The start of a new year gives rise to certain inevitable critical tropes: We fanatically focus on the current awards season infighting (from cold shouldering A Star Is Born to the culture-war takedown of Green Book); offer previews of either the upcoming year or, more selectively, the highly-anticipated movies on the dawning film festival circuit; and bemoan those that get dumped in the multiplexes during the first quarter. But the recent push by studios to activate the box office in February — the first Deadpool and last year’s Black Panther — has dramatically altered that final argument.
I’m leaving the task of breaking down the list of would-be blockbusters and the potential highlights on the independent/future awards season landscape for more-advanced prognosticators. There’s a niche here that I would rather hone-in on. Don’t attempt to gaze too far ahead. Stay away from the big targets (no superheroes, remakes, reboot, or significant adaptations of familiar titles). No easy pop-culture-laden, family-friendly animation.
In other words, no sure things are in the mix — of course, that depends on what you think about the new release from the writer-director of Get Out. Here are a few upcoming titles with intriguing performers in front of the camera and/or filmmakers working along the margins, rather than in their expected sweet spots.
Serenity (Jan. 25)
Rather than starting off with a discussion of The Upside — the American remake of The Intouchables — starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston or M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, his latest stab at returning to his former twisted glory, audiences might find themselves perversely attracted to this dramatic thriller from Steven Knight (the screenwriter behind Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises). Matthew McConaughey stars as a fishing boat captain whose peaceful life is derailed when he runs afoul of his ex-wife (Anne Hathaway).
Arctic (Feb. 1)
Expect more than a mere mashup of The Mountain Between Us (minus the frigid would-be romantic element) and Cast Away in this frozen tundra thriller from co-writer/director Joe Penna (a Brazilian filmmaker who cut his teeth on cinematic shorts and television). With Artic, Penna has a real ace up his sleeve. Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt, Hannibal) will bring his welcome gravitas to this story about a plane crash survivor in the Arctic who must decide between waiting in his makeshift camp or setting off into the unknown.
Everybody Knows (Feb. 8)
Secrets, lies and kidnapping drive the action in the latest film from the much-celebrated Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay), but Everybody Knows is not a wham-bam Luc Besson thriller featuring Liam Neeson dispatching bad guys with ease. Penélope Cruz plays a woman who returns to Spain for her sister’s wedding and must confront her worst nightmare when one of her daughters is snatched from the festivities. She goes on the search, with assistance from a former lover (Javier Bardem), who’s willing to risk his own family’s well being to do the right thing.
Greta (March 1)
Neil Jordan returns to the feature film scene with this seemingly fun and efficient thriller about a young woman (Chloë Grace Moretz) who goes out of her way to find the owner (Isabelle Huppert) of a lost purse, which leads her down a rabbit hole. I don’t know about you, but I’ve missed the storyteller behind The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire and In Dreams.
Us (March 22)
This film marks an exception on this list. Jordan Peele, following up the huge success of Get Out, doesn’t need any extra help in reminding audiences that they might want to check out his new film. The first trailer, which focuses on the idea that we can be our own worst enemies, promises a continuation of the smart thrills and social horror that he brings to the table like no one else at the moment.
Captive State (March 29)
Having proven capable of moving from a taut large-scale spectacle (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to an intense character study (The Gambler), director Rupert Wyatt seeks to merge these sensibilities in this sci-fi thriller. Following a diverse collection of people attempting to survive in Chicago during an extra-terrestrial occupation, Captive State features an eclectic cast of familiar faces (Vera Farmiga, Alan Ruck and John Goodman) along with a pair of intriguing newcomers (Ashton Sanders and Cincinnati’s own KiKi Layne) worth keeping an eye on.