So…it’s January at the movies. I’d be remiss if I didn’t wish all you wonderful readers a Happy New Year from me and all of us at The Playlist. Now, with those niceties out of the way, I can put on my Scrooge top hat and start bah-humbugging this month up and down for being a barren wasteland for new releases. There’s not even that many truly new titles coming this month, let alone 10 solid recommendations to fill this column. But alas, there’s work to be done. Please keep that fact in mind as you make your way through this first column of this new year, which is rife with some suspect titles we’ve not even seen yet, but could turn out to be solid nonetheless. That’s about all we can hang our hat on this time of year.
Even more important to remember: The 2015 movie calendar is far from wiped clean! So many great films are going wide this month very soon, several of which just so happened to land on my personal top 15 films films of the year (as well as our many other staffers’ year-end lists). Let’s start with my favorite film of last year, “The Revenant.” It’s easily Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s best film yet, and it should age very well over time. Why wait, though? Go see it when it expands wide January 8th on the biggest screen possible and be blown away by images you’ve probably never even contemplated. There’s also “Anomalisa,” from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, which is deservedly getting very strong reviews; and Quentin Tarantino‘s “The Hateful Eight,” which improves on repeat viewings and is well worth seeing if you can on 70mm. But if not, check it out anyways since it’s now available wide. Also not going wide so much as expanding slowly to more arthouse theaters is the brilliant Hungarian Oscar contender “Son Of Saul,” an experience I promise you won’t soon forget. I also like David O. Russell‘s “Joy“— which has been out widely since Christmas but struggling a bit against tough competition — more than most critics.
Let’s start off 2016 on a good note. Happy movie-watching folks. Thanks for reading.
Synopsis: The story of two young men who search for lost treasure in rural Romania.
What You Need To Know: When Jessica Kiang saw this film at Cannes last year from stalwart Romanian New Wave auteur Corneliu Porumboiu (“12:08 East Of Bucharest,” “Police, Adjective“), she went pretty nuts for it, calling it surprising and delightful. And for good reason. Porumboiu’s work is often loaded with dryer-than-dry moments of levity that comment on or amplify the mundanity of everyday life and also load it up with subtle but still biting satirical social and political commentary. It’s really a special kind of alchemy he infuses in the films; even when you’re slightly bored by a 10-minute static camera shot, he’s doing enough that you must pay attention. Kiang liked the film so much it made her just-published top 20 films of 2015: “‘The Treasure’ pushes his sense of humor into a new, unexpectedly uplifting, almost whimsical direction [that] in its deadpan, repetitive, almost Jarmuschian way, the film somehow gets funnier, sweeter and warmer as it goes along, before a finale that is both satisfyingly earned and a completely delightful surprise.” An unexpected crowd-pleaser that also features, hilariously, a track in the end credits from oddball Slovenian avant-garde music group Laibach, called Opus Dei (Life is Life).
Release Date: January 8th
Synopsis: Multiple lives intersect in the aftermath of the violent mugging of a Columbia University philosophy professor.
What You Need To Know: Rodrigo Perez caught this latest directorial effort from consummate character actor Tim Blake Nelson (also onboard as actor and screenwriter) at Tribeca last year, giving it a solid ‘B’ grade but also tempering his praise of the acting and its other qualities with this direct address to some of the film’s reliance on tired narrative trends: “Well intentioned and commendable, Nelson’s film does not put his dialogue or writing strengths into question. But movies have to convince us on myriad levels, and this can be tough enough as it is. Chronicling countless narratives with their own emotional honesty not only leaves more room for little individual miscalculations that add up negatively, but places a huge burden on connecting them all truthfully.” See for yourself and let us know what you think.
Release Date: January 8th
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”
Synopsis: An American ambassador is killed during an attack at a U.S. compound in Libya as a security team struggles to make sense out of the chaos.
What You Need To Know: Michael Bay is nothing if not unimaginably talented when it comes to action and making slick images, of course draped in his singular glossy sheen and the often illegible hyper editing found in all his work. But that’s about it, and though he may or may not leave the director chair for his disgustingly popular “Transformers” franchise (part 5 aka ‘The Search For Money’ is coming soon, yay?) he still found time to squeeze in this based-in-fact (but highly unlikely to be told that way) action project about the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. So, yeah, this is Bay in full-on I’M BEING SERIOUS BRO mode, so maybe (fingers crossed) ’13 Hours’ won’t be filled with racist caricatures, dead-on-arrival attempts at humor, and skeevy shots of young models’ asses? Well, it is Bay after all, so don’t surprised if he finds a way to shoehorn in his favorite and worst tendencies as a filmmaker. All that said, the filmmaker did reportedly strive to make something with integrity and honesty around an event that still brings up a lot of political controversy. Let’s hope he didn’t fuck it up, even if our Spidey sense is tingling hard in that direction.
Release Date: January 15th
“A Perfect Day”
Synopsis: A group of aid workers work to resolve a crisis in an armed conflict zone set in mid-’90s Balkans.
What You Need To Know: When Oli Lyttelton caught this Altman-in-“MASH“-styled comedy of errors and (aggravating) political manners, he focused on the career of star Benicio Del Toro and how, even though he’s constantly surprising us with his choices, he always delivers. Really, he’s the reason to check this out. “Overall, the film is rarely actively bad, but more often inspires a shrug. In fact, the structure of the film, from its day-in-the-life plot (and various sub-plots) to restoring the status quo by the end, makes it feel less like a movie and more like a middling TV pilot. And while it’s good to see Del Toro having some fun with material like this, even he wouldn’t be enough to make you keep watching that hypothetical show.” I’m just glad to see Del Toro get a lead role for a change. He’s still one of the best actors working today, and carries this loose political comedy on his shoulders, so much so it may just be worth your time to check it out, especially if you’re a fan of the incredibly talented thespian.
Release Date: January 15th
Synopsis: A suicidal artist goes into the desert, where he finds his doppelgänger, a homicidal drifter.
What You Need To Know: Another find at Tribeca 2015, Rodrigo Perez reviewed this latest from Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (“The Departed“), here pulling double duty on his second directorial effort (his first was 2010’s “London Boulevard“) that stars Playlist favorite Oscar Isaac as well as Garrett Hedlund, Mark Wahlberg and Walton Goggins (fresh off his killer, should-be-star-making turn in “The Hateful Eight“) in, according to RP’s review, “a modern dusty Western, a twisty Hitchcock-ian thriller, a Cormac McCarthy-esque existentialist meditation on man, his internal crisis, an exploration of the price of fame and artistry, a slasher-like revenge picture, and even at times a black comedy, Monahan’s ambitious, but overstuffed sophomore directorial effort wants to be several movies at once. While it has trouble working out which kind of movie it exactly is (answer: all of the above), its disparate elements do intermittently and effectively work. However, a shallow premise, pompously overwrought dialogue, and hit-and-miss execution makes for an occasionally enjoyable, but not entirely convincing effort.” I’m personally excited for this one, for the cast and crew behind it and because distributor A24 often gets behind really interesting genre efforts.
Release Date: January 22nd
“Naz & Maalik”
Synopsis: Two closeted Muslim teens hawk goods across Brooklyn and struggle to come clean about their sexuality, as their secretive behavior leads them unknowingly into the cross-hairs of the War on Terror.
What You Need To Know: At South By Southwest Film Festival 2015, Katie Walsh dug deep and found this feature debut from writer/director Jay Dockendorf that she stated, in her review, “deftly explores issues of government surveillance of Muslims, the tense relationship between black men and police, sexuality, and Brooklyn’s increasing gentrification, all through the lens of this one day…[that] looks at the unique experience of being young, gay, black, and Muslim in Brooklyn, ‘Naz & Maalik’ starts off with a relaxed, laid back approach, but sly moments of high-stakes drama and import imbue the otherwise chill vibe with a sense of creeping dread. Anchored by lead performances from newcomers Kerwin Johnson, Jr. and Curtiss Cook, Jr., Dockendorf’s film is intimate, authentic, and feels decidedly relevant in today’s current context.”
Release Date: January 22nd
Synopsis: After a slave escapes from his master’s estate, a local policeman is hired to find him, resulting in a journey full of adventures.
What You Need To Know: Another film coming out this month that our Jessica Kiang listed in her top 20 films of 2015, and, being an intrepid and tireless festivalgoer, is most likely the only writer on staff whose even seen the damn thing. When she did, at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, she pretty much raved: “director Radu Jude‘s “Aferim!” has been categorized by most as a Romanian Western. And if this summons a certain Sergio Leone vibe, then it’s borne out by the opening titles, set in a distinctly cowboyish font against a shot of a cactus framed against a bright sky while a traditional folk song wails out. But while we’re told this is 1835 Wallachia, the film’s brilliantly well-imagined world, photographed in tactile black and white, seems to belong to an earlier era — a time of feudal lords, troubadours, hags and wenches.” Also of note in her review, a mention that she was “too busy laughing” and that the dialogue is “delicious and wicked — the insults and epithets are Shakespeare with a hard-R rating.” This one looks like a must see for fans of the cinephile arthouse circuit, of which I happily include myself. Bring on this weird Romanian Western, please!
Release Date: January 22nd
“Jane Got A Gun”
Synopsis: A woman asks her ex-lover for help in order to save her outlaw husband from a gang out to kill him.
What You Need To Know: By most accounts, all film productions and their shoots are difficult endeavors filled with compromises and overcoming obstacles. But boy oh boy, has this Western starring Natalie Portman gone through a host of problems. Before the shoot ever began, original director Lynne Ramsay (the brilliant Scottish filmmaker behind “Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar” and “We Need To Talk About Kevin” — one can only imagine what she might have done with a genre film on a Hollywood budget) quarreled with the producers and ultimately she left the project, which in turn caused several cast members to leave as well. But Portman stuck it out, to her credit, and was later joined by Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor and director Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior“), exactly the kind of competent but admittedly middle-of-the-road filmmaker we’d all imagine would take over for a quickly sinking ship like this. But hey, here’s hoping it turns out to at least not be a total disaster, as these kind of highly publicized problematic productions can so often be (see: Josh Trank‘s “The Fantastic Four“). It does sound like it could be a cool bit of revisionist Western fun.
