Total Recall

Total Recall: New Year's Eve Movies

With New Year's Eve hitting theaters, we take a look at some memorable movies set on December 31.

by | December 8, 2011 | Comments

New Year's Eve

The words “from the makers of Valentine’s Day” may not fill you with excitement, but judging from the star-studded cast of Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve, most of Hollywood felt differently: this weekend’s biggest wide release features a Who’s Who of famous faces, including Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Abigal Breslin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Hilary Swank. Naturally, we knew we had to dedicate this week’s list to New Year’s Eve movies. Those of you with sharp memories may remember that we did a New Year’s Eve list just a couple of years ago, but as a number of commenters were all too happy to remind us at the time, it only scratched the surface — so here’s another batch of films for your 12/31-centric viewing pleasure. From comedies to dramas, from sci-fi to romance, there’s something here for cineastes of all tastes. Let’s watch the ball drop together, Total Recall style!

About a Boy


While it could be argued that this 2002 Hugh Grant dramedy hit isn’t exactly a “New Year’s movie,” it’s certainly true that the holiday represents a significant turning point for the main character, Will Freeman (Grant), whose journey from shallow layabout to feeling adult human begins when he meets the luminous Rachel (Rachel Weisz) at a New Year’s Eve party. Toss in the warm-hearted Christmas finale, and About a Boy is a film with enough holiday spirit to make the cut. As Manohla Dargis wrote in her review for the L.A. Weekly, “There’s not much more to this adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel than charm — effortless, pleasurable, featherweight charm.”

Assault on Precinct 13


Jean-François Richet’s remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 thriller retains the same basic gist of the original — a straight-arrow cop (Ethan Hawke) joins forces with a crook (Laurence Fishburne) to defend his shuttered precinct against a gang of criminals — while moving the action to New Year’s Eve. Not exactly the most festive way to spend the last night of the year, but the updated Assault on Precinct 13 proved entertaining for critics like Daniel Etherington of Film4, who called it “A dark, exciting and enjoyable action-thriller for adolescent boys of all ages.”

Better Luck Tomorrow


Think you’ve been to some pretty terrible New Year’s Eve parties in your day? Just be glad you weren’t invited to the bloody beatdown that transpires during the climax of Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. A desperately grim look at the lives of overachieving suburban teens, Luck drops its protagonists into a downward spiral of drugs, crime, violence, and jealousy…and when that midnight kiss finally comes, it’s less a celebration of the new year than a doomed attempt to cling to some sense of normalcy. “It’s not a perfect work,” admitted Tom Long of the Detroit News, “but it is so filled with energy, angst, talent, authenticity and passion that it stands heads above most supposed youth-culture releases.”

The Gold Rush


Like most holidays, New Year’s Eve is meant to be spent with friends and family — and in the movies, any character who spends the evening alone is more than likely feeling pretty melancholy. Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 classic The Gold Rush provides a particularly poignant example with its classic New Year’s Eve sequence, in which Chaplin is duped into believing the object of his affection will be stopping by his poverty-stricken cabin to celebrate, only to be stood up — and eventually fall asleep at his table, dreaming he’s the life of the party after all. Calling it “the outstanding gem of all Chaplin’s pictures,” Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote, “Here is a comedy with streaks of poetry, pathos, tenderness, linked with brusqueness and boisterousness.”

The Hudsucker Proxy


Put the Coen brothers together with Sam Raimi and a top-shelf cast that included Paul Newman, Tim Robbins, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and what do you have? Well, a huge box office flop and sort of a critical misfire, actually — but beyond all that, The Hudsucker Proxy is one of the more unusual comedies to make its way into theaters during the 1990s, boasting a screwball plot about a corporate mailroom worker (Robbins) who’s used as a patsy by a duplicitous board member (Newman) in a convoluted scheme that eventually leads to the invention of the hula hoop. Oh, and did we mention that the film’s climax takes place on a skyscraper ledge on New Year’s Eve? It’s easy to see why folks didn’t know what to make of Hudsucker when it was released, but over time, more than a few have come to agree with Chris Hicks of the Deseret News, who wrote, “This wild-eyed, sentimental, old-fashioned comedy is definitely parked in Frank Capra-Preston Sturges-Howard Hawks territory, but it is also imbued throughout with the Coens’ own brand of genre-tweaking and sly, winking humor.”

