The New Year’s offerings are a real mixed bag on Netflix Instant this year. Every major genre is represented here—comedy, horror, science fiction, and indie-drama-anthology-thing. And every one of them is either great or interestingly bad; there is no mediocre film on this list.
Though all quite different from another, the one thing these films do have in common is minor nudity. Maybe that’s just part of the essence of a New Year’s film; after all, the start of each new year is all about shedding the old and then putting it back on again. Or maybe it’s just sheer coincidence that—this year, anyway—we’re dealing with a Tarantino production, a Landis film, Juliette Dreyfus in the ’90s, and a horror movie. At any rate, that’s as far as the similarities stretch, which means that, if you like movies and nudity isn’t a deal-breaker, there is something on this list for you.
Trading Places (1983)
This is the story of two very old and rich white brothers who make a bet. One brother is a liberal, the other is a conservative, and they’re both very racist. They own an investment firm, so they have mansions, personal drivers, butlers—they’re basically the same as rich people are now, just not with quite as much money—and they want to settle the hazy dynamic of nature vs. nurture once and for all. To do so, they need to ruin one man’s life and make another’s much better to see if the former turns to a life of crime and the latter walks away from it.
Subject A—Dan Aykroyd—is a white man who manages the brothers’ firm and is engaged to their great niece. The brothers plant stolen money and PCP on him. When he’s released from jail, they pay a prostitute (being released from jail, as well, naturally) to kiss him in front of his fiancée. Then they freeze his bank accounts and instruct his butler to stop letting him in his home. They’re pretty mean to him, but, on the bright side, the prostitute from jail ends up being Jamie Lee Curtis. She claims to be a high-class prostitute who’s only three years away from retiring, but this is probably a lie because truly high-class prostitutes don’t go to jail.
At any rate, he ends up dressing up like Santa and sneaking into the firm’s Christmas party to steal salmon, which proves that, yes, the rich would turn to crime if they had no money or a home.
Subject B—Eddie Murphy—is a black man who is homeless and crazy. The movie was originally titled Black and White, and it was a good idea to change the title; it seems troubling to have an allegory of the racial experience and make the avatar of all black people a homeless swindler. Anyway, the brothers give him everything they took from Subject A. They find that, once he’s rich, he no longer has a desire to beg for money. He even loses his ability to enjoy the things he used to. He throws a party in his new mansion, but when people smoke cigarettes and girls get topless, he becomes furious and throws them all out. He’s also no longer crazy, because, thankfully, having money instantly cures all mental illnesses.
Like Crash, Trading Places sends a very strong equality message while simultaneously being racist. It’s also probably offensive to homeless people. And probably prostitutes, too. But, unlike Crash, it’s still a good movie, mostly because it’s hilarious. And it doesn’t hurt that the film’s bothersome racial dynamic is largely abandoned in the third act, when it becomes a heist story on board a train during New Year’s Eve, and the film’s true message emerges: Rich people are always awful unless they’re you. This is also the part of the movie that goes to painstaking measures to fit a gorilla into the plot, which is always immensely appreciated. A little Screenwriting 101: Always ask yourself – can there be a gorilla in this?
Strange Days (1995)
Strange Days takes place amid the New Year’s Eve celebrations of a dystopian Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium. The city is on the verge of a race riot, the middle class appears to have almost entirely disappeared, and people are using black market technology to experience others’ lives through a virtual reality experience called “wire tripping” or “jacking in.” This technology involves wearing a metal yarmulke and playing/recording life experiences on MiniDiscs (which is completely believable because MiniDiscs were incredible). Some people jack in way too much and become paranoid recluses. Occasionally, somebody will jack in too hard and go blind. Mostly, people jack in with moderation.
But one jacker has been murdering girls and integrating the technology in disturbing ways, and the viewing of his exploits left behind on the MiniDiscs unwinds a very serious case of the whodunits. It’s brilliant commentary on the importance of trust between a government and its citizens. It’s also very interesting to see that the ’90s dystopic vision is the same as 2014’s.
