The only rule: no sequels. You already know about new Star Wars, new James Bond, Avengers: Age of Ultron, etc. But here are 15 exciting films that may not have popped up on your radar yet:
Release: January 16
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis
Even after a few recent misfires – Public Enemies, Miami Vice – I’m still an avowed Michael Mann supporter. I love his gripping thrillers (The Insider), I love his action chops (Collateral), and I love the epic weight he brings to his best work (Heat). Blackhat, a rather timely techno-thriller about American and Chinese forces attempting to catch a hacker, seems right up his alley – at their best, Mann’s films feel as intelligent as they are exciting, and this project will need both qualities to work. My biggest concern: the fact that it is being rather unceremoniously dumped in January, far removed from when studios typically release films they considers exiting (the summer) or smart (the fall). January and February are usually where films go to die. You hate to judge a movie by its release date, but it’s concerning.
14. The Martian
Release: November 25
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor
That cast is really the pig’s wings – no matter how lackluster recent Ridley Scott efforts have been, great actors still flock to him. I, on the other hand, am starting to suffer from a serious case of Scott apathy. Based on a popular sci-fi book that’s been described as Apollo 13 meets Cast Away, The Martian stars Damon as a NASA astronaut stranded alone on the red planet, struggling to survive. It’s hard reading The Martian’s plot summary without thinking it was beat to the punch by Gravity and Interstellar (specifically the Damon part), but, it’s also hard to read the plot summary and not go, “COOL, MARS!!!” Scott is a technical wizard, and The Martian will give him plenty of opportunities to match the aforementioned recent sci-fi epics in terms of effects and visual spectacle. The question is, will the movie itself be worth the gobs of money he pours into it? The cast and Scott’s earlier work give reason to be cautiously optimistic.
13. La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, Emma Watson
Have you seen Whiplash? For the love of God, go see Whiplash. It’s my favorite movie I’ve seen this year, and, more importantly for the sake of La La Land, it’s the best-directed film I’ve seen this year. It’s unbearably taut, a drama about an amateur jazz drummer told with the breakneck pace and show-stopping intensity of a Jason Statham action flick. What I’m saying is, it’s freaking exciting. And I will gladly follow young director/writer Damien Chazelle to his next work, once again starring Miles Teller (revelatory in Whiplash), this time alongside Emma Watson. Whereas Whiplash featured riveting scenes of virtuosic musicianship, La La Land is an out-and-out musical, and I’m curious to see how Chazelle handles that fundamental change. TheWrap obtained production materials from the film in which Chazelle described it as, “…a musical about the way L.A.’s peculiar rhythms can push its residents to the edge of their emotions–be they hope, desperation or love. Think the kind of teetering-toward-madness you see in ‘The Graduate’ or ‘Boogie Nights’, and imagine if you were to push that further. In this case, the city pushes its residents all the way: it pushes them into song.”
Release: July 24
Director: Gil Kenan
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt
Generally speaking, horror remakes suck. But two years ago I wrote an article about movies that I thought could actually benefit from a remake, and I included Poltergeist (a childhood favorite), writing “…it seems to me that the original, while appreciated, is not considered gospel the way 70/80s horror classics like The Exorcist or The Shining are, and could therefore be remade without seeming overly egregious or temerarious.” Besides the obnoxious use of the word temerarious, I stand by that statement. Poltergeist’s conceits – the tacit horror of suburban Americana, ranging from housing developments built on ancient Native American burial grounds to possessed TV sets – are as rich for ghoulish exploration as ever, and a clever remake could take these ideas and build something all its own. Sam Raimi is producing, which is a vote of confidence.
11. Crimson Peak
Release: October 16
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain
Wikipedia: “Set in Cumbria, in a crumbling mansion in a largely rural and mountainous region of northern England in the 19th century, young author Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) discovers that her charming new husband Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) is not who he appears to be.” I’m IN on that plot description – I’m a sucker for horror movies of the “my husband/wife is not who I thought he/she was” variety (i.e., Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, etc.). I just find it terrifying. I’m also excited to see director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) go full-out gothic horror with a talented cast. He told Collider, “But basically what it is is a really, really, almost classical gothic romance ghost story, but then it has two or three scenes that are really, really disturbing in a very, very modern way. Very, very disturbing, it’s a proper R rating. And it’s adult.”
Release: December 25
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro
The plot – a true story about a struggling single mother who becomes a wildly successful entrepreneur – doesn’t grab me in the slightest, but I’ll tell you what does: David O. Russell reteaming with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, the same trio that gave us Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. I enjoyed the former more than the latter, but both were highly entertaining adult fare, the kind of film Hollywood rarely gives us and that modern audiences even more sporadically turn out for. Robert De Niro in a supporting role doesn’t hurt, either.
9. In the Heart of the Sea
Release: March 13
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy
Based on the incident that served as part of the inspiration for Moby-Dick, In the Heart of the Sea details a disastrous whaleship voyage. The trailer promises, in no short order: giant pissed off whales, flaming ships, bad weather, mutiny, and insanity. It was directed by Ron Howard and it looks amazing, if by amazing you mean that the entire thing looks like it was shot through an Instagram filter. Back-handed compliments aside, it looks super intense and genuinely frightening.
