As the page turns and, in a split second on New Year’s Eve, the “old” becomes the “new,” it is a fine time to celebrate the season with a champagne toast and hearty rendition of Auld Lang Syne. And if you are interested in enjoying a cheerful New Year’s Eve-related film, why not check out Woody Allen’s Radio Days, which dates from 1987.
This heartfelt ode to the pre-television era, when Americans in droves listened each day to a wide range of radio programs, features a touchingly nostalgic peek into a long-ago New Year’s Eve. Here, the Manhattan elite and the working-class denizens of the outer New York boroughs celebrate the evening in their own special ways and, happily, Woody Allen shows equal affection for each group of characters.
But not all films that feature New Year’s Eves spotlight happy beginnings. One of them is one of the sleeper films of the concluding year. It is titled Fruitvale Station, and it deserves to be seen and savored for its originality, its politics, and its daring. Fruitvale Station is the fact-based account of Oscar Grant, who is played with pitch-perfect intensity by a young actor named Michael B. Jordan. The date is December 31, 2008, and Grant, a 22-year-old black man, awakens and decides to concentrate on his New Years’ resolutions. These involve improving his relationships with his mother, his girlfriend, and his four-year-old daughter.
On this last day of the old year, Oscar Grant mixes with those who pass through his life--and, life is looking good. But before the first day of the new year has ended, a deep and horrifying tragedy occurs. This is no surprise, as the film opens with cell-phone footage of the killing of the real Oscar Grant by an Oakland, California, transit officer in the early hours of the new year.
If, in Radio Days, Woody Allen celebrates the idealized union of all Americans, the story told in Fruitvale Station is a sobering reminder that Americans are not all alike, and that Americans are not treated equally and fairly by those in authority.
Fruitvale Station is scheduled to arrive on DVD in mid-January, but it did have a theatrical release several months ago-- and let me say that it is just the kind of film that will not be playing in the multiplex movie theaters that populate America’s malls. That is because it is not a tasteless comedy, a ham-fisted spectacle, or a big-budget mega-star property that its makers hope will crack the magical $100-million figure in box office receipts during its opening weekend. It is a “serious” and “artful” film and, these days, “serious” and “artful” do not translate into big bucks at the box office.
For years, a long-standing issue in American culture and the entertainment industry has been the inclusion of gratuitous violence, not just on the big screen but on TV and in video games. As long as the products that spotlight this violence keep selling, and making money for their producers, this sort of imagery will remain--all in the name of free speech--and who in blazes cares if oh so few films acknowledge the very real ramifications of violence. Yet this precisely is what writer-director Ryan Coogler explores so poignantly in Fruitvale Station. And this precisely is why Fruitvale Station is just the type of film that will not open wide in the mall cinemas.
But thankfully, it can be discovered and savored at your local art house cinema. The one I visit most often these days is the Spectrum, in Albany. The Spectrum and other, similar movie houses allow audiences access to such non-mainstream fare as Fruitvale Station.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Venues like the Spectrum should be strongly supported by all arts and culture lovers.