New Year’s Day: too late for year-end reflections but too early, as we all blearily nurse our prosecco hangovers, to charge forth into a new-release calendar. Rather, January is a month when I tend to gravitate towards old favourites, but not the sentimental nostalgia of Christmas time. Instead, I seek out the hopeful, the optimistic, the forward-looking – films on which to build a new outlook.
The genre of films that tick those boxes without sinking into drippy inspirational territory – or more simple feelgood fare – is a rather specific one, though it can encompass extravagant fantasy and downhome realism. The first and most straightforwardly uplifting film I thought of for my new year playlist was Rocky, a popular phenomenon from 1976 that has been so obscured by its subsequent sequels and mythos that people tend to forget what a plain, earnest and pure-hearted little film it is. It’s an underdog story that gets you high on the possibility of achieving anything, brings you down to reality a little bit, and finally reminds you that reality can be pretty good anyway. It encapsulates the spirit of realistic idealism I want for 2023.
In a different way, so does Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky: on its release 15 years ago, opinion was divided as to whether its irrepressibly cheerful protagonist, Poppy, so beautifully played by Sally Hawkins, was a model of mental health or an infuriating maniac, though that’s almost beside the point. It’s a rich, rather poignant character study of someone who makes a conscious decision to be happy, puts a lot of effort into sticking with it, and hardily weathers the social and practical obstacles of modern British living as a result.
All smiles and balloon-bright colours, Poppy’s England is the opposite of the one depicted in Francis Lee’s slowly blossoming gay love story God’s Own Country (2017), which begins in a mode of overcast rural miserablism before hard-won human connection colours its weathered faces and landscapes. Pair it with Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016), currently on BBC iPlayer: another story of love shamed, stifled and freed that makes its characters and audience alike work for its prevailing sense of hope. In another iPlayer gem, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s glorious otherworldly fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (1946), stiff-upper-lipped Englishness also blooms into iridescent emotional expression. For a dead man cast into purgatorial limbo, the persuasive strength of true love grants him a literal new lease on life.
It’s one of the few overtly spiritual films that stirs my rigidly agnostic soul. At one point it was resistant to the exquisite new age existentialism of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), though on a more recent revisit I found myself more susceptible to its rapturous reflections on the community we share in this life and the supposed beyond. Based on HG Wells’s novel, the marvellous 1936 sci-fi Things to Come also invites us to consider the vastest possibilities of the universe as it tracks mankind a century into the future – culminating not so far from now, in 2036, and insisting that our collective quest for knowledge and progress will see us through the rough patches.
It’s not to be confused with French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s gorgeous character study Things to Come (2016), though that proves to be a uniformly good title for works of wisely qualified optimism: following a middle-aged divorcee, played by Isabelle Huppert at her most unguarded, as she rebuilds life on her own terms, it’s one of cinema’s great begin-again stories.
Pair it with Claire Denis’s incomparably lovely 35 Shots of Rum (2009), about a Parisian father and daughter learning to maintain togetherness while living independently of each other, for a meditation on life going on, but better. Or Yasujirō Ozu’s tender, suitably nourishing midlife marital study The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1964), which shows how old relationships can be renewed with the gentlest of changes. Or, for rueful laughs amid the cheer, Hal Ashby’s May to December love story Harold and Maude (1971), in which naive fatalism meets morbid optimism, and death is both a farewell and a fresh start.
Also new on streaming and DVD
Don’t Worry Darling
Olivia Wilde’s much-vaunted second feature was all but suffocated by gossip surrounding its fractious shoot and publicity campaign. With the smoke cleared, I’d love to say the film stands above the chatter, but it remains a silly, sloppily conceived Stepford Wives riff, made watchable by Florence Pugh’s flinty performance and its attractive production values.
One of last year’s most pleasant surprises, this elegantly literate, weather-blown portrait of Emily Brontë rises above stuffy biopic convention by focusing as much on the young writer’s sensual world as her storytelling. Youthful but not in a try-hard way, lyrical but not excessively pretty, it announces star Emma Mackey and actor turned director Frances O’Connor as huge talents.
Incredible But True
The irrepressibly loopy French auteur Quentin Dupieux offers a typically skewwhiff view of time travel in this droll, bittersweet miniature, which sees a pair of suburban housebuyers sold on a most peculiar feature of their cellar: a portal that plunges them forward in time while rewinding their age. It’s a disciplined premise by Dupieux’s standards, yielding a rare degree of poignancy in his work – though there are robot-penis gags for balance.
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Streaming: the best hopeful films for a new year
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