The movie stars Tom Sizemore with long hesher hair, which is absolutely terrifying; one Tom Sizemore with hesher hair could easily guard two high-security prisons. Juliette Lewis plays a grunge/punk/metal singer who’s naked for most of the movie, and she’s the femme fatale of Ralph Fiennes, who’s playing Bradley Cooper. Angela Bassett plays the only character who halfway has her shit together, and she can also beat up several people at once, which makes her the deux ex machina of the bunch. There’s even a young William Fichtner, in his very first appearance as the Sleazebag Guy that he’d come to perfect over the following decade. Indeed, the movie has a truly amazing cast—and you know that’s true when Vincent D’Onofrio is playing a part with two lines.
This is the only movie on the list that’s 100 percent about New Year’s Eve that’s also good. And it’s not just good; it’s a masterpiece. For the sequences in which people are “jacked in,” a year was spent during preproduction to develop what were essentially GoPros that shot on 35mm film. The movie opens during one such sequence—a robbery gone awry—and somebody makes a 16-foot jump from seven stories up wearing one of these contraptions and no wires. But the beauty isn’t limited to those sequences; the whole movie is a cinematographic marvel, filled with massive sets with thousands of extras that were mostly photographed via Steadicam, which required brilliantly hiding an arsenal of custom-made lighting rigs.
The movie was written and produced by James Cameron, and directed by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. Yes, describing Bigelow as Cameron’s ex-wife seems bizarre today, but it’s unfortunately how she was viewed in 1995, and when Strange Days bombed at the box office, Cameron was praised for its triumphs while Bigelow was blamed for its failures. The film served as her Pinkerton: Its remarkable commercial failure and mixed reviews forever impacted her approach as an artist, and yet it later came to be viewed as a seminal masterwork of the ’90s. That’s not to say that she puts out terrible work now—the Weezer analogy ends at Pinkerton—but when somebody asks, “How did the person who directed Point Break also direct The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty?” the answer is most certainly that Strange Days lost a great deal of money.
Four Rooms (1995)
Four Rooms was Quentin Tarantino’s first reemergence as a director since Pulp Fiction had defined what an indie film should be for an entire generation in 1994. It also came only four months after Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado had made him one of the world’s hottest upcoming directors. Based on short stories from Roald Dahl’s more adult-oriented writing, it was a hugely anticipated anthology film: It would all take place in four separate hotel rooms, with four separate segments, each written and directed by different people. Tim Roth as a bellboy working his first night on the job would actias the connective tissue. It was going to be such sweet, sweet art.
But instead it ended up being a massive disappointment for critics—largely because it wasn’t very good.
There are indeed four stories, all of which happen on New Year’s Eve. The first one is about witches and features Madonna in a role that won her a Razzie. There are several other witches, and some of them are topless, and one of them is Ione Skye, who’s the only witch who’s come to the hotel-room gathering without her unique ingredient for their cauldron. The missing ingredient turns out to be semen. The other witches go away while she has sex with the bellboy off-screen to collect some semen. Then the witches gather around the cauldron again and perform a spell that turns another witch back from stone. And that’s it for that story.
The second story has the bellboy go to the wrong room and encounter a woman bound to a chair while her pill-fucked husband waves a gun around. At this point, it becomes clear that Tim Roth is, for reasons unknown, going to act like he’s suffocating throughout his entire performance. Anyway, the gun guy makes the bellboy participate in a fantasy of his that involves his wife cheating on him and maybe having sex with another guy in front of her. Honestly, it’s hard to tell exactly what his fantasy is, but it’s definitely not very interesting. After a while, the gun guy gets distracted, and Tim Roth leaves the room. And that does it for that story.
Story number three—Rodriguez’s entry—doesn’t really switch things up by not sucking. Antonio Banderas is in it, which is promising, but he quickly leaves, and the story becomes about Tim Roth babysitting his rascally kids. There is nothing more annoying than rascally kids, and I wonder if anybody who was thinking that while watching Four Rooms in 1995 could ever fathom that Rodriguez would go on to make 85 Spy Kids films.
