Much like August, February has in some recent years been far better than it’s dumping ground reputation would lead some to believe. With January being the time of year for loads of Oscar qualifying pictures to go wide, this second month is when the movie new year begins in earnest. And this year it’s perhaps as promising as any, with a new release from Joel and Ethan Coen, a much-anticipated sequel to a comedy from the early 2000s, the latest indie horror sensation that premiered at last year’s Sundance, a new Michael Moore doc and several exciting new releases from established arthouse auteurs. Now that we’re closer than ever to officially wrapping up last year’s cinematic output (the Academy Awards broadcast is on February 28th), let’s properly welcome in the new movie year by taking a look closer at this new month.
One film you won’t see mentioned anywhere else in this column is Alex Proyas‘ embarrassing-looking “Gods Of Egypt,” which might be a career worst for the director. Otherwise, make sure to take a look at the entry for Colombian Oscar nominee “Embrace Of The Serpent,” an absolute stunner being released in the US by Oscilloscope Laboratories. It should win the Foreign Language Award, but will probably lose to the also great “Son Of Saul.” Either way, if you’re lucky enough to have a theater in your city that shows it, do it. You can thank me later.
Let’s dive into the rest of what’s coming out in February. Let us know if we missed anything. Happy movie watching folks!
Synopsis: A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio’s stars in line.
What You Need To Know: Have you seen the trailers for this latest Coen Brothers joint? Cuz, man oh man are they little slices of heaven for cinephiles and fans of the intimidatingly talented brotherly filmmaking duo. We’ve yet to write our review of the film, so we’ve mostly been posting clips and pictures over the last month with the occasional interesting/fun nugget arising via the press rounds (like genius DP Roger Deakins’ most recent apologetic claim that “it’s over” for film). Suffice to say, this being a Coens picture — plus that heavily stacked cast of Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson and Jonah Hill looking like they’re having a blast — expectations are high, with “Hail, Caesar!” (exclamation required) 2016’s first must-see event movie for a lot of us. If it’s a hit, that will surely add more fuel to the fire of those who think the movie release calendar would benefit greatly to stretch outside the mind bogglingly crammed, dated, and byzantine Summer and Awards Seasons with everything else just filler. People want to see good movies all year round. Either way, if it’s half as good as those trailers, we’re all in for a treat.
Release Date: February 5th
Synopsis: Living in exile in La Boca, Chile, four disgraced priests and a nun receive a visit from a clerical counselor.
What You Need To Know: Our very own Jessica Kiang was a big champion of this latest from Playlist favorite Pablo Larrain (“No”), going so far as to put it at #3 for her top 20 films of 2015: “Written quickly, cast up quickly and shot quickly as a kind of in-between project… But where anyone else would turn out some cobbled-together ‘minor’ entry in those circumstances, Larrain made his best film to date, with an amazing ensemble of performances (the invaluable Alfredo Castro is a standout, as are Antonia Zegers and Roberto Farian) and one of the cleverest and most excoriating scripts of the year… It’s bleak, but breathtakingly audacious and completely compelling, mining the thinnest, blackest vein of ironic humor, but mostly informed by an almost towering righteous fury at these men and the institution that sheltered them in order to protect itself. If ‘Spotlight’ is the restrained, smart, procedural take on corruption and cover-ups within the Catholic Church, ‘The Club’ is the ‘this time it’s personal’ version, and it builds to a cruel, brilliant coup de grace in which the strangest and most satisfying kind of poetic justice is finally served.” As per usual, in Kiang we trust (I’ve also seen and agree it’s pretty great, the kind of film that really sticks to the ribs and doesn’t let go).
Release Date: February 5th (Limited)
“Eisenstein in Guanajuato”
Synopsis: Venerated filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein travels to Mexico to shoot his new film after being shunned by Hollywood. There he has a sensual experience that becomes a significant turning point in his life and career.
What You Need To Know: Even though much-vaunted British arthouse filmmaker Peter Greenaway‘s (“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover“) latest screened in competition at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, we missed it. And thus, there’s still no official review on The Playlist for this film, though I actually saw it at a 2015 festival, and it is a kind-of glorious mixed bag. Greenaway goes absolutely ape-shit crazy with style (even for him), throwing all kinds of color, editing, framing and special effects to bring to (highly theatrical) life the 10 days in Mexico the famous Russian master filmmaker spent that shook his world. I enjoyed its boldness, to a point, then its emphasis on style and provocation wore me down and became rather monotonous. Still, for the film history alone, this is a must-see for cinephiles.
