The truth is that January and a majority of February are really about catching up on 2014 awards contenders. Hollywood knows it too, which is why January, especially, is considered a dumping ground for bad movies. Heck, that’s why last year I did my “Top 10 Movies of 2013” list in January because I needed a month to catch up on contenders and skipped a winter movie preview altogether. Well, this year I planned ahead, and you’ll get both.
Below are 10 movies (in order of release date) that could be worth an extra trip to theaters in the next two months, especially if you’re not into awards season dramas, and five you should be very wary of. Oh, and if you want a tease of my “Top 10 Movies of 2014,” then click the link and be sure to follow me on Twitter @Movie_Muse while you’re at it.
10 Movies to Watch For — Winter 2015
Esteemed thriller director Michael Mann (“Heat,” “The Insider”) has been rather quiet for the last five years aside from HBO’s unfortunately canceled horse-racing series “Luck.” Now, he turns up with a cyber-terrorism cat-and-mouse flick featuring a young star in Chris Hemsworth, who plays a hacker released from prison in order to track down a criminal master hacker. So what’s the catch? Why is this a January release? Cyber crime films and even TV series have become more prolific of late; hopefully “Blackhat” is an exception to the January rule. It would suck to see anything less than solid from as reputable a filmmaker as Mann.
“Still Alice” drew strong reviews from the fall festival circuit and earned star Julianne Moore a Screen Actors Guild Award nod and Golden Globe nomination. She is even projected as a favorite for the Best Actress Oscar, but clearly Sony Pictures Classics wanted to give “Still Alice” some breathing room from the Oscar hopefuls, perhaps banking on Oscar buzz for Moore driving ticket sales. The always bold and likable actress plays a renowned linguistics professors who suddenly can’t recall words. The film follows her personal and professional struggles after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish (“Weeds”) and Kristen Stewart round out the supporting cast.
Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald has had a fascinating career. No one has ever gone so effectively and seamlessly between making documentaries and feature films. After winning Best Documentary for “Touching the Void” he led Forest Whitaker to an Oscar for “The Last King of Scotland.” I’ve enjoyed his other films too, even “The Eagle” with Channing Tatum, though I was in the minority. Sticking to historically rooted fiction, “Black Sea” is a submarine thriller about men diving for a sunken Nazi U-Boat filled with gold who grow distrustful of each other when they realize every fewer man means a larger share. My expectations are tempered, but Macdonald has yet to disappoint me.
When a movie goes from midsummer release to February, let alone just six weeks before it’s release date, alarms go off throughout Hollywood. This was especially upsetting in the case of “Jupiter Ascending” because the Wachowskis (“The Matrix” trilogy) looked to have created a totally original (albeit geek-tastic) science-fiction epic. The scheduling bump is a clear sign that Warner Bros. did not feel the film would compete with the other summer blockbusters, or it needed some tweaking. It’s not a total indictment of the film, but it suggests that its audience is narrow (i.e. sci-fi nerds like me). Mila Kunis stars as an intergalactic princess whose discovery threatens an ancient dynasty’s claim to Earth. Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean also star.
Matthew Vaughn is another filmmaker yet to disappoint me. Seriously, he’s 5-for-5 in my book, with the highlight being “X-Men: First Class.” “Kingsman” is his second adaptation of a Mark Millar comic (the first being “Kick-Ass”) and tells the story of a young man (newcomer Taron Egerton) recruited by a top-secret British spy/assassin organization. A rather unoriginal story, true, but Vaughn and writing partner Jane Goldman are top notch. The British acting pedigree of Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Michael Caine are tough to argue with, as is Samuel L. Jackson playing the villain.
I’m not sure this is the kind of musical that needs big-screen treatment, but I’ve listened to the soundtrack, and given they cast the flawless Anna Kendrick, how wrong can you go? Filmmaker Richard LaGravenese doesn’t have a fabulous resume as far as critics are concerned, but his films rarely go without being noticed, especially his writing credits (“Water for Elephants,” “Beloved,” HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra” and Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken.”) Reviews since it’s debut on the fall festival circuit have been mixed, which isn’t so bad for February …
Disney has fixated on the “middle-aged white man comes and organizes a sports team of ethnic youngsters and together they overcome the odds” story more than usual lately. The “Cool Runnings” studio’s most recent attempt, “Million Dollar Arm,” didn’t do much last summer. Enter Kevin Costner. The man who defines the sports drama plays a cross-country coach with zero experience who in a small California with a large Latino immigrant population brings the kids and their families together to compete. Normally I’d be fast to dismiss this one, but Costner’s involvement as well as director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) suggests this could be a good feel-good family option even if it’s nothing more than average.
I normally don’t endorse foreign films in my seasonal previews, but “Wild Tales” seems worth it in comparison to the other films on this list. This Argentinian anthology from Damián Szifrón is one of nine films with a chance of earning a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination. Szifrón tells several stories with a dark comic edge that all involve characters facing inequalities or injustices who when things take a sudden turn for the worse just snap. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was named Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review.
A conman flick is a bit of a departure for Will Smith, but with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, writers of “Bad Santa” and directors of “I Love You Phillip Morris” and “Crazy Stupid Love,” this could be interesting. The plot is pretty typical: seasoned swindler takes hot young woman (Margot Robbie) under his wing but starts falling for her and wonders if he can trust her. Hopefully Ficarra and Requa have applied their black humor sensibilities to make this one a little more unique. Interestingly, Smith and Robbie will re-team in a couple years for comic supervillain flick “Suicide Squad.”
David Cronenberg (“The Fly,” “A History of Violence”) looks like he’s Cronenberg-ing as usual in this film about a family of Hollywood hopefuls chasing fame. Naturally, his cast is stacked: Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson and Olivia Williams all star. Moore received a Golden Globe nomination and the movie is currently at 68% on Rotten Tomatoes following dozens of appearances at film festivals ever since Cannes back in May.
5 Movies to Be Wary Of — Winter 2015
Seeing “Taken 2” in theaters is one of my most painful in-theater experiences of the last couple years. With the same writers and director returning, “Taken 3” is a total money grab, primarily for international audiences, which ate that first sequel up despite how bad it was. (“Taken” made just $81 M overseas while “Taken 2” made $236 M abroad.) With the death of a main character spurring on the plot and Liam Neeson’s Mills being framed, it all seems so typical. (Watch trailer)
Kevin Hart is the hottest commodity in Hollywood right now, and studios are loving the idea of pairing him with a prominent white actor to make some quick cash. Later this year he’ll help Will Ferrell prep for prison, but this month he’s helping funnyman Josh Gad (who I really like, actually) impress his future in-laws as a “best man for hire.” Cool black man helps fat loser white man? Sounds like a poor remake of “Hitch.” Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting of “Big Ban Theory” also stars. (Watch trailer)
“Mortdecai,” based on the series of comic novels written in the ’70s by English author Kyril Bonfiglioli, is one of those disguise movies where the cast looks so good, how bad could it be? Johnny Depp stars as the titular eccentric art dealer/detective alongside Gwyneth Paltrow, Olivia Munn, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany and Jeff Goldblum. Depp has made no shortage of poor choices lately that his box office credibility has soured. I like director David Koepp (who worked with Depp on “The Secret Window”), but this movie looks overly silly and consequently unfunny. (Watch trailer)
Ever since the movie “Chronicle” became an acclaimed and successful found footage superhero movie featuring teens (released in early February too), the general concept of teens discovering something science fiction-y and everything going wrong has been emulated quite a bit. In “Project Almanac” they discover parts of a time machine and construct it, but the ripple effect has terrible consequences. I love time travel films, but I’m also very skeptical of them. (Watch trailer)
There’s no question the long-awaited adaptation of E.L. James’ cultural phenomenon “Fifty Shades of Grey” will be the most talked about film of the winter season, but what kind of film can we actually expect? Like the “Twilight” novels (which James wrote fan fiction for that later became the basis of this story), here’s a film made from critically derided source material with a huge fan following, so expect similar results. The only shred of hope comes from the director (Sam Taylor-Johnson, “Nowhere Boy”) and writer (Kelly Marcel, “Saving Mr. Banks”) having legitimate resumes. (Watch trailer)
Black or White (Jan. 30) – Kevin Costner going toe-to-toe with Octavia Spencer? This interracial family drama (as much as using the term pains me) has gotten so-so reviews but could be good family fodder.
The Loft (Jan. 30) – Flemish director Erik Van Looy directs the Hollywood remake of his well-received 2008 thriller about a group of men who share a loft for their extra-marital affairs. When a woman is discovered dead in the loft, they wonder who is out to ruin them and begin to distrust each other.
Seventh Son (Feb. 6) – This fantasy film starring Ben Barnes, Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore has been pushed and pushed to the point where it fell off my radar entirely. As the only film of its kind the next two months, it’s worth keeping an eye on.
SpongeBob: Sponge Out of Water (Feb. 6) – The beloved cartoon character gets a zany half-CGI-half-live-action feature film, which looks to be the family movie to beat this winter.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (Feb. 20) – The original was a poorly made back-handed tribute to the ’80s. Naturally, the plot takes a page from “Back to the Future II,” as it takes place mostly in the future after the characters have exploited time travel for their personal gain.