It’s fair to say that 2021 is off to a less than flying start – new year, not so new lockdown and all that. But while a newly-coined tier 5 isn’t exactly what we had hoped for our new year’s new beginnings, there are plenty of brilliant films dropping this month to take your mind off the ever-grim news cycle. So without further ado, allow us to present to you the best films to watch in your slippers from the comfort of your sofa this January.
Because there’s no act of self-care greater than a bowl of popcorn the size of your head.
The best films to watch in January 2021
Wonder Woman 1984
A box-office sensation in her first solo movie, Gal Gadot’s lithe and feisty, whip-cracking Amazonian princess has leaped ahead to the 1980s for her next quest to save the world – with many hoping she’s coming to the rescue of a pandemic-beleaguered Hollywood, too. In her first adventure, Gadot’s Diana was a comically ingenuous fish-out-of-water when she landed in patriarchal 1918 Europe having spent her entire life on the Amazons’ women-only island of Themyscira. The new film finds her in Washington DC in 1984, working at the Smithsonian Museum and performing anonymous acts of heroic do-goodery on the side. She is now physically at ease with the surrounding culture but at odds again with its prevailing mores. This, after all, isn’t just the era of shoulder pads and legwarmers but of rampant materialism and having it all. That’s the promise being peddled by Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord, the Trump-like huckster whose machinations drive the film’s plot. Max’s megalomaniac scheming lies behind the transformation of Diana’s klutzy gemologist colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) into cat-like supervillain Cheetah. And it also brings about the astonishing return of Diana’s lost love, dashing World War One aviator Steve Trevor. Which allows Chris Pine to play fish out of water this time and boggle at such marvels as futons, escalators and parachute pants. Returning director Patty Jenkins’ film is at its most endearing in cheesy moments like these; and at its most affecting when Gadot’s conflicted heroine wrestles with herself over love versus world-saving duty. Gadot is equally impressive in the action scenes, although the film’s CGI-inflated climax, it has to be said, manages to be both overlong and underwhelming. An earlier chase sequence along a desert road in the Middle East is far better and so is the film’s spectacular opening sequence, which shows the young Diana (played by Lilly Aspell) competing in Themyscira’s hair-raising version of the triathlon. Diana more than holds her own against the adult Amazons alongside her, but more significantly she also learns a lesson about the importance of truth and fairness – particularly pointed in these Trumpian times – that resonates through the movie.
Director: Patty Jenkins
12, 151 mins
Available on Premium Video on Demand (PVOD) from 13th January.
Vanessa Kirby delivers a deeply moving, fully lived-in performance as a Boston woman reeling from a traumatic home birth in this powerful drama. In the aftermath of their daughter’s birth – which is filmed in a gripping single take lasting almost 25 minutes – Kirby’s upper-class Martha and her partner, blue-collar construction engineer Sean (Shia LaBeouf), handle their anguish in different ways. Former addict Sean roils and rages, while Martha internalises her pain, their growing discord only exacerbated by Martha’s wealthy, controlling mother (Ellen Burstyn). The English-language debut of Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s (maker of canine fable White God and magic-realist refugee allegory Jupiter’s Moon), Pieces of a Woman is both intensely naturalistic and highly stylised, with bravura sequences such as the birth scene going side by side with some overly emphatic symbolism – including the bridge Sean is building and the apple seeds Martha is trying to sprout. Kirby and her co-stars’ performances are so strong, however, that it’s easy to forgive the film’s flaws.
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
15, 126 mins
Showing on Netflix from 7th January
Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James creates a powerful allegory for the anguish of dementia and the fears that surround it in this unnerving psychological horror film, which finds three generations of women overwhelmed by a sinister presence at their family’s rambling country home. Emily Mortimer’s Kay arrives at the house with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), having received news that her forgetful elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing. When Edna eventually turns up, it’s immediately clear that relations have been prickly between mother and daughter for some time, and the increasing signs of Alzheimer’s she is displaying only exacerbate the tension. However, as the film’s mood gradually shifts from family melodrama to unsettlingly surreal terror, it also becomes apparent that an evil force is present in the cluttered old house. Looking to the slow-burn dread of J-Horror rather than typical Hollywood jump scares, first-time feature director James takes her time getting under our skin, but with the eerily atmospheric set design, cinematography and music playing their part, as do the cast’s terrific performances, she has fashioned a deeply layered, genuinely creepy movie that lingers in the mind.
Director: Natalie Erika James
15, 89 mins
Available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, Chili, Curzon, Rakuten, BFI Player, and on DVD from 18th January.
Its release much delayed by reshoots, studio shuffles and Covid-19, this X-Men spin-off strives for a Breakfast-Club-for-mutants vibe, with more than a dash of teen horror thrown in. Instead of a high-school detention room, the film’s five teenagers have been thrown together in a strange psychiatric institute presided over by Alice Braga’s watchful doctor. They may all be mutants but each youngster is more clearly defined by a single character attribute rather than their special powers. Blu Hunt’s Cheyenne teenager Danielle Moonstar is the anxious newcomer, her gifts still undefined; Anya Taylor-Joy’s Illyana Rasputin is the snarky blonde mean girl; Maisie Williams’ Rahne Sinclair the repressed Catholic Scot; Henry Zaga’s Roberto da Costa the cocky rich kid; and Charlie Heaton’s Sam Guthrie the blue-collar Kentucky boy. Director Josh Boone spends more time on the quintet’s traumas than he does on their abilities, but save for the novel lesbian romance between two of the characters, the characters’ angst-ridden interactions seem secondhand, while the story’s thrills and scares lean heavily on earlier films, too.
Director: Josh Boone
15, 94 mins
Showing on Disney+, and available on DVD & Digital from 4th January.
This good-looking road movie sends a pair of thirtysomething friends on a scenic trip in a bright orange Bronco jeep along the California and Oregon coasts. Well-heeled married Wes (Tommy Dewey) has cajoled his forlorn college friend Luke (François Arnaud) to take the trip and look up an old flame in Portland. But as they travel it becomes clear that Wes’s own life isn’t as perfect as it first appears. An air of male wish-fulfilment hovers over this comedy drama – the pair do run into more than their fair share of beautiful women en route – but stay with the movie and you’ll find a perceptive and engaging portrait of friendship emerge.
Director: Marc Carlini
15 (tbc), 101 mins
Available on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from 5th January.
Steve Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom take aim at tax-dodging, asset-stripping retail tycoons with this spiky satirical comedy, which doesn’t so much aim tongue-in-cheek mockery at its targets as blow a great big raspberry. From the off, it’s clear the pair have taken Philip Green as the inspiration for Coogan’s vulgar, money-grubbing character, high-street fashion billionaire Sir Richard McCreadie. Dubbed ‘McGreedy’ and ‘Sir Shifty’ by the tabloids, McCreadie has built a high-street empire and a personal fortune out of sweatshop exploitation and selective bankruptcies. He’s even paid his Monaco-resident wife Samantha (Isla Fisher) a £1.2billion dividend. Now, however, his public image – tarnished by his recent appearance at a House of Commons select committee – needs burnishing. Hence the lavish toga party he is planning on the Greek island of Mykonos to celebrate his 60th birthday (reminiscent of Green’s 50th birthday celebration in Cyprus). His official biographer, Nick (David Mitchell), is on hand to record events, and a reality TV crew is following his pampered daughter’s every move. But his celebrity guests are cancelling, the fake amphitheatre he’s building isn’t finished and there are Syrian refugees camping on the beach nearby. Disaster surely looms? Greed isn’t subtle. Nor is it as funny as you might hope. But Coogan is patently having a blast as the vile, permatanned McCreadie. And if the film itself doesn’t match some of his other collaborations with Winterbottom over the years, from 24 Hour Party People to the Trip series, perhaps on this occasion the object of their film’s scorn deserves a crude satirical bludgeon rather than a deft rapier thrust.
Director: Micheal Winterbottom
15, 104 mins
Available on DVD and Digital, and on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from 8th January.
