January and February give us a mix of the new year’s worst and last year’s best, with the occasional new year gem. Many 2016 award-contender films will opt not to compete during the holiday season and instead release to a wide audience in January so they only have to compete with lesser quality wide releases, which this slate is full of. Between those 2016 holdovers and a few potentially decent early quarter 2017 studio films, I’ve managed to pull together 10 anticipated movies.
Although there’s plenty to be skeptical of this time of year, I’ve honed in on five films that don’t seem like the most obvious duds that have me most cautious.
10 Most Anticipated Winter Movies
A feel-good based-on-a-true-story featuring women of color, it’s no surprise that Fox didn’t want “Hidden Figures” fighting with the awards season heavyweights this Christmas, as solid as the reviews have been. Taraji P. Henson, singer Janelle Monae and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer star as mathematicians who helped provide the vital calculations that launched NASA’s space program in the ’60s. The supporting cast is rather loaded (Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst) and Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) directs from a sassy feminist script written in part by Allison Schroeder.
Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have realized they’ve got a good thing going, and they don’t appear ready to quit anytime soon. The two have teamed up on two other real-life blue-collar action-dramas in the last few years: 2013’s “Lone Survivor” and this past fall’s “Deepwater Horizon.” No shock that they gravitated toward the Boston Marathon bombing story. Reviews have been pretty positive, which means the film is poised for a very strong January run, much like “Lone Survivor.”
20th Century Women (Jan. 20)
Another holdover with a shot at awards is this indie film set in southern California in 1979 from filmmaker Mike Mills (“Beginners”). It follows three women of different ages played by the excellent trio of Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig who all play a role in raising and mentoring Bening’s character’s teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). I might be a little biased because it turns out Zumann is my second cousin once removed, but I enjoyed “Beginners” a lot and everything about this film looks on point.
The Founder (Jan. 20)
I was considerably jazzed for this story of how Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) turned the McDonald brothers fast food concept into an empire when it was slated for last August. Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) and written by Robert D. Siegel (“The Wrestler”) I had it figured for an early release awards contender, but the Weinstein Co. pushed it to January. This considerably lowers my expectations, but it’s still at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes and should still be a bright spot in the worst of the winter movie season.
Originally on my Holiday Movie Preview honorable mentions list, the late winter expansion makes “Gold” a standout option that warrants a repeat mention on this list. Oscar winner Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”) tells the story of a Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) a get-rich-quick guy who discovers a gold mine in Indonesia in the late ’80s that makes him a billionaire overnight. McConaughey seems perfectly suited to play the balding sleazeball who somehow manages to blow everything.
It’s hard to imagine repeat success from a critic reception standpoint, but with director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad returning, there’s no reason to not get excited about “John Wick: Chapter 2.” The first film was an under-seen masterclass in writing and filming an unapologetic action/revenge movie. “Chapter 2” looks a little bigger in scope (and budget) but not to the point that it appears to have forgotten why it was so good the first time.
Warner Bros. brilliantly identified Will Arnett’s LEGO Batman character as a big reason why 2014’s “The LEGO Movie” was so good and have spun him off into his own feature first instead of delivering a direct “LEGO Movie” sequel. Under the direction of Chris McKay of “Robot Chicken,” expect this to be incredibly silly and in that Adult Swim comedy vein. “Community” executive producers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers wrote the script with help from Seth Grahame-Smith (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”). The voice cast is stacked: Michael Cera (Robin), Ralph Fiennes (Alfred), Zach Galifianakis (Joker), Rosario Dawson (Barbara Gordon), Jenny Slate (Harley Quinn) and more.
The season’s lone creepy thriller with sci-fi undertones comes from Gore Verbinski, who takes a break from big studio pictures starring Johnny Depp for this film about a young man (Dane DeHaan) who visits a supposed “wellness” facility to retrieve his company’s CEO, who appears to have lost his mind. What he discovers is that the facility a supposed illness and is developing a cure that’s anything but what it seems. The story comes from Verbinski and his “Lone Ranger” collaborator Justin Haythe, who wrote the screenplay. The talent is certainly here in a film that seems a lot like “Shutter Island.”
Of the few comedies to consider this winter, I’m going with “Fist Fight” on the premise of high risk, high reward. Charlie Day is hysterical and he’s working with a director who made nearly a dozen “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” episodes. The script also comes from two relative newcomers who have already been tapped to write “Wedding Crashers 2,” which is a good indication. The simple premise of two teachers who are actually going to fight and the whole school knowing about it seems either too simple to work or so simple it’s genius.
Jordan Peele of “Key & Peele” fame writing and directing a horror movie? Sign me up, even as someone who isn’t overly fond of horror. A movie about a black man visiting his white girlfriend’s family and discovering they’re all crazy has me excited if for nothing but the possibility of a horror movie that could be as much about terrifying racism as it could be actually terrifying. Political commentary/satire in horror movie form isn’t something you get often, and that alone puts “Get Out” on the winter movie map.
5 Winter Films to be Skeptical Of
No one was asking for a new “xXx” movie 15 years after the original Vin Diesel actioner was release (and 12 years since the Ice Cube-led sequel flopped). Yet Paramount saw big cash opportunity in another Diesel “franchise” after the resurgence of the “Fast & Furious” movies. D.J. Caruso (“Disturbia,” “Eagle Eye”) is a fairly competent action director, so that helps, but it’s unlikely “xXx” can do what Universal did with “Fast & Furious” from a both a box office and quality standpoint.
M. Night Shyamalan doing horror is enough to pique people’s interest, even with the director’s horrible track record, so it bears mentioning that “Split” could be the most awful thing ever, even if James McAvoy playing a man with dissociative identity disorder who is both his captors’ worst nightmare and only hope of escaping sounds mildly intriguing.
Samara is back. After 12 years, the videotape that launched a trend of Japanese horror films in the U.S. is coming back for the latest generation of horror fans. After the “Blair Witch” reboot, however, it’s tough to expect that a decade will give much freshness to this story if it couldn’t do the same for that groundbreaking movie. F. Javier Gutierrez directs his first English-language film and second feature overall with a script that has a few different writers and script doctors involved.
Robert DeNiro plays an aging stand-up comic, but don’t go thinking this is some kind of sequel to “The King of Comedy.” The film debuted at AFI Fest to rather awful reviews. The movie plays to the aging crowd, who will probably find something charming in a cast that includes Harvey Keitel, Cloris Leachman, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Billy Crystal … you get the picture. The script has credits to Hollywood producer. comedian, romance/drama screenwriter and the writer of the Kennedy Center Honors award show. That’s a sign of a script that should’ve been left for dead.
Matt Damon is a big movie star. His movies don’t often come out in February, but you have to remember the growing influence of China on the film industry. Damon is paired with veteran wuxia filmmaker Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) and that spells big bucks in China, where the film has already grossed $150 million. Damon, along with “Game of Thrones” star Pedro Pascal, discovers the Great Wall of China is not to defend from Mongols, but vicious monsters. Lots of pretty colors and VFX shots ensue. All this to say, whatever money Universal makes off this in the states is a bonus. You don’t have to like it, and you probably won’t.
Live by Night (Jan. 13) – Normally I’d be all over Ben Affleck adapting and directing a Dennis Lehane novel, but there hasn’t been a word of buzz about this organized crime thriller, which suggests if it’s any good, it’s far from the caliber of the films making awards season pushes. (Dir. Ben Affleck)
The Book of Love (Jan. 13, limited & OnDemand) – Jason Sudekis plays a widower who agrees to help a homeless girl (“Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams being typecast as a street urchin) build a raft so she can sail home. (Dir. Bill Purple)
A Dog’s Purpose (Jan. 27) – A doggie-soul (voiced by Josh Gad) gets reincarnated various times as different dogs with different owners that show the range of bonds between dogs and humans. A bone-a fide-o tearjerker. (Dir. Lasse Hallstrom)
A United Kingdom (Feb. 10) – Kind of the British “Loving” in that it stars David Oyelowo as a Botswana prince when he marries a white woman (Rosamund Pike) from London in the late 1940s. From the writer of “Eye in the Sky” and director of the lauded but unheralded romantic drama “Belle.” (Dir. Amma Asante)
Tulip Fever (Feb. 24, limited) – A period romance from the great playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) who adapts Deborah Moggach’s book about a young wife (Alicia Vikander) who has an affair with the man (Dane DeHaan) hired to pain a portrait of her and her husband (Christoph Waltz). Judi Dench, Zach Galifianakis and Cara Delevigne co-star. (Dir. Justin Chadwick)