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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Auld lang syne

Last week we posed and answered the softball question: What is the ultimate Christmas movie? But what about New Year’s? Is there an ultimate New Year’s movie? Is there such a thing as a New Year’s movie at all?

Frankly, I can’t think of one. Not a proper New Year’s movie in the same sense that we talk of “Christmas movies.” Unlike Christmas, New Year’s doesn’t have an overt religious component, so there aren’t any Hollywood biblical epics telling us “the story of New Year’s.” Nor does there seem to be any well-worn universal family traditions built around January 1 that would facilitate or inspire particular cinematic stories. No, I’m afraid that as far as the movies go, New Year’s, or more specifically New Year’s Eve, is relegated to a mere standard plot device or narrative shorthand for certain things. These can be broken down into the following general groups:

  • The Deadline: Narrative tension in a movie is often driven by a deadline by which something must happen or something really dire will then ensue. For some reason, the tension gets ratcheted up by making the deadline midnight, apparently enhanced by the official passing from one day to another. It gets ratcheted up even further if it is midnight on December 31, due to the passing from one year to another. So, it stands to reason that you can squeeze a bit more free tension out of the situation if that New Year’s Eve deadline is also the end of the century or, better still, the millennium. The movie that got the most mileage out of this device was 1999’s Entrapment, which pinned its plot to the then-fashionable notion that all the computers in the world were going to go blooey when the clocks flipped over to 1/1/2000. (Anyone still remember the “Y2k bug”?). Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones did the honors. This use of New Year’s Eve goes back at least as far as the original Rat Pack version of Ocean’s 11, in which a simultaneous robbery of five Las Vegas casinos is timed for midnight December 31. Another New Year’s deadline of sorts was used as a plot device in John Carney’s 2001 Irish youth drama On the Edge. That story involved a group of teenagers who are committed to a hospital because they are all suicidal. Early on, in a show of mutual group support, the kids make a pledge among themselves not to kill themselves before the end of the year. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Maybe the pact made some sort of sense, although I would have pushed for a later deadline, like end of the decade or end of the century or the end of time. But worse was the decision to have a New Year’s Eve party in the house next to a very high cliff.

  • Ultimate romantic fulfillment (or, alternatively, complete lack thereof): I have lost track of whether this is true in real life or not but, in the movies, New Year’s Eve is the pinnacle of litmus tests of whether your entire life has any romantic validity whatsoever. In film after film, December 31 is the day that determines ecstasy and fulfillment or depression and pointlessness in characters’ sentimental lives. This tradition goes back at least as far as 1925 when Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp invites the saloon hall girl he fancies and her three friends to his cabin for New Year’s Eve. Things go well for him in a dream sequence, but they go less well when he wakes up at midnight to the sound of gunfire in the saloon. In 1930’s The Divorcee, Norma Shearer’s husband cheats on her and they split up. After entertaining the attentions of Robert Montgomery and Conrad Nagel, she winds up reconciling with her ex on (when else?) New Year’s Eve. Also, on New Year’s Eve Cary Grant realized he was engaged to the wrong woman in 1938’s Holiday and proposed to Irene Dunne in 1941’s Penny Serenade. Gene Kelly pined for Leslie Caron amidst New Year’s Eve revelry in 1951’s An American in Paris. And in 1950, faded film star Gloria Swanson’s manipulations to hold on to boy toy William Holden all come a cropper when she throws a big New Year’s Eve party and he realizes that he is the only guest, in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Blvd. Wilder used the New Year’s Eve gambit ten years later in The Apartment, in which Shirley MacLaine resolves to stop loving the wrong man. More recently, New Year’s Eve has figured as an underline to romance, or lack thereof, in such movies as When Harry Met Sally. and Sleepless in Seattle (both penned by Nora Ephron and featuring Meg Ryan), The Cutting Edge, Bridget Jones’s Diary and About a Boy. French director Claude Lelouch combined the caper and romance angles for his 1973 film Happy New Year, which was remade in a 1987 American version with Peter Falk and Charles Durning. The romantic New Year’s Eve angle took a decidedly dark turn in 1977’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar when the movie ended with first-grade teacher and serial one-night-stand artist Diane Keaton picking up the wrong guy on New Year’s Eve and getting killed. The popular and frequent use of New Year’s Eve as a barometer of romantic well-being is so well-established that the phenomenon was actually something of a plot point in the 1999 Australian romantic comedy Strange Planet, in which the narrative not only begins and ends with New Year’s Eve but one of the characters makes a New Year’s resolution not to watch any more movies that star Meg Ryan or Cary Grant.

