January is widely considered to be a dumping ground for bad movies, but there’s actually an embarrassment of art-house riches to be found this month in theaters, from Oscar vehicles to impressive writer-director debuts, and foreign-language gems to documentaries about intrepid, pioneering women.
The first few weeks of 2015 will see the release of two mainstays in the best-actress conversation: the Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice, starring perennial nominee Julianne Moore, and the chronic-pain tale Cake, starring a transformed Jennifer Aniston. But the film we can’t wait for everyone to see is Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, whose hilarious and heartfelt writing-directing-starring debut about a Iranian-American slacker who’s still getting over her ex Maxine already feels like one of the year’s best offerings.
Akhavan is joined in the writing-directing realm by Sara Colangelo, whose first film Little Accidents is an ambitious exploration of a woman (Elizabeth Banks) in existential crisis, and by Kate Barker-Froyland, who tries to tell a different kind of love story with Anne Hathaway in Song One. Alternate visions of love abound: The Duke of Burgundy finds two women engaged in an unraveling S&M relationship, while love goes bad in a completely different way in The Boy Next Door, in which Jennifer Lopez plays a single mom stalked by her teenage neighbor.
January will also see the release (at last!) of Girlhood, the third film from French director Celine Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy), which poignantly explores the limited opportunities an black teenage girl faces in the slums of contemporary Paris. Other international must-sees include Germany and Canada’s submissions to the 2015 Oscars: the racy but substantial threesome period romance Beloved Sisters and the mother-son drama Mommy, respectively. Elsewhere around the globe, Gong Li reunites with frequent collaborator Zhang Yimou in Coming Home, a devastating drama centered on China’s catastrophic Cultural Revolution.
Finally, the nonfiction world offers fascinating portraits of obstetrician and Women on Waves founder Rebecca Gomperts in Vessel, influential dance instructor and advocate Martha Hill in Miss Hill, and the handful of Jewish-American pilots who started the Israeli Air Force in 1948 in Above and Beyond.
Here are the films by and/or about women opening theatrically in January 2015. All descriptions are from press releases unless indicated otherwise.
Beloved Sisters depicts the unconventional romance between two aristocratic sisters and a rebellious poet who took the European literary world by storm in the late eighteenth century. As the German Enlightenment flourishes in Weimar, vibrant Caroline von Beulwitz (Hannah Herszsprung) finds herself in an unhappy marriage to provide for her mother and shy younger sister Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius). When both sisters fall for outspoken writer Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), their desire ignites a journey of shared passion and creativity. Charlotte and Schiller marry so that the lovers may pursue their ménage à trois under the guise of convention, but as Caroline reveals herself to be a talented author in her own right, the trio’s fragile equilibrium is threatened and the sisters’ once unbreakable connection is irrevocably changed. In this sweeping yet intimate romantic drama, which is also Germany’s official submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, acclaimed director Dominik Graf illuminates the lives of two bold young women and one of classical literature’s most celebrated figures with charm and contemporary energy.
Vessel (doc) – Directed by Diana Whitten
Vessel begins with a young doctor who lived by the sea — and an unlikely idea. Rebecca Gomperts, horrified by the realities created by anti-abortion laws around the world, felt compelled to challenge this. Her method: to provide abortions on a ship in offshore waters. Her project, Women on Waves, begins as flawed spectacle, a media frenzy, faced with governmental, religious, and military blockades. But with each setback comes a more refined mission, until Rebecca has the revelation that she can use new technologies to bypass law — and train women to give themselves safe abortions using WHO-sanctioned protocols with pills. We witness the creation of an underground network of emboldened, informed activists, working at the cutting edge of global reproductive rights, who trust women to handle abortion themselves. Vessel is Rebecca’s story: one of a woman who heard and answered a calling, and transformed a wildly improbable idea into a global movement.
It’s All So Quiet – Written and Directed by Nanouk Leopold
Helmer (Jeroen Willems), a single farmer in his fifties, lives with his aged, bedridden father in the Dutch countryside. His working days are marked by the visits of milk collector Johan, a man of his own age for whom Helmer holds a secret fascination. One day Helmer decides to renovate the house, buying himself a new double bed and moving his father upstairs. His life gains even more momentum when adolescent farmhand Henk (Martijn Lakemeier) comes to help him out.