Anyway, the kids are bad, and Tim Roth hyperventilates more than ever, trying his best to be more annoying than the kids, but ultimately falling just short of that mark. Antonio Banderas comes back, holding his wife who has passed out from drinking, and the hotel room is on fire, and everything’s just a big ol’ mess. There’s a big whooomp–whoooomp sound, and that does it for that story.
The fourth story is Tarantino’s entry. You can tell this right off the bat, because it stars a decent-acting Tarantino, and the only person that can get a good performance out of Tarantino is Tarantino. It’s a testament to this segment’s mastery that many people say that Four Rooms is “pretty good.” After an hour and 10 minutes of pain, the fourth story is a masterfully unraveled segment about a Hollywood director betting his car against his friend’s pinky finger that his friend can’t spark his Zippo 10 times in a row. There aren’t any high-concept witches here, no complex fantasies being analyzed, and no Looney Tunes set pieces; it’s simple, just some drunk rich guys making a stupid bet, and it blows the other stories out of the water. It’s also the only segment that Tim Roth’s character isn’t annoying in. Although in all honesty, the segment might be cheating a bit with its uncredited Bruce Willis hanging around the scene with a goatee. It’s hard to be objective when something like that’s in the mix.
New Year’s Evil (1980)
New Year’s Evil earns good will right away by having one of greatest names in the history of cinema. However, when you realize that it was distributed by Cannon, the odds become high that it won’t live up to it. Cannon films aren’t likely to be good; they’re generally either mediocre or just plain silly enough to be awesome. Luckily, New Year’s Evil falls under the latter category.
First off, this movie features the best New Year’s Eve song ever made. Like the opening to Friday the 13th Part III, it’s just one of those rare original recordings for low-budget horror film that’s a complete gem, and it should be an American staple of New Year’s Eve celebrations.
This is one of those movies where everybody young looks like they’re an extra from The Warriors—with little chains connecting facial piercings, rockabilly shoes, zombie face-paint, the occasional Canadian tuxedo—and the music they listen to is from a strange genre that exists solely in the soundtracks of ’80s movies. In New Year’s Evil, the big place for these folk to be on New Year’s Eve is a live television recording of a rock show’s midnight countdown special. For the host of the show, it’s a major gig: Her career could explode with a successful countdown… or implode if things go poorly. Unfortunately for her, some guy calls up on the show and tells the host that he’s going to kill somebody at midnight (in each time zone!) who is close and meaningful to her.
The guy holds true to half of his promise: He kills people at midnight, but they’re completely random. Each time, he records audio of the murder, and then calls into the countdown show to replay it for the host. Overall, she’s pretty laid back about it. And for a supposedly popular show, the killer luckily has no issue with connecting live every time he calls in.
A lot of the running time is filled with bands playing on the countdown show, which is good news, because they get to play the awesome theme song about six times. At one point—to fill more time—the killer accidentally bumps into a biker gang on the road, which launches a very lengthy chase sequence through a drive-in theater. This doesn’t have any effect on the rest of the movie; it’s just there to answer an age-old question: Why the fuck shouldn’t there be a biker gang chase here?
This movie stars people with names like Roz Kelly and Kip Niven. It includes a scene in which the killer puts on a fake Burt Reynolds mustache and picks up a woman at a bar by saying “There’s a big party at Erik Estrada’s place.” Then he asks her to smell his Colombian pot, and suffocates her with the bag while really bad prop weed bounces around her face. This movie may not be good, but that doesn’t stop it from achieving greatness.
Bonus for parents!
If you are a parent, and you’d like to trick your child(ren) into going to bed earlier so you can ring in the New Year a little extra drunk, Netflix has your back with a fake New Year’s Eve countdown. The three-minute segment features King Julien—a dancing lemur from Netflix’s own series All Hail King Julien. Warning: This might not work with older children.
Photo via Nana B Agyei/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed