It’s the same every year: It’s 11:59 p.m. on December 31st. You’re with people you love and having a good time and suddenly everyone’s counting. “Ten! Nine! Eight!” You grab that drink, find someone to smooch, and as the first notes of “Auld Lang Syne” hit your ears, you make a pledge: This is the year.
This year you will do it. You will get that promotion. You will lose those 10 pounds. You will finish reading Gravity’s Rainbow. Whatever your goal, the rush that comes with the switch on the annual odometer powers your sense of urgency and determination.
For a few weeks.
Then it’s back to the old habits and, what’s worse, guilt. Not only are you a failure for the old reasons, you’re a failure for a new reason, too, as you’ve broken your New Year’s Resolution. (Or, perhaps, you’ve taken advantage of the recently-dubbed “Blue Monday” to only start now. If so, hats off!)
Needless to say, all of us struggle, and many times in life we turn to art to offer us motivation. But sometimes art is there to say, “Hey, cool it, throwing in the towel is the right thing to do.” Here, then, are 11 movies we’ve selected to help you realize that failure sometimes isn’t just an option, it’s the proper result, and therefore, not really failure at all.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
This endlessly juicy and thinly-veiled examination of what working for fashion-and-media titan Anna Wintour is like is so exaggerated and caustic it could only be real. (Wintour, never to be upstaged, told Barbara Walters that she liked the film, and applauded Meryl Streep’s portrayal of “the decisive editor.”) Anne Hathaway stars as the put-upon newbie assistant always shy of the brass ring of approval. She enters the position with a jaundiced view of this phoney-baloney world, planning to work there for only one year as a stepping stone, but soon gets sucked into the nasty behavior and palace intrigue. Eventually she has her moment of clarity, quits her position, hurls her mobile telephone into a Paris fountain and walks into a better life.
Office Space (1999)
“I don’t think I’m gonna’ go anymore.” So says Ron Livingston’s Peter about his soul-drenching, meaningless office job. (Y2K prep. Anyone remember that?) His world is decidedly less glamorous than what we see in The Devil Wears Prada but the step taken — i.e., the step to quit — is similar. Both of these films feature young people with few life responsibilities who recognize they’re chasing goals that only “society, man” have created for them, but which actually clash with the colors of their soul. Peter quits (in hilarious, slacker fashion) then concocts a scheme (in Hollywood fashion), but ultimately finds respectable and meaningful work doing manual labor. Or as he puts it, “Making bucks, getting exercise, working outside.”
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Indiana Jones? The world’s foremost archaeology professor and plunderer of indigenous artifacts? A quitter? Hear me out! In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Joneses père et fils are on a quest through the Levant to find the Holy Grail (not a holy grail, the Holy Grail) before the pesky Third Reich can get their mitts on the thing. Jesus’ used tableware has been the life passion of the elder Jones (Sean Connery), but toward the end, he realizes that the chase for this object is consuming his life. Later, as he dangles over a visual metaphor, Indy (Harrison Ford) can either save his father or his father’s obsession, not both. “Let it go,” says Jones Sr., and a life lesson sneaks into a popcorn adventure film.
The Third Man (1946)
Harry Lime (Orson Welles) gets got at the end of The Third Man, and American pulp author Holly Martins has more than enough new material to work with from his post-War Vienna adventures. What conventional filmmaking tropes set up is that Martins (Joseph Cotten) will come away from all this Mitteleuropean intrigue having “won the girl,” Anna Schmidt, played by Alida Valli (credited merely as Valli, but whose full name was Baroness Alida Maria Laura Altenburger von Marckenstein-Frauenberg, proving that art often imitates art). At Lime’s funeral, though, Schmidt slowly approaches Martins, leaned up against a car, then sashays right past him without a passing thought. Martins flicks a lit match to the ground, realizes that pursuing her is pointless and, to Anton Karas’ zither melody, makes his way back to the U.S. alone.
