My Favorite Films About Beginnings

New years are consistently heralded as new beginnings. It’s silly, really, that the change of the calendar year should fill us with the idea that now is the time to change things. Every day is a chance for a new beginning, not just January 1st. These movies explore what it is to make a first or a fresh start, even if the result is something terrible. The common thread through all the films I feature in this list is their focus on the humanity of their characters, people trying to make sense of an often senseless & chaotic world.

Billy Liar (1963)
Written by Keith Waterhouse & Willis Hall
Directed by John Schlesinger

Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a Yorkshire man still living with his parents and avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood at every turn. He hates his job and his unexciting life, escaping through vivid daydreams. Billy imagines himself as the ruler of the fictional Ambrosia, a generic European nation. These fantasies leak into the waking world as Billy develops a penchant for telling elaborate stories about himself and his family to the people in his community. One of Billy’s idols, cartoonist Danny Boon, is coming through Yorkshire, and the young man sees this as an opportunity to begin the career of his dreams. However, Boon isn’t impressed with Billy’s stories and barely acknowledges him. Meanwhile, Billy is dating two different women and has proposed to both of them. Unfortunately, he only has one engagement ring and has to keep inventing stories to switch between the women. But there’s only one woman he loves, his ex-girlfriend Liz (Julie Christie), who has just returned to town after a long absence. Billy Liar is a film about standing right on the edge of your life beginning and afraid some people can be to take that leap, truly embracing their life and all the challenges that come with it. This is also one of the essential films of the British New Wave, “kitchen sink” dramas about working-class people, their dreams, tragedies, and their lives.

Seconds (1966)
Written by Lewis John Carlino
Directed by John Frankenheimer

What if you were offered a chance to start your life again? This time everything would be guaranteed success & you would have your youth restored. Arthur Hamilton (Rock Hudson) is a middle-aged bank executive who despises his life. He’s fallen out of love with his wife, Emily, and their adult son never comes around. A stranger approaches him one day and shares an address with him. Later, Arthur gets a call from his school friend Charlie who supposedly died years earlier. Charlie tells Arthur that his life will be saved if he goes to that address. Arthur does and discovers a clandestine medical company that specializes in completely reconstructing people’s faces, reshaping their vocal cords, and even putting them through procedures that reinvigorate their bodies. The people who come out of this program are called Seconds, men & women who have been given a second chance at life. Arthur goes through with it, and at first, everything seems great. But such a gift always comes with a price; by the story’s end, this man is lost in a waking nightmare. Seconds is about a beginning that should have been avoided. Sometimes, fresh starts are not what we need & instead, people should be facing their lives and taking responsibility.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Written & Directed by Jacques Demy

The promise of a new love is a beautiful type of beginning. Jacques Demy’s French interpretation of the Hollywood musical is one long beginning whose ending hints at a new life for its twin sister protagonists. Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) & Solange (Françoise Dorléac) work in a studio teaching ballet to children but long for a more glamorous life in Paris. One day, the carnival comes to the seaside town of Rochefort, which kicks off a series of chance encounters. These will culminate in both women finding their true loves and heading off to a new life. It’s not that straightforward, though. Solange meets her match, American composer Andy (Gene Kelly) but doesn’t realize he’s the man her friend at the music store has been telling her about. Meanwhile, Maxence (Jacques Perrin) is a sailor & regular customer of the twins’ mother’s cafe. He talks about a woman he sees in his dreams every night, and he’s even painted a picture of her. The thing is, Maxence has never met Delphine despite it being her in his painting. There’s also a subplot in the background about a serial killer, something you don’t often find in musicals. Jacques Demy plays with our expectations, built up from years of musicals being a dominant film genre, letting one couple meet on screen and only hinting at the other. The film’s ending is the beginning of Delphine & Solange’s new exciting, music-filled lives.

Read my full review here.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Written by Robert Getchell
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) is a housewife living in New Mexico but dreaming of a better life. Since she was a little girl, she’s wanted to be a singer. One day, her husband is killed in a car accident, creating a space for her to escape. Alice and her preteen son Alfred sell almost all their belongings and head off to Alice’s hometown of Monterey, California. Money is tight, so they stop in Phoenix, Arizona, where Alice finds work as a lounge singer in a seedy bar to make enough money to continue the journey. A brief fling with a younger man turns violent, so she and Alfred leave in the middle of the night, ending up stuck in Tucson. Here Alice takes a job as a waitress at Mel’s Diner and begins to feel her dream slipping away. David (Kris Kristofferson), a local rancher & regular customer, takes a shine to Alice, and she to him. Now, that rekindled dream of becoming a singer is fading again & Alice isn’t sure what dreams to pursue anymore. This was Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to Mean Streets and an early sign that the director wasn’t just interested in brutes & tough guys. Alice is one of his most underrated films and deserving of your time, especially if you think all Scorsese does is make pictures like Goodfellas or Casino.