Release Date: February 5th (Limted)
“Mountains May Depart”
Synopsis: The life of Tao, and those close to her, is explored in three different time periods: 1999, 2014, and 2025.
What You Need To Know: Oli Lyttelton’s Cannes review was mixed at best, but any new feature from supremely gifted Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke (“A Touch Of Sin,” the sublime “Still Life”) is one worth checking out. Oli called this three part story his most ambitious effort yet, even though he faults the third near-future set chapter as a glaring misstep. But until that final third, he was mostly onboard when “there’s enough going on to keep you distracted. The relative playfulness of ‘A Touch Of Sin’ is amped up here, and Jia keeps you on your toes throughout the opening segment, while underplaying it with a rich vein of feeling. That emotion comes to the fore in the second and perhaps best segment… All of Zhangke’s strengths are here in those earlier sections: meticulous framing, an innate feel for the landscape and finely-wrought characterizations. So too are his weaknesses: his glacial pacing, his structural wonkiness and his heavy-handed messages, though this is arguably more accessible than anything the director has made to date.” Sure, Jia’s work is not for everyone, but there’s a reason he’s beloved by more famous auteurs (Walter Salles is a huge fan and even wants to publish a book about him). His films are always worth watching and a must for cinephiles looking to catch up with modern greats around the globe.
Release Date: February 12th (Limited run in NYC, Lincoln Center only)
Synopsis: Company commander Claus M. Pedersen makes a decision that has grave consequences for him and his family back home.
What You Need To Know: The Playlist has been championing Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm for some time in his collaborations as writer on Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” and as director of “A Hijacking.” I’ve also championed his directorial debut, the criminally underseen “R,” as an essential prison movie. His latest sees his favorite collaborator, the great Pilou Asbæk, again playing the lead in a return to the “territory of men trapped in volatile, stressful and violent situations with ‘A War’, and it is a tremendous, provocative cap to that unofficial trilogy,” according to Jessica Kiang’s Venice review. Lindholm’s use of docu-real stylistic techniques creates a nerve-fraying sense of urgency and you-are-there immersion into his dramas, and he’s not far off from becoming a staple in world cinema circles. “Indeed the sense of directorial sureness throughout can’t be overstated; although this is a metaphorical as well as a literal minefield, Lindholm navigates it with complete confidence… we get that sense of containment and claustrophobia, so well evoked in his previous films too, only here it is a psychological cage made of blame and guilt and a helpless sort of regret.”
Release Date: February 12th (Limited)
Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.
What You Need To Know: Sequels long after the fact can be risky, and tend to be a mixed bag at best. That notion is even dicier with comedies, but some other biggies have managed success of late. Fifteen years later, the release of Ben Stiller’s return to the supremely dopey world of Derek Zoolander falls in between the time it took for sequels to “Anchorman” and “Dumb and Dumber” to come into fruition, and surely Paramount is banking on a similar return on their investment. (Both those sequels did good numbers, even if they were not so warmly received overall by critics). Stiller is once again joined by Christine Taylor’s Matilda, Owen Wilson as eternally dumb and pretty Hansel as well as Will Ferrell back playing baddie Mugatu, with Kristen Wiig and Penelope Cruz among those joining the fun. But hopefully there’s more to all this than just character and joke retreads, and another set of famous people cameos. The first movie took time on DVD to really find its devoted fans, and no doubt they’ll come out for another adventure here, but again, we’d love more than just a quick-and-dirty nostalgic cash grab.
Release Date: February 12th
“Where To Invade Next”
Synopsis: To learn what the USA can learn from other nations, Michael Moore playfully “invades” them to see what they have to offer.
What You Need To Know: Our review out of TIFF last year made sure to not bury the lede, calling this Moore’s “best film in years.” And that’s just fine enough for us to check it out ourselves. “Moore’s never been averse to being painted as a propagandist, and with ‘Where To Invade Next’ he’s come up with something that’s persistently stirring. The main point of the film is that all of these forward-thinking initiatives in Europe were originated by Americans, and that all it would take are a few sustained acts of national will for the U.S. to reclaim them. Moore may be too rosy — or too disingenuous — but he conjures an attractive fantasy with this documentary, visiting a series of wonderlands where everyone is well-rested, well-fed, and well-educated. And the way he picks the prettiest locations as the backdrops for his interviews? Well, there’s no better way to describe those choices than ‘cinematic’. Which means, maybe there’s some real artistry behind Moore’s button-pushing after all,” wrote Noel Murray. Perhaps Moore’s glory years are behind him, but this looks like you shouldn’t count him out yet. His particular brand of rabble rousing advocacy journalism feels like it’s fallen out of favor post George W. Bush (or at least it doesn’t seem as vital), but he’s still a gifted filmmaker capable of waking us up out of complacency. With the upcoming presidential campaign and a whole new terrifying host of Republican possibilities, he may just be more necessary than ever.