8. Midnight Special
Release: November 25
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton
Midnight Special, delayed from a 2014 release, actually clocked in at #13 on last year’s list of films I most anticipated. I wrote: “If you liked 2011’s tense, paranoiac thriller Take Shelter, take note of Midnight Special, another sci-fi suspense film from the team of director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon. We know it’s a chase movie (a father and son on the run) and an interview with MTV reveals that it’s inspired by the films of John Carpenter, which is a really smart thing to say if you’re trying to get me to go see your movie.” So why has it jumped from #13 all the way up to #8 this year? When I wrote last year’s list, I hadn’t seen Mud, Nichols’ Take Shelter follow-up. Mud is so tonally different from Take Shelter – and so freaking good – that I now have even more faith in this project.
7. Louder than Bombs
Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Ryan, Gabriel Byrne, Isabella Huppert, David Strathairn
According to The Playlist, Louder than Bombs “…will revolve around a late war photographer played by Huppert, whose husband and two sons discover a secret about her past as a retrospective of her work is being put together. Interestingly, the film has been described as having a ‘Rashomon’-style plot conceit.” Besides a solid cast and an intriguing plot, I’m excited for Louder than Bombs because it’s the first English-language film from Norwegian director Joachim Trier. I loved his last film, of which I previously wrote: “The best way I could describe Norway’s Oslo, August 31st to you would be to call it the ideal companion piece to Infinite Jest – one that necessarily avoids attempting to match its scope (going in the opposite direction, in fact, and zeroing in on a single day in one man’s life), but wonderfully capturing the depth and understanding, the compassion and bitter realizations.” I’m eagerly awaiting this follow-up.
6. The Sea of Trees
Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts
I really, really like Wikipedia’s plot description for this one: “A story about an American man who travels to the “Suicide Forest” (Aokigahara forest) to kill himself at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, the site of numerous suicides. There he encounters a Japanese man, who wants to kill himself as well and then both men begin a journey of self-reflection and survival.” Dark, mysterious, borderline pretentious – I’m IN. It sounds reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, which made me weep like a baby. Plus, the tandem of Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe is gold. I want to get existential with those dudes.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver
Scorsese. That’s the entire justification for this film’s ranking. The story – 17th-century Jesuit missionaries face serious persecution in Japan – doesn’t necessarily sound like something you want to build your Saturday night around, but it’s Scorsese, so you will. It’s based on a Japanese book from the 60s rife with brutal torture and spiritual crises, so I don’t think this one has Leo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill playing beer pong in the Hamptons, ya know? That being said, this will probably be jaw-droppingly intense and moving and powerful.
4. The Revenant
Release: December 25
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson
Do you like Leonardo DiCaprio? How about bear maulings? Well then, you, my friend, are in luck – The Revenant features Leo as frontiersman Hugh Glass, who survived a bear mauling and vowed revenge on the so-called BFFs who left him for dead. It’s directed and co-written by Birdman’s Alejandro González Iñárritu, so we can expect it to be visually stunning and intelligent and exciting. We can also expect is to be rugged as shit, as Glass’ Wikipedia page features such vivid turns of phrase as: “The bear threw his flesh to its cubs,” “stabbing the animal repeatedly as the grizzly raked him time and again with her claws,” “Glass lay mutilated and alone,” “Glass set his own leg, wrapped himself in the bear hide his companions had placed over him as a shroud, and began crawling,” and “Glass laid his wounded back on a rotting log and let the maggots eat the dead flesh.” This one should be great for a first date.
3. St. James Place
Release: October 16
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda
I feel like we should get a Spielberg spy thriller starring Tom Hanks every year, just so that we have a built-in thing to do with our parents each fall. Like, “Hey son, why don’t you come visit your mother and me?” “Okay dad, we can go see that new Spielberg spy thriller starring Tom Hanks.” “To be totally honest son, that sounds dope as shit.” Everybody wins. This one was also co-written by the Coen brothers which is really unexpected and quite excellent.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller
If you’re not familiar with Ben Wheatley, this one might catch you off-guard. My first suggestion: get familiar with Ben Wheatley, the young English director behind some of the darkest, scariest, funniest films of the past decade (Kill List, Down Terrace, Sightseers). High-Rise, based on a J.G. Ballard novel, centers on a luxury high-rise apartment complex whose denizens form violent tribes and begin warring with one another. Its class satire and it sounds like the perfect fit for Wheatley, whose darkly comic films ooze ominous atmosphere. Check out his other work (Sightseers and Kill List are streaming on Netflix!) and add this to your own Must See list.
1. The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum
We almost didn’t get The Hateful Eight, my most anticipated movie of 2015 – the script got leaked to the press, and an outraged Quentin Tarantino shelved the film out of disgust. “See, that’s why we can’t have nice things,” humanity collectively grumbled. Fortunately, he changed his mind, and sometime next fall we should set eyes on another QT pulp classic. With this western set amidst a blizzard, Tarantino seems to be paying homage to Sergio Corbucci, the spaghetti western auteur who set The Great Silence in a Utah village paralyzed by snow. Tarantino is a known Corbucci buff (Corbucci’s most famous film just happens to be a revenge flick titled Django), so checking out The Great Silence may give you a window into Tarantino’s latest. I’d argue that there is no one in cinema right now – not PTA, not Scorsese, not Nolan – creating films that resonate so deeply amongst diehard film fanatics and casual movie-goers alike. Twenty-one years after Pulp Fiction, new Tarantino still always feels like a can’t-miss event.