Once you’ve caught up with our 50 favorite films of last year, it’s time to look towards 2016. While our comprehensive previews will be arriving shortly, today we’ll take a look at the month of January. This is usually a dumping ground for Hollywood, and although there are a few bigger titles that have our curiosity, it’s mostly festival hold-overs from 2015 that are the essential watches.
It should be noted that many of the best films of 2015 — including Carol, Anomalisa, 45 Years, Arabian Nights, Mustang, and Son of Saul — will be expanding throughout the month, so check your local theater listings. A restoration of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight will also be touring the country, and there’s a limited NYC run of Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday; both should certainly take priority over anything below.
Matinees to See: Yosemite (1/1), Lamb (1/8), Anesthesia (1/8), A Perfect Day (1/15), 13 Hours (1/15), Band of Robbers (1/15), Moonwalkers (1/15), The Boy (1/22), and Ip Man 3 (1/22)
10. Jane Got a Gun (Gavin O’Connor; Jan. 29th)
Synopsis: A woman asks her ex-lover for help in order to save her outlaw husband from a gang out to kill him.
Why You Should See It: After numerous delays, we wouldn’t be all that surprised if Jane Got the Gun never even made it to theaters, but it deserves a spot on this list out of sheer curiosity. Led and produced by Natalie Portman, the western sports a fine ensemble, including Ewan McGregor, Joel Edgerton, and Rodrigo Santoro. Will remnants of what made Lynne Ramsay initially attracted to it remain, or will Warrior director Gavin O’Connor bring an entirely different angle? If the Weinsteins don’t delay it again, we’ll find out in a few weeks.
9. Rabin, the Last Day (Amos Gitai; Jan. 29th)
Synopsis: Itzhak Rabin’s murder ended all efforts of peace, and with him the whole left wing of Israel died. The movie shows the last of his days as prime minister, and what led to his murder.
Why You Should See It: One of the films we quite liked at Venice last year, about which we said, “It isn’t quite an Israeli version of JFK, but Rabin, the Last Day rivals Oliver Stone’s film in seeking to pose questions that official studies have refused to explore. In JFK, the events were after the Warren Commission; here Gitai frames the actions within the official Shamgar Commission into security and intelligence failing behind assassination. The commission was denied the chance to investigate the political and social climate around the actions – something Gitai tries to rectify.”
8. The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie; Jan. 29th)
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.
Why You Should See It: Having one of the most unpredictable careers in Hollywood, director Craig Gillespie has gone from the Ryan Gosling-led Lars and the Real Girl to a Fright Night remake to the recent Million Dollar Arm. He’s now returning this month for his biggest-scale film yet, The Finest Hours, which captures the true story behind the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history. Featuring Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, and Holliday Grainger, it has quite a line-up, so hopefully Gillespie can deliver what looks to have the feel of a Hollywood drama from a long-gone era.
7. The Benefactor (Andrew Renzi; Jan. 15th)
Synopsis: A philanthropist meddles in the lives of newly-married couples in an attempt to relive his past.
Why You Should See It: Back when it was called Franny, I said in my review, “Seeking out substantial leading characters of complexity within independent dramas in recent years, Richard Gere has delivered accomplished performances in Arbitrage and Time Out of Mind. He’s now found another with the directorial debut of Andrew Renzi, which follows Gere as the title character, a profoundly rich philanthropist who enjoys helping out those close to him while he struggles with his own demons of addiction. While this set-up could pave the way for a dismal odyssey into depression, Renzi’s warm tone and Gere’s spirited performance make this a cut above the standard drama about dependence.”
6. Mojave (William Monahan; Jan. 22nd)
Synopsis: A suicidal artist goes into the desert, where he finds his doppelgänger, a homicidal drifter.
