Once again, it’s early in the year and the pickins are a little slim at movie theaters in general – if you’re not catching up on end-of-the-year prestige releases (though seriously, who could blame you if you were), there’s not much besides Black Panther to get all that worked up about. But there are a few little gems among this month’s art-house slate, and we’ve gone to the trouble of plucking them out and polishing them up for you. You’re welcome.
A Fantastic Woman
RELEASE DATE: February 2 DIRECTOR: Sebastián Lelio CAST: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco
Gloria director Lelio helms this meticulously crafted character study about a trans woman (the remarkable Ms. Vega) whose live-in love passes away, only to find herself shut out of his memorial and funeral by his bitter family. “I have the right to say goodbye to him too,” she insists, and Leilo merely spends those days with her, observing her sadness and frustration as she tries to come to terms with a loss she’s not being allowed to grieve. Vega’s leading performance is potent, a heady mixture of pain, regret, and power, while Leilo’s script explores issues of prejudice and gender fluidity with both sensitivity and humor (that “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” needle drop). He comes up with an endearing portrait – a movie that clearly both loves and values its heroine.
Before We Vanish
RELEASE DATE: February 2 DIRECTOR: Kiyoshi Kurosawa CAST: Masami Nagasawa, Ryûhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa
From the sticky, scary, blood-spattered opening – in which a school girl slaughters everyone in her home and walks away from the mayhem she’s created with an expression of utter joy – all bets are off in Kurosawa’s alien invasion flick, which keeps zigging when you think it’s gonna zag, alternating an escalation of anarchy with left-field laughs. Much of the latter comes via the story of young wife Narumi (the marvelous Nagasawa), who is concerned when her husband’s body is taken over by an alien, but also struck by how much more agreeable he’s become (she confides to a friend, reasonably, “We’ll fight again when he goes back to normal”). Kurosawa also gets plenty of comic mileage out of the general public’s total inability to heed a warning, and by using the emotional needs of the characters as counterpoint for the delirious action scenes and copious blood-letting. It’s a bizarre and not always successful movie, but boy is it a good time.
RELEASE DATE: February 9 DIRECTOR: Alex Ross Perry CAST: Emily Browning, Adam Horovitz, Mary-Louise Parker, Jason Schwartzman, Chloë Sevigny
The characters that populate the films of Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth) aren’t always likable, but they’re always believable – young, urban types who are used to overthinking and overtalking, and often end up creating more problems for themselves in the process. His latest ensemble comedy/drama is like that, but more so; it’s quite possibly his chattiest movie to date (no small feat), but the dialogue is a pleasure to listen to, curling around characters who reveal as much in what they don’t say as in what they do. There’s not a whole lot of plot – but it’s wise to the problems and patterns of these Brooklynites, and to the mistakes they are perpetually on the verge of making.
RELEASE DATE: February 9 DIRECTOR: Brian Crano CAST: Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens, Jason Sudeikis, Gina Gershon
When Anna (Hall) returns to the home she shares with Will (Stevens) after the first night of their mission to sleep with some other people before they get engaged, the questions are many and the answers are half-hearted (statements like “Just… different”). This is a tough, uncomfortable scene, and writer/director Crano won’t let them sneak out of it – or the audience either. Permission is full of moments like that, slashes of uncomfortable truth and real-world complexity, and it’s a better film for it; even the seemingly gratuitous Gay Best Friends subplot ends up having something vital and relevant to say about the notion that, in relationships, nothing is guaranteed. The script is a bit too messy in spots (the whole experiment goes south a bit too quickly, and the business with Anna’s graduate thesis is a throwaway at best). But it’s mature in its approach and wisely ambiguous in its conclusions, and Hall is tremendous, putting across desire, hesitation, and preemptive guilt in one fell swoop.
The Boy Downstairs
RELEASE DATE: February 16 DIRECTOR: Sophie Brooks CAST: Zosia Mamet, Matthew Shear, Deirdre O’Connell
Writer/director Brooks tells the story of a young couple’s awkward reconnection years after their breakup as an exercise in simultaneous narrative, stone-skipping between their previous romance and their indefinable current relationship. But it never feels like a gimmick; it grows organically, with moments in their present triggering memories of their past, and the shifts in time make the shifts in tone easier to follow. It’s a funny, charming movie, and stars Mamet (Girls) and Shear (Mistress America) have a good, screwball spark – but can also play the serious beats with real fragility and tenderness. It sounds like a million other Brooklyn indie rom-coms, but it has a style and specificity of its own.
The Young Karl Marx
RELEASE DATE: February 23 DIRECTOR: Raoul Peck CAST: August Diehl, Stefan Konarske, Vicky Krieps
Peck’s essay film I Am Not Your Negro was the best movie of 2016, and (if we’re being honest), the best moments of his new film come at its end, when he jettisons its biopic conventions in favor of quicksilver documentary technique. But it’s still a fine film, tracking young Marx and Engels as they build an ideology and a movement. And it doesn’t require deep knowledge (or even outsized sympathy) to their dogma; its questions of words-or-actions cross all corners of activism, as does the thrill of discovering like-minded rabble-rousers, the toll such activities take on personal and familial relationships, and, ultimately, recognizing how much of what you think is youthful idealism, and acknowledging it as such. Phantom Thread’s Krieps doesn’t get quite enough to do in her supporting role, but that slight aside, this is an intelligent and thoughtful work from one of our most exciting filmmakers.