What to Watch: 9 Films to Celebrate the New Year and Fresh Starts

Two men stand with backs mostly to the camera, facing each other. The man on the left has closely cropped brown-red hair and tattoos on his arm and shoulder; he is wearing a white sleeveless undershirt. The man on the right looks to have a shaved head and wears a short-sleeved blue shirt.

Ben Foster (left) and Woody Harrelson appear in “The Messenger,” which played at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

By Vanessa Zimmer

Well, hello 2023! I vow: I’m going to substitute kale for ice cream on my lunch menu, spend more time reading literary fiction and less time playing solitaire on my tablet, join a gym, and floss every single day.

Sound familiar? There’s nothing like a new year to tease out the impulse to turn over a new leaf or make a fresh start. Sometimes it works; most times, it doesn’t.

But this year we have a truly attainable resolution for you: Watch other people struggling to create new beginnings — in the form of movies from previous Sundance Film Festivals and/or supported by the Sundance Institute’s labs and grant programs. (If you’ve pledged to watch more independent film in the new year, we can help you there too, with ticket options for the in-person and online 2023 Sundance Film Festival.) 

Good idea, yes? Here, we’ll even give you a starter list of films about folks trying to make a fresh start.

Ed’s Next Move (1996 Sundance Film Festival) — Eddie (Matt Ross), a man who studies the genetics of rice for a living, moves from Wisconsin to Manhattan after his fiance breaks up with him. He hopes to find real and lasting love in the big city. “Staying away from clichés and instead focusing intently on incidents which everyone can relate to, [writer-director John] Walsh has created a refreshingly open and humorous look at a universal experience,” Trevor Groth wrote in the Festival Film Guide. Available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Gridlock’d (1997 Sundance Film Festival) — Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth play two drug-addicted performers who vow to get clean and sober after the third member of their group (Thandiwe Newton) overdoses. “Tupac’s standout performance in one of his final screen roles adds an ominous undertone to the weight of the film’s message,” Trevor Groth wrote in the Festival Film Guide. “Actor-turned-director Vondie Curtis Hall makes his directorial debut with a hilarious and often frightening satirical look at ‘the system’ and the pitfalls it has in store for those with even the best intentions.” Available on Starz.

New Muslim Cool (2008 Documentary Film Grant, 2008 Documentary Edit and Story Lab) — Director Jennifer Maytorena Taylor follows Jason “Hamza” Perez, a Puerto Rican American who gives up dealing drugs and converts to Islam. In a tough Pittsburgh neighborhood, Perez helps establish a religious community for African Americans and Latino Muslims. All of this takes place amidst the distrust and divisiveness of our post-9/11 world. Available on Alchemiya and Tubi.

The Messenger (2009 Sundance Film Festival) — Deployment to Iraq has left Will (Ben Foster) with the scars from serious injuries and the burden of a girl back home who has moved on. His own chance to move on involves teaming up with a senior officer (Woody Harrelson) to notify families of service members’ deaths. “Proving himself a cinematic craftsman, director Oren Moverman deliberately hasn’t made a political film,” wrote John Cooper in the Festival Film Guide. “The Messenger isn’t even about the military at its core; it’s about people choosing to live life and finding the light and humor at the end of the tunnel.” The film was nominated for Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson) and Best Original Screenplay (Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman). Available to rent on Amazon Prime.

In front of a building with barred doors and windows, a young woman in a bright headscarf, her left arm embracing the shoulder of and kissing another woman on the forehead. The second woman is wearing dark clothing and head covering.
"The Glass House" is about troubled teen girls in Iran with no resources, and a center that aims to help them.

The Glass House (2009 Sundance Film Festival) — This documentary tells the story of Marjaneh Halati, who opened a rehabilitation center in Tehran to teach life skills to troubled teen girls who have no other resources — and thus give them a second chance. “In superb cinema vérité style spanning 18 months, The Glass House deftly portrays a spirit of hopefulness,” Lisa Viola wrote in the Festival Film Guide. “These former victims are given the chance to express themselves and transform their difficult circumstances into new beginnings.”

Hobo With a Shotgun (2011 Sundance Film Festival) — Hobo (Rutger Hauer) arrives on the train, hoping to make a fresh start in a new town, only to find it riddled with crime and corrupt cops, and ruled by a violent crime boss. So Hobo sets out to make things right for the good and powerless citizens — and give them a new beginning — with a trusty shotgun. Available on Hulu, Magnolia Selects, Plex, Tubi, and Vudu.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016 Sundance Film Festival) — Things are looking up for troubled city kid Ricky (Julian Dennison) when he is placed with a foster family in rural New Zealand. But a turn of events sends the boy and his foster uncle (Sam Neill) on the run in the bush. “Equal parts road comedy and coming-of-age drama,” Adam Piron described the story in the Festival Film Guide. “Director Taika Waititi masterfully weaves lively humor with emotionally honest performances by Sam Neill and Julian Dennison.” Available on Crackle, Netflix, Plex, Pluto, and Tubi.

Blindspotting (2018 Sundance Film Festival) — Days away from fulfilling his probation and putting his sordid past behind him, Collin (Daveed Diggs) begins to evaluate his relationship with his trouble-making best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal). “Exploding with energy, style, and raw emotion, Blindspotting unravels today’s intersection of race and class with urgent and poetic justice,” Shari Frilot wrote in the Festival Film Guide. Available to rent on Amazon Prime.

The Hole in the Ground (2019 Sundance Film Festival) — Intending to leave their difficulties behind, single mother Sarah and young son Chris move to the Irish countryside. A disturbing encounter with a neighbor follows, and Chris disappears into the forest at night. The boy returns, but with such behavioral changes that Sarah begins to suspect this is not the same Chris — and that it all might be connected to a giant sinkhole in the woods. Available on Showtime and for rent on Amazon Prime.

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