With spring upon us, and the awards season passed, March is the perfect month for the movies to start fresh and anew. Now we enter what has become in recent years a very good time to be going to the movies, when smaller, stranger, foreign and more challenging works come to cinemas. Since January and February are overshadowed by some weak releases and the awards race, 2015 really feels like it’s starting now.
In this writer’s opinion, the next two months are where gems are uncovered. There are two concurrent races going on this March, both with the same goal: beat the summer bloodbath. A host of smaller distributors will fight for screens to get their tougher fare seen in theaters, while major studios start releasing tentpole-like movies (a few made the cut below) to see if they gross summer dollars before the real deal starts in May. It leads to a time of year that’s kinda quiet at the movies, but actually exciting if you’re really paying attention.
So let’s celebrate a new year at the movies by seeing, well, more movies. Make sure to support your local arthouse if you’ve got ‘em around. Here are 11 films worth tracking down this month.
Synopsis: In the near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.
What You Need To Know: Neill Blomkamp had the kind of meteoric rise with his first film, “District 9,” nearly all filmmakers dream of, but only to see his followup “Elysium” labelled a sophomore slump. He’s been refreshingly honest about his failings on his second feature, though that’s been overshadowed by the recent development that his next film will be another reinvention of the “Alien” franchise, complete with Sigourney Weaver reprising her iconic role as ‘Ripley.’ That’s all very exciting, but what of this latest picture, “Chappie”? It sounds a bit more like his earliest work in that it’s set back in his native South Africa and is co-written by his wife Terri Tatchell. It also stars Hugh Jackman, along with both members of bizarro rap duo Die Antwoord, and the trailers seem to promise something a little different than most sci-fi robot flicks we get these days. Reviews are no doubt right around the corner, but at the moment we just hope Blomkamp gets back on point with this release and finds that perfect meld of Verhoeven splatter/humor and Cameron tech/action he seems to be after.
Release Date: March 6th
Synopsis: A slacker working as an office temp makes extra money by stealing refund checks from his employer.
What You Need To Know: This is the final installment in writer/director Joel Potrykus’ animal trilogy, (following short film “Coyote” and first feature “Ape”) which is worth seeking out. On the basis of “Ape” alone, Potrykus is something of a midwestern Harmony Korine type (he’s from Grand Rapids, Michigan), making his low budget, very odd and particular brand of anti-comedy that feels fresh in an independent landscape loaded with filmmakers desperate to be liked. (Read this great back-and-forth interview piece between him and Alex Ross Perry from Cinema Scope for a good primer). Our A- review from last year’s New Directors/New Films has had us waiting impatiently to see it: “The final twenty minutes are squirm-worthy in the best way… ‘Buzzard’ is a quiet, introspective film, but it trumps all generic blockbusters in that it very much is a roller coaster ride, one that thrills, upsets, and makes one queasy, all in surprising ways.”
Release Date: March 6th
Synopsis: Claire is under the grip of a mysterious new cult called Faults. Desperate to be reunited with their daughter, her parents recruit one of the world’s foremost experts on mind control.
What You Need To Know: While not as high-profile (that’s relative of course) a release as other recent indie cult films like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Sound of My Voice,” this nonetheless caught our attention at SXSW 2014. It’s the feature debut of writer/director Riley Stearns, who impressed us with his previous short “The Cub” (watch that here). The cast is damn good, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead starring alongside character actor greats like Leland Orser, Beth Grant, Lance Reddick and Jon Gries. Anyone familiar already with Stearns’ work should be glad to know his droll sense of humor and peculiar framing is carried over into this feature. Our B+ review described it as an “ageless story about how relationships are defined by who wants control and who actually wields it. ‘Faults’ is a strangely funny, often eerie accomplishment, and it’s a testament to why people like us tend to call first features like this ‘promising.’”
Release Date: March 6th
Synopsis: A live-action retelling of the classic fairy tale about a servant step-daughter who wins the heart of a prince.
What You Need To Know: It’s fair to say the above synopsis is a waste of pixels cuz, really, who doesn’t know the story of Cinderella at this point? This version, though, is another entry in Disney’s current wave of live action retreads of familiar fairy tales, after “Maleficent” and “Into the Woods” did very well last year. Kenneth Branagh is at the helm, continuing what must feel just a bit like slumming after a career spent adapting plenty of top tier Shakespeare and now trying to bring that level of gravitas to Marvel, Jack Ryan and Disney movies. We caught the premiere at Berlin recently, and to our surprise it earned a solid B+ grade, even though our writer warns that you won’t find any subversion of the tropes and elements from past adaptations. It’s a straight up retelling of the classic story “with no sheen of reflexivity, and no in-jokey admission of its hokiness to hide behind.” But it works “surprisingly well, by approaching the story with a sincerity and sweetness that defy cynicism, and by casting Cate Blanchett.”