Passionate, stirring and historically savvy, French director Céline Sciamma’s tale of clandestine love between two women in 18th-century France is a cinematic triumph. It is 1760 and painter Marianne (Noémie Marlant) travels to a windswept island off the coast of Brittany to carry out a wedding portrait. However, her aristocratic subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), is a very reluctant bride-to-be and refuses to be painted. So Marianne arrives in the guise of a companion and must complete her commission in secret… Sciamma has made two very fine coming-of-age dramas set in contemporary middle-class suburbia, Water Lilies and Tomboy, and one set in the Paris banlieues, Girlhood. She proves even more sure-footed with this ravishing, slow-burning love story – her first period drama. Gorgeously filmed and acted, Portrait of a Lady on Fire frames Marianne and Héloïse’s developing relationship with such exquisite skill that almost every detail throbs with meaning and emotion. Sciamma uses music sparingly, but when she does apply it the results take your breath away. Take the moment when Marianne and Héloïse, together with young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), join a gathering of local women around a bonfire and the group slowly breaks into a vibrant, trance-like a cappella song. Even more charged is the film’s final scene, when ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, played by Marianne on the harpsichord earlier in the story, conveys turbulent feelings of love and loss. It isn’t only in her use of music that Sciamma’s sensitivity is apparent. Throughout the movie, she makes us keenly aware of the constraints on the women’s lives and the challenges they face in finding freedom and fulfilment – whether it is Marianne’s desire to pursue a career in a male-dominated field or Héloïse’s to choose her destiny. Sciamma’s feminist intent is clear, yet unlike many other period films that attempt to revisit and reclaim the past, there’s nothing clangingly anachronistic about her film. Nonetheless, Portrait’s historical tact goes side by side with a rapturous sense of the female gaze that is both revisionist and erotic. We’re aware of this refocusing all through the movie – but we feel it most keenly when Marianne looks on Héloïse, her gaze blurring the distinction between a painter’s scrutiny of her subject and that of a lover.
Director: Céline Sciamma
15, 122 mins
Available on Curzon Home Cinema and on DVD and Digital.
A bright spark if ever there was, the brilliantly eccentric Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla has popped up as a supporting figure in films ranging from The Prestige to The Current War, but he takes centre stage in this offbeat biopic starring Ethan Hawke. Writer-director Michael Almereyda highlights the key points in Tesla’s career, including his development of the alternating current electrical system and his testy relationships with egotistical fellow inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), bluff entrepreneur George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and ruthless robber baron JP Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). Almereyda’s telling of Tesla’s story, however, is far from straightforward. ‘This meeting never happened,’ announces Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson), after an encounter between Tesla and Edison descends into a bizarre face-off with ice cream cones. Anne serves as the film’s narrator, resorting every now and then to an anachronistic MacBook and Google to steer the story, and her interventions aren’t the film’s only avant-garde flourishes. At one point, Hawke even sings a tuneless version of Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’. The end result, however, is a film that is interesting but not electrifying. Tesla remains an enigma, of course, but as played by a pained, humourless Hawke he is also just a little dull.
Director: Michael Almereyda
12, 103 mins
Available on DVD and Digital, and on Amazon Prime from 12th January.
Noel Coward’s ghost might not return to haunt the makers of this new adaptation of his classic play but it’s not hard to imagine the Master turning in his grave at some of the liberties director Edward Hall and his three screenwriters have taken. The basic concept is the same – celebrated writer Charles Condomine unwittingly summons up the mischievous ghost of his first wife with the aid of an eccentric medium. However, instead of the suave cynicism of Rex Harrison in David Lean’s 1945 film, we now have a frazzled Dan Stevens exhibiting eye-popping frustration, his creative juices and libido equally flat. Straining more than a little too hard himself, Hall unwisely ramps up the farce from the start – Charles’s typewriter goes flying out the window well before Leslie Mann’s ghost turns up. As it happens, Mann’s delightfully impish Elvira is by far the film’s most successful performance. A curiously flat Judi Dench can’t eclipse memories of Margaret Rutherford’s gloriously eccentric Madame Arcati and Isla Fisher’s Ruth, Charles’s second wife, is shrill. Indeed, the film as a whole is overly frantic. Still, the fabulous Art Deco costumes really are to die for.
Director: Edward Hall
12, 96 mins
Sky Cinema and NOW TV from 15th January.