Money Train


Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson were so good together in White Men Can’t Jump that plenty of people wanted a reunion — but most of them had to have been hoping for something better than Money Train, a rote buddy thriller about a pair of squabbling foster brothers who, for reasons too complex and/or silly to get into here, use their background as transit cops to plan a New Year’s Eve heist on the New York City subway system (while vying for the affections of Jennifer Lopez). Though it didn’t come close to Jump‘s $90 million gross, Snipes and Harrelson’s second act did earn the praise of critics like Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, who argued, “Money Train is a by-the-numbers action-buddy picture, and few directors run through those numbers as smoothly as Joseph Ruben.”

Ocean’s 11


Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of this Rat Pack caper comedy might be slicker (not to mention generally better, as far as most people are concerned), but the original has a campy charm all its own — not to mention a heist that takes place on New Year’s Eve. While everyone on the Vegas Strip is singing “Auld Lang Syne,” Frank Sinatra and his gang knock out the electricity and abscond with five casinos worth of loot. Wrote Empire Magazine’s appreciative Colin Kennedy, “From smokes to suits, you get a real flavour of Las Vegas while it was still cool — all of it beautifully shot by the veteran cinematographer William Daniels.”

Radio Days


Unlike most of the movies on this list, Woody Allen’s Radio Days doesn’t hinge its plot on New Year’s Eve. But like the holiday itself, it’s mostly about memories, many of them bittersweet — underscored by the film’s final scene, in which Allen uses the holiday to frame the inexorable march of time, telling the audience, “I never forgot that New Year’s Eve when Aunt Bea awakened me to watch 1944 come in. And I’ve never forgotten any of those people or any of the voices we used to hear on the radio. Although the truth is with the passing of each New Year’s Eve those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer.” Allen’s words resonated with Roger Ebert, who wrote, “Like music, the movie builds toward a climax we can’t even guess is coming, and then Allen finds the perfect images for the last few minutes for a bittersweet evocation of goodbye to all that.”

Strange Days


Before director Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, she ventured into cyberpunk sci-fi with this thriller about an ex-cop-turned-bootlegger (Ralph Fiennes) who’s drawn into a deadly conspiracy surrounding the police department’s murder of a rapper (Glenn Plummer). It all culminates at a New Year’s Eve party full of double crosses, shocking revelations, a good old-fashioned street riot, and — of course — a smooch at the stroke of midnight. It “creates a darkly logical extension of our media-wired culture of vicarious sensation seekers,” wrote Owen Gleiberman for Entertainment Weekly, adding, “It’s as if Philip K. Dick had recircuited Brian De Palma’s brain.”

Sunset Boulevard


Though plenty of people use it as an excuse to spend the day watching football and the evening drinking too much, the true spirit of New Year’s Eve is one of reflection and hope for the future — even if you’re Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a faded movie star with zero career prospects, severe emotional problems, and a guest list of one: your houseboy/unwitting paramour, screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden). Norma’s party ends pretty badly, but Sunset Boulevard is an absolute classic — and, as Andrew Sarris wrote for the New York Observer, “Still the best Hollywood movie ever made about Hollywood.”

200 Cigarettes


At 29 percent on the Tomatometer, it isn’t one of this list’s biggest critical winners, but there’s no denying the New Year’s Eve-ness of 200 Cigarettes — the entire film takes place on December 31, 1981, and follows the multitudinous narrative arcs of a group of partygoers as they prepare to assemble at a NYE bash being thrown by a neurotic New Yorker (Martha Plimpton). Despite appearances from a gaggle of familiar faces (including Christina Ricci, Janeane Garafalo, Ben and Casey Affleck, and Courtney Love), Cigarettes failed to make much of an impression during its February theatrical run, but it did enjoy the support of critics like Phil Villarreal of the Arizona Daily Star, who called it “An underrated, entertaining lark of a Tarantinoesque film.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for New Year’s Eve.

Finally, here’s Jimi Hendrix wishing you and yours a very happy new year: