January is a rather strange month on the cinematic calendar in that there’s typically very little attention paid to new releases in theaters. It’s a month where the industry, cinephiles and the casual moviegoer usually play catch-up on the rush of prestige movies that hit at the tail end of the year before. In short, Hollywood usually uses the month of January as a “dumping ground,” a place to try and cash and burn off modest, more disposable (usually genre-ish) titles cheaply and quickly. As such, the first crop of 2015 titles (at least on the outset) doesn’t look too promising and it’s probably best to spend your cash and time on 2014 films that will break wide in January like Selma or Inherent Vice or Still Alice, to name but a few. However, you never know– every once in a while an artistically fascinating movie drops in the first month of the year– Cloverfield (2008), Taken (2009), The Grey (2012) for recent examples– or a January title will unexpectedly make a ton of coin– think Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009), Ride Along (2014.) Usually, however, it’s a loser field like January 2014, ahem, “gems” The Legend of Hercules or I, Frankenstein. No bother, it will pass. In the meantime, happy new year and welcome as we survey the top picks of new flicks hitting screens the first month of 2015.
10) ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST
Josh Hutcherson (better known as Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games franchise) plays Nick, a Canadian surfer boy who falls in love with Maria (Claudia Traisac) while in Colombia in the early 1990s. There’s just one hitch to their romantic bliss – her uncle is cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar (played by Oscar winning actor Benicio Del Toro). Right away, this sounds like the worst high-concept romantic comedy ever. For that, one expects that director Andrea Di Stefano, making his feature debut, will gloss over the romantic story with his thriller, focusing Esobar: Paradise Lost more so on how Nick becomes entangled in the family business and the personal costs to being connected with one of the most infamous drug lords in history.
Buzzometer: 2/10 – The film premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and while initial reviews were mixed, there’s every reason to get somewhat excited on the prospect of grand show on display from Del Toro, one of the most formally daring and intoxicating actors around. It’s been a while since the Oscar winner has really had a juicy role (perhaps it goes all the way back to Cannes winning performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Che in 2008) and for better or worse, the trailer and early notices seem to indicate the actor is in rare form as Pablo Escobar. Perhaps too, his performance will spark something unexpected in tween star Hutcherson. Before becoming Jennifer Lawrence’s object of pity in The Hunger Games remember, he showed a natural and assured promise in the Oscar-nominated lesbian family dramedy The Kids Are All Right.
Release Date: January 16th (limited)
In this science fiction puzzler from directors Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers), Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke stars as a time traveling cop who is able to stop crimes before they happen (think Minority Report.) For his final mission, he hopes to capture the criminal that has eluded him throughout his entire career. Predestination is based on the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein (Starship Troopers.) Sarah Snook (Jessabelle) and Noah Taylor (Almost Famous) co-star.
Buzzometer: 2/10 – As an actor, Hawke is fascinating case study – the eternal Generation X stand-in came to fame early on with defining roles in angst-driven fare like Dead Poets Society and Reality Bites - as he strides between acclaimed art house films (including Boyhood, for which he is receiving Oscar buzz for) and junkie genre pieces like The Purge and Getaway. In many respects, Predestination seems like a junk food, easy paycheck grab. However, the Spierig Brothers last film Daybreakers (which also starred Hawke) was a stylish diversion that sparks the thread of a notion there might be something above the surface here. Decent reviews that sprang from the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival suggest just that.
Release Date: January 9th
A fixture in children’s literature for upwards of fifty years, Paddington Bear is hoping to make a mark in cinemas. Adapted from Michael Bond’s classic and indelibly British book series, Paddington tells the origin story of a cuddly, anthropomorphized bear and Peruvian immigrant who is taken in by a kindly family when found at the Paddington Train Station in London. Wacky hijinks surely ensue, as the busy and slapstick-heavy trailer suggests. Ben Whishaw (Q from Skyfall and the upcoming Spectre) provides the voice of the marmalade-loving Paddington and an appropriately British ensemble supports, including Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) as Paddington’s adoptive Brown family, with Nicole Kidman as the villainous Millicent. Paul King (The Mighty Boosh) writes and directs.
