Here’s what to expect in theaters and on VOD this month.
The big one: Gone Girl
David Fincher has become one of this era’s premiere directors of crime stories, because his bruised color schemes and matter-of-fact approach to horrific violence works equally well on lurid pulp like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and gritty true-detective tales like Zodiac. Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller Gone Girl stars Ben Affleck as a creep who can’t satisfactorily account for what might’ve happened to his missing wife, which is a plot that fits well with Fincher’s usual thematic preoccupation with ambiguities and ugly truths. Early reviews have already called Gone Girl one of Fincher’s best films, with a twisty script by Flynn (designed to surprise even the novel’s fans) and a sardonic sense of humor supplied by Fincher.
- Annabelle … The “freaky doll” horror subgenre gets a new addition with this The Conjuring spin-off, about a terrifying-looking old toy with a demonic pedigree.
- The Blue Room* … Actor Mathieu Amalric co-wrote, directed, and stars in this lean, elliptical erotic thriller, unraveling the truth behind a crime of passion.
- The Good Lie … If Reese Witherspoon didn’t already have the can’t-miss Oscar contender Wild coming out this year, this earnest drama about an American do-gooder helping Sudanese refugees would undoubtedly be her big (and likely unsuccessful) awards-season move.
- Left Behind … Author Tim LaHaye has always felt that the movies based on his and Jerry B. Jenkins’ mega-selling Left Behind novels have been unfairly ghettoized as “for Christians only.” He gets another chance at seeing the books turned into a proper action franchise, starring the eternally game Nicolas Cage.
- Harmontown* … For fans of eccentric Community creator Dan Harmon—or those who’ve always wanted to understand the sitcom guru’s cult appeal—here’s a documentary about his 2013 podcast tour.
- Men, Women & Children* … A year after director Jason Reitman’s Labor Day was practically laughed out of the Toronto International Film Festival, he returned with this dramedy about the perils of modern communication—and again received some of the worst reviews of his career.
- A Good Marriage … Joan Allen and Anthony LaPaglia co-star in this Stephen King-penned adaptation of his own novella, about a woman who discovers that her husband of 25 years may be a notorious serial killer.
The big one: Whiplash*
For some people at this year’s Sundance film festival (or at least those who didn’t make it into Boyhood), nothing at the fest topped the emotional high of the opening-night film, Whiplash. Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s reportedly tense, exhilarating drama about the relationship between a promising young drummer (played by Miles Teller) and his abusive teacher (J.K. Simmons) has won praise for its honest exploration of the line between pushing someone to succeed and being a sadistic prick. Also: There’s lots and lots of drumming, and drumming is exciting.
- Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day … Judging by the abysmal trailer, this live-action Disney version of Judith Viorst’s classic picture book seems designed to answer the question, “But how was Alexander’s dad’s day?”
- Bronx Obama … Documentary filmmaker Ryan Murdock examines the life of a man who upended his life to become a Barack Obama impersonator.
- The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Her*/The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Him* … The reedited “Them” version of Ned Benson’s gender-split dissection of a failed marriage hasn’t exactly won raves, so perhaps the release of Benson’s original diptych will win Jessica Chastain the accolades she deserves for her performance as a young woman dealing with loss.
- Dracula Untold … Attempting to be the Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town of action-horror, this origin story goes back to the 15th century to explain what turned Transylvanian prince Vlad III into Dracula.
- The Houses October Built … Those would be haunted houses, of the kind that pop up around the country this time of year, here used as the backdrop for a found-footage horror film.
- The Judge … Robert Downey, Jr. plays a slick Chicago defense attorney who returns to his small town after his mother’s death and finds himself defending his estranged father (Robert Duvall) on a murder charge, in this heavily hokey legal/domestic melodrama.
- Kill The Messenger* … Jeremy Renner both produced and stars in this political thriller about the late investigative journalist Gary Webb and his dangerous pursuit of CIA-backed drug dealers.
- One Chance … The improbable success story of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts (played by James Corden) becomes a feel-good comedy, produced by the always-sunny Simon Cowell.
- The Overnighters* … One of the year’s most gripping and surprising documentaries, Jesse Moss’ verité look at homeless oilmen in North Dakota evolves into the compassionate portrait of one local pastor who risks his reputation in the community to demonstrate the Christian virtue of charity.
- St. Vincent* … Bill Murray plays a curmudgeon who takes a gig as a babysitter for the 12-year-old son of his single-mom neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) in this comic heartwarmer.
And: Addicted*, Autómata*, Awake: The Life Of Yogananda*, The Canal*, Catch Hell, Dead Snow 2: Red Vs. Dead, Cooties*, The Devil’s Hand*, Kite, Meet The Mormons*, The Pact 2*, The Rewrite*
The big one: Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtues Of Ignorance)*
Alejandro González Iñárritu hasn’t really kept pace with his friends Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, who’ve been winning major awards and cultish fan bases with their work since they all came up together in the Mexican film industry in the 1990s. But if the early reviews from the Venice and Telluride film festivals are to be believed, Iñárritu has just made his best picture since Amores Perros with Birdman, a stylish dramedy about a fading star (played by Michael Keaton) who risks everything on a big Broadway comeback. Birdman is said to be technically dazzling—folding several days’ worth of action into what looks like a single tracking shot, lensed by the great Emmanuel Lubezki—with a knowing turn by Keaton as a man who can’t escape the public’s memories of his performances as a famous superhero.
- The Book Of Life … Guillermo del Toro produced this “Day Of The Dead”-themed 3-D animated adventure-romance, about a determined man who quests through the underworld to get back to the woman he loves.
- Camp X-Ray … Kristen Stewart plays an Army private stationed at Guantanamo Bay, where she begins to question her mission.