  • Craziness and/or debauchery: In a lot of movies, New Year’s Eve is simply an occasion for things to get wild, crazy and completely out of hand. In 1983, Alan Ackrush drew from his experience working at the Fillmore East rock palace to make a movie, with a cast that included Malcolm McDowell and Daniel Stern, about a New Year’s Eve rock concert gone awry called Get Crazy. The 1989 adaptation of Damon Runyon’s Bloodhounds of Broadway set the escapades of his colorful gangsters and showgirls against the backdrop of New Year’s Eve 1928. In 1992 a group of friends, who had been part of the same comedy troupe some 10 years earlier, are gathered together for a reunion on New Year’s weekend at an estate in the English countryside. Needless to say, revelations abound and things get a bit crazy. The film was Kenneth Branagh’s Peter’s Friends, in which he cast, among others, himself, then-wife Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton and Rita Rudner. The 1995 anthology film Four Rooms featured a segment directed by Robert Rodriquez in which bellboy Tim Roth runs into trouble babysitting the kids of Latino tough guy Antonio Banderas, while the parents are at a New Year’s Eve party. And one of my personal favorite comedies about New Year’s Eve is the 1995 Italian film Next Year… We’ll Go to Bed by Ten, in which a pair of friends find their star-crossed New Year’s Eve suddenly changed for the worse when they stumble onto a kidnap plot by a violent gang of criminals. (It’s funnier than it sounds.) The idea of the end of the year as a horrific time was previously used in the 1981 slasher flick New Year’s Evil. The futuristic thriller Strange Days set its virtual reality plot in the final two days of 1999.

  • Major beginning and/or ending point or just generally making a night seem significant: Another popular narrative use of New Year’s Eve is to make midnight December 31 A Major Turning Point. That is, in case the screenwriters haven’t managed to make you realize that one or more characters have reached a major crisis in their lives, well, then maybe making it coincide with the changeover to a new year will help get the idea across. This theme goes back at least as far as 1932 and the original Scarface, in which Paul Muni begins his bloody rampage by gunning down a gangland leader in the early morning after a New Year’s Eve party. Similarly, 1936’s San Francisco, which climaxes with the cataclysmic earthquake and fire, starts its story, fatefully, with Clark Gable meeting Jeannette MacDonald at a party on eve of New Year’s Day 1906. The same year the comedy Two in Crowd started out with Joel McCrea and Joan Bennett coming across a stolen $1,000 note on New Year’s Eve. In the 1947 drama Repeat Performance, Joan Leslie finds herself going back to relive the previous year, which culminated in her murdering her husband Louis Hayward. The film was remade in 1989 with Connie Sellecca and called Turn Back the Clock. In Wolfgang Petersen’s 1991 suspense thriller Shattered, the car crash that sets off the action occurs while the couple are coming home from a New Year’s Eve party. And, in case you’d forgotten, the luxury liner in Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure began sinking as “Auld Lang Syne” was playing, and Rocky Balboa’s dramatic, soul-inspiring boxing match against Apollo Creed in the very original movie took place on New Year’s Eve.

    In my vast research on this topic (okay, a couple of minutes with a search engine) I came across one movie that didn’t quite fit easily into any of the above categories. In Wayne Wang’s 1982 film Chan Is Missing, set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a character observes that the annual Chinese New Year’s parade has been turned into a competition between factions loyal to mainland China and partisans of Taiwan. I think that one will require a whole new category, although I’m not sure exactly what it would be. Check back next year.

    Oh, yeah, and Happy New Year, everybody!

    -S.L., 28 December 2006

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