Cast: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, Marisa Tomei, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson,
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classic
Criticwire Average: A-
Why is it a “Must See”? One of the standout favorites of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Ira Sachs’ “Love is Strange” features a pair of acclaimed performances courtesy of Alfred Molina and John Lithgow. In the drama film, the actors play Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina), a loving same sex couple who finally tie the knot after 39 years together. When George loses his teaching job at a Catholic school as a result, however, the two are forced to sell their New York City apartment and live apart, relying on friends and family to make ends meet. Steeped in understatement and full of introspective characters, the movie is Sachs’ best film yet and remains remarkably faithful to the strongest ingredient in his previous works: extraordinarily sensitive performances. The result is a sophisticated take on contemporary urbanity infused with romantic ideals and the tragedy of their dissolution.
Why is it a “Must See”? Michael Fassbender is one of the most handsome actors working today, but what happens when he’s stripped of his trademark grin and entrancing eyes and forced to wear a papier-mâché head for an entire movie? His good looks may be absent, but the Oscar nominee’s talent remains top notch in Lenny Abrahamson’s idiosyncratic “Frank.” The comedy-drama focuses on a wannabe musician (Gleeson) who joins an eccentric pop band led by the eponymous Frank. The entire cast is wonderful, including a very funny Maggie Gyllenhaal as stone-faced drummer Clara, but Fassbender dominates the screen with his honest and endearingly slapstick performance. Full of heavy-handed whimsy and cartoonish personalities, “Frank” is a perceptive work of cultural criticism for those willing to operate on its zany level.
Why is it a “Must See”? Winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, “Rich Hill” is a strong addition to the beautiful, haunting elegies for American poverty that have gradually developed into a subgenre of modern documentary filmmaking. Overwhelmingly gorgeous and deeply sad in its depiction of three young boys fighting through their youth in the trenches of deep poverty in a small Missouri town, the documentary’s lack of cohesion expertly reflects the conundrums facing its afflicted characters, enabling it to share the pathos of their lives. While each of the three boys is kept in a separate narrative, the varying degrees of discomfort that define their lives form a larger overview of instability. With its constant melancholic tone, “Rich Hill” often feels like a Terrence Malick movie that transcends majestic spirituality for burgeoning teen angst.
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Domhnall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Patrick Cassidy
Distibutor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Criticwire Average: B+
Why is it a “Must See”? After earning raves for “The Guard,” writer-director John Michael McDonagh and star Brendan Gleeson reteam for a powerful comedy-drama about a Catholic priest who is faced with troubling circumstances after a parishioner reveals a history of sexual abuse within the local church. If no good deed goes unpunished, then “Calvary” makes a prison cell of the priest’s local parish, which contains a bawdy cast of characters with such a pressing need for absolution that they keep the priest from the little matter of tending to his own demise. Gleeson, trading in his usual rambunctious foul-mouth for a somber silence, gives one of his strongest performances yet as the conflicted Father, and the film expertly adapts a hybrid of the small-town whodunit with religious drama that applies shades of Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” to McDonagh’s cheeky wordplay.
Why Is It a “Must See”? The directorial debut of Charlie McDowell, “The One I Love” is romantic comedy, edging on the absurd. The film centers on Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), a couple on the rocks, currently experiencing a rough patch in their marriage, who take a much needed vacation one weekend. Things, however, don’t go exactly to plan. Their romantic getaway slowly transforms into a surreal experience when a discovery leads both to question love, life and their future. The dramedy premiered at Sundance earlier this year to rave reviews.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Alia Shawkat, Anna Kendrick, Matthew Gray Gubler
Criticwire Average: B-
Why is it a “Must See”? April Ludgate is going to be up on the big screen! Well, sort of. “Parks and Recreation” breakout and film star in the making Aubrey Plaza is starring in a zomcom (zombie/romantic comedy). The film, following in the undead footsteps of “Warm Bodies,” depicts a ‘turbulent’ relationship: Beth (Plaza) dies in a hiking accident and soon after returns to shock her deeply emotional and mourning boyfriend, Zach (DeHaan). Supported by impressive supporting cast, the premiered at Sundance earlier this year to rave reviews. It had been commended for its Altman-like quality, generated specifically by the actors’ use of improvisation — particularly Molly Shannon.
Cast: Robin Wright, Paul Giamatti, Harvey Keitel, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Danny Huston, Frances Fisher, Sami Gayle, Michael Landes, Michael Stahl-David,Christopher B. Duncan, Jon Hamm
Distributor: Drafthouse Films
Criticwire Average: B+
Why is it a “Must See”? Ari Folman’s much anticipated return after shocking viewers with the intricate animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir” is “The Congress,” which stars Robin Wright as a fictionalized and exaggerated version of herself, an aging actress clinging onto stardom. Featuring what can only be described as a flood of historic animation techniques, this criticism of the Hollywood establishment sends Wright into a digital world like nothing we’ve seen on screen before.
Cast: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Michael Winterbottom
Distributor: IFC Films
Current Criticwire Average: B+
Why Is It a “Must See”? What happens when semi-fictionalized versions of leads Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take to the road for a largely improvised buddy movie in which they indulge in a series of Italian? We find out in Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip to Italy,” which sends the two on their way and more or less lets the two stars try to outwit one another. The sequel to the similarly framed “The Trip,” which featured Northern English restaurants has been positively reviewed after opening at the Sundance Film Festival while Coogan was in the midst of awards season with “Philomena.”
Cast: Femi Kuti, Yeni Kuti, Seun Kuti, Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis, Rikki Stein, Lemi Ghariokwu, Queen Kewe Anikulapo-Kuti, Michael Veal, Sandra Izsadore, John Darnton, Dele Sosimi, J.K. Braimah, Francis Kertekian, Tony Allen, Carlos Moore, Okwechime Abdul, Ogugua Iwelu, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Sir Paul McCartney.
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Current Criticwire Average: A-
Why Is It a “Must See”? “As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment; music has to be for revolution.” Nobody embodies that belief as well as its speaker, 1970s African cultural sensation Fela, whose work not only revolutionized Nigerian music, but who was himself a revolutionary posing a threat to the Nigerian militant regime. Imprisoned but never afraid of what might happen to him, Fela was an icon during this era in Africa, and has since been returned to the spotlight with his very own Broadway run, and this Sundance documentary by Alex Gibney.
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, Yasiin Bey, Mark Boone Junior, Will Forte, Isla Fisher, Tim Robbins
Distributor: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions
Current Criticwire Average: B-
Why Is It a “Must See”? Starring just about everyone, “Life of Crime” is a faithful adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel “The Switch,” making it a prequel to Quenton Tarrantino’s adaptation “Jackie Brown.” It has a cast that includes John Hawkes, Mos Def, Anthony Hopkins, Isla Fisher, Will Forte and Jennifer Anniston, and popular elements of its crime genre, making it a crowd favorite since premiering at Toronto last year. Of the cast, our Eric Kohn wrote “the cast strengthens the material with a noticeable investment in its vivacious qualities.”
Why Is It a “Must See”? A highly personal true story, this French-language film by Catherine Breillat features the story of a thief conning a woman, the role of Breillet played by Isabelle Huppert, who has just had a stroke. Well received by critics after its Toronto premiere last fall, “Abuse of Weakness” is an emotional and enticing autobiographical picture.