- Dear White People* … Justin Simien’s ripped-from-the-headlines campus comedy takes a sloppy but often enlightening look at race relations and stereotypes at modern universities.
- Fury … Brad Pitt plays a tank commander in a WWII thriller from writer-director David Ayer, who’s apparently taking a break from Los Angeles crime stories for now.
- Listen Up Philip … Writer-director Alex Ross Perry at once salutes and flips off the literary assholes of yore with this luminously photographed, cleverly structured comedy about a self-absorbed young novelist (played by Jason Schwartzman) who falls under the influence of an unhelpful mentor (Jonathan Pryce).
- Rudderless … William H. Macy makes his directorial debut with this story of a grief-stricken alcoholic (Billy Crudup) who reconnects with his late son by learning how to play the music he left behind.
- The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya* … Not only is Isao Takahata’s final (?) Studio Ghibli film a beautifully drawn and animated story about a magical foundling who grows up rapidly, but you can sing the title to the tune of “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.”
- Young Ones* … In a dry, post-apocalyptic world, a stubborn farmer (played by Michael Shannon) tries to keep his family together as an interloper (Nicholas Hoult) takes advantage of his weaknesses.
And: The Best Of Me, Default, Diplomacy*, Eternity: The Movie*, Extraterrestrial, Felony, Housebound, Watchers Of The Sky*
The big one: Force Majeure*
Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s 2011 film Play divided critics and audiences with its provocative story about a gang of black teens who rob and torment white kids, but Östlund’s follow-up, Force Majeure, has been more widely acclaimed, even though it deals with some of the same questions of unspoken tensions and the limits of politesse. Set at an Alpine ski resort, Force Majeure follows one seemingly happy family in the aftermath of a near-disaster in which not all of them behaved admirably. As the vacation continues, the memories of what happened lead to some chilly (and darkly comic) confrontations over longstanding grudges.
- Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me* … James Keach’s documentary follows the legendary country-pop singer on his final tour, which Campbell embarked on after announcing that he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
- The Heart Machine* … Writer-director Zachary Wigon makes a modern, true-to-life kind of mystery story, about a Brooklyn-dweller (John Gallagher Jr.) who begins scrutinizing his Skype sessions with his “long-distance” girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) for evidence that she’s actually living in Manhattan.
- John Wick* … A recent sensation at Fantastic Fest, this low-to-the-ground cat-and-mouse picture stars Keanu Reeves as a retired assassin drawn into a confrontation with the Russian mob.
- Laggies* … Keira Knightley plays a directionless, irresponsible 28-year-old who’d rather hang out with a high-schooler (Chloë Grace Moretz) she just met than deal with her longtime boyfriend’s proposal of marriage, because that’s the kind of story that the vast majority of twentysomethings who are just trying to pay their bills can really relate to.
- Life Of Riley … The late Alain Resnais’ final film is about old friends who reconnect—not always happily—when they work together on a play.
- Ouija … Hasbro co-produced this horror film about its controversial party game, which makes this the strangest case of an official toy-to-movie adaptation since that porno version of Chutes And Ladders.
- Low Down* … Elle Fanning plays a teenager in 1970s San Francisco who learns to take care of herself while her jazz-musician father (John Hawkes) deals with his heroin addiction, in this doggedly miserable period drama from first-time feature-director Jeff Preiss.
- White Bird In A Blizzard* … Gregg Araki turns Laura Kasischke’s quasi-YA mystery novel (about a young woman who becomes sexually active right around the time her mother disappears) into a colorful, dreamy homage to the 1980s of Blue Velvet and the Cocteau Twins.
And: Citizenfour*, Exists*, Love, Rosie*, 1,000 Times Good Night*, Revenge Of The Green Dragons
The big one: Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the year’s most mesmerizing and unsettling performances in Dan Gilroy’s well-pitched neo-noir Nightcrawler, about an amoral, socially awkward go-getter who becomes an overnight success videotaping crime scenes for local Los Angeles news programs. The plot travels in too straight of a line, and Gilroy’s blunt points about the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality of modern broadcast journalism are nothing new, but Gilroy gets the nasty tone and shadowy look of noir exactly right, and he understands what a godsend he has in Gyllenhaal. The majority of Nightcrawler is just the lead character cobbling together phrases he learned from self-help websites during awkward interactions with people he’s trying to manipulate. That shtick never ceases to be riveting.
- ABCs Of Death 2* … A is for anthology, S is for sequel, R is for reportedly hit-and-miss.
- Before I Go to Sleep* … Nicole Kidman plays a traumatized woman with memory loss in writer-director Rowan Joffé’s adaptation of S.J. Watson’s bestselling psychological thriller novel.
- Goodbye To Language* … Jean-Luc Godard delivers a dense cine-essay on gender politics and self-expression, very similar to the kinds he’s been making since the late 1960s, except that this time Godard marries his musings to some radically inventive 3-D images.
- The Great Invisible* … Documentarian Margaret Brown (director of the excellent The Order Of Myths) tackles the causes and aftermath of the 2010 Deep Water Horizon explosion.
- Horns* … Daniel Radcliffe’s career-long interest in playing characters with some kind of weird head thing going on continues with director Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel, about an ordinary man who wakes up one day with a form of psychic powers—and the titular protrusions curving out of his scalp.
- Revenge Of The Mekons* … One of the greatest under-known bands of the punk, post-punk, and post-post-punk eras gets its own career-spanning fan-doc.
- Why Don’t You Play In Hell?* … The prolific Japanese oddball Shion Sono returns with his latest genre-bending mind-blower, about a band of guerrilla documentary filmmakers who get caught in the middle of a war between yakuza families.
And: All You Need Is Love*, Hit By Lightning, Magical Universe