February is a strange month for moviegoing, with studios tiptoeing past the January dumping ground to give us slightly offbeat comic-book movies (Deadpool), sequels (Zoolander 2), and a Coen Brothers flick (Hail, Caesar!). Meanwhile, at the art house, we’ve got new documentaries, foreign films (including an Oscar nominee), horror and thrillers, and – this being February and all – even a couple of romances.
Requiem for the American Dream
Release Date: Out now Directors: Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, Jared P. Scott Documentary
The style and structure are plainly swiped from Errol Morris (specifically of his Oscar winner The Fog of War), but if you’re gonna bite a style, that’s the right one for this Noam Chomsky primer, focusing on the linguist, commentator, and rabble-rouser’s “10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power.” It’s a swirling, upsetting picture that gets bigger and scarier the more he talks; sharply edited and convincingly argued (though some of the animations are frustratingly literal), and designed to leave a residue of rage and action.
Release Date: February 5 Director: Grímur Hákonarson Cast: Sigurður Sigurjónsson
Gummi (Sigurjónsson), the primary protagonist of this muted but effective comedy/drama from Icelandic director Hákonarson, is an oddly sympathetic character; he spends the back half of the story doing something not only illegal but immoral, yet you can’t help but feel for him, because he’s doing so out of love and attachment. That decision provides an unexpected bond between him and brother Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), breaking a 40-year estrangement; the film runs at that same kind of unhurried simmer, leading up to a full rolling boil of a conclusion that left this viewer overwhelmed. It’s not the easiest movie to make your way into — like many of his countrymen, Hákonarson tends to operate at something of a distance, with a fair amount of ironic detachment. But once he’s punctured that shell, it’s astonishing.
Release Date: February 12 Director: Atom Egoyan Cast: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Dean Norris, Jürgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz, Henry Czerny
Egoyan, once one of our most consistently interesting filmmakers (thanks to work like Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, and Felicia’s Journey) has had quite a rough run lately, with his recent films running the gamut from inexplicable to terrible. So it’s not hard to say this is his best work in years – but don’t take that as faint praise. Christopher Plummer plays a 90-year-old widower and Holocaust survivor who sets off to kill the Auschwitz camp commander who murdered his family. He suffers from Alzheimer’s, so he’s guided only by the instructions of a fellow survivor (Landau); in other words, it’s something of a senior Memento, and like that film, we’re often as adrift in the situation as the protagonist. Plummer’s thoroughly convincing in the role, playing frailty and determination with equal skill (and often simultaneously). Egoyan works up several effective set pieces – the best concerns Dean Norris, who turns from affable to menacing on a dime – and if the final convergence of events is a touch hard to swallow, the resolution is surprising and satisfying.
Release Date: February 12 Director: Gerard Barrett Cast: Jack Reynor, Toni Colette, Will Poulter
You’ve seen stories of substance abuse and its effects on a family, but rarely one as deeply unsentimental and candid as this one. Reynor plays John, a taxi driver who spends much of his free time caring for his hard-drinking, self-destructive mother (Colette); writer/director Barrett enters at a point where John’s basically resigned himself to the fact that he may not be able to “save” her, and spends quite a lot of the story merely observing their interactions and tricky dynamics. Colette is terrific – she’s got a long, searching centerpiece monologue about his father, his brother, and what drove her to drink, and it’s some of the most powerful and honest work she’s ever done – but this is Reynor’s show, and he is a face to watch. The thickness of the accents makes it a bit hard to follow at times, but that complaint aside, this is a modest yet thundering piece of work.
Touched With Fire
Release Date: February 12 Director: Paul Dalio Cast: Katie Holmes, Luke Kirby, Christine Lahti, Griffin Dunne, Bruce Altman
This story of a pair of bipolar poets falling in love against the wishes of their doctors and families sounds like the worst kind of indie tripe; it’s even got a de-glammed career rehab turn for a big name (Ms. Holmes). But writer/director Dalio is the real deal — he’s got a great eye and ear, and a way with visceral moments of abstract sound and imagery that place the viewer in his characters’ headspace. He moves carefully through this tricky relationship, whose players make each other (literally) manic with their end-of-the-world love, one which represents something, anything, for them to cling to, until it reaches a point where they (and the filmmaker) can no longer romanticize it. The film falls apart a bit at the end, thanks to a troubling story turn and a heavy-handed resolution, but there’s much to recommend here; co-star Kirby gets the initially tragicomic and ultimately tragic implications of his character, and this is the best Holmes has been since The Gift.
Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong
Release Date: February 12 Director: Emily Ting Cast: Jamie Chung, Bryan Greenberg
Writer/director Ting’s affable two-hander puts a Chinese-American woman (Chung) and an American expat (Greenberg) together for a walk-and-talk through the streets of Hong Kong, and then reunites them a year later for another get-to-know-you ramble. In other words, it’s Before Sunrise meets Before Sunset, but it’s not just a rip-off; if Ting’s film doesn’t have the emotional depth of those pictures, it’s got much of the charm, thanks to the charisma and chemistry of its leads (who were dating when it was shot and have since wed). Slight, but lovely.
Embrace of the Serpent
Release Date: February 17 Director: Ciro Guerra Cast: Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar
The white men come 40 years apart, both of them looking for a plant; both times, the Amazonian shaman Karamakate leads them there, but not gladly. Their encounters with tribes and natives as they head down the river (it’s the first feature shot in the Amazon rainforest in over 30 years) becomes less a physical journey than a trip through time, and varying notions of “civilization.” The film (up for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) is deeply unsettling one moment and borderline surreal the next; this is a haunting, bizarre, and compelling portrait of a vanishing world and the keepers of its secrets.
Release Date: February 19 Director: Robert Eggers Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Since it unspooled at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, this “New England folk tale” has been branded the horror movie to see – a tricky designation that could create false expectations among fans of current horror, as this is less a film of clanging scares than general unease and distress. A Puritan family encounters a spectacular streak of bad luck; between the abductions, illness, bad crops, and sick animals, you might wonder if they are, as their mother comes to believe, “damned.” Eggers patiently threads his needle with themes of faith, family, and fear, and sews it up into a mélange of unsettling mood and unshakable images; it’s a movie that drifts along, haunting yet manageable, and then it clobbers you.