January is an odd duck of a month at the cinema, for both mainstream moviegoers and arthouse dwellers. Though the year-end prestige limited releases are still trickling out into smaller markets, the month’s new wide releases are notoriously terrible. And the big titles on the indie scene tend to gravitate towards the previous year’s awards-consideration, best-of-list group as well, while 2016’s festival cycle begins at Sundance. So what does that leave us with this month? An eclectic assortment of re-releases, foreign flicks, and risky indies that may strike a nerve, if you’re in the right frame of mind.
Chimes at Midnight
Release Date: January 1 Director: Orson Welles Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Keith Baxter, John Gielgud
Welles spent a considerable portion of his post-Kane career exploring his love for Shakespeare, often adopting an Expressionist approach that lent the dazzling language appropriate visual flair. Many critics and biographers agree that the best of those films is this 1965 effort, which ingeniously mashes up the scenes from several plays involving the immortal character of Falstaff (played by Welles, of course) – but it was a commercial failure upon its initial release and, due to the rights issues that’ve haunted so much of Welles’ work, it’s subsequently been difficult to see in either good condition or via legal channels. That all changes with this year’s re-release, thanks to a painstaking restoration that restores the picture’s knockout imagery and the gorgeous use of light and shadows. What’s more, it allows fresh eyes to take in the gripping, energetic battle scenes that jolt the narrative’s midsection; they’re innovative and stunningly ahead of their time, echoed up to and including last month’s Macbeth. In all, it’s a film that miraculously merges the distinctive voices of Shakespeare and Welles – and results in one of the best cinematic representations of either artist.
Release Date: January 8 Director: Ross Partridge Cast: Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence, Jess Weixler, Scoot McNairy
This low-key drama from writer/director/star Ross Partridge (co-star of the Duplass Brothers’ Baghead) plays, in spots, like an experimental exploration of the unreliable protagonist; we assume the man at this story’s center isn’t a monster, because, well, he’s at the center of this story. Partridge’s matter-of-fact direction and enigmatic playing keeps key questions up in the air, to great effect – you’re never sure where this is going, which will prove upsetting to some viewers, and refreshing to others. (You know who you are.) And Laurence, so very good as Jake Gyllenhaal’s daughter in Southpaw, is a revelation here, her sensitivity and delicacy making a potentially upsetting connection into something quietly powerful.
Band of Robbers
Release Date: January 15 Directors: Aaron and Adam Nee Cast: Kyle Gallner, Adam Nee
The writer/director brothers Nee intermingle and reimagine Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as contemporary adults, in what sounds like a bad Disney reboot and instead plays like something distinctively, unexpectedly original. Adam Nee plays Tom (a bumbling cop, in this variation) as a Danny McBride character, all bluster and misplaced confidence (“I own a handgun and pretty nice minivan, and I’m tired of people tellin’ me what I can and can’t do!”); Kyle Gallner’s Huck, a career criminal, is situated as the straight man, both in comic byplay and in his hopes for post-prison life. But he ultimately can’t resist the pull of Tom’s “treasure hunt,” even as it leads into dark turns and comic violence that place the story as much in the realm of Pulp Fiction as the Twain oeuvre. Yes, I know that sounds terrible. It speaks loudly to the skill of the picture that it works, and works as well as it does.
In the Shadow of Women
Release Date: January 15 Director: Philippe Garrel Cast: Stanislas Merhar, Clotilde Courau
Director Philippe Garrel’s domestic drama wears its French New Wave influences on its sleeve: crisp black-and-white photography, unobtrusive on-the-fly photography, an articulate and omniscient narrator, and a markedly cynical perspective on male/female interactions. Here, that eye is cast on a seemingly idyllic marriage — a couple that works together, lives together, and loves together — but the husband’s initially casual extramarital affair becomes something stickier (as these things always do), revealing the cracks in the union that both have chosen to ignore. Garrel eloquently captures the desperation and loneliness found in the other half of such an affair, but his keenest observations are reserved for the couple in question (particularly in the gendered notions of who cheats, and why). And a seemingly unrelated subplot about their French Occupation documentary project masterfully reveals the picture’s real subject: the deceptions, large and small, that can come to define our lives. Handsome, cagey, and thoughtful.
Release Date: January 15 Director: Andrew Renzi Cast: Richard Gere, Dakota Fanning, Theo James, Clarke Peters
For years now, Richard Gere has made a specialty of playing characters of confident power. In Andrew Renzi’s low-key drama, he takes that persona and turns it on its head, playing a philanthropist reconnecting with the daughter (Fanning) of the lifelong friends who died in a car accident. He’s a kindly uncle figure (and, conveniently enough, a crazy rich one), but something’s just a little off; his eccentric behaviors, just a little too familiar and a little too close-up, gradually give way to a vivid portrait of lingering grief. Fanning’s character is too thin, and James doesn’t make as much of an impression as her new husband — this is Gere’s show, and he’s remarkable, displaying the fruits of decades spent figuring how to put a character across, how to hold an audience’s focus, and when to hide. The picture falls prey to convention a bit in the third act, but until then, it’s a moving and modest character study.
Release Date: January 15 Director: Antoine Bardou-Jacquet Cast: Ron Perlman, Rupert Grint, Robert Sheehan
Screenwriter Dean Craig (Death at a Funeral) works up a fake moon-landing scenario that manages to have its cake and eat it too, positing that the staging of Apollo 11 was a “plan B,” arranged as a back-up in case the astronauts didn’t make it. Orchestrating the event is Kidman (Perlman), a CIA man sent to England to recruit Stanley Kubrick (his military-man boss says 2001 “doesn’t make a goddamn bit of sense, but it looks terrific”). This Room 237 theory is crossed with Argo-style Hollywood/intelligence satire (“This guy’s a fuckin’ asshole.” “Of course he is, he’s a film director”) and a generous helping of Guy Ritchie-esque stylized British gangster violence, and if that sounds a bit too busy, perhaps it is. But it’s worth seeking out for an inspired turn by a sweaty, desperate, exasperated Grint, a wittily granite performance by Perlman, and a very funny third-act turn into trippy excess.
Release Date: January 22 Director: William Monahan Cast: Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Mark Wahlberg, Walton Goggins
A semi-suicidal filmmaker (Hedlund) goes to the desert, drinks, yells at coyotes, and meets a drifter (Isaac) who looks like Randall Flagg and talks like Hulk Hogan. They scuffle, as bullheaded men do, sparking a battle of wits and wills that follows the director back to Hollywood, which has problems of its own. Monahan’s second film (after the under-seen London Boulevard) doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a Western, a thriller, a Hollywood satire, or a Pinter play, and doesn’t exactly hold together from moment to moment. But some of those moments are fabulously spry and unpredictable, and Isaac is, as ever, a joy to watch.