Why You Should See It: Mojave is far from a great film, but it’s a highly entertaining watch. As I said in my review last spring, “Through exchanging more words in a few moments than they did in all of Inside Llewyn Davis, Garrett Hedlund and Oscar Isaac give a pair of committed lead performances in Mojave, respectively playing a privileged Hollywood icon and a mysterious malevolent force. The sophomore directorial feature from accomplished screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven) dabbles in a peculiar clash of genres and subject matter: a noir thriller, a dark comedy, a western, a behind-the-scenes jab at the film industry, and an existential exploration of one’s perceived reality, among other things. While not all of these work cohesively, Monahan’s particular rhythm of language makes Mojave a bizarrely compelling watch.”
5. The Clan (Pablo Trapero; Jan. 29th)
Synopsis: The true story of the Puccio Clan, a family who kidnapped and killed people in the 80s.
Why You Should See It: Another one of our Venice favorites, we said in our review for Argentina’s Oscar entry, “Who says there’s no place for meaty, gritty thrillers at A-list film festivals? Argentinian director Pablo Trapero’s El Clan (The Clan) is exactly the kind of cross between high drama and genre exercise that should have no problem pleasing steak-eating critics and audiences everywhere. Perhaps not lofty enough in its aim and too gung-ho with its approach to win award favors, this is nonetheless a solid piece of storytelling served with just the right amount of sauce.”
4. Aferim! (Radu Jude; Jan. 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.
Why You Should See It: Although it didn’t make the final cut for Best Foreign Language film, Romania’s Oscar entry is one of the most acclaimed of the bunch. Radu Jude picked up the Silver Bear for Best Director at Berlin, and Film Comment said, “despite subject matter that involves slavery, torture, and relentless bigotry, the film is wildly, bitterly funny.”
3. Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway; Jan. 15th)
Synopsis: Venerated filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) 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.
Why You Should See It: The great Peter Greenaway is finally returning this year with his long-developing Sergei Eisenstein drama, and it was well worth the wait. Reviewing it out of last year’s Berlinale, we said, “Ostensibly, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a chronicle of Sergei Eisenstein’s ill-fated endeavor to shoot a film in Mexico at the age of 33. However, not only is Eisenstein never shown shooting a single scene, but anyone without prior knowledge of the Soviet master is unlikely to come out of the film much wiser about his life or place in film history. Rather, in paying homage to one of his heroes, Greenaway delves into the director’s personality, offering an interpretation radically different from the customarily-held image of Eisenstein as a solemn and cerebral revolutionary genius. The biographical focus, unsurprisingly, is on Eisenstein’s sexuality, whereas his groundbreaking film techniques and theory are explored visually through a conflation of Eisenstein’s method and Greenaway’s own.”
2. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu; Jan. 8th)
Synopsis: The story of two men who search for lost treasure.
Why You Should See It: While his films may not get the widest of distribution here in the United States, Corneliu Porumboiu is a key figure in the Romanian New Wave with films such as When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, Police, Adjective, and 12:08 East of Bucharest. His latest feature, The Treasure, was one of our favorites from Cannes. We said in our review, “The Treasure, his fifth feature and the winner of this year’s Un Certain Talent Prize, is the latest gem in the director’s exquisite filmography — another tightly focused, minimalist and enchantingly humane story of individual struggle within the broader social reality of contemporary Romania.”
1. In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel; Jan. 15th)
Synopsis: Pierre and Manon are a pair of poor documentary makers, who scrape by with odd jobs. When Pierre meets young trainee Elisabeth, he falls for her, but wants to keep Manon at the same time. But the new girl in his life finds out that Manon has a lover. When she tells Pierre, the time comes for difficult decisions all round.
Why You Should See It: While features from Cannes’ sidebar, Directors’ Fortnight, might not get the same attention as those in the competition line-up, there are always more than a few gems. This year, Philippe Garrel‘s latest feature, In the Shadow of Women, premiered there, and it was one of our favorites of the festival. We said in our review, “While fitting snugly in the overall cohesiveness of Philippe Garrel’s filmography, In the Shadow of Women nevertheless feels like a companion piece to its predecessor, the 2013 critical hit Jealousy. Garrel’s latest is also shot in black-and-white, kept within a similarly svelte running time (73 minutes), and its pared-down story of marital infidelity again takes the jealousy intrinsic to adult relationships as its primary theme.”
What are you seeing this month?