher calls out the name of a young black boy, Johnny Davis. “The name’s Bond. James Bond”, the charismatic youngster suavely replies. They win their classmates’ laughter together and lose the right to participate in gym exercises for the day. Paul walks Johnny to his bus (Johnny lives in a poor neighborhood with only his grandmother) and they chat. They talk about Johnny’s dream of being an astronaut and the upcoming class trip to the Guggenheim Museum. Paul promises to pinch a 20-dollar bill from his mother’s purse so Johnny can afford to go on the outing. Paul lives a comfortable life, though his father (Jeremy Strong, strong) labors as a working class repairman. His maternal grandparents are wealthy enough to help the family. His older brother attends a rich private school downtown. His mother (Anne Hathaway, as great as I’ve seen her in quite some time) is a driven woman with plans to run for head of the District School Board. They live in a well-kept townhouse. Paul is especially close with his British-Ukrainian grandfather on his mother’s side, Aaron (an endearing and superb Anthony Hopkins giving one of the year’s truly great supporting performances). Aaron is a noble and doting man, always giving the Graff sons gifts and encouragement. He represents the very best angles of the Graff family, but even he has a somewhat stifling sense of familial tightness. He has known scarcity and hardship and a certain greedy fearfulness vibrates just below his genteel surface. His own Ukrainian mother saw her parents murdered by anti-Semitic hooligans. That was when she moved the family away from the Ukraine to Liverpool and from there across the ocean to New York City. The Graffs had had to fight prejudice and hate to become the modestly successful American family they are and they live with the uneasy feeling that it all could be taken away from them in an instant. That is why, when Paul’s blossoming friendship with Johnny lands him a suspension (they are both caught smoking pot in the stalls), kindly Aaron supports the decision to pull him out of public school and send him to the lofty, elite school his older brother attends. Paul is being pulled in two directions by his close bond with a nice, misunderstood black boy and by the forces that want to groom him into the thing that Johnny will never be allowed to be: a powerful, acceptable cog in society’s upper echelons. The private school does not settle the war for Paul’s soul; it only starts it. It does not settle the matter of Paul’s affluent future as his family hopes. Instead, the whole ordeal and especially his painful separation form Johnny opens Paul’s eyes to ugly and systemically violent truths about the American Dream and which people are handpicked to take part in it. Moreover, it sets in motion a tragedy that irrevocably changes these characters and alters the destiny of the man directing this film.

James Gray is much too eclectic of an auteur to be hemmed in by the kinds of stories he tells. He’s one of the last directors you could ever pigeonhole. He has been back to the turn of the century (The Immigrant and his masterpiece The Lost City of Z), into the future (Ad Astra) and occasionally to the present (Little Odessa and Two Lovers). His films have gone to Edwardian England, the remote Amazon, the far reaches of outer space and frequently returned home to his native New York City. If there’s a germ of a consistent them to be found in his work, I think it’s the heavy yoke of family and expectations. In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s astronaut sets out to find a father whose approval he has always craved, while that same father has suddenly cast off society’s expectations by going rogue. The Lost City of Z‘s Percy Fawcett starts as a social striver trying to clear his tainted family name before a chance to make good by mapping the Amazon points him down a path that is his alone. But while he loses himself in his beloved rainforest, the question that looms is whether he is doing right by his family back in England. Family and society are primal forces to either surrender to or rebel against but, no matter what, you can never entirely get away from them. Not even light years away from Earth. They are fundamental forces that govern life as James Gray sees it and we define ourselves, rebels and conformists alike, by how we respond to them. Gray renders this vision of his own family with fairness and empathy, but also with merciless honesty. Family can be an unflattering thing. Poison and antidote in one bottle. He shows the Graffs’ fearful selfishness, their blind entitlement, their internalized racism, the years of suffering anti-Jewish bigotry now unthinkingly projected out at the next marginalized group. He captures a brutal beating at the hands of his stern, emotionally repressed father. If Avatar: The Way of Water posits that family is a fortress, Armageddon Time adds that it is a fortress under siege with us trapped inside of it. Family can protect us but it can also suffocate us and drive us mad. The entire institution of family carries with it the uncomfortable notion that our empathy is partly spoken for, that we reserve a larger portion of our kindness and care for this group of people with the same genes as us. Armageddon Time is James Gray’s gently harrowing account of learning that opportunity and dignity are not apportioned equally in America. It is a harsh social truth and the brilliance of Gray’s film is in how he sees family as a snapshot of that truth in miniature.

