Our movie highlights of the coming year

by Mark Schilling, Kaori Shoji, and Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

Another year, another raft of unmissable movies. Here are the most hotly anticipated releases for JT film critics Mark Schilling, Kaori Shoji and Giovanni Fazio — get them in your diary now.

“American Hustle” (directed by David O. Russell; opens Jan. 31): After “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” director David O. Russell has become such a mainstream success that it’s hard to recall that his career began with the tiny 1994 indie “Spanking the Monkey,” and stalled out for a decade after 1999′s “Three Kings.” His latest has Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and more in a tale of a New Jersey con man enlisted by the FBI to sting some crooked politicians. Heavy on the late 1970s beard, polyester and cocaine vibe that “Argo” picked up on so well. (G.F.)

“Snowpiercer” (directed by Bong Joon-ho; opens Feb. 7): As far as I’m concerned, this is required viewing for every human being on the planet. In a tale of a near-future world encased in permanent ice and snow, the survivors of a climate-change apocalypse board a Noah’s Ark-style train called “Snowpiercer.” This is fueled by a “permanent engine” that takes the passengers on a never-ending journey around the globe. The catch: No one is allowed off. The train is owned and operated by despot Wilford (Ed Harris), who has divided its passengers into first class (the 1 percenters) and economy. Savor Bong’s breathtaking visuals and ponder this parable for our times. (K.S.)

“Shiro Yuki Hime Satsujin Jiken (The Snow White Murder Case)” (directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura; opens March 29): This latest by the prolific Yoshihiro Nakamura is yet another in a long line of Japanese murder mysteries based on local best-sellers, this time by Kanae Minato. Most of these films are plot-driven brain teasers populated by talking puzzle pieces. Nakamura, however, has a knack for humanizing this sort of material, while keeping the audience guessing until a cleverly orchestrated climax. Also, the story, focusing on a cosmetics company employee (Mao Inoue) suspected of her colleague’s murder, is told in the ceaseless glare of online social media and feels very much of the moment. (M.S.)

“The Broken Circle Breakdown” (directed by Felix Van Groeningen; opens in March): Reality is full of chaos and unseeming bulges in the relationship fabric, but on occasion, it can yield some gorgeous moments, such as the courtship between Elise (Veerle Baetens), owner of a tattoo parlor, and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a bluesgrass musician, that immediately glides into marriage. They have a daughter, but then they discover she’s terminally ill. How can people cope with having a sick child and still come out of the experience with some faith and sanity intact? The story could tear you apart, and the soundtrack may have you sobbing for days. (K.S.)

“La vie d’Adèle” (directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; opens April 5): Released in English as “Blue is the Warmest Color,” last year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes finally arrives with much controversy in its wake, notably due to its lengthy lesbian sex scenes between actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, and director Abdellatif Kechiche threatening to sue Seydoux for calling the shoot “horrible” in interviews. But this is the real deal, with absolutely electric performances from the two leads in a story of falling in and out of love that feels entirely of the moment. It’s as raw as the best of John Cassavetes. (G.F.)

“Noah” (directed by Darren Aronofsky; opens June 14): OK, I will admit to anticipating this one with as much dread as pleasure. Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors, but a CGI-heavy biblical epic? Aronofsky is at his best when dealing with recognizably human characters — as in “The Wrestler” or “Black Swan” — and at his worst when dealing with CGI and spirituality; “The Fountain” almost sunk his career. The trailer looks more like a cookie-cutter special-effects blockbuster and less like “The Holy Mountain,” which is what the old Aronofsky would have aimed for. (G.F.)

“Kawaki (Thirst)” (directed by Tetsuya Nakashima; opens in summer): The director of “Kokuhaku (Confessions),” the box-office hit and critical favorite of 2010, is finally back with another dark shocker, this time about a former detective (Koji Yakusho) who goes in search of his missing daughter, based on a 2005 novel by Akio Fukamachi. Knowing Nakashima, the imagery will be out-of-left-field impactful and the story a plunge to the murkier depths of the human heart, with the final destination unknown. (M.S.)

“Her” (directed by Spike Jonze; opens in summer): U.S. film critics are hailing this as Spike Jonze’s best movie to date. Charting the course of a soulful and loving relationship between writer Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his digital device (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), it’s a love story for the alternative digital tribe who can’t really get with social networking but find real relationships undealable. Johansson won best actress at the Rome Film Festival and it probably won’t be long before we get an app that duplicates her vocal cords. But it’s Phoenix who gets under your skin, as the achingly lonely Theodore whose job (ironically) is to pen poetic love letters for other people. (K.S.)

“Tokyo Tribe” (directed by Sion Sono; opens tbc 2014): Yes, Sion Sono is the maker of 2013′s piece of wretched excess “Jigoku de Naze Warui (Why Don’t You Play in Hell?).” But he is also director of some of the most interesting, extreme films of the past decade, and his latest, “Tokyo Tribe,” looks to be right down his alley. Based on a manga by Santa Inoue, the film posits a dystopian near-future Tokyo inhabited by turbulent youth “tribes,” focusing on a clash between a pair who were once friends (rapper Young Dais and action star Ryohei Suzuki). Yes, the ensuing battle of words and fists will probably be no one’s idea of reality, but it could well be energetic, imaginative and perversely entertaining. (M.S.)