Read my full review here.

The Passenger (1975)
Written by Mark Peploe, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Peter Wollen
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Sometimes a new beginning happens briefly, but we grow like never in those precious few days. David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is a tv journalist trying to get an interview with rebel fighters engaged in the Chadian Civil War. He’s not having any luck and understands he won’t let himself do anything but exist outside the story he is covering. David meets a man in his hotel who subsequently dies the next day. The journalist realizes the man had a direct connection to the rebel fighters and that he and David resemble each other just enough. The decision is made, and David “kills” himself off becoming this man. With this new beginning, he starts to see the world & the conflict he was covering in a brand-new light. Michelangelo Antonioni has quickly become one of my favorite directors since diving into his films in 2022. I would compare him to Stanley Kubrick in the way he precisely frames everything in the shot. But he is also far more sentimental than Kubrick, caught between the crushing bleakness of life in the wake of the Holocaust & commitment to the idea that love is a force that can break through the ennui. The Passenger is one of Antonioni’s most notable films and reframes how we should look at the idea of new beginnings.

Read my full review here.

The Woodsman (2004)
Written by Nicole Kassell & Steven Fechter
Directed by Nicole Kassell

Who is allowed to have a new beginning? In American society, we let rancor often determine that no more so than when it comes to child molesters & pedophiles. As a former public school teacher, I can tell you that seeing what happens to an abused child is a genuinely harrowing thing, how their minds are profoundly harmed. Yet, I have to remind myself that the person doing the abuse is a human being & studies have shown that they are often a victim of molestation themselves. It’s a nasty, horrible cycle of trauma that we inflict on each other. In The Woodsman, Walter (Kevin Bacon) has been released after spending 12 years in prison for child molestation. He’s back home in Philadelphia, and his friends & family have abandoned him. Only his brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), seems to have empathy for him. Walter doesn’t want to hurt children & we see his mind is significantly damaged. Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def), a cop who knows about Walter’s crime, goes on to habitually abuse & taunt him, saying he’s just waiting for Walter to re-offend so he can fuck him up. Walter gets a job at a lumber mill and starts a relationship with co-worker Vicki (Kyra Sedgewick), who doesn’t know about his past. Despite the many bad things that happen to Walter, he resists the urges his disorder causes and tries to be good, to make something new & beautiful out of a life that could easily have been wasted. 

Children of Men (2006)
Written by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men takes place at what appears to be the end of human civilization, at least in the Western world. There has been total global infertility for eighteen years, along with war & economic depression. The United Kingdom still has a barely functioning government, contingent on a brutal police state. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) was an activist once upon a time but has given that, working as a nameless bureaucrat, counting off the days of his life as they slip by. His ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), has joined up with the immigrant-rights group The Fishes, and they kidnap Theo. They want the man to use his position in the government to secure transit papers for an African woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who may hold the key to restarting births on the planet. Children of Men is about a person who thinks they have reached the end only to discover that they have a role to play in the start of something bigger than themselves. It’s chilling how accurately this film continues to reflect the post-9/11 landscape; even the way COVID has transformed our lives is captured in Theo & Julian’s son having died during a previous flu epidemic that wiped out many people. This is an emotionally weighty picture, and Alfonso Cuarón perfectly captures the chaos of a civilization falling apart around you. Yet, that final scene exudes a sense of hope that this is the start of a new era in humanity’s story. Maybe this time, they won’t fuck it up.

Read my full review here.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Written & Directed by Sean Durkin

Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to start your life when you haven’t been given the tools to make it possible. When we meet 22-year-old Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), she is paranoid and desperate for her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), to help her. Lucy brings Martha into her & her husband, Ted’s (Hugh Dancy) home. But there is something very wrong. Through flashbacks, we see Martha spent the last two years living with a cult in the Catskill Mountains. Patrick (John Hawkes) keeps his followers under his thumb, alternating at whiplash speed between the most adoring, doting father figure to someone capable of brutal violence. Martha is drugged & raped as part of her initiation but pushes all that down as she gets caught up in Patrick’s sick cycle of control. The many names in the title reflect the way Martha’s identity slips away from her, being renamed by Patrick and answering the phone at the cult’s house like all the other women as “Marlene.” Director Sean Durkin’s feature debut remains one of the best films of the 2010s, showcasing the depth of Elizabeth Olsen’s acting prowess. Something few films since have managed to match. I am still waiting to see her return to roles with this much depth & nuance. It’s also a movie about how young people can have the beginnings of their adult lives sidetracked by older people that don’t have their best intentions in mind. The film’s ending suggests that Martha may be stuck in her state of paranoia forever, unable to truly begin her life.

Check out my Cinematic Immersion Tank review of this film.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: