In the real world, the day carries a reputation for underwhelming. In cinema, however, New Year’s Eve is too perfect in its symbolic possibility for filmmakers to use it as a mere confetti-streaked backdrop: it’s death and rebirth, the end of one life chapter and the beginning of another, punctuated by literal explosions.
NYE at the movies, then, has frequently been a time of erupting conflict, new romance and potential for climactically resolving all the year’s dramas in one fell swoop. Rarely has a film set over New Year’s passed up the opportunity to turn a holiday so often relatively uneventful in reality, into a period of momentous change. Here are 10 key film moments depicting the last day of the year in memorable style.
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The Gold Rush (1925)
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin’s most enduring – and single most parodied – on-screen moment takes place on New Year’s Eve, with Chaplin’s The Tramp character performing a ‘dance’ with skewered bread rolls as midnight approaches. This bit of unfettered joy aside, The Gold Rush’s New Year’s sequence is deeply melancholy, as Chaplin’s lonely prospector, forgotten by the woman he invited to his Klondike cabin to see in the new year with him, daydreams of female company and listens alone to a nearby party’s drunken rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Director: Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder loved to set critical scenes over major holidays. Stalag 17 (1953) and Some Like It Hot (1959) respectively stage bullet-riddled executions at Christmas and on Valentine’s Day, while The Apartment (1960) has its own tragicomic New Year’s finale for world-weary beaus Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine. The director’s lethal showbiz noir Sunset Blvd. came first, though, with its New Year’s party from hell. Silent movie legend Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) NYE soiree is lavish, but with the only people invited being herself and unrequited love William Holden, it serves only to underline the terrible loneliness and rank narcissism of the faded Hollywood star.
The Time Machine (1960)
Director: George Pal
Spurred on by ridicule from sceptical colleagues, Rod Taylor’s burly Victorian inventor decides to spend the last hours of 1899 roadtesting an experimental new contraption. He subsequently transports himself into the farflung future, in director George Pal’s adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine. As the bells of London ring in 1900, Taylor doesn’t just pass from one year to the next but through centuries and millennia, the world around him evolving into a strange, barbaric dystopia.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Director: Roman Polanksi
Already gaslighted by a cabal of devil-worshippers including her own husband into mistakenly believing she’s NOT been impregnated with the spawn of Satan, Rosemary Woodhouse’s (Mia Farrow) contemptuous year is capped off with a fittingly crummy NYE party round the neighbours’ place. As usual, something just seems off, whether it’s the entrees of raw meat laid out by the Castavets or the fact that Mr Castavet refers to 1966 as “Year One” in his toast.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
In Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime saga sequel, it’s a sibling dispute that looms largest amid the blockbuster sweep. Celebrating New Year’s in Havana as Cuba falls to Fidel’s rebels, implacable mafia don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) seems for the briefest moment almost human when he confronts brother Fredo (John Cazale) about his part in a plot to have him assassinated: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.” Poor, doomed Fredo, frightened of his own baby brother, flees into the chaos of a country suddenly plunged into an uncertain future.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Director: Rob Reiner
A big New Year’s Eve bash is the appropriately dramatic backdrop to a grand romantic gesture in Rob Reiner’s blueprint for the modern rom-com. Having realised his true feelings after 12 years of flirtation and hesitation, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) crashes the NYC party that best friend Sally (Meg Ryan) is glumly attending to, at long last, confess his love. With Nora Ephron scripting, of course Harry and Sally seal their coupling with a midnight kiss, in one of cinema’s most unabashedly romantic scenes.
Strange Days (1995)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
The film’s Y2K panic might look quaint now, but Strange Days’ broader depiction of a divided society revelling in its own demise somehow seems suddenly relevant again. Set over the last days of 1999 during NYE festivities with a curiously end of days-vibe, Kathryn Bigelow’s near-future nightmare finds Ralph Fiennes’ grungy ex-cop unravelling a techno-conspiracy, as around him Los Angelinos party into oblivion to a soundtrack of police sirens and trip-hop.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson may have since traded in the elaborate tracking shots for a less ostentatious style, but we’ll always have Boogie Nights’ queasily stylised murder-suicide, which has Anderson’s unblinking camera follow porn AD Little Bill (William H Macy) as he searches for his cheating wife, collects a gun from his car, then calmly shoots his spouse, her lover and himself at a funky New Year’s bash. Also notable from Anderson is his twisted 2017 romance Phantom Thread, which doesn’t feature any New Year’s deaths but does portray a marriage slowly dying on the ballroom of a fancy NYE costume party.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Director: Ryan Coogler
The savage senselessness of Fruitvale Station’s subway-stop execution is only made to seem more tragic by what comes immediately before the incident. Young father Oscar Grant (Michael B Jordan), having along with his girlfriend and some buddies failed to make San Francisco’s NYE fireworks in time, orchestrates an improvised party on a crowded train, uniting a carriage of strangers in an impromptu countdown. Two hours later Grant is fatally shot by a jumpy subway cop while under restraint, having only just greeted a new year.
Director: Joon-ho Bong
In the frozen future world of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, not even a fledgling revolution can get in the way of observing familiar New Year’s Eve rituals. On the cusp of 2032, on a train perpetually circling the Earth, a starved group of have-nots stage an uprising to take over their mobile society-in-microcosm and are met with immediate resistance. A hatchet-wielding elite guard brutally hack at the rebels, but as the clock strikes midnight on the final day of the year, the slaughter is temporarily paused, so that the haves and have-nots alike may cheer a ‘Happy new year’ in anticipation of another 12 months of post-apocalyptic hardship.