Buzzometer: 3/10 – There was a minor brouhaha when Whishaw was tapped to voice Paddington after the filmmakers dropped original choice Colin Firth, but other than that there seems to be very little talk of Paddington. The decision by distributor The Weinstein Company to delay the film from its original Christmas release to January further seemed to distinguish a certain indifference to the project. Whatever the case, reception in the U.K. (where the film has already opened to stellar reviews and robust box office) tells a different story. Perhaps this one is a low key hit out of the Stuart Little playbook.
Release Date: January 16th
Timbuktu, currently on the shortlist of films vying for this years’ Best Foreign Language Academy Award, is an intimate and absorbing slice of life drama centering on the brief occupation of the titular West African city by the militant Islamic group Ansar Dine. Abderrahmane Sissako’s beautifully filmed humanistic study showcases the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens under the tremendous duress, offering a pointed but honest snapshot of contemporary struggles for peace. The film is representing Mauritania at the Oscars, the first time that country has ever submitted a feature film, so you can be the smartest person in the room by checking it out.
Buzzometer: 3/10 – Sadly, foreign films (even those with lots of flash and media attention – think 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color) have a ceiling for attention in the United States and thoughtful case studies like Timbuktu have a hard time breaking through even in the most specialized of circumstances. Still, this 2014 festival favorite (the film won awards at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where in premiered in competition, and played Toronto, New York and AFI) will likely be remembered by the few you take the time to check it out.
Release Date: January 28th (limited)
6) SON OF A GUN
Ewan McGregor and Brenton Thwaites (The Giver) find themselves in a game of cat and mouse in this Aussie caper from debut filmmaker Julius Avery. McGregor portrays veteran criminal Brendan who provides a watchful eye on Thwaites’ petty crook J.R. while both are in jail. Eventually, Brendan enlists his protegee on a gold heist with the promise of millions in their future – but first they must break out of prison. A game of chess ensues. Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina) co-stars.
Buzzometer: 3/10 – The very opposite of a prestige picture based on premise alone, but there could be some dumb fun in store with Son of a Gun, or better yet, surprising smarts in a seemingly derivative tale of Aussie outlaws – a small film from 2010 called Animal Kingdom proved to be just that and invited a fascinating new filmmaker to the fray in the form of David Michod (The Rover.) Stakes are pretty low here, but that’s what the month of January was made for.
Release Date: January 16th (limited)
Johnny Depp twirls around with a twee British accent, clipped mustache and a chic wardrobe as Charles Mortdecai, a posh art dealer in search of a valuable, recently stolen painting in Mortdecai, an all-star romp based on the novel by Kyril Bonfiglioli. However appetizing that sounds will likely determine your patience, especially if the finished film is as broad and busy as its trailer. Regardless, Mortdecai has good taste on terms of casting, as Depp is supported by Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor (having a busy January), Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn, and Jeff Goldblum. David Koepp, the director of Stir of Echoes and Ghost Town and screenwriter of Jurassic Park, directs from a script by Eric Aronson (who previously scripted the 2001 Lance Bass romantic comedy On the Line.)
Buzzometer: 4/10 – Given Depp’s recent output and outward refusal to play against cartoony type, the bar is pretty low for Mortdecai. However, camp comedies should certainly have a place in the marketplace alongside every other genre and there’s a least a marginal degree of hope that if this action-comedy hybrid doesn’t exactly satisfy on its own terms, perhaps, even if unintentionally, it provides a chuckle or two.
Release Date: January 23rd
4) BLACK SEA
Two-time Academy Award nominated actor Jude Law headlines this new maritime thriller as a gruff submarine captain who forms a crew of misfits to hunt for treasure supposedly lost in the depths of the Black Sea. As the mission ensues, the crew starts to turn on one another in a case of greed and desperation. Ben Mendelsohn (The Place Beyond the Pines), Scoot McNairy (Argo) and Jodie Whitttaker (Attack the Block) co-star. Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) directs from a script by Dennis Kelly.
Buzzometer: 4/10 – If there’s anything to strum anticipation for Black Sea, aside from its promising ensemble of actors, it’s MacDonald. An exciting, if somewhat erratic filmmaker, MacDonald broke out with his extraordinary Oscar-winning 1999 documentary One Day in September, an absorbing and intelligently stirring account of the terrorist attack at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Since he’s moved to narrative work, MacDonald directed the stirring The Last King of Scotland (which won Forrest Whitaker an Oscar) and the undervalued State of Play (2009.) While his recent entries The Eagle (2011) and How I Live Now (2013) didn’t have much of an impact critically or commercially, there’s enough of a track record here for the adventurous moviegoer.