Farewell, Herr Schwarz (doc) – Directed by Yael Reuveny
Winner of the Best Documentary Prize at the Haifa International Film Festival, director Yael Reuveny’s Farewell, Herr Schwarz is a cinematic journey about buried family secrets, the Holocaust (from a third generation perspective), and how it is never too late to reclaim your heritage. Siblings Michla and Feiv’ke Schwarz survived the Holocaust but never reunited after the war. Michla moved to the soon-to-be-founded Jewish state in the Middle East and started a family there. Her brother Feiv’ke, considered dead, returned to East Germany, married a German woman, and inexplicably lived amidst the concentration-camp ruins where he was once a prisoner. The Israeli and German sides of the family lived unaware of each other for half a century until first time filmmaker Yael Reuveny probed exactly what happened to her family in 1945.
Druid Peak – Written and Directed by Marni Zelnick (Opening in LA)
Druid Peak is a coming-of-age story about a troubled teenage boy (Spencer Treat Clark) who finds his place in the world tracking wolves in the wild lands of Wyoming.
Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a diagnosis of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, Alice and her family find their bonds thoroughly tested. Her struggle to stay connected to who she once was is frightening, heartbreaking, and inspiring.
Appropriate Behavior – Written and Directed by Desiree Akhavan
For Shirin (Desiree Akhavan), being part of a perfect Persian family isn’t easy. Acceptance eludes her from all sides: her family doesn’t know she’s bisexual, and her ex-girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), can’t understand why she doesn’t tell them. Even the six-year-old boys in her moviemaking class are too ADD to focus on her for more than a second. Following a family announcement of her brother’s betrothal to a parentally approved Iranian prize catch, Shirin embarks on a private rebellion involving a series of pan-sexual escapades, while trying to decipher what went wrong with Maxine.
Little Accidents – Written and Directed by Sara Colangelo
When a teenage boy goes missing in a small town already devastated by a fatal mining accident, three strangers find themselves drawn together in a tangle of secrets, lies, and the collective grief of the community. Reeling from the disappearance of her son, Diane (Elizabeth Banks) finds herself drifting away from her husband (Josh Lucas), a mining-company executive whose role in the accident has made her family the prime target for the town’s anger. When she forms a dangerous bond with the sole survivor of the disaster (Boyd Holbrook), truths will be uncovered that threaten to tear apart the few remaining threads holding the town together in this intense drama from writer-director Sara Colangelo.
Pretty Rosebud – Written by Chuti Tiu
Everyone thinks Cissy (Chuti Tiu) has the perfect life — except Cissy. Striving to be the “good girl” at home and at work has left her on the verge of a breakdown. A childless marriage to a handsome architect has gone stale, while questions about babies pepper every well-meaning conversation with family and friends. The cultural abyss dividing Cissy and her traditional Asian parents drives her to a desperate act of survival, defying societal taboos and awakening something so primal it is both shocking and revelatory.
Spare Parts – Written by Elissa Matsueda
Spare Parts is a true-life story about four Hispanic high-school students who form a robotics club under the leadership of their school’s newest teacher, Fredi (George Lopez). With no experience, 800 bucks, used car parts, and a dream, this rag-tag team goes up against the country’s reigning robotics champion, MIT. On their journey, they learn not only how to build a robot — but to build a bond that will last a lifetime.
Veronika Decides to Die – Directed by Emily Young; Co-Written by Roberta Hanley
After a frantic suicide attempt, Veronika (Sarah Michelle Gellar) awakens inside a mysterious mental asylum. Under the supervision of an unorthodox psychiatrist who specializes in controversial treatments, Veronika learns that she has only weeks to live.
We’ll Never Have Paris – Co-Directed by Jocelyn Towne
In a story based on true events, Quinn (Simon Helberg) has been in a devoted relationship with Devon (Melanie Lynskey) for several years and is ready to propose marriage until a gorgeous blonde co-worker reveals her love for him. Quinn immediately has second thoughts about matrimony and ends up terminating his relationship with his long-time better half. After a brief relationship with the blonde, Quinn quickly realizes he’s made the mistake of a lifetime, so he sets off to Paris, where his one and only true love has moved, to win her back.
Cake – The acerbic, hilarious Claire Simmons (Jennifer Aniston) becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman (Anna Kendrick) in her chronic pain support group.
