Every year in January the nominees for the Academy Awards are announced. Scrutinizing that hallowed list can be a frustrating endeavor for a Japan-based movie fan; we’re often late to the party when it comes to the release of these shining examples of all that was great about last year’s cinema. Never fear, February is here, and with it the first of these pinnacles of movie excellence finally come trickling onto the nation’s cinema screens. This month is all about the actors as Hollywood’s finest leading men go head to head. Leonardo DiCaprio fights a bear in order to win the Best Actor prize he’s long coveted. Can he keep it from the grasp of a Steve Jobs-impersonating Michael Fassbender or a Mars-stuck Matt Damon? ‘Carol’ sees that some leading ladies are represented as Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara get nods for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Who’s worthy of the win? Judge for yourself at cinemas this February.
The Hateful Eight – February 27
A bulging cast of colorful character actors, violence as comic as it is extreme, and a liberal use of every bit of profanity under the sun can only mean one thing: maverick filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is back with another unique slice of fast-talking film action. For “The Hateful Eight” the filmmaker has assembled a typically eclectic cast. Kurt Russell heads proceedings as gruff bounty hunter John Ruth, who’s bringing fugitive Daisy Domergue (Oscar-nominated Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock for justice. The pair hook up with infamous bounty hunter and former union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson) and a man who claims to be the town’s new sheriff (Walter Goggins). The four become eight when the group take refuge from a blizzard in a stagecoach stopover populated by a quartet of sinister ne’er-do-wells (Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen and Demian Bircher). Tensions rise with the storm and it soon becomes obvious that a Red Rock rendezvous may not be in the cards after all…
Unbroken – February 5
“Unbroken” made headlines for all the wrong reasons last year when right-wing activists demanded for the film to be banned and its director, Angelina Jolie, to be told she was no longer welcome in Japan. Thankfully, distributors saw sense when film industry insiders called on them to stand up for free speech. Why were the far right so worked up? Jolie’s film tells the remarkable true story of former Olympian and WWII pilot Louis Zamperini, who is shot down over the Pacific. He and his crew members are found, captured, and made prisoners of war. Zamperini is sent to a camp in Tokyo were he suffers terribly at the hands of one Japanese corporal in particular, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (star rocker Miyavi). A biographical war drama that charts an incredible life and a redemptive tale of survival.
Steve Jobs – February 12
Inventor, entrepreneur, Apple co-founder and cultural icon, Steve Jobs—and the conflicting sides of his personality—have warranted two biographical films in the four years since his 2011 death. While the Ashton Kutcher–starring 2013 effort “Jobs” proved less than successful at the box office, the big guns are out for this second exploration of the Apple genius’s life. Danny Boyle directs Oscar nominee Michel Fassbender in a film that covers all the behind-the-scenes action at the launch of three of Jobs’s most iconic products—the Apple Macintosh, the NeXT Computer, and the iMac. Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan and Jeff Daniels complete the cast of this movie based on biographer Walter Isaacson’s investigation into the life of the digital visionary.
While the Women Are Sleeping – February 27
An eclectic assemblage of international talent comes together for this darkly comic tale of sex and stalking. Hong Konger Wayne Wang, best known to western audiences for directing J-Lo in toothless rom-com “Maid in Manhattan,” adapts celebrated Spanish novelist Javier Marías’s short story “While the Women Are Sleeping” with Japan’s own cinema bad boy “Beat” Takeshi in a main role. The story follows Kenji, a bored writer on vacation who spies a young beauty with a sinister older man. The film marks the first time in over a decade Kitano has appeared in another director’s work. Mozu’s Hidetoshi Nishijima, Sayuri Oyamada and Shiori Kutsuna join him.
The Martian – February 5
Ridley Scott has made some of his finest films in the sci-fi genre. Heading back to the stars, Scott’s new feature “The Martian” is a less horrifying affair than his former sci-fi voyages (think “Alien”) but it’s no less lacking in drama and intensity. Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, an astronaut belonging to a team carrying out a manned mission on Mars. After an emergency evacuation the crew presumes Watney to be dead and abandons the planet, leaving him behind. Stranded on the red planet, the astronaut must find a way to survive against impossible odds on an unforgiving landscape using what little provisions he has at his disposal. Back home scientists and crewmates Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover work tirelessly to mount a daring rescue mission. Scott returns to his towering best and picked up a Best Picture nomination for his effort.
Carol – February 11
One of this year’s biggest Oscar hopefuls with a total of six nominations, “Carol” arrives on our screens having already obtained numerous accolades and featured on many critics’ “Top Films of 2015” lists. An adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt,” the film tells the story of a young woman, Therese Belivet, who dreams of a better life while working as a shop girl in a Manhattan department store. After a chance encounter with Carol, an alluring woman who frequents the store, a romance blossoms between the two. Set against the backdrop of New York City in the less-than-tolerant 1950s, Carol struggles to break free from the confines of a stifling, loveless marriage while dealing with the problems caused as she finally begins to embrace her true feelings. Cate Blanchett takes the title role and has been honored with a Best Actress nomination for her efforts. Co-star Rooney Mara is similarly honored in the Best Supporting category for her turn as Therese. Classily directed by Todd Haynes, the two leads give magnificent performances in this touching romance.
The Best of the Rest
Love the Coopers – Still feeling Christmassy? Probably not but this is Japan: things don’t have to make sense. Discover the true meaning of Christmas in this ensemble comedy with Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Anthony Mackie, Amanda Seyfreid, Ed Helms and more. (February 19)
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride – A testament to the popularity of both Benedict Cumberbatch and Japan’s love of a good mystery, this feature-length episode of the excellent BBC television series gets a full theatrical release. (February 19)
Point Break – Kathryn Bigelow’s cult action hit gets an update as Edgar Ramirez and Luke Bracey take over the roles made famous by Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. One’s an undercover cop, the other is the leader of a bank-robbing extreme sports gang. (February 20)
Maggie – Arnie takes a stab at a serious role as he plays a loving father in a zombie-ravaged near future who will stop at nothing to protect his infected daughter. (February 5)
Hotel Transylvania 2 – Adam Sandler’s computer-animated family comedy returns as Dracula attempts to make a real vampire out of his fangless son. Fun for the kids, if not quite on Pixar’s level. (February 20)