Your film editor grew up in the Midwest, and as movie fan, the end of the year was always a frustrating time; there were all these reportedly great, Oscar-courting movies that everyone was talking about, but they’d only open in the major markets, taking clear until January (or later) to trickle down to the sticks. Now that I live in one of those major markets, I see the positive element of that pattern: It gave us good movies to see in January, instead of the dreck that Hollywood off-loads into that month’s dumping ground. But to be fair, I’m talking wide releases — now that the new year has begun, the indie distributors are back in full swing, so here are a few of the smaller January releases worth seeking out.
A Most Violent Year
Release Date: Out now (N.Y. and L.A.); expanding this month Director: J. C. Chandor Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola
Writer/director Chandor (All is Lost, Margin Call) convincingly recreates early-‘80s New York with this story of an immigrant (Isaac, great as always) and his wife (Chastain, ditto) finding themselves drawn into the increasingly dangerous and legally dubious world of… heating oil sales. It’s an odd hook, yes, but it makes for compelling viewing, with Chandor drawing richly shaded performances from his gifted cast and masterfully invoking the corridors-of-Gotham-power aesthetic of ‘80s Lumet. (Full review here.)
Release Date: January 16 (L.A.) Director: Talya Lavie Cast: Dana Ivgy, Nelly Tagar, Shani Klein
This melancholy service comedy focuses on a group of secretaries working in the administration department of the Israeli Army — in particular, a pair of hopeless young women whose close relationship is badly strained by the aimlessness and ennui of their surroundings. Writer/director Lavie nicely balances the witty dialogue (“being a Paper and Shredding NCO is what you make it”) and flashes of physical comedy with a real sense of darkness, while investing the entire picture with a satisfying anti-authoritarian streak and cleverly circular character arcs.
Release Date: January 16 (N.Y., L.A., VOD) Director: Desiree Akhavan Cast: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Scott Adsit
The surface comparisons to Girls are inevitable, thanks to the Brooklyn settings and sexual candor, but writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan’s debut feature stirs in a healthy dose of sexual and identity commentary (her character is a bisexual of Iranian descent). All of which might make it sound like a pedantic drag, which couldn’t be further from the truth; she’s a wickedly funny actor and filmmaker, particularly when snickering at the pretentions of her surroundings (a Brooklyn artist specializes in “sandcastle work integrating found objects”) and herself (“I find your anger incredibly sexy,” she tells her future girlfriend, “I hate so many things too”). Akhavan’s script ingeniously intercuts her last, failed relationship with its current aftermath, alternating scenes of unfortunate social failure with fondly recalled, low-key intimacy; she comes up with a work that is smart, funny, and sexy, all at once.
Release Date: January 16 (limited, VOD) Director: Sara Colangelo Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Jacob Lofland, Chloe Sevigny, Josh Lucas
Colangelo’s feature debut (based on her earlier short film) opens like disaster drama, as a miner (Holbrook) rides away from the grey skies and into a giant, deadly accident underground. But then she skips the event entirely, focusing instead on its aftermath: the class conflicts within the mining town, the pressures placed on that sole survivor, and a tangentially related disappearance that becomes part of the nightmare. Colangelo gets a lot of threads going, but never loses track of them, ultimately finding the picture’s pulse in the unexpected interactions and combinations of her key players. She knows this town inside and out, the sound of its railroad tracks and the look of its trailer parks, and she comes up with an impressive, restrained portrait of guilt and fear.
Loitering with Intent
Release Date: January 16 (limited; out now on demand) Director: Adam Rapp Cast: Ivan Martin, Michael Godere, Marisa Tomei, Sam Rockwell
A pair of actor pals/bullshit artists have a shot at making a movie if they can come up with a script in ten days, so they head out to one’s sister’s country house, where their idyllic writer’s retreat becomes a familial nightmare. Writers Micheal Godere and Ivan Martin (who also, of course, play the would-be writers) create a nice, loose, hanging-out vibe that recalls the work of John Cassavetes, while director Rapp lets everyone in his ensemble cast shine — though Rockwell is the standout in a slightly menacing turn that plays against type. In fact, the picture’s only problem is that you end up wanting the whole movie to be about him and Tomei, who, per usual, bring such full inner lives and rich history to their characters that they kinda take over the movie. But that’s a minor complaint; this is a warm, brisk, and likable film.
The Duke of Burgundy
Release Date: January 23 (limited, VOD) Director: Peter Strickland Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Ann
Writer/director Strickland apes the look, style, and even title design of early-‘70s European softcore erotica with this story of a BDSM relationship between two absurdly beautiful women. (The “Perfume by” credit may have been the moment when the movie won me over.) It’s a deliriously detailed throwback, but it’s not just quotation; he uses the homage as cover for the complex story of a shifting power dynamic, role reversals, and what happens when their meticulously scripted encounters begin to fall apart (particularly when the sub feels real humiliation, outside of her elaborately planned scenarios). Filled with lush music, gorgeous photography, loving close-ups, and surprisingly little skin — along with a sense of humor, thank God — Duke is a riveting snapshot of that tiny moment when fetishes and fantasy become necessary rather than supplementary, degenerating into the ultimate turn-off: exhausting, non-stop work.
Release Date: January 23 (limited) Director: Kate Barker-Froyland Cast: Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield
I know, I know, if there’s one thing the world maybe doesn’t need more of, it’s earnest dramas set in the vibrant Brooklyn indie music scene. (And I’m well aware that a certain, vocal portion of the world isn’t exactly counting the days ‘til a new Anne Hathaway movie.) But this is a low-key, lived-in effort, so modest that it seldom speaks above a whisper (even when concerning matters of sex and death), filled with lovely music and heartfelt performances — particularly by Hathaway, who plays it very close to the vest and reminds us what a refreshingly natural screen presence she can be.
Still Alice Release Date: January 16 (limited) Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
Cake Release Date: January 23 (limited) Director: Daniel Barnz Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy
Still Alice is a hopelessly formulaic bit of TV-movie dross, giving the disease-of-the-week narrative a bit of faux-indie credibility thanks to an impressive cast. Cake, per our own Moze Halperin, is a painfully predictable misery and redemption tale. So why are they on this list? Because, like it or not, Alice’s Julianne Moore is probably going to get a Best Actress nomination (and may well win it — she’s “due”), and Cake’s Jennifer Aniston is looking more and more like a nominee herself. Both roles are fairly calculated plays for the little gold guy — an early-onset Alzheimer’s victim and a de-glammed chronic pain sufferer, respectively — but if you’re one of those people who likes to see all of the Oscar players, well, here they are. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!