The Boy Next Door – Written by Barbara Curry
Jennifer Lopez leads the cast in The Boy Next Door, a psychological thriller that explores a forbidden attraction that goes much too far. Directed by Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious) and written by Barbara Curry, the film also stars Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, and Kristin Chenoweth.
Song One – Written and Directed by Kate Barker-Froyland
Oscar winner Anne Hathaway stars as Franny in Song One, a romantic drama set against the backdrop of Brooklyn’s vibrant modern-folk music scene. After Franny’s musician brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is injured and hospitalized in a coma following a car accident, Franny returns home after a long estrangement and begins to use his notebook as a guide to how his life has evolved in her absence. Franny seeks out the musicians and artists Henry loved. In the course of her journey, she meets James Forester (Johnny Flynn), her brother’s musical idol, whose success and fame belie a shy and private man. As a strong romantic connection develops between Franny and James, the question becomes if love can bloom even under the most adverse circumstances. The film also stars Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen and features original music composed by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice.
A feisty widowed single mom (Anne Dorval) finds herself burdened with the full-time custody of her unpredictable 15-year-old ADHD son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). As they struggle to make ends meet, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), the peculiar new neighbor across the street, offers her help. Together, they find a new sense of balance, and hope is regained.
The Duke of Burgundy
Day after day, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) act out a simple yet provocative ritual that ends with Evelyn’s punishment and pleasure. As Cynthia yearns for a more conventional relationship, Evelyn’s obsession with erotica quickly becomes an addiction that may push the relationship to a breaking point.
Strange Magic – Co-Written by Irene Mecchi
Strange Magic, a new animated film from Lucasfilm Ltd., is a madcap fairy-tale musical inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Popular songs from the past six decades help tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies, and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion. Lucasfilm Animation Singapore and Industrial Light & Magic bring to life the fanciful forest turned upside-down with world-class animation and visual effects.
An outlaw tale played out as a modern-day murder ballad, Big Muddy follows grifter Martha Barlow (Nadia Litz), who must come to terms with her dark past after her teenage son commits a horrible crime. On the run to survive, she must dodge her sociopathic revenge-seeking former flame, and attempt to reconcile with her son’s dangerous and long-forgotten father in order to protect her estranged family.
Miss Hill (doc)
In a career spanning most of the 20th century, Martha Hill became a behind-the-scenes leader of the dance world as the founding director of The Juilliard Dance Division, a position she held from 1952-85. Stylistically weaving together over 90 years of archival footage featuring Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, and more, the film is a celebration of dance and an examination of the passion required to keep it alive. Miss Hill is also a remarkable chronicle of the tense battle over how the newly commissioned Lincoln Center would apportion coveted funding and rehearsal space between Hill’s Juilliard dance division and Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet.
Girlhood – Celine Sciamma
Fed up with her abusive family situation, lack of school prospects, and the “boys’ law” in the neighborhood, Marieme (Karidja Touré) starts a new life after meeting a group of three free-spirited girls. She changes her name, her style, drops out of school, and starts stealing to be accepted into the gang. When her home situation becomes unbearable, Marieme seeks solace in an older man who promises her money and protection. Realizing this sort of lifestyle will never result in the freedom and independence she truly desires, she finally decides to take matters into her own hands.
Gloria – Written by Sabina Berman
Based on the life story of controversial Mexican pop/rock icon Gloria Trevi (played by Sofia Espinosa).
Coming Home – Co-Written by Geling Yan
Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) and Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) are a devoted couple forced to separate when Lu is arrested and sent to a labor camp as a political prisoner, just as his wife is injured in an accident. Released during the last days of the Cultural Revolution, he finally returns home only to find that his beloved wife has amnesia and remembers little of her past. Unable to recognize Lu, she patiently waits for her husband’s return. [Directed by Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower).]
Above and Beyond (doc) – Directed by Roberta Grossman
In 1948, just three years after the liberation of Nazi death camps, a group of Jewish American pilots answered a call for help. In secret and at great personal risk, they smuggled planes out of the U.S., trained behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, and flew for Israel in its War of Independence. As members of Machal — “volunteers from abroad” — this rag-tag band of brothers not only turned the tide of the war; they also embarked on personal journeys of discovery and renewed Jewish pride. Above and Beyond is their story.