Release Date: February 12th (Limited)
Synopsis: A former Special Forces operative turned mercenary is subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers and adopts the alter ego Deadpool.
What You Need To Know: I personally don’t care enough for most comic book movies at this point to have watched all of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but I do recall quite a lot of anger and consternation in that fan community over the initial handling of this Wade Wilson character, who eventually became Deadpool in that movie. But hell, you can’t fault Ryan Reynolds for trying. Dude’s been working overtime to become a movie star, only to find most of his big shots (“Green Lantern,” “R.I.P.D.,” “Self/Less“) fall hard at the box office. But one only need to look at his smaller films to see he’s more a character actor type lost in a leading man’s body. Last year’s underrated “Mississippi Grind” proved he could keep up with the great Ben Mendelsohn, while “The Voices,” “Buried,” “The Nines,” and “Adventureland” also show he’s got chops and the ability to actually find a good project worth his time and ours. At any rate, his second go at the Merc With The Mouth is all rated R with blood, boobs, sex and swearing. So, yay?
Release Date: February 12th
“How To Be Single”
Synopsis: New York City is full of lonely hearts seeking the right match, and what Alice, Robin, Lucy, Meg, Tom and David all have in common is the need to learn how to be single in a world filled with ever-evolving definitions of love.
What You Need To Know: Dating sucks most the time, but surely there’s plenty of comedy to mine from all those awkward moments. “How To Be Single,” the latest R-rated female-centric comedy to come in the wake of mammoth successes like “Bridesmaids” and basically every other subsequent Melissa McCarthy vehicle, looks to take advantage of the singles scene in New York City. But can it find its own voice and a reason to stand out from the pack? We’ll find out, as word’s been mostly quiet on this one. I do appreciate the overall angle, focusing on being alone instead of the noxious and potentially harmful insistence on coupling up that drives pretty much all other mainstream movies. Here’s hoping it follows through on this and doesn’t go all soft by the end. Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Damon Wayans Jr., Anders Holm, Alison Brie, Nicholas Braun, Jake Lacy, Jason Mantzoukas, and Leslie Mann star in the movie, directed by Christian Ditter (“Love, Rosie“), and is based on the book by Liz Tuccillo.
Release Date: February 12th
“Embrace Of The Serpent”
Synopsis: The story of the relationship between Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and two scientists who work together over the course of 40 years to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant.
What You Need To Know: This absolute stunner also made Jessica Kiang’s year end list as her 15th favorite film of 2015. But it was much earlier in the year when, upon reading her absolute rave review at Cannes (citing it as a blind discovery, the absolute best kind), I knew I had to catch up with this third film from young Colombian director Ciro Guerra (“The Wind Journeys”). I was lucky enough to catch it at Vancouver International Film Festival (where it made my top 5 favorite films of the festival), and it did not disappoint. This black and white widescreen multi-period adventure is without doubt an art film, but it’s so accessible and straight up pleasurable to watch that I’m still hoping it can actually cross over in some way. This is a film that demands you see it in a theater, on the biggest screen possible. The black and white visuals, the druggy hallucination sequences, the performances and a killer soundtrack (ancient tribal music mixed with the natural cacophony of the jungle) all lead to an incredibly immersive, funny and beautiful rumination on dying, colonialism and being the last of one’s kind. I’ll be banging the drum for this one all year, it’s just so great. See it.
Release Date: February 17th (Limited)
Synopsis: A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.
What You Need To Know: I’m greatly excited by this recent small wave of indie horror titles (“The Babadook,” “It Follows,” “Goodnight Mommy“) that have all garnered strong reviews and done relatively well at the box office. They all reach for fresh attempts at scaring the audience and do so in artful, sometimes gorgeously cinematic ways. Robert Eggers‘ feature debut “The Witch” looks to be next in line after it made waves at last year’s Sundance, where it took home the Best Director prize from the festival. Our Rodrigo Perez was not immune to its appeal, as he made clear in his A-grade review where he called it a “spellbinding, absolutely nightmarish picture that will genuinely make your blood run cold.” That review plus all the other hype from critics who’ve already seen it have me genuinely thrilled to catch up with it. The marketing from great distributor A24 has been on point too, showing off the gorgeous visuals and creepy tone. “Influenced by folktales and obviously the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Eggers’ icy hymn strikes the most primal fear in the notions of what is unnatural. Not just for the dutiful, but for all of mankind. An evocative look at the nature of evil and the inescapability of malevolence, ‘The Witch’ will dazzle and shake you right to your core,” Perez wrote. Yes, please.