Release Date: March 13
Synopsis: Following a strange sexual encounter, a teenager has disturbing visions and the inescapable feeling that someone, or something, is after her.
What You Need To Know: In our horror-themed podcast from last year, we lamented the odd release dates chosen for some of the most interesting entries in the genre of late, and “It Follows,” from David Robert Mitchell (“The Myth of the American Sleepover”), was one of the key films we pointed out. Ok, so it’s not coming out in the autumn, the traditional time when these films are released, but if it’s a good horror film, it only matters that the audience finds it. So we’ll see if this movie, which had a great 2014 festival run (starting at Cannes, no small feat for an American horror film) has what it takes. The buzz has been building for a while now, so let’s hope our critic who reviewed it first (awarding it a B grade) was keeping expectations in check when she downplayed some of the hype: “[It] worked like gangbusters as an exercise in atmosphere and allusion, but a little less so as an out-and-out supernatural horror, and only at certain times did it achieve a perfect synthesis of the two.”
Release Date: March 13th
“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”
Synopsis: A jaded Japanese woman discovers a hidden copy of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film “Fargo” on VHS, believing it to be a treasure map indicating the location of a large case of money.
What You Need To Know: We talked about this strange little gem way back in our podcast about the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered to good reviews (like ours here; we gave it a B+). The story makes it sound tailor-made for some semblance of future movie geek cultdom, following a potentially mentally ill protagonist (Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi) falling prey to those wacky Coens’ tricks about their film “Fargo” being based in fact (which of course, was a lie) and seeking out the money buried by Steve Buscemi in the film before his fateful date with a wood chipper. Kikuchi’s performance is apparently quite strong and mostly silent. Beyond the oddball, meta-ness of the narrative, we also like hearing words like “cinematic” used to describe it in our review, as all too many indies these days seem to be more fitting for television than theaters (for which there are plenty of good and obvious reasons). “Its ambiguity should dazzle and delight… ‘Kumiko’ is a peculiar, intelligent fairy tale.”
Release Date: March 18th
Synopsis: Heinrich wishes to conquer death through love, and when he meets Henriette, the wife of a business acquaintance, she expresses interest in a suicide pact when she learns she has a terminal illness.
What You Need To Know: Writer/director Jessica Hausner’s (“Lourdes”) latest feature was an official selection at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. When we saw it there, we remarked how the film approached the very broad and common theme of love uniquely with sardonic wit and an accomplished sense of style. “Fans of austere auteurism, immaculate framing, and laughter that leaves lumps in your throat will be floating on cloud nine with this one. A production that suffers a bit too much from heartsickness and stumbles on awkward moments stop you from falling in love with it completely, but nonetheless, the film still screams for a spotlight to be directed at Hausner. After a third premiere in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, one only hopes that next time around Cannes will wise up to her talent and allow her a slot in Competition.”
Release Date: March 18th
Synopsis: A father and daughter journey from Denmark to an unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization.
What You Need To Know: Our review out of Cannes 2014 was lukewarm on this latest from Argentine slow cinema auteur Lisandro Alonso (“Liverpool,” “Los Muertos”), giving the film credit for its beautiful landscapes and cinematography but also knocking it for moving “at a pace that would see it quickly outflanked by the average glacier.” But a few others around The Playlist watercooler are much bigger fans of this slow-paced but strangely beautiful and wholly cinematic piece of work. It’s in the same ballpark but isn’t challenging in quite the same way as the work of Carlos Reygadas (“Post Tenebras Lux”) or Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Winter Sleep”). There’s a distinct hybrid quality to “Jauja”: the film is steeped in mythology and folklore, but those elements take second stage to a gorgeous naturalism and reveal a bubbling surreal dreamscape near the climax. Not enough has been said for how slyly funny the film is, with Viggo Mortensen (speaking multiple languages no less) giving a perfectly calibrated and dry turn as a man out of his element. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city that shows “Jauja,” then see it on as a big a screen as soon as possible.