Release Date: January 29th
Synopsis: The true story of the Puccio Clan, a family who kidnapped and killed people in the ’80s.
What You Need To Know: Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero (both Ricardo Darín-starring films “White Elephant,” “Carancho“) is a strong up-and-coming genre voice in the foreign-film world. His latest, which Jessica Kiang reviewed at Venice last year, won the Silver Lion (aka Best Director) at the festival and another award at TIFF. Kiang went so far as to invoke the mighty Martin Scorsese in her opening paragraph: “A story so nuts it could only be true, Trapero’s ‘The Clan’ is the second of two heavily Scorsese-influenced tales of real-life gangsterism to crop up in Venice this year. But it’s a superior film to Scott Cooper‘s “Black Mass” in its examination of the mechanics of tribalism and loyalty within an organised criminal enterprise… That award is somewhat surprising, as the film feels more slick and capable than necessarily hugely inspired, but the sensationalist story it tells and its fascinating setting in Argentina mere moments after the 1983 collapse of the military dictatorship more than compensate. Best of all, the film is about the wider society of the time and the political corruption and ruthlessness that lingered like a hangover to mar the nascent democracy, but it is also the incredible story of a single family — the ‘clan’ of the title — and so it has both sprawl and intimacy, as well as a certain degree of allegorical power, in which the family’s corruption mirrors that of Argentina in those unstable years.” Coppola‘s ‘Godfather‘ films also are referenced in her review, so consider this one a high priority for fans of the crime genre.
Release Date: January 29th
“The Finest Hours”
Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.
What You Need To Know: This certainly looks like director Craig Gillespie‘s (“Lars and the Real Girl“) attempt at a ‘Perfect Storm‘-esque true life special effects adventure that tells the story of a daring Coast Guard rescue after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952, but hopefully he was brought on to do more than just a serviceable job handling all that CGI water. He directed a strong cast for this one, which should help in what looks like a potential tear-jerker as well: Chris Pine, Eric Bana, Ben Foster, Casey Affleck and Holliday Grainger. The January release date seems dangerous especially this year — so much strong competition will still be at theaters when it comes out — so here’s hoping it’s good and also doesn’t get the beaten up to bad by the other big movies still coasting on Oscar attention.
Release Date: January 29th
The above picture is from the original New French Extremity classic “Martyrs,” and it gets across my feeling at having just discovered that it’s been remade (and at least partially funded) by Blumhouse Productions, who should know better than to mess with one of the few great modern horror films of recent memory (really, though, it’s an expertly crafted genre mashup). Or, maybe I should know better? It was only a matter of time I guess, so yeah, the “Martyrs” remake is coming this month, which doesn’t bode well for it being any good. I only use this example for my top HM selection in hopes that some of you might do the smart thing and rent the original instead. I’m just hoping with fingers doubly crossed that “Inside” (the pinnacle of this brief, mid-2000s wave of horror pictures) and “High Tension” don’t get the same English-language remake treatment.
Orson Welles‘ 1965 Shakespeare adaptation “Chimes At Midnight” is has been restored and is getting a small re-release courtesy of Janus Films. Also getting the retrospective release treatment is “Only Yesterday,” the 1991 animated drama from Studio Ghibli‘s other super genius filmmaker Isao Takahata (“Grave Of The Fireflies“).
“The 5th Wave,” starring Chloë Grace Moretz and directed by J. Blakeson (“The Disappearance Of Alice Creed“), is based on the first book in a trilogy (of course) by Rick Yancey, following a young woman who struggles to survive a deadly attack against the planet.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” should keep that money train rolling, unless it’s stomped out by all the Oscar players this month. But the first movie was a good time and surprisingly not awful, so hopefully this second sequel can at least live up to those meager expectations. “Ride Along 2” is the other sequel to a big comedy hit; this one stars Ice Cube and Kevin Hart again doing funny stuff and being funny and…oh, who gives a shit.
Moving on, we can look at some of the smaller genre movies coming this month as well: “Diablo” stars Clint Eastwood‘s son Scott in a Western that also features Walton Goggins (he’s everywhere all of a sudden!) and Danny Glover (who’s almost nowhere to found these days). A young woman searches for her twin sister in a Japanese forest only to find herself surrounded by paranormal forces in “The Forest,” another horror flick dropped right at the beginning of a new year. Zac Efron goes road trippin’ with his grandpa (Robert De Niro) before he gets married in “Dirty Grandpa.” “Moonwalkers” takes “Room 237” even further and makes a what-if movie out of the paranoid/bonkers theory that Stanley Kubrick helped shoot a fake moon landing. We gave “Band Of Robbers” a B+ grade when we saw it at LAFF last year, so keep an eye out for that one as well.