Ah, New Year’s Eve — that special night of the year where we put so pressure on ourselves to have a great time, have a great time, HAVE A GREAT TIME that we end up, inevitably, having a really lousy time. (Don’t pretend like it’s just me.) Part of our self-imposed pressure to enjoy ourselves on the last night of the year is, we contend, the fault of movies, which often present the evening as an occasion for joyous celebration, thoughtful reflection, and new beginnings (often with a new object of affection). But some films also recognize the nightmare of New Year’s Eve, and dramatize that. We’ve assembled a few examples of each after the jump, and humbly present ten on-screen New Year’s Eves that we find memorable — for reasons both good and bad. All will make fine New Year’s Eve viewing — and are far better than New Year’s Eve.
Billy Wilder’s 1960 comedy/drama comes to its heartwarming conclusion on New Year’s Eve, so, y’know, spoiler alert. Insurance company worker C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has spent the film allowing upper-level execs to use the titular domicile for illicit meetings with their mistresses — particularly personnel director Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who is romancing Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the elevator operator who C.C. is sweet for. When Sheldrake attempts to hijack C.C.’s apartment to spend New Year’s Eve with Ms. Kubelik, C.C. finally takes a stand — and when she finds out about it, the charming events above occur.
Ocean’s 11 (1960)
The original (and, we’ve gotta say, inferior) version of the all-star heist film, like its Soderbergh-helmed 2001 remake, concerns the well-executed robbery of several Las Vegas casinos. But Lewis Milestone’s 1960 original sets that action on New Year’s Eve, where Frank Sinatra’s band of WWII vets knocks out the power in Sin City and swipe money out of the cages from five different casinos. That’s a nice way to spend any New Year’s Eve — and in 1960s Vegas? Sign us up!
Mario Van Peebles’s 1991 hip-hop gangster classic finds Flavor Flav in the house, counting down the old year and bringing in the new; then Fab 5 Freddy introduces Teddy Riley and Guy, and everybody looks fly, and dances in the New Year with matching outfits and moves… And what your author remembers is seeing that movie in its initial release and thinking, that looks like the dopest New Year’s Eve party ever. (I was 15 in 1991. I said things like “dopest.” Don’t judge.)
If you’re hosting a New Year’s Eve bash, you may have that moment where you start to feel like things are dragging, that the party’s a bit of a bore, that no one’s having any fun. But calm down — too much New Year’s excitement can wreck a party, as we see in the 1979-into-1980 sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s golden-age-of-porn masterpiece Boogie Nights. Burt Reynolds’s porn auteur is warned that video is about to take over; poor Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) finally makes his move on Dirk, with disastrous results. And then Little Bill (William H. Macy) arrives (at 1:21:26 in the movie, above), with two minutes of 1979 left, only to find his wife with another man. It’s not the first time he’s caught her, but he decides to take a rather forceful action this time around, bringing in the New Year — and the new decade — with a bang.
1987’s Radio Days is one of Woody Allen’s most underrated pictures — warm and nostalgic, sweet and uproariously funny, it is a vignette-heavy memory piece in which Woody’s offscreen narrator recalls growing up and listening to the radio, his lower-class childhood in Brooklyn interspersed with the stories he heard, and imagined, about the magical figures that came out of the wooden radio box. The film concludes with a big Manhattan party “to welcome in 1944” (listen closely — that’s an early bit of voice work by William H. Macy as the announcer in the beginning of the clip), which includes a song by Allen’s former muse Diane Keaton (marking her first appearance in an Allen film since Manhattan, and the only time that she and his then-current lover Mia Farrow both turned up in the same Woody movie). “Only creeps and crazy people go out New Year’s Eve!” insists Woody’s uncle, as they listen from home. It’s a moving and bittersweet conclusion to a period comedy that’s just about perfect.
People were already thinking about New Year’s Eve, 1999 when Kathryn Bigelow (future Oscar winner for The Hurt Locker) directed this five-minutes-into-the-future cyberpunk sci-fi thriller in 1995. This tale of police corruption, virtual reality, and the new millennium reaches its climax as the assorted lowlifes and crooked cops ring in the New Year with bloodshed, suicides — and, of course, a New Year’s kiss.
Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s New Year’s Eve party is certainly one Fredo Corleone would remember for the rest of his (short) life; at the stroke of midnight, his brother Michael gives him the kiss of death and tells him, “I knew it was you, Fredo — you broke my heart.” Michael had figured out his brother’s betrayal of him, and chose that moment to let him in on it; from that moment forward, his days were numbered. Still, pretty good party, huh?
New Year’s Eve on a big, fancy cruise ship sounds like a fine time to us — and there certainly seems to be a helluva good party underway on the SS Poseidon at midnight. I mean, they’ve got drinking, singing, dancing, Shelley Winters; what more could you ask for? Trouble is, an undersea earthquake causes, um, a bit of a New Year’s capsizing. Well, come on — what do you expect when Leslie Nielsen is in charge of your ship?
A New Year’s Eve bash at a big Hollywood mansion seems like a fine way to ring in the New Year, yes? Well, maybe not, if the party is being thrown by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and she hasn’t invited any other guests. That’s the pickle that Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself in during this key sequence in Billy Wilder’s darkly funny noir classic; Norma doesn’t want “to share this night with other people,” and, to his later undoing, she doesn’t want to share Joe with anyone either.
The template rom-com for the 1990s and beyond, the best movie either Billy Crystal or Meg Ryan ever did, the only good movie Nora Ephron ever wrote… there’s so many great things about Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, chief among them its final scene, a wonderfully romantic and funny New Year’s Eve encounter in which the title characters, friends for years, finally own up to how they feel about each other. “And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve,” Harry insists. “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” (Bonus points for that extra riff on the inexplicable lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne.”)