Total Recall

Total Recall: New Year's Eve Movies

We look back at ten films centered around the end-of-year celebration.

by | December 29, 2009 | Comments

Tradition holds that the only thing we’re supposed to watch on New Year’s Eve is an assortment of minor celebrities doing their best to entertain us before the ball drops in Times Square — but as any self-respecting film buff knows, there are any number of movies whose plots revolve in some way around the changing of the calendar year, and quite a few of them are a lot more entertaining than any “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” (Sorry, Dick Clark.) For this week’s Total Recall, we decided to take a cross-section sampling of New Year’s flicks from various genres, touching on some classics and a few surprises along the way. Break out the bubbly, because 2010 is almost here, and we’re celebrating Total Recall style!


Boogie Nights

The next time you’re stuck at a dud of a New Year’s Eve party, sitting around eating bad pizza and waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square, just remember: It could always be worse. You could, for instance, have been a guest at the shindig thrown by Little Bill (William H. Macy), the Boogie Nights character who rings in 1980 by killing his wife and her boyfriend — and then turns the gun on himself. For the rest of the movie’s characters, this ugly incident is only the beginning of a long descent into the seamy side of the early ’80s; for Nights itself, however, it’s one of a handful of harrowing sequences in a film that established writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson as a star while delivering an unexpectedly sweet message. As Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid wrote, “If it weren’t for the porn, drugs, and violence, this would be an ideal movie to take the kids to. It’s all about belonging, and sticking with your family.”


The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Most of us have high hopes for the year to come when the clock strikes midnight on December 31 — hopes that are eventually dashed to some degree, but rarely with the speed and blockbuster vigor shown in 1972’s The Poseideon Adventure. Adapted from the Paul Gallico novel, this Irwin Allen production kicks off with a New Year’s Eve celebration on an aging luxury liner. The ship is bound for the scrapyard, but never makes it, on account of a tsunami that capsizes the darn thing mere moments after its well-dressed passengers have finished singing “Auld Lang Syne.” The poster billed it as “HELL, UPSIDE DOWN,” but critics were a little more generous — Betty Jo Tucker of ReelTalk Movie Reviews, for instance, called it “one of the best disaster movies of all time!”


When Harry Met Sally

It’s the infamous deli scene that gets all the attention, but New Year’s Eve actually figures quite prominently in When Harry Met Sally. Not only is it at a New Year’s party that Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) realize their long-sublimated attraction for one another, but the film itself climaxes (ahem) at another New Year’s shindig, where the two star-crossed lovers finally come to terms with their relationship once and for all. Plus, When Harry Met Sally is the only film on our list to feature a comedic riff on the New Year’s anthem “Auld Lang Syne.” As Harry puts it, “I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?” A career high point for director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron, it is, as Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “A ravishing, romantic lark brimming over with style, intelligence and flashing wit.”


In Search of a Midnight Kiss

This list includes plenty of famous films and iconic scenes, but if you’re looking to add something a little more unfamiliar to your New Year’s Eve viewing schedule, you could hardly do better than 2008’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss. Written and directed by Alex Holdridge, this award-winning indie follows the tale of Wilson (Scoot McNairy), a disaffected 29-year-old whose barren love life and dire financial straits leave him feeling less than festive as the new year approaches. But thanks to the prodding of a friend, Wilson posts a last-ditch Craigslist ad — and, this being the movies and all, the ad leads him to Vivian (Sara Simmonds). It’s a familiar tale, but one that can push all the right buttons when it’s told properly, and Holdridge pulls it off here. “It’s a great feeling, isn’t it,” asked Matt Brunson of Creative Loafing, “falling in love with a movie about falling in love?”


Holiday Inn

Odds are, you’ve had a little more to drink than you should on New Year’s Eve. You’ve probably danced, too — and you may have even fallen in love. But you probably haven’t done it with as much style as Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), the jilted song-and-dance man who spies Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) across a dance floor and spends the holiday providing a drunken kickoff to one of the more entertaining love triangles in cinematic history. Over the course of a year’s worth of holidays — including a pair of New Year’s celebrations — Ted tussles for Linda’s affections with his on-again, off-again partner, Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby). Holiday Inn generally isn’t considered Crosby or Astaire’s best film, but its 100 percent Tomatometer rating should tell you everything you need to know about just how solid both stars’ filmographies really are. “Call it old-fashioned or old Hollywood fluff,” wrote Christopher Varney of Film Threat, “Holiday Inn is a sweet, pleasant slice of another time in pop entertainment.”


The Apartment

How do you follow up a masterpiece like Some Like It Hot? For Billy Wilder, the answer was simple: Reunite with Jack Lemmon for one of the most honest (and surprisingly dark) comedies of the ’60s. Lemmon leads The Apartment as C.C. Baxter, a low-level cog in the gears of a major New York City insurance company who is manipulated by his managers into letting them use his apartment for their frequent extramarital activities. Too weak-willed to challenge his superiors, Baxter trades his silence for promotions until he realizes his firm’s personnel director (Fred MacMurray) has been carrying on with the elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) for whom he’s silently been carrying a torch. This sets in motion a chain of events that culminates — on New Year’s Eve, natch — with the charmingly cynical Wilder equivalent of a happy ending. Daring for its time, The Apartment is noteworthy not only for its rock-solid script and collectively strong performances from its cast, but for the quiet truths it communicates underneath the laughs. As Roger Ebert wrote, “There is a melancholy gulf over the holidays between those who have someplace to go, and those who do not. The Apartment is so affecting partly because of that buried reason.”


The Godfather Part II

One of the most critically and commercially successful sequels of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II traces the bloody decline of the Corleone clan through a series of double crosses, power plays, and the inexorable corruption of power. At its crux is the infamous “kiss of death” scene that unfolds at a New Year’s Eve party hosted by doomed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista: while other partygoers are enjoying the festivities, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) confronts his treacherous brother Fredo (John Cazale) — who tried to have him assassinated at the beginning of the film — with the bone-chilling kiss and the words “I know it was you, Fredo; you broke my heart.” The shattering of the brothers’ bond represents a point of no return for Michael, and watching it unfold against the backdrop of a celebration of hope and renewal makes it even more heartwrenching — one more reason Godfather Part II is, in the words of Dan Jardine of the Apollo Guide, “The mother of all sequels.”


Trading Places

Think you’ve had some wild New Year’s nights? You’re a minor leaguer compared to Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason), the shady associate of Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, respectively) who just wants to sell a stolen orange crop report — but ends up being assaulted, dressed in a gorilla costume while unconscious, locked in a cage with an actual gorilla, and shipped off to Africa. Moral of the story? Don’t mess with Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) and Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and never underestimate a hooker named Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis). Oh, and another thing: Trading Places is, in the words of David Nusair of Reel Film Reviews, “one of the most impressive comedies to emerge out of the 1980s.”


End of Days

The last few months of 1999 were a strange time, what with all the Y2K hysteria and general end-of-the-century hoopla the human race seems to fall prey to every hundred years. But for sheer loud, loopy weirdness, none of it held a candle to End of Days, the Peter Hyams action thriller that gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jericho Cane, the retired cop who ends up battling Satan (played, in a bit of perfect casting, by Gabriel Byrne) for control of the womb of Christine York (Robin Tunney), the woman prophesied to conceive the devil’s child on New Year’s Eve, 1999. One of two movies founded on eschatological fantasy that year (the other, Stigmata, also starred Byrne), End of Days benefited from a new Guns N’ Roses song on the soundtrack, as well as a scene in which Schwarzenegger’s character launches a grenade at Satan. Sadly, critics were unmoved; as James Sanford of the Kalamazoo Gazette described it, watching Days is “sort of like listening to that old Toto album tucked away somewhere in your music collection. You remember thinking you used to like this kind of stuff, but you can’t quite recall why.”


Waiting to Exhale

For some of us, New Year’s Eve is little more than an excuse to have a party; for others, it’s a time of reflection and reassessment — a line, however arbitrary, between the old and the new. It’s fitting, then, that 1995’s Waiting to Exhale (adapted from the Terry McMillan novel) uses a pair of New Year’s Eves as bookends for a turbulent year in the love lives of its four main characters. As the movie begins, Savannah (Whitney Houston), Bernadine (Angela Bassett), Robin (Lela Rochon), and Gloria (Loretta Devine) are each at a crossroads — and though we can’t tell you how things turn out for each of them without spoiling the movie (and taking up too much space in the bargain), we can tell you the journey was an enjoyable one for critics like Desson Thomson of the Washington Post, who wrote, “This sister-celebratory adaptation of Terry McMillan’s best-selling book is frequently delightful.”


For more Total Recall articles, be sure to take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And of course, please have a fun, safe, and happy new year!

Finally, here’s a little New Year’s “cheer” brought to you courtesy of Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan: