New Year’s Eve is traditionally associated with mindful contemplation of the year that has just passed and hopeful celebration over the year that is to come. When portrayed in major motion pictures, the holiday is typically represented in party scenes filled with midnight kisses, champagne toasts, and enthusiastic performances of Auld Lang Syne. But, not all big-screen depictions of December 31st are romantic comedies that hit you in the feels, like Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and New Year’s Eve.
Over the years, several filmmakers have effectively used the typically feel-good holiday to create a tone and atmosphere that are the antithesis of warm and fuzzy, whether to heighten the drama of just one particular scene or to create an entire universe that is devoid of any happiness altogether. From the ominous and foreboding to the downright horrific, these eight New Year’s Eve movie scenes are the exact opposite of celebratory.
8 Sunset Boulevard (1950) – Norma Desmond Gets Desperate
Sunset Boulevard, co-written and directed by Billy Wilder, follows the relationship between struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) and former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who descends into madness while trying to make her big-screen comeback. Dealing with a number of important themes, such as fame, money, and legacy, the film won three Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White, and Best Music) out of 11 nominations.
Happy New Year?
When Joe Gillis accepts Gloria Swanson’s invitation to come to her home for New Year’s Eve, he thinks it’s for a party. He arrives to discover that he’s the only guest, and that Swanson had intended to seduce him. After he turns her down, Desmond slaps Gillis and runs off to her room. Gillis later learns that Desmond became so upset over the rebuffing that she cut her wrists with a razor, which is the first stark look into Desmond’s delicate mindset that ultimately culminates in her complete break from reality.
7 The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – The Inciting Tidal Wave
Featuring an all-star cast that includes Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson, Shelley Winters, and Leslie Nielsen, The Poseidon Adventure is based on the 1969 novel of the same name. It tells the story of a group of survivors aboard the S.S. Poseidon who must fight for their lives after the luxury liner is capsized by a tsunami. Earning $125 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing movie of 1973 (it was released in mid-December 1972), the movie received eight Oscar nominations, winning Best Original Song for The Morning After.
The Poseidon Adventure
Release Date December 13, 1972
Director Ronald Neame , Irwin Allen
A Disastrous Party
The Poseidon Adventure begins on a celebratory note, as the audience is introduced to the ensemble cast during a fancy New Year’s Eve party. Following the countdown, however, things take a turn for the disastrous, when a 90-foot tidal wave hits the liner and capsizes it. The sequence showing the partygoers falling to their deaths is especially horrifying, made all the more harrowing due to the camerawork and the realistic-looking stunt performances.
6 The Godfather Part II (1974) – The Kiss of Death
The Godfather Part II, released two years after Francis Ford Coppola’s first installment in the epic crime trilogy, introduces Robert De Niro to the proceedings as a young Vito Corleone. Interweaving between Vito’s early life as a mafia enforcer in the early 20th century and Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) continued expansion of his family crime syndicate in the late 1950s, The Godfather sequel is widely considered to be among the best movies ever made. It won six Academy Awards out of 11 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for De Niro.
A New Year’s Kiss to Remember
Arguably the most famous New Year’s Eve scene of all time, the kiss of death in The Godfather Part II comes during a lavish party in Cuba when Michael realizes that his older brother Fredo (John Cazale) tried to have him assassinated. Right after the party guests ring in the New Year, Michael embraces his brother and plants the big one on him, before delivering the iconic line, “I knew it was you, Fredo.” Fredo’s death was not written in Mario Puzo’s novel, but Coppola’s decision to add it in made the film even more impactful and helped contribute to its legacy as the best sequel in cinema history.
5 Forrest Gump (1994) – Barroom Bummer
Forrest Gump tells the story of a sweet and simple-minded Alabama man (played by Tom Hanks) over a period of more than 20 years, during which he finds himself inserted into a number of important historical events, from the Vietnam War to the Watergate Scandal. The Robert Zemeckis movie earned $678 million at the box office, making it the second highest-grossing movie of 1994 behind The Lion King. It won six Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor for Hanks, and Best Picture.