Release Date: February 19th
Synopsis: A gang of criminals and corrupt cops plan the murder of a police officer in order to pull off their biggest heist yet across town.
What You Need To Know: It’s hard to look past all the capital-T testosterone awash in this latest genre flick from Aussie director John Hillcoat (“Lawless,” “The Proposition“), and sure enough the marketing has pushed that tough guy aspect of the film. But is it just me, or is anyone else most curious/excited to see Kate Winslet, one of our very best actors, vamping it up as big baddie crime boss Irina Vlaslov? She rarely if ever does roles like this, and I for one can’t wait to see what she does up against all those gun-toting fellas in the rest of the cast (Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Clifton Collins, Jr., Michael K. Williams, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus). Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, also appears, as does Teresa Palmer to hopefully balance out some of the extreme XY chromosome drowning the film. Penned by Matt Cook, the Black List-approved script tells the story of a group of cops who plan a heist, only for everything to go very, very wrong. Also on hand is composer Atticus Ross (“The Social Network,” “Gone Girl”) who co-wrote the score, and insanely talented editor Dylan Tichenor (“There Will Be Blood,” “Zero Dark Thirty“). That’s a lot of talent for one film, so expectations are high, but Hillcoat has not come even close to capturing the heights since his best film, “The Proposition,” broke him out. Fingers crossed this one shows that promise for him again.
Release Date: February 26th
Netflix is releasing a sequel to Ang Lee‘s Oscar-winning, box office devouring Wuxia masterwork that made kung fu fans of even the typically subtitle-averse US audience. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny” comes almost 16 years later, and this time its legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (who designed the action sequences for the first film and directed “Iron Monkey” amongst many other legendary titles of the genre dating back to the 70s) in the director’s seat. Michelle Yeoh reprises her role as Yu Shu Lien. If it can capture half of the magisterial beauty of the original, than I’ll tip my hat to Netflix yet again for a job well done.
When we caught it at Tribeca last year, we noted that the Jason Sudeikis and Rebecca Hall starring “Tumbledown” isn’t free of “many of the traps and tropes that pervade romantic comedies, but it frequently takes the time to walk through and explore them with an even, sensitive touch.” “Eddie the Eagle” was just reviewed out of Sundance this year. It stars Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton as British ski jumper Michael “Eddie” Edwards, who landed on the British ski team for the 1988 Olympics despite a relative lack of training and athletic achievement.
Spooky-looking “Regression,” the latest film from Alejandro Amenábar (“The Others,” “The Sea Inside“) was quietly taken off the calendar last year and instead headed to the San Sebastian Film Festival where it made its World Premiere. Now it’s set to play in some US theaters this month. Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke star in the ’90s set movie that follows a detective who investigates the accusations a young woman has made against her father. And of course, things are not what they seem in this grim looking horror/thriller.
“Viva” was reviewed out of Telluride last year, where we called director Paddy Breathnach’s film “tender, but uneven… a queer-positive movie about drag queens, queer communities and self-expression in the slums of Havana, and a father and son story about estrangement and reconciliation.” “Southbound” tells interlocking tales of terror and follow the fates of a group of weary travelers who confront their worst nightmares and darkest secrets, over one long night on a desolate stretch of desert highway. One of the segments is made by Radio Silence, a collective who made one of the better parts of “V/H/S.” Then there’s “Pride And Prejudice And Zombies” which should look way more fun than it actually is.
“Touched With Fire” features Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby as two poets with bipolar disorder whose art is fueled by their emotional extremes. They pursue their passion which breaks outside the bounds of sanity, swinging them from fantastical highs to tormented lows until they ultimately must choose between sanity and love.
“Rolling Papers” is a doc set at ground zero of the green rush, when The Denver Post became the first major media outlet to appoint a marijuana editor. Policy news, strain reviews, parenting advice and edible recipes are the new norm in the unprecedented world of pot journalism. Director Kevin Reynolds (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves“) is still working, but his latest, “Risen,” looks a little rote.