Armageddon Time is about as insightful a film about white privilege as I have ever laid eyes on. What makes it brilliant is how it sees racism and privilege as the result of both deliberate cruelty and unconscious self-obsession. I was reminded of something Brad Dourif’s doctor from Deadwood said: “I see as much evil out of people coming up to justify themselves as those that set out to do harm.” A society of racial injustice and unequal opportunity is built a brick at a time by individuals afraid for their position; by those who fear that they only have enough capacity (of money, of time, of emotional energy) to see to themselves and their own circle. The gravitational pull of self-interest is hard to resist. Fat Mike has it right. He’s got his and I’ve got mine. The Graffs are basically well-meaning people. They do not espouse hateful rhetoric, though they fall right into prejudiced line the second this black boy’s existence looks like it could pose some vague threat to their child’s future. There is an unspoken theme about how people act out their own past oppression against another exploited group, passing their victimization along like a hot potato. The Graff family is vocally against Ronald Reagan but they are blithe participants in the society that is about to welcome Reaganism’s self-serving greed with open arms. They may be registered as Democrats but they eagerly push Paul into a school and a career track populated by the sons of the greedy, powerful and unprincipled. Many, this critic included, are perfectly willing to censure a system that is only interested in securing prosperity and safety for a privileged handful of whites, but it takes a different sort of courage to disavow the benefits of that system. To refuse what you are given and let your advantage go unused. Armageddon Time understands how hard it is for ostensibly progressive white people to refuse the money, so to speak, even when we know it has been stolen from the disadvantaged. We can critique the unjust enrichment of white over black all day long, but there is a tendency to do so in a very generalized way; a way that leaves our own selves out of the problem. The Graffs know things shouldn’t be the way they are, but they also feel they could really use any leg up that America is offering them. Even the noble and tolerant grandfather Aaron won’t say no to it. He accepts special treatment and remembers how recently the shoe was on the other foot. How not very long ago it would have been a Cossack’s boot breaking down their door. “The system is rigged and unfair,” we cry out and then discreetly drop the tainted coins into our pockets.

Armageddon Time is a personal coming of age story for James Gray but it also has the foreboding of a slowly unfurling horror movie. The slasher waiting in the bushes is the American 80s. And nobody’s ideals or best liberal intentions are safe. Gray’s wise, sober little tale has the clammy panic of a waking nightmare. The more Paul watches all of society degrade and devalue Johnny (from uncaring teachers who write him off to the police to to even other young black people), the more incensed Paul becomes and that’s when this world becomes truly scary for him. Because he learns that all his righteous indignation, disgust and sorrow can’t give him the courage to really do anything about it. The Armageddon in question is the total paralysis of human empathy and social action; the failure of our own convictions when we have to make a choice that might threaten our own interests. Meanwhile Johnny knows where his story is headed from the beginning. His resigned, worn out face tells us everything we need to know. He is heartbreakingly aware that no future has been set aside for him. When Paul worries about his teach punishing them for ditching a field trip, Johnny chuckles knowingly and says, “Nothing’s gonna happen to you, man.” Johnny has Paul’s back with a tender ferocity. He doesn’t have a chance against this depraved system, but it hurts him to see it grind down his friend. Paul sadly finds himself tongue-tied when two rich classmates at his new school ask him if he ever went to school with blacks. But of course they don’t use the word “blacks”. The Graffs watch a Reagan interview where he warns that this generation might be the one to usher in Armageddon. His Armageddon is a fear cudgel, which he will soon wild to help herd America into a notoriously conformist chapter of its history. That Armageddon isn’t what Reagan says it is, but it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The real cataclysm is the wilting of the American soul in the face of manufactured fear. The compromising of Americans’ principles as more of them prioritize financial security and make peace with the limits of their power to help the stigmatized, brutalized and neglected.  Sometimes that racist abuse takes the form of neglect. When Paul is sent to the principal’s office, the principal doesn’t know what to do with him and sends him right back. The message is crueler than mere punishment. Society has repeatedly let Paul know that it doesn’t much care what happens to him. He simply doesn’t matter. I have heard and digested the criticisms of Armageddon Time as being just another exercise in white guilt. But I find James Gray’s self-immolating autobiography so clear-eyed and scorching that I feel it avoids navel-gazing. It never feels like an act of indulgent self-flagellation or pat forgiveness. Certainly not forgiveness of any kind. It sees the human beings at the center of this story in all their dimensions, but it never lets a one of them off the hook. Under its muted, autumnal visual palette, Armageddon Time breathes a rebuking fire that consumes Gray’s loved ones and himself.

