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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Auld Lang Cinema (originally published 12/98)

Christmas, being all about sentiment and happy endings, is a holiday that lends itself naturally to moviemaking. It's not surprising, therefore, that there are a ton of movies set in the Christmas season. We shouldn't forget, however, that December also brings another holiday, one that carries its own rich dramatic potential. The coming of the new year is a time of reflection, of reassessment, and of rebirth. These qualities can make New Year's Eve and New Year's Day as bountiful a source of movie drama as Christmas itself when exploited properly. In fact, there are plenty of filmmakers who have done just that over the years. Here are just a few of the films that have prominently featured New Year's Eve and/or New Year's Day. Each is available on home video.

"The Gold Rush" (1925). One of Charlie Chaplin's most beloved films finds him prospecting for gold in the frozen Klondike. Although destitute, his little tramp character entertains the fantasy that a beautiful Saloon girl might return his tender feelings for her. When she dances with him to make her boyfriend jealous, Charlie is emboldened to ask her to join him at his cabin on New Year's Eve. As a joke, she and some of her girlfriends accept his invitation. Overjoyed, Charlie goes to great lengths to decorate the cabin for his guests. Naturally, they stand him up. Still, in a dream sequence we see how he would have entertained them. The highlight, one of Chaplin's most inspired bits, is a miniature dance performed by Chaplin in which he spears two dinner rolls with two forks and uses them as miniature legs. With the forks dangling below his chin and the rolls serving as bulbous feet, Charlie does an elegant series of dance steps and high kicks to the delight of his imaginary dinner companions.

"Ocean's Eleven" (1960). This easygoing caper picture was the first film to bring together on the screen the notorious Vegas "Rat Pack:" Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joey Bishop. Sinatra plays the leader of a gang of eleven men who have hatched a plot to rob five separate Las Vegas casinos on the same night. The night in question is New Year's Eve.

"The Poseidon Adventure" (1972). Some New Year's Eve celebrations come off better than others. This is the story of a particularly ill-fated one. As the passengers on a luxury ocean liner are celebrating the big night, a massive tidal wave capsizes the boat. The remainder of the film follows the struggle of ten survivors to make their way up to the bottom of the upended craft in the hope of being rescued. Producer Irwin Allen scored a huge success with this picture, kicking off a cycle of disaster movies that ran through much of the seventies.

"Get Crazy" (1983). A rock and roll promoter, apparently patterned after Bill Graham, attempts to put together a New Year's Eve mega-concert at a venue patterned after Fillmore East. Powerful forces seem to be arrayed against him, however, because things just keep going wrong. This isn't classic cinema, to be sure, but it's fun to see Lou Reed playing a Dylanesque song poet and Malcolm McDowell doing a send-up of Mick Jagger.

"Terror Train" (1980). The enduring popularity of slasher movies has led those who make them to go to elaborate lengths to bring some semblance of variation to the otherwise monotonous similarities between these films. As a result, maniacal killing sprees have been attached to every possible holiday or special occasion, from Christmas to prom night. This one takes place on a train hired by a college fraternity for their New Year's Eve party. If this sort of movie is your cup of hemlock, this one, featuring scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, is better than most.

"Peter's Friends" (1992). One of the most satisfying formats for a New Year's Eve movie must certainly be a story about a gathering of old friends. In this pleasant comedy a group of former college chums have a holiday reunion at the country estate which one of them has recently inherited. The excellent cast includes Kenneth Branagh, who also directed, Emma Thompson, and Rita Rudner, who co-authored the script along with her husband, Martin Bergman.

Here's hoping that this holiday season will bring you good times with old friends and lots of good movies to entertain them with.

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