The new year rages on, but the pickings at the multiplex remain mighty slim: a Robocop remake that no one asked for, an Endless Love remake that no one asked for, a big-money Pompeii epic, a love-through-time story that somehow doesn’t star Rachel McAdams, and a Liam Neeson vehicle whose generic title (Non-Stop) may have taken an entire minute to think up. But, as usual, we need not despair: we’ve got a diverse slate of indies, documentaries, and foreign films that will send you to the art house (or, more likely, the on-demand channel) this chilly month.
A Field in England Release: February 7 Director: Ben Wheatley Cast: Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Reece Shearsmith, Richard Glover, Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope
The latest from director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) has the casual gore and graphic violence of his earlier work — and the dryly absurd sense of humor — while vastly expanding his visual palate. In gorgeous black and white, he tells the tale of a trio of oddly matched deserters who are terrorized by a pair of dangerous fellows, as well as their own mushroom-induced paranoia. Its most memorable sequence is a bravura visualization of their ‘shroom trip — filled with hallucinogenic imagery, split screens, strobes, and general nightmare vision — but the entire film is as brazenly bizarre as that sequence, and equally unpredictable.
Love & Air Sex Release: February 7 Director: Bryan Poyser Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Ashley Bell, Sara Paxton, Zach Cregger, Addison Timlin
It’s got a terrible title (inexplicably changed from the far superior The Bounceback) and a spectacularly unappealing trailer, but go with me on this one: Bryan Poser’s breakup comedy is fast, frisky fun, an indie romance with a dirty mouth and a good heart. A story of long-distance romance bottoming out in Austin, it’s an enjoyable love letter to that city, and Poyser and his co-writers have a good, natural ear for dialogue, given credibility by his endlessly likable leads and sturdy supporting players (particularly the wonderful Sara Paxton, about a hundred miles from The Inkeepers). It’s a touch too self-conscious, particularly when it comes to matters of the libido, but a smart and satisfying picture nonetheless.
The Pretty One Release: February 7 Director: Jenée LaMarque Cast: Zoe Kazan, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston, John Carroll Lynch
Zoe Kazan plays the dual role of twin sisters Audrey, the glam one who left her small-town home for the big city, and Laurel, the mousey one who stayed behind — basically, she gets to play both Carrie Bradshaw and Carrie White. When the pair are in an auto accident, they are, in effect, switched at death, and due to post-traumatic amnesia, Laurel doesn’t realize what’s happened until it’s too late. The premise is (to put it mildly) implausible, but writer/director Jenée LaMarque sustains a quirky, dreamlike tone, mines some successful fish-out-of-water comedy from the situation, and gets at the compelling thematic notion of a woman who finds herself by becoming someone else. She occasionally leans too hard into the melodrama, and it all gets mighty creaky in the third act, but Kazan is a marvel, and she gets a nice spark going with the always-wonderful Jake Johnson.
A Fantastic Fear of Everything Release: February 7 Directors: Crispian Mills and Chris Hopewell Cast: Simon Pegg, Alan Drake, Clare Higgins, Paul Freeman
You’ve got to give it to Simon Pegg: he may be a Hollywood big shot now, showing up in monster franchises like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, but he’s still happy to turn up in a low-budget, bizarre comedy/horror movie like this one. It came out in the U.K. nearly two years ago, so who knows what the hold up’s been, but it’s got a marvelous premise, a promising trailer, and Pegg going deep into a truly bizarre character, so what’s not to like?
Adult World Release: February 14 Director: Scott Coffey Cast: Emma Roberts, John Cusack, Armando Riesco, Shannon Woodward
The jury’s still out on Emma Roberts, and few actors have swan-dived from “always interesting” to “totally unreliable” faster than John Cusack, but this quirky dramedy picked up some positive notices at Tribeca last year, and besides, who can’t relate to the story of a poet with crippling student debt who goes to work at a porno store?
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me Release: February 21 Director: Chiemi Karasawa
“It’s wonderful to be almost 87,” confesses Elaine Stritch. “I’m tellin’ you, you can get away with murder.” An honest-to-God living legend, the grand dame of stage, television, and film is here seen in rehearsal, at work, and holding court, all the while battling her progressively declining health. She’s famously grouchy and sharp-edged, but filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa also captures her rawness and vulnerability. She tells some great stories (her brief almost-fling with JFK is a howler), visits her hometown, and puts up her cabaret show; she’s seen in rehearsal for a big performance at Town Hall struggling with (and losing to) her memory, but when it comes time to deliver in performance, she does, beautifully. Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, and executive producer Alec Baldwin all show up to sing her praises — they love her, and after the film is over, you can see why.
The Standbys Release: February 21 Director: Stephanie Riggs
Consider, if you will, the lives of the standbys and understudies — Broadway hopefuls whose job is to learn all the lines, know all the blocking, and wait around every night on the off chance that the stars of their shows won’t be able to go on. Stephanie Riggs’ documentary profiles three of those young actors, and talks to scores of stage actors (David Hyde Pierce, John Leguizamo, Bebe Neuwirth, Cheyanne Jackson, Zachary Quinto, and many more) who’ve been on both sides of the equation.
In Secret Release: February 21 Director: Charlie Stratton Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Oscar Isaac
A 19th-century Parisian period piece with Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Olsen, freshly American Horror Story-lionized Lange, Llewyn Davis, and Draco Malfoy? Where do I sign up?!?
Omar Release: February 21 Director: Hany Abu-Assad Cast: Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany, Waleed F. Zuaiter, Samer Bishara
This Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film comes from the mind of Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2006 film Paradise Now was a gripping, powerful (and also Oscar-nominated) examination of both the logistical and psychological particulars of two suicide bombers. His latest is another penetrating look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this time through the lens of a twisty, double-crossing thriller.
The Lunchbox Release: February 28 Director: Ritesh Batra Cast: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Denzil Smith
This romantic drama won a score of international awards before playing as part of the “Spotlight” program at last month’s Sundance Film Festival. It builds its story from Mumbai’s lunchbox delivery system (which is itself kind of fascinating) and an unexpected connection forged there; word is this one is charming, low-key, and wonderful.