From biographical dramas that turn the camera lens to black history, to riveting tales of crimes gone awry, these upcoming new films are kicking off the new year with a bang. With many fresh off last summer’s film festival circuit, a number of the January and February 2021 releases are rumoured to be major awards contenders – including Pieces of a Woman, Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal and One Night in Miami – these are the new films not to be missed.
From its agonising 23-minute single shot opening, Pieces of a Woman devastates viewers with the tragedy of its central characters, Martha (played by Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (played by Shia LaBeouf), and their home birth gone terribly wrong.
Directed by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó, Kirby gives a remarkable and nuanced depiction of Martha as she navigates her grief at the loss of her child, the strains on her relationship with her husband and the case against the midwife who’s accused of criminal negligence. With supporting performances from Sarah Snook (of Succession fame) and Ellen Burstyn, the film received rave reviews at its Venice Film Festival debut and is rumored to be a major awards contender.
Available on 7 January on netflix.com
For her directorial debut, Regina King took the camera into the heart of the action, which in this case, takes place in a single Miami hotel bedroom in February 1964. With a screenplay by Kemp Powers (co-director of Pixar’s Soul), based on his stage play of the same name, the film imagines a meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke, who are celebrating Ali’s surprise victory over Sonny Liston.
There are numerous agendas at play in the room, but the central tension is focused on Malcolm X (played by Kinsley Ben-Adir) who is on the brink of starting his own organisation and keen to launch with the news that he’s convinced Ali (played by Eli Goree) to convert to Islam. Featuring a stellar performance from Ben-Adir in his first leading film role, the film marks a successful move for King from in-front of the camera to behind it.
Available on 15 January on amazon.com
The #MeToo movement gets pushed to a new limit in writer/director Emerald Fennell’s dark comedic debut. Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a character singularly obsessed with seeking revenge against the men who wronged her and carrying out her own vigilante justice against predators. Every weekend, she goes to a bar and pretends to be so drunk that she’s on the brink of passing out. When a creepy man eventually tries to take her home, she goes along with it, only to suddenly flip the switch when the same man begins to try to sexually assault this woman he thinks is incapable of defending herself. Bloody revenge ensues.
Shocking, acidic and at times difficult to watch, Promising Young Woman received critical acclaim at it’s Sundance Film Festival premiere for its fresh and intoxicating imagining of revenge against predators. It’s also exciting to see Mulligan disappear into the dark role, alongside supporting performances from the likes of Bo Burnham, Alison Brie and Laverne Cox.
Available for on-demand rental on 15 January
Adapted from Aravind Adiga’s bestselling, Man Booker prize-winning novel of the same name, The White Tiger shares the gripping tale of Balram Halwai (played by newcomer Adarsh Gourav). Having grown up believing his goal should be to become a servant, Halwai manages to become a driver for a wealthy couple, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) and Ashok (Rajkummar Rao). But as he faces Ashok’s persistent belittling and cruelty, the once loyal driver becomes increasingly resentful. When a night of betrayal shows him the extent of the family’s corruption, he decides to take matters into his own hands and rise up to become a new type of master.
Available on 22 January on netflix.com
If Bridgerton has left you with a penchant for more historical dramas, Simon Stone’s pre-WWII English drama might be the perfect choice. Based on the novel of the same name by John Preston — whose other novel A Very English Scandal was adapted into the Emmy-winning mini-series in 2018 — the film reimagines the real-life 1938 excavation of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.
Ralph Fiennes plays self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown who, at the invitation of the widowed landowner Edith Pretty (played by Carey Mulligan), begins excavating numerous burial mounds on the property and consequently uncovers an astonishing artefact. With war looming and treasure hunters threatening the site, Brown and Pretty must team up to protect the history they’ve unearthed.
Available on 29 January on netflix.com
Euphoria creator and star reunite in this drama that is already being pegged as an awards contender. Shot during the pandemic at a private home in California, Sam Levinson’s film stars Zendaya and John David Washington (who most recently had the starring role in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet) in a tense tale of love and the ghosts of relationships past.
Malcolm (Washington) is a filmmaker who has just returned from a successful movie premiere with his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), and both are glowing with expectations of success and financial rewards. But as talk turns to their romantic pasts and unexpected revelations are made, the strength of their love is put to the test.
Available on 12 February on netflix.com
Rosamund Pike brings notes of her Gone Girl icy persona to this darkly comic thriller, which sees her play Marla Grayson, a seemingly perfect legal guardian who exploits her position to steal from her elderly wards with help from her girlfriend, Fran (played by Eiza Gonzalez). With doctors and carers on their payroll, their operation is going smoothly until they target Jennifer (Dianne Wiest), and discover too late that she has some powerful friends on her side.
It’s a riveting performance from Pike, who carries out her crimes with a sociopathic smile on her face, and Peter Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) is brilliant as the crafty businessman who proves to be a worthy opponent.
Available on 19 February on netflix.com
Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes lead an all British cast for this biographical tale about cherished novelist Roald Dahl and his wife, American actor Patricia Neal. Directed by Jon Hays and based on Stephen Michael Shearer’s biography about Neal, the film transports us to the English countryside in 1962.
Dahl, a burgeoning children’s author and his wife, a glamourous Hollywood movie star, have escaped the city to raise their family in Buckinghamshire. But tragedy strikes with the sudden death of their seven year-old daughter Olivia, and the two are left to rely on each other as they struggle through their grief.
Available on 19 February on Sky Cinema
Chloe Zhao’s latest film was a star of the Venice Film Festival, where it nabbed the coveted Golden Lion award, and for good reason. The contemporary western drama follows the incomparable Frances McDormand as Fern, a widowed woman whose future was wrecked by the 2008 economic crash. When the Nevada factory where she was working shuts down and once again she faces joblessness, Fern decides to sell most of her possessions and live the life of a nomad, travelling around the American West in her little van.
Inspired by a bestselling non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder about the boomer nomad trend, and starring a number of real-life nomads — including radical nomadist Bob Wells, who makes a devastating speech at the end of the film — Zhao’s film is beautiful told. With many critics dubbing this McDormand’s career-defining role, Nomadland offers a sensitively and intelligently depicted look at the nomad life against a stunning backdrop of the American West.
In cinemas on 19 February
It took a long time for director Shaka King to find a studio to back his biographical drama about The Black Panthers chairman Fred Hampton, but having secured Black Panther director Ryan Coogler on board as a producer and Warner Brothers as distributor, it was undoubtedly worth the wait.
Set in late 1960s Illinois, Hampton is played by Daniel Kaluuya, who has stunned audiences over the past few years with his performances in the likes of Queen and Slim. Petty criminal and Hampton’s head of security William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield) agrees to work as an informant for the FBI and help them bring down The Black Panther chairman, leading to a terrible series of betrayals with lasting consequences.
In cinemas on 26 February
Following her award-winning performance in The Favourite, Olivia Coleman returns to the big screen in this poignant story about dementia. Coleman’s co-star is none other than Anthony Hopkins, who gives a devastating performance as Coleman’s father, a man determined to maintain his independence even as his memory loss continues to worsen.
Based on the acclaimed play of the same name, Anne (Coleman) is all set to move to Paris and start a new life, but first she needs to convince her 80-year-old father, Anthony (Hopkins), who is rapidly losing his grip on reality, to accept live-in help. The film is told from Hopkins’ point of view, which gives the tale an element of horror, as his dementia means he wavers between thinking he’s being gaslighted, mistaking his daughter for someone else and getting alarmingly disorientated as he loses big chunks of time. A difficult but necessary watch, the effects of the film will linger long after the final credits have rolled.
In cinemas on 26 February
British actor, rapper and activist Riz Ahmed has very much been in the spotlight recently, thanks to the 2020 release of his album and accompanying short film tackling post-Brexit racism, The Long Goodbye, and a slate of excellent movie roles. Most recent among the latter is his starring performance in the long-awaited Sound of Metal, which has generated significant buzz ever since its debut at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Ahmed plays Ruben, a small-time punk metal drummer who travels around the country with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (played by Olivia Cooke). One night, his hearing suddenly drops, and to his horror he is told that his hearing will continue to deteriorate until it eventually goes completely. What follows is a heart-wrenching and moving journey for Ruben, as he goes from raging against his predicament to learning to accept, and eventually appreciate, his new life.
Coming soon on Amazon Prime
An all-star cast lead this British-American legal drama based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s bestselling memoir about his 14 years held captive in the notorious prison, Guantánamo Bay, without charge or trial. Tahar Rahim (The Looming Tower) plays Salahi, who was taken to Guantánamo on suspicion of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, but never charged. After years of imprisonment, he finds an ally in defense attorney Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (played by Shailene Woodley), who work tirelessly to get Salahi justice.
Their advocacy for the suspected terrorist is controversial and deemed a betrayal of those who lost their lives in the towers, a point repeatedly made to them by the military prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). But as Hollander uncovers more and more evidence, the case becomes increasingly disturbing, culminating in a shocking conspiracy. Harrowing in its depiction of Guantánamo and the torture that Salahi endured for all those years, it’s a story that is as much about Salahi’s personal journey as the political narrative.
In cinemas on 26 February
Main image: Pieces of a Woman starring Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby.