By Dan Tebo
According to the internet, the concept of the New Year’s resolution has been in vogue since the ancient Babylonians walked the earth. That means that people have been trying (and failing) to spend the month of January rebooting themselves for over 4,000 years. Whether you’re attempting to limit your nightly alcohol consumption to just one bottle of wine or vowing to make it ⅓ of the way through David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” few among us can say we haven’t at least contemplated a New Year’s quest for self-betterment.
And so, your virtual video store is lousy with cinematic profiles of humankind’s herculean quests at overcoming long odds, both internal and external. The following 10 films, featuring characters engaged in seemingly hopeless struggles, should help fortify you as you embark on that journey toward a better you. Or maybe you just want to drink yourself to death. We’ve got you covered there, too.
“Easy Money” (1983): Rodney Dangerfield is Monty Capuletti, a reefer addict and degenerate gambler who stands to inherit $10 million from his late stepmother if he can refrain from debaucherous activity for one year. Joe Pesci shines (natch) as Monty’s unsupportive drinking buddy, Nicky.
“Better off Dead” (1985): A mildly suicidal teenager becomes convinced he can win back the heart of his ex-girlfriend if he can just conquer this quadruple-diamond ski trail called the K-12. He also has to deal with a malevolent, shortchanged paperboy and a hamburger that inexplicably comes to life to perform a Van Halen song.
“Secret of My Success” (1987): In the 1980s, we saw dozens of films chronicling a white man’s quest to become a wealthy white Manhattanitte. Few were better than this Michael J. Fox yarn about a mailroom schlub who skips the corporate ladder climb, simply moves into a vacant office and starts acting like he owns the joint.
“The Cutting Edge” (1992): A catastrophic eye injury forces a hockey hooligan into an unlikely partnership with an uppity figure skating Olympian. Will this woefully mismatched duo pull it together in time to master a skating move with a tricky Russian name, fall in love and take home the gold? What do you think?
“Leaving Las Vegas” (1995): If Nicolas Cage wants to torch his belongings and move to sin city to drink himself to death, there’s nothing the babysitter from “Adventures in Babysitting” can do to stop him! Depressing? Sure. But here’s a guy who stayed the course and got exactly what he wanted in the end. And also, an Oscar.
“The Straight Story” (1999): Here’s something that happened: David Lynch, he of “Blue Velvet” fame, directed a G-rated Disney film about an elderly farmer who drove 240 miles to visit his dying brother. On his lawnmower! His fellow townsfolk couldn’t have GoFunded him a moped or an Uber ride? Geez.
“The Pledge” (2001): Sean Penn’s relentlessly bleak drama opens with a shot of a shithouse drunk Jack Nicholson muttering to himself outside of an abandoned filling station and just never lets up. Nicholson plays a police detective who eschews retirement to solve a child murder. When he learns the identity of the real killer, zero people believe him. The killer anonymously burns to death in a car accident. Everyone loses.
“Julie and Julia” (2009): Nora Ephron helmed this parfait of a flick that tells the true story of Julie Powell, a blogger who went viral after attempting to cook 524 of Julia Child’s recipes in 365 days. Not featured: the scene where Powell torpedoes her career with her follow-up book, where she attempts to cheat on her husband 524 different ways in 365 days.
“The Revenant” (2012): Leonardo DiCaprio plays an 1820s fur trapper who crawls through the frozen hinterlands to avenge the death of his son. After a small eternity, DiCaprio locates his target and, you know, kills him. Honestly, after watching this dude eat ice and sleep in the carcass of a cow for eight hours, I’d hoped for an ending with a little more pizazz.
“Brittany Runs a Marathon” (2019): Every person I spoke to in advance of writing this piece told me that I absolutely had to include this 2019 Netflix sleeper hit. I have done so … even though I have yet to watch said film.