Release Date July 6, 1994
Director Robert Zemeckis
Lt. Dan Reflects in His Sadness
When Forrest and Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise) ring in 1972 at a bar in New York City, Forrest is somewhat oblivious to the real pain that his former platoon leader is experiencing. Lt. Dan has become a severe alcoholic after losing both his legs in Vietnam, and the beginning of the scene shows his drunken desperation on full display. As confetti falls from the ceiling when the clock strikes midnight, Lt. Dan is fully gripped by despair over his current situation, and remains completely stone faced while the rest of the patrons celebrate the new year. Forrest’s inability to connect with Lt. Dan adds to the scene’s sadness, though they are eventually able to establish a meaningful friendship by the end of the film.
4 Strange Days (1995) – The Action-Packed Finale
Even though they had divorced in 1991, Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron still maintained a creative relationship for the 1995 American science fiction thriller film Strange Days, with Bigelow directing and Cameron co-writing the screenplay and producing. Starring Ralph Fiennes as ex-cop-turned-black-marketer Lenny who teams up with a bodyguard and limousine driver named Mace (Angela Bassett) to uncover a conspiracy in futuristic Los Angeles. While the movie was a box-office bomb (grossing only $8 million on a $42 million budget), it is considered to be one of the most underrated sci-fi movies of the ’90s, and led to Bigelow becoming the first woman to win Best Director at the Saturn Awards.
A Celebration for the Ages
On its face, the New Year’s Eve scene in Strange Days may seem somewhat celebratory. After all, people are partying in the streets, and Lenny and Mace even share a kiss to ring in 2000 after their tense battle with the baddies. Still, the reality of the situation is that our characters are still living in a Los Angeles defined by constant crime and chaos. Bigelow drew heavily from the 1992 L.A. riots to create her futuristic version of the city, while also drawing on the very-real angst felt by many as the new millennium approached. This creative inspiration is apparent throughout the film, so that even though the villains of the story are defeated, there is a looming threat that still remains.
3 Waiting to Exhale (1995) – The Fiery Confrontation
Forrest Whitaker made his feature film directorial debut in Waiting to Exhale, an adaptation of Terry McMillan’s 1992 novel that focuses on four women (Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon) as they navigate their relationships with men and each other. The movie was a commercial success, and also won four NAACP Image Awards. The film’s popularity spawned an in-the-works television series.
Burning It All Away
In Waiting to Exhale, Angela Bassett’s Bernadine Harris, a mother of two who dreams of starting a catering business, discovers on New Year’s Eve that her husband (Michael Beach) is planning on leaving her for his mistress. After launching into a passionate monologue (which was mostly improvised by Bassett herself), Bassett sets her husband’s car and many of his belongings on fire. While clearly cathartic, the scene definitely isn’t celebratory, though Bassett’s performance in it undoubtedly contributed to her Image Award win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture.
2 Boogie Nights (1997) – Porn Star Party Gone Deadly
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, which looks at the highs and lows of the porn industry through the late ’70s and early ’80s, helped establish the writer/director as one of the most important filmmakers of the modern era. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, and Heather Graham, the movie earned three Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Reynolds), Best Supporting Actress (Moore), and Best Screenplay.
A Deadly Debauchery
While Boogie Nights features a number of comedic moments, its darker scenes are particularly effective in showcasing the seedy, excess-driven nature of the adult film industry during its Golden Age. During a debaucherous party at the home of porn director Jack Horner (Reynolds), assistant director Little Bill Thompson (William H. Macy) discovers his wife having sex with another man. Thompson fatally shoots the adulterous pair before taking his own life. The scene is made even more powerful (and disturbing) considering that it thematically serves as a violent departure from the carefree 1970s into the consumer-driven 1980s.
1 Fruitvale Station (2013) – Police Brutality
Ryan Coogler made his heavily-acclaimed directorial debut with Fruitvale Station, the 2013 biographical drama film based on the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant at the hands of a Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department in Oakland, California. Starring Michael B. Jordan in the lead role, the film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and was included on several critics’ top-10 lists for best movies of the year.
A Heartbreaking End to the Year
Fruitvale Station gives a fictionalized account of the events leading up to Grant’s tragic death during the early morning hours of January 1, 2009. While the entire film is distressing (given the ultimate outcome), Grant’s decision to appease his mother by taking the BART train instead of driving to celebrate New Year’s Eve in San Francisco is particularly heartbreaking, since we know that Grant will never make it to the celebration.
You have to wait 55 seconds.