The Beach Bum (2009)
Harmony Korine’s recent sun-and-weed-baked Florida family drama presents Matthew McConaughey as one of cinema’s edgier Zen masters with Moondog. He’s a hard-partying, self-styled poet who seems like a whole lot of fun, so long as you don’t depend on him for anything. When tragedy (that he isn’t exactly not responsible for) strikes, the financial nest-egg that’s kept him in beer cans and hot tubs is taken away. A deal, however, is struck: If he can finish his novel, he can get back on the dole. The twist comes when he does it and actually wins the Pulitzer Prize. But these are, in his mind, ill-gotten gains. When his money ship (literally) comes in, he sets it ablaze to sail off on his own again.
The Commitments (1991)
The first of Roddy Doyle’s semi-connected Barrytown Trilogy of books and films, Alan Parker’s adaptation shows us the world’s greatest bar band, a group of dirt poor North Dublin kids with no future singing R&B and soul. Jimmy (Robert Arkins) is the manager with vision who keeps a running celebrity interview going on in his head. He wrangles a group of misfits just talented (or, in the case of the backup singers, beautiful) enough to sound better-than-half-bad. Their lead singer, however, is a drunken sod, and the in-fighting begins before they’ve even booked a gig. The energy is there and a record deal doesn’t sound too far-fetched — if Jimmy wants to drive himself nuts chasing the dream. For everyone who ever loved a local band that was terrific but went nowhere, this movie spells out why.
New York, New York (1977)
For a film roundly considered flop, this has quite a legacy. Every single time the New York Yankees win a game (which is a lot!) we hear Frank Sinatra’s version of the John Kander and Fred Ebb original from Martin Scorsese’s 1940s-style musical, seen through the 1970s-style “New Hollywood” lens. Robert De Niro is a saxophonist and Liza Minnelli is a singer who fall in and out of love as their stars rise. The movie doesn’t really quite work, but it’s definitely still worth seeing, especially for the terrific final sequence in which the former lovers — who you think are going to get back together — are about to meet at a predestined spot. Just as story mechanics bend to the type of sappy ending both characters would reject, they realize they need to give up on this doomed love. Both turn around, each not knowing what the other is thinking. But it doesn’t matter; they’ve finally moved on.
I Give It A Year (2013)
An adorable and overlooked rom com from Sacha Baron Cohen associate Dan Mazer, Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall play a fetching couple that inspire all their friends (and we in the audience) to root that they will one day come to their senses and realize they aren’t meant for one another. Both Rose and Rafe have true loves waiting for them in Simon Baker and Anna Faris, it’s just that the timing didn’t work out. Only when they finally work up the courage to admit they should quit will anyone find happiness. It’s a really upbeat and loving story for everyone involved; boy, if only life were like this.
Take This Job and Shove It (1981)
This movie only exists in a haze of flimsy 16mm memory for me, but it is, in fact, based on the Johnny Paycheck song of the title. There’s a brewery, there are good old boys, and at some point along the way, someone tells someone else to “take this job and shove it” and I can only imagine the audience cheered. Let’s move on.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
It’s only when Tony Manero (John Travolta) wins that he realizes he’s a loser. The alpha of his pack of outer-borough Italian-American bros who live a life torn apart by Catholic guilt and lawlessness, Tony clings to the one thing that sets him apart: disco boogieing. Ostensibly focused on a big dance competition, paired with a local girl who might be going places (Karen Lynn Gorney — why didn’t her career take off? She’s fantastic!) the showdown comes and they win the trophy. But Tony realizes he was out-hoofed by a Puerto Rican couple, and he only got the prize because he’s a local favorite. It’s the first in a number of things (date rape! death-wish accidents!) that lead him to realize he needs to forget local club life, change everything about his environment and start over.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing comedy is getting more and more politically dated each year, but funny is still funny, even if it doesn’t match modern social codes. We’re gonna zero in to the very end, when on-the-lam Jerry (Jack Lemmon) ends up as “Daphne” and on the yacht belonging to Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). Osgood has proposed marriage, and it looks like finally Jerry is going to have to admit that “Daphne” is a fake, risking reprisals from the mob. “I’m a man,” he finally tells his suitor while removing his wig, who still won’t take no for an answer. “Well,” Osgood replies, “Nobody’s perfect.”
And if there’s one lesson you should take with you through resolution season, it’s that one.