The problem Armageddon Time sees is how the future is forever being held back by the past. The way that, even if you were to assemble enough people who genuinely want to create a more equal and equitable world, they would need to sacrifice. They would need to agree to break with traditions that have protected and enriched them. Real justice would require drastic change and whoever created the system as it currently stands was cunning enough to entangle a lot of white Americans in it; to make sure that each of them has enough of a piddling token stake in the status quo that they feel they would suffer some detriment from altering it. In the way it sees the morass of self-interest and complacency as the enemy of progress, Armageddon Time reminded me of The Wire, David Simon’s revelatory show about law, crime and city politics in Baltimore. Various characters in that show envision and try to implement better, fairer ways of governing and policing. Better ways of being as a society. And the stark brick wall reality that they always butt up against is that it’s very difficult to get people to change an unjust system that own shares in. If only half the people in that system didn’t want to be judges and higher-ups, the unorthodox Detective McNulty laments. “But no, everybody stays friends. Everybody gets paid. And everybody has a fucking future.” It’s what Paul Graff’s family is doing when they place him in that private academy full of future judges, politicians and CEOs. They are buying him into that future that is so very beholden to the craven past. In what could have been too on the nose, the first person Paul runs into on his first day at rich school is Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump. He is there with his daughter Maryanne Trump Barry, an Assistant United States Attorney. She has come to the school’s assembly to tell this auditorium full of privileged white boys the unvarnished truth. The future has been prepared specially in advance for them. It has been paid for and gift wrapped to be given to them on a day not so far from today, in a year not so distant from 1980. It is of course expected that they will one day do the same, ensuring that the right to peace and prosperity is handed down to the chosen people who will gather in this same stately hall decades from now. Armageddon Time does not actually get its title from that Reagan interview. It’s instead a reference to “Armagideon Time”, a 1970s reggae song by a black Jamaican named Willie Williams. It was later covered by a great white British band  called The Clash. The song is about poverty and inequality and fighting back against systemic evils. There is not much hope in Armageddon Time outside of a small moment of symbolic victory for Paul. But there may be a nugget of hope in the lyrics of “Armagideon Time”, a reminder of what needs to be done if we could all find the courage and selflessness to do it. “A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight,” Williams sings. “Remember to kick it over.”

Top 20 Films of 2022: #18- The Woman King

Maybe it’s residual annoyance at her Oscar snub but I feel like starting this review with a nice, buttery hot take. I think I just might consider General Nanisca in The Woman King to be EGOT-winner Viola Davis’ best screen performance. Perhaps some Davis performances have loftier literary credentials (DoubtFencesMa Rainey’s Black Bottom). If her trademark volcanic intensity is what does it for you, maybe there have been times where she has quaked with more turmoil, when her hurricane force tears (and other more nasal-adjacent fluids) have rained down with more ferocity. Or times where she’s gotten more creative at applying her versatility to pulpy trash (Suicide Squad or, ahem, The Help). But Viola Davis’ work in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s lusciously mainstream African period piece is the one that I could wolf down a whole bowl of any time. I feel similarly about her work as Nanisca as I do about Russell Crowe’s irresistibly fun work as Ben Wade in 3:10 To Yuma. I feel about Viola Davis the way I feel about my favorite actor Paul Newman in many of his roles. In cases like these, the subtle character actor is unafraid to become a dynamic, show-stopping entertainer, and they manage to do it without sacrificing an ounce of their potent subtlety. It’s fun to watch actors this perfectly dialed in get saucy, fun roles like these because you can trust them to not go too big (a fact that puts this Davis performance full leagues above her work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Performances like this are arguments for how we might build a better star system. I don’t mean to glibly wave away the fears that movie stars are going away; that the nature of mega-stardom is changing or losing some of its draw with audiences. But I just cannot watch any ten minutes of The Woman King and not feel a little puzzled at the idea of the big, dynamic movie star being a dying breed. Here is a 57-year old woman playing a dramatic action role and utterly igniting the screen. While playing a character you have probably never heard of, no less. Yes, the nature of who can anchor a popular blockbuster film may be in flux. But 2022 made one thing abundantly clear to me. Viola Davis is a big old movie star.

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Top 20 Films of 2022: #19- Decision To Leave

Rumors of the visual motif’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. If 2022 is anything to go off of, we can hopefully expect to see the explosive resurgence of symbolic visual patterns that bring added meaning to a film’s themes and just give directors more fun imagery to play with. It may be rare that a motif absolutely makes a film but, like extra containers of parmesan and red pepper with your pizza, who would ever claim a film is better off without them? The past year gave us a couple of great visual motifs, both of which made use of elemental imagery. In S.S. Rajamouli’s game-changing RRR, the exciting Indian director used the contrasting elements of fire and water to represent two characters’ opposition and testy bond and, of course, to produce some absolutely astounding cinematic imagery. The year’s other great elemental motif came from South Korean gonzo maestro Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave. The Handmaiden director’s latest stylistically audacious, overwhelmingly romantic extravaganza’s spellbinding denouement features a dazzling and suspenseful motif of earth and water that does everything a visual motif should do. It speaks to the film’s themes. It burrows into the frenzied, lovelorn psyches of its leads. And it gives Park Chan-wook a way of ending on a profoundly unshakable crescendo of pure visual splendor. A poorly thought-out motif can occasionally feel amateurish or like its compensating for a lack of theme (okay, I promise to go a full ten reviews without critiquing The Revenant again), but great motifs take theme and harmonize over it in ineffably stirring ways. They make ideas more cinematic and some would say that is the most important thing a film can do. In the case of Decision To Leave, a film I found not simplistic but ideologically stripped down, the use of a diverse array of visual, elemental signifiers is part of what truly makes the film vibrate on its own singularly powerful wavelength. They should have sent an opera lover to write this review. It’s not that I don’t think Decision To Leave is a gorgeous, juicy piece of writing. It really is. But it’s a film that hits emotional highs and lows that are much better felt and seen than carefully corralled into words. Park Chan-wook’s latest disorienting feast is a deliriously rapturous and pained ode to the kind of love and obsession that turns us into sub-verbal animal versions of ourselves. Its terrific literate murder mystery is really just setting the table for a baser, more elemental mystery about human emotion. It’s a detective story about feelings so deep within our guts that words can’t even hope to reach them.

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Top 20 Films of 2022: #20- Nope



I would like to start my first review of the spellbinding 2022 cinema crop with a very heartfelt apology to estimable octogenarian Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski and the six very talented donkeys who starred in his lovely, wise and animal-loving late career triumph EO. I had it sitting at number 20 with my list seemingly finalized. I was eager to watch the film again and offer up my thoughts on that astonishing, relatively wordless gem. But I’m afraid that, at the absolute 11th hour, the fates came sprinting down the hall with a  last minute fax from top brass (quite the lively, Aaron Sorkian office this cinema-addled brain is!). Top 20 placement for EO was to be a reluctant, well, nope. While showing a close friend the latest David Ehrlich film countdown video, we turned to the subject of Jordan Peele’s Nope, which he had recently seen. In explaining why I had increasingly come to love it the more I sat with it, I began going into its teeming ideas and how they all mingled together or maybe didn’t. And as we parsed through them, I had a sudden epiphany about the fearsome sky predator that stalks our main cast throughout the film and how much dread Jordan Peele milks out of its nebulous shape. And that’s before we even see its shape. At first it’s just a blur, obscured by night or by cloud cover. “It’s scary how hard the creature is to pin down and describe,” my friend noted. “Right,” I replied before it suddenly hit me. “But then the Haywood siblings do find a way to describe him. They name him. He’s Jean Jacket.” I realized that, among Peele’s many insights on what scares us, he had subtly made a comment on how giving a name to something that feels beyond description and comprehension helps us reduce our fear of it. Sure, the creature is still an enormously terrifying threat, capable of eating a bleacher’s worth of people in barely an instant. But it also looks a lot like an unfolded denim jacket at one point (when it’s not looking like a big cowboy hat). And we can now laugh at the thing that frightens us. This was the moment I knew Nope had to be included in this countdown. A film so chock full of rich psychological ideas that it was still spitting new ones out at me all these months later just could not be denied. At this point, I’ll assume I’ve barely scratched the surface and that the next time I watch it a few more insights will tumble out of it. Like forgotten quarters out of an old jean jacket.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #1- Drive My Car

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 LightThe 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.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #2- The Worst Person In the World

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.

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