Release Date: January 23rd (limited)
3) TAKEN 3
Liam Neeson is back is his unexpected middle career cash cow as ex-covert operative Bryan Mills. In the third outing – of which it seems striking there’s still anyone left to avenge – Mills is wrongly accused of a murder of a loved one. As usual, the use case for his “particular set of skills” is in finding the culprit and bringing him (or them) to justice. Famke Janssen (X-Men) and Maggie Grace (Lost) return and are joined by franchise newbie Forrest Whitaker. Olivier Megaton (the best name for a film property like this) returns as director.
Buzzometer: 5/10 – Surely Taken 3‘s audience is so built-in at this point that this looks to be one of the first strong moneymakers of 2015. Although for Neeson’s sake, it’s probably a good thing he has a Martin Scorsese film – Silence – waiting in the wings.
Release Date: January 9th
Okay, so this is a bit of cheat. Xavier Dolan’s beguiling Mommy is by all accounts a 2014 film as the film premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (where it won the third place Jury Prize) and is even 2014 Oscar eligible (thanks to a super stealthy qualifying release), but it’s not really getting a real release date in the United States until January, so it’s all for a good cause in the end. Dolan’s drama – a beautiful and bold mosaic – centers on the relationship between a mother (an award-worthy Anne Dorval) and her troubled teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). It may be short on plot, but is rich in theme and is a stylish change of pace for Quebecois wunderkind Dolan, who at the ripe at of 25 has five films under his credit and major awards from major film festivals. Aside from directing, Dolan also wrote, edited, designed costumes, and shot the film with a peculiar but fascinating 1.1 aspect ratio (it’s basically a square in the center of the screen.)
Buzzometer: 5/10 - Again, foreign films have trouble really breaking out in the United States (who have to go back to 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth to the last time an international title really made any sort of dent at the domestic box office), but Mommy, perhaps more than any other title in the last few years, feels like a film that should really be engaging with a hip, younger crowd. Distributor Roadside Attractions clearly hoped the film would be a real factor in the Foreign Film Oscar race with their eye for a January release (that didn’t pan out, as the film wasn’t shortlisted by the Academy), but this critical and audience favorite should have an audience, if only for those of you seek it out to be further angered it isn’t seen as a bigger deal.
Release Date: January 23rd (limited)
Chris Hemsworth (Thor himself) plays Nicholas Hathaway, a genius (and incarcerated) hacker who is enlisted to help American and Chinese authorities in finding a dangerous cyber criminal in this new drama from director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider.) The investigation and hunt (which one assumes will include multiple nighttime chase scenes filled with immaculate compositions) sends Hathaway around the world. Oscar nominated actress Viola Davis (The Help), William Mapother (Another Earth), and Tang Wei (Lust Caution) co-star. Mann wrote the script with Morgan David-Foehl.
Buzzometer: 7/10 – Few directors can film action like Mann, and its the auteur’s involvement in Blackhat that is its most thrilling aspect, period. Yet there’s some pause in that Universal went ahead with its January release after small murmurings the film might have a sneaked-in awards run in late 2014 – whether that’s indicative of the films’ overall quality or not is something that can’t be judged yet. Also unsettling (perhaps for the better) is Blackhat‘s presence in the marketplace almost immediately following the Sony Pictures cyber attack, adding a touch of real crisis resonance to a film about cyber terrorism. If the film is merely playing lip service to its subject, the real world ramifications of the dangers of online living will be surely glossed over. If not, and if Mann and team have far more up their sleeve, this could be a necessary movie for the present.
Release Date: January 16th
ALSO OPENING IN JANUARY:
- THE BOY NEXT DOOR: J.Lo falls for a bad boy. (opens January 23rd)
- THE LOFT: A dead body ruins the extramarital fun time of five pals; stars James Marsden and Karl Urban. (opens January 23rd)
- RED ARMY: Crowd-pleasing documentary exploring the Soviet hockey team. (opens January 23rd)
- STRANGE MAGIC: Animated fantasy about the culture clash between goblins and faeries. (opens January 23rd)
- THE WEDDING RINGER: Kevin Hart pitches in as Josh Gad’s rented best man. (opens January 16th)
- THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH: Sequel to the 2012 horror hit. (opens January 2nd)