Release Date: March 20th
“The Salt of the Earth”
Synopsis: A look at the career of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado.
What You Need To Know: This is an appropriately stunning documentary that manages the tough one-two punch of being highly informative and a flat-out good story as well. Anyone new to Salgado’s work will get a well-rounded and fairly complete rundown of his life and work while those already familiar should still be fascinated by a well-made and well-told film. Wim Wenders co-directs with the subject’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and somehow avoids any semblance of glad handing and easy sentiment, instead delivering what feels the definitive statement on this artist, who’s still alive and working today. It was deservedly nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar (which it lost to “Citizenfour”) and was listed as our #8 best doc of 2014. We’re big fans of the film, and in our review last year out of Telluride, beyond expounding on how amazing Salgado’s photography (“often breathtakingly beautiful as the photographer’s images”), we called it a “mesmeric and unforgettable look at the world and it sufferings through the eyes of a remarkably insightful and honorable artist.”
Release Date: March 27th
“While We’re Young”
Synopsis: A middle-aged couple’s career and marriage are overturned when a disarming young couple enters their lives.
What You Need To Know: Noah Baumbach is a beloved Playlist favorite. We’ve stuck by him even when he was making more difficult fare like “Greenberg” and “Margot at the Wedding.” But ever since “Frances Ha,” a giddy mix of froth and dark edges starring and co-written by his partner Greta Gerwig, we’ve seen a new side to the New York indie stalwart, one that sees him dipping into very familiar and even mumblecore-ish material. But if we’re going to accuse of him of ripping off that “movement” (which we’re not), we must also add that he’s making perhaps the best versions of these stories about middle age and lost twentysomethings. A few staffers have already seen “While We’re Young,” starring the erstwhile Greenberg Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts alongside Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, and they like it a lot. Our review from TIFF called it Baumbach’s most accessible work to date since “The Squid and the Whale,” though fear not, “that wider appeal doesn’t diminish the bite or insight of ‘While We’re Young’, a deliciously entertaining, funny and honest look at getting old, being young and the intersection of the two at crucial life junctures.”
Release Date: March 27th
Synopsis: Failing in his efforts to find his beloved owner, an abandoned dog eventually joins a canine revolt against their human abusers.
What You Need To Know: Anyone who’s surveyed the recent cinematic output from Hungary has no doubt encountered some fantastically distinctive work. “White God,” with its neo realist shaky cam aesthetics mixed with pulp exploitation, is another weird effort from the country that made waves last year on the festival circuit. It won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes and comes loaded with a bold narrative turn from humans to dogs that sees it become the most violent version of “Homeward Bound” we ever imagined. It’s reminiscent of the recent ‘Planet of the Apes’ films, but what it lacks in CGI wizardry is made up for by some amazing canine actors that give the film a palpable sense of dread when the dogs take over. Tired of seeing animals abused in movies? “White God,” which our review called a “triumphantly idiosyncratic film with smarts and visceral impact in equal measure,” is tailor-made for you.
Release Date: March 27th
If our top 11 did nothing for you, there’s always plenty more to check out. We almost gave one of those slots to Canadian survivalist horror picture “Backcountry,” a simple but effective two-hander about a couple lost in the woods, which would be bad enough, but then a bear starts (literally) sniffing around and things go from bad to worse in a hurry. No review yet on the site, but if it’s available in your hood, give it a shot and cancel your camping trip this summer. Also not yet reviewed but in the horror genre is “Spring,” which looks worth seeking based off the trailer only.
Two Danish female auteurs we’ve championed in the past, Lone Sherfig (“An Education”) and Oscar-winner Susanne Bier (“After the Wedding”), have new films out this month. The former has “The Riot Club” while the latter’s “Serena,” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, has been delayed for years (and now we know why). Regardless, their work is worth noting even if these aren’t their best efforts. “The Merchants of Doubt” and “Seymour: An Introduction” (directed by Ethan Hawke) should sate your appetite for documentaries this month.
Lastly, there’s plenty to check out if you need famous people in your movies (even doing potentially crap work, but who’s counting?): “The Gunman” sees Sean Penn go full Liam Neeson in an action thriller from Pierre Morel while Liam Neeson goes full Liam Neeson for real in “Run All Night” in his third collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra; “Insurgent” is the second film in the “Divergent” series (yawn, but we do like Shailene Woodley); “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” should deliver to its fans. “Get Hard” isn’t a sequel to “Walk Hard,” but it does star Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart.