6 Obscure New Year's Films to Steal From (or Screenwriting Lessons For the Year Ahead)

by ScreenCraft on January 2, 2015

In the New Year, we will all be better writers.

We will find managers, agents who “get,” encourage and well represent our work.

We will have that work optioned, sold and produced several times over.

We will be inspired to write more. Well.

We, and the producers who encounter our scripts, will find exactly what we -- and they -- seek.

In the New Year.

It will be brilliant.

Wherever we are now, we are on our way.

Try that mantra on for size in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, to prove that brilliance can often be glimpsed in out-of-the-way places, here is a select list of lesser seen films set on or around New Year’s Day that offer stellar lessons in screenwriting.

1 - New Year’s Evil (1980, dir, Emmett Alston)

newyear's evil

Attribute to the villain, even as he or she is vile, a sense of vulnerability. Although this horror flick’s resident havoc-wreaker journeys around Los Angeles, murdering innocent victims from nurses to lonely night-clubbers, on the last night of the year, which is, yeah, not so great, we also see him struggle with the irritating logistics and byproducts of his wrongdoings: He almost gets caught in the act by the cops. He gets stuck in a traffic jam. A creepy gang of bikers chases him down after he accidentally hits them with his car. He has to listen to Louisa Moritz’s ditz blather on about seventies pop-culture spirituality (all of which is valid, by the way). Further, when his identity is revealed -- in a rare, inverted twist -- and the oppression that led him to his warpath becomes clear, no, we do not excuse his behavior, but we may empathize with this character, appreciate his multiple dimensions, understand his human struggle. This creates a tension and an investment within the viewer, both of which deepen the filmgoing experience.

2 – New Year’s Day (1989, dir. Henry Jaglom)


Make fights fair. Adversaries should be well matched. For most intents and purposes, the three women protagonists Drew (Jaglom) finds still inhabiting his Manhattan apartment when he arrives from the West Coast to claim it act as his antagonists. They occupy his space, fully and energetically, when all he wants to do is quietly luxuriate in his post-break-up despair, and sleep. The women are younger, they’ve lived less, it could be argued, and as the interaction between the characters evolves, naturally, Drew has life-changing insights and wisdom to impart. But, importantly, so do the women. During his unforeseen time with them, he is humbled, laughed at, made vulnerable, rejected. His perspective broadens, and a more optimistic, actualized man is born. And he didn’t get all of the zingers. It’s rather easy to depict a story’s hero/ine as an impossibly charming, irrepressible reservoir of wit, wiles and ability whose wicked genius one-liners and profundities slay all in sight at every interchange. However, when antagonistic forces are as intelligent and formidable, equal to or greater than those of the protagonist, these exchanges, though more challenging to write, are far more satisfying.

3 - Denise Calls Up (1995, dir. Hal Salwen)


Plan a Party. Make it Big. Sure, there’s some kind of gathering involved in most New Year’s-ish movies, but said gathering is all the weightier when it's tied to something happening for the first time. Or when there’s been a lot of anticipation leading up to it. Or when it can change characters’ lives forever. Three checks here. In this case, it marks the first time that all of the characters will see one another after a long time of communicating virtually, and some have never met in-person. This small, quirky group of New Yorkers seduce one another, pledge lifelong devotion, break up, agree to raise children together, and even die, all without leaving their individual homes and cars. Typical, you think, but this preceded the prevalence of the Internet. The New Year’s Eve party promises to cure everyone’s alienation and soothe all anxieties, but does it? Such a question increases the import of the party and the attention of the viewer.

4 - Terror Train (1980, dir. Roger Spottiswoode)


Do the Twist. Awesomely. No matter the genre, the budget or the trends of the day, if done well, that surprise move commonly referred to as a twist in story speak can always pay off, as it does here in a way that shouldn’t be leaked and spoiled, but suffice it to say this ride is twice as fun because one does not see said twist coming. When a crew of soon-to-be college grads celebrate the holiday with a party on a train, some sharp turns find them coming to unplanned stops when it's discovered that someone’s knocking off their friends, one by one, and that person has been hiding in plain sight all night long. Because the story is actually well crafted, with multi-dimensional characters, the journey to the ending is already engaging, but it’s enriched by a revelation that makes sense of the mayhem yet stays ahead of the audience.

5 – Bitter Moon (1992, dir. Roman Polanski)


Limit the setting. The Only Way Out is Through. Number 4 gets a nod for this as well, but here, the entire film, excepting flashbacks, takes place on a boat, a holiday cruise. This makes it impossible for the opposing characters who cross awkward paths — two deceitful and diametrically drawn couples portrayed by Hugh Grant, Kristen Scott Thomas, Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner, the prim and the debauched, respectively — to escape one another. This creates a sense of claustrophobia and anxiety for the characters that ratchets up the tension and significance of each scene, as they are forced to confront fears, desires and transgressions.

6 – Last Night (1998, dir. Don McKellar)


Layer Tone. Find the Honest Moment(s). This one is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch in that the film doesn’t actually take place on or around New Year’s Eve, but many of its characters treat the night as such, as it is the last night on Earth, indeed, the end of the world. While there’s a lot of room for humor there (e.g., how many offbeat sexual acts can you stuff into an evening?), it’s also, one imagines, a night for cutting through facades, reflecting, connecting on a genuine level and dealing with truth. Thus there’s a wonderful counterpoint of tone, real tragedy amid the comedy, points of somberness throughout. Poignancy abounds as love is unrequited, family is estranged, illness is revealed, and a main character’s husband – played in a gorgeous, strange, saint-like fashion by David Cronenberg – departs in an unexpected way.

7 –When it Rains. (1995, dir. Charles Burnett)

Screen shot 2011-04-14 at 10.49.07 AM

Show. Don’t Tell. As compensation for #6’s arguable technical ineligibility for this list, here’s a short film that establishes in one quick, active opening shot where we are in the calendar year. A less than swank Christmas tree is thrown over a graffiti-ridden fence, into an alley. The holidays are over, and perhaps for some, they were never really there. Before the characters even show up onscreen, one gets a sense of their world, their state of mind.

So, if your script is among the harder to find at the moment – whether it’s because you have no representation, or because you have no credentials, because it’s not finished, or because it’s not awesome yet, take an evening and review the above films for inspiration. You’ll laugh. You’ll startle. You’ll wax nostalgic over the days when the fax machine was the pinnacle of our technology. You’ll likely write a stronger script.

Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko is a writer for the stage and screen whose work has been produced, presented and developed at theatres and cultural centers in New York and Los Angeles, including LaMaMa, Hunter College, Irondale, The Antaeus Company and International Literature Festival Berlin. Her films, screenplays, and treatments have been commissioned by independent producers and arts organizations as diverse as Chrome Bumper Films, Brooklyn Arts Council, and Girl Be Heard. As a dramaturge and script consultant, Kimberly has analyzed, proofread, edited and provided coverage on hundreds of scripts for individual writers, contests and companies, among them, ABC TV, Lefrak Productions, Scriptapalooza, ScreenCraft, and Pride Films and Plays. A cum laude graduate of Hofstra University, Kimberly earned a degree in creative writing with a concentration in television and film, and she has several such scripts in active development.


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