It is February 25 1964 and newly crowned heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soon to re-name himself Muhammad Ali, celebrates his victory in a Miami motel with three close fiends – each a prominent African-American hero in his own right. Just like Clay, football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and civil rights activist Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) all know how much pain and struggle it takes to be a black icon in a segregated US. They disagree, though, on how to put their celebrity to best use. Making her feature film directing debut, actress Regina King (winner of the 2019 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk) gets knockout, award-calibre performances from her stars. (The smart money is currently on Ben-Adir for an Oscar nod). King’s film, adapted by Kemp Powers from his 2013 play, is undeniably stagey, but it still brings the men’s rough-and-tumble debate and joshing friendship vividly alive.
Director: Regina King
15, 110 mins
Available on Amazon Prime from 15th January.
Nicholas Hoult’s expat American chancer falls foul of Anthony Hopkins’ ruthless German crook when he tries to hijack a drug shipment to fund a kidney transplant for stricken girlfriend Felicity Jones (a fellow US émigré). With tricky flashbacks and dodgy accents throwing sand in the engine, this car-chase thriller from Welcome to the Punch director Eran Creevy stutters and sputters a fair bit before it gets going. Yet when Hoult’s fugitive hero hits the autobahn, the movie delivers an exhilarating turn of speed. And when the screen isn’t filled with crashing and somersaulting cars, Ben Kingsley’s cartoony performance as a blinged-up Turkish gangster serves as a bizarre diversion.
Director: Eran Creevy
12, 95 mins
Available on DVD and Digital, and on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from 16th January.
If you are the male protagonist of a Judd Apatow movie you’re more than likely to be saddled with a severe case of arrested development. Just think of Steve Carell’s hapless nerd in the writer-director’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Seth Rogen’s man-child in Knocked Up. And it’s certainly so with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson’s 24-year-old Staten Island slacker in this belated coming of age comedy. But the fact that the film’s story is inspired by the comedian’s own life makes the scrapes and mishaps his character experiences impressively raw and real. Davidson’s pot-smoking waster Scott still lives with his mom and spends his time hanging out in her basement with his fellow stoner pals while neglecting his girlfriend (a marvellous Bel Powley). He has big dreams of opening his own tattoo parlour cum restaurant – an inane idea, everyone else agrees – but this could be the weed thinking for him. However, there’s a reason he’s stuck in this stunted state. He hasn’t got over the death of his firefighter father when he was seven (Davidson’s own fireman father was killed trying to rescue people from the World Trade Center on 9/11). All of which makes him less than thrilled when his long-single mother Margie (Marisa Tomei, wonderful) begins dating another firefighter, the prickly, bristling Ray (Bill Burr), whose nine-year-old son Scott has ill-advisedly tattooed. Scott’s travails aren’t exactly earth-shattering, and the movie is definitely sprawling and overlong, but Davidson’s aching vulnerability gives it wonky charm and heart, while his goofy comic sensibility proves well matched to Apatow’s relaxed, improvisational style.
Director: Judd Apatow
15, 137 mins
Available on DVD & Digital, and on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from 22nd January.
Sideswiped by the news that they are expecting a baby, a long-term couple react in wildly different ways in this engaging New Zealand comedy-drama. He’s thrilled at the prospect of being a parent; she’s horrified. Totally in denial, she doesn’t see why her pregnancy should stop her winning an international tree-climbing competition. Stars Rose Matafeo (a Kiwi stand-up comedian) and Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter films) have lovely chemistry as the chalk-and-cheese couple.
Director: Curtis Vowell
15, 91 mins
Available on digital platforms from 22 January.
High-school swots Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have always looked down on their party-hearty classmates. But on the eve of graduation the best friends belatedly realise they have been missing out and decide to let their hair down for the first time. The directing debut of actress Olivia Wilde, this coming-of-age comedy is an absolute joy – raucously funny, fond and touching in equal measure. Dever and Feldstein are terrific and Wilde directs like a dream. Refreshingly, the film’s generous spirit extends to all its characters, whether geek or jock or cool kid. Unlike almost every other high-school movie, no one here is a mean girl in need of a comeuppance.
Director: Olivia Wilde
15, 102 mins
Available on DVD and Digital, and on Netflix from 24th January.