The early months of the year are traditionally the softest — not just for the studios, but for indies as well, since the audiences who usually haunt the art-houses are still catching up with the big end-of-the-year prestige pics and Oscar picks. But we’ve sussed out a handful of smaller February releases that are worth your time – a reasonably eclectic mix of genre flicks, relevant docs, thoughtful dramas, and even a cat movie.
Release Date: Out now Director: Tomer Heymann Cast: Documentary
No, it’s not a profile of Lady Gaga’s dad. Documentarian Heymann crafts this fascinating profile of modern dance choreographer/legend Ohad Naharin, beginning with his childhood in Israel and early days as a dancer, alternating his physical and artistic journey. In the process, via fascinating archival footage and overwhelming montages, Heymann captures the thrilling uniqueness of Naharin’s work – as well as a vibrant portrait of his artistic process, in which dance functions as communication, survival, and healing. Sensitive, intelligent, and awe-inspiring.
War on Everyone
Release Date: February 3 Director: John Michael McDonagh Cast: Michael Peña, Alexander Skarsgård, Tessa Thompson
They are so many gloriously oddball touches in the latest from writer/director McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary) — an out-of-nowhere dance scene to “Rhinestone Cowboy,” an in-depth discussion of Jennifer Lopez’s nudity in Out of Sight, Michael Pena’s detailed critique of a homeless kid’s cardboard sign, Paul Reiser all but reprising his role from Beverly Hills Cop — yet it never feels slapdash or slipshod (or like yet another Pulp Fiction clone, which it’d be easy to read it as). McDonagh creates such a weird, singular world that everything feels like fodder for his cop-movie genre play, theatrical dialogue, and operatic visual style. It’s a movie so giddily high on its own existence, on the pleasure and nuttiness and buzz of just being a movie, that you can’t help getting swept up in it.
Release Date: February 3 Director: Tim Sutton Cast: Anna Rose Hopkins, Robert Jumper, Karina Macias
Allusions abound — from the title to an errant Batman mask to a character dying his hair bright orange — to the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, but this impressionistic drama from director Tim Sutton (Memphis) isn’t specifically inspired by that event; it’s more about how we view these events, from inside and out. In fact, from the opening frames, he’s preying on our expectations of the kind of person does this sort of thing; by midway through, the eventual shooter could be any of a number of characters. They’re all ticking time bombs, or potential victims, because this is the world we’ve made, and the culture we live in. Sutton’s mild-mannered, observational scenes and situations, less portraits of psychopathy than alienation (everyone in this story is alone, even when they’re with others), unspool with a heavy heart and a sense of inevitability. Challenging, occasionally inexplicable, and strangely absorbing.
Release Date: February 3 (on PBS February 7) Director: Barak Goodman Cast: Documentary
This thorough and powerful documentary opens with the slightly garbled audio of a water resource board meeting interrupted by a trembling explosion — a dull non-event stopped by the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. Director Goodman cleverly tells the story of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building via parallel timelines: a moment-by-moment account of its aftermath (via chaotic archival video and wrenching first-person testimonials) and a meticulous accounting of the extremist movements that gave birth to it, and the events that bomber Timothy McVeigh used as its justification. Well-researched and thoughtfully assembled, Oklahoma City is also a tense reminder that these white supremacist groups and their anti-government thinking aren’t just tied to this tragedy in the past; its chilling closing titles remind us that more than 500 such groups are currently active in the United States. “Economic anxiety,” though.
I Am Not Your Negro
Release Date: February 3 Director: Raoul Peck Cast: Samuel L. Jackson
I know, I know — we already put this one into an indie movie guide, and a year-end best-of list, and a full review of its own. But those were pegged to its brief, NY/LA only December awards-qualifying “preview” run — and it qualified, racking up numerous year-end honors and an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Now it’s rolling out into more theaters in more cities, and if the links above aren’t persuasive enough, allow me to restate the case: this riveting essay film, based on James Baldwin’s unfinished book on the civil rights movement and its icons, is powerful, moving, inspiring, and most of all, timely. Oh boy, is it sadly timely.
A United Kingdom
Release Date: February 10 Director: Amma Asante Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport
There’s a scene early in Asante’s telling of the romance between Botswanian Prince Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) and white Brit Ruth Williams (Pike) in which Khama must convince his people to believe in him, and allow him to take the throne that is his — in spite of this union that is quite of the ordinary for an African prince, circa 1947. The entire movie rests on how well David Oyelowo delivers that speech, on the notion that we’re convinced by it. And Oyelowo, unsurprisingly, nails it. This is the kind of prestige period true-story drama that can easily drift into bloodless stuffiness, and Asante’s direction, while intelligent, occasionally succumbs. But stars Oyelowo and Pike give the story life and air, via the force of their charisma, dedication, and chemistry.
Release Date: February 10 Director: Ceyda Torun Cast: Documentary
The cats of Istanbul, we’re told in the opening on-screen text of this lovely little documentary, are free agents: “Though cared for by many, they live without a master.” Torun adopts a casual, observational style to tell the story of these cats, and the residents, shopkeepers and passerby who tend to them; “It’s our responsibility to take care of them as best we can,” one says, and they all speak of them like that, as neighbors. But KEDi isn’t just a feature-length Emergency Kittens movie (though who could complain if it was) – it slyly reveals itself as a portrait of this culture, seen quite literally from the ground level.
Release Date: February 17 Directors: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Natalie Brown, Lindsay Burdge
This horror anthology film presents four short, scary stories, all directed by (and, for the most part, about) women. As is always the case, the results vary wildly, but there’s some awfully good stuff here. Its starts with its strongest section, Vuckovic’s “The Box,” a very bleak tale that executes a simple premise elegantly and effectively, and reminds us of the power of what we do not see. “The Birthday Party,” by Clark (aka St. Vincent), is more black comedy than horror, a hiding-a-body story that can’t quite sustain even its brief running time. But it’s a comedy with a good punch line, stylishly photographed and convincingly played (I mean, it stars Lynskey). Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” reanimates the douchey, prankish spirit of a Friday the 13th flick, but there are too many cheap tricks (jump scares, dream fake-outs, that kinda thing), and it doesn’t add up to much. But Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” is a strong closer, an exercise in stylish dread very much in the mold of her The Invitation, which begins as a mini-We Need to Talk About Kevin before going somewhere decidedly weirder. And it closes with a good, tough monologue from mother to son, the third of four movies rooted in the scariest horror of all: being a parent.