We begin the decade as we should... with four horror movies! That's all that counts in January 2020 (did you think I was ravishingly salivating, waiting up for the new Robert Downey, Jr. film? Wrong!).
January 2020 Forecast
By Michael Lynderey
January 4, 2020
Yes, we also have very old (they're from 2019) expanding titles about war and justice and winning copious Oscars, as well as the occasional comedy and many films about assassins and robbers and folks on the police beat. But back to the horror: the two movies about scary ghosts should outgross the undersea monsters and the haggard old witch, even before Gretel and Hansel get done with her.
1. Dolittle (January 17th)
Eddie Murphy is the best Dr. Dolittle of my lifetime, hands down. I would have gone to see a third Dr. Dolittle movie with Murphy in theatres if I could have.
-Me, February 24, 2017, after a screening of Get Out
When it comes to starting off a decade right, January 2020's line-up is actually much more impressive than January 2010 and certainly January 2000 (though we all loved My Dog Skip), although it does begin to pale in comparison to January 1990 (well, there was a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, there, so....), January 1980 (Silent Scream grossed $25m), and January 1970 (MASH came out and made $81m. Yes, MASH, too, was once a film).
In other news, Tony Stark is dead, so very, very much, completely dead. (oh, s--t, spoiler alert!)
And so Robert Downey, Jr. finally had time to go make another movie, and out of all the film sets in all the world, he walked into this one. A new film about the doctor who talks to animals, set in Victorian London and featuring an array of computer-generated fowl, mammal, and reptile, all of whom can carry a conversation with voices that sound strangely familiar. (BTW, did you know that Tony Stark has died?)
Yes, after Rex Harrison's 1967 doctor film, the character was played by Eddie Murphy in a pretty good modern-day 1998 incarnation ($144m total), not to mention the pre-ordained sequel ($112m in 2001), and, pursuant to the quote above, that one was actually pretty good, too. In fact, out of all the Dr. Dolittles in my life time... (no, I really believe it, satire be damned).
BTW, here is a shocking fact about this film that I still don't actually believe, myself, even as I recount it: It's not from Disney.
Yes, they made a Dr. Dolittle movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. with cute animals and Tom Holland voicing a dog who wears really big, funny glasses, and Disney is not behind the enterprise. (Universal paid the $175 million bill).
Sadly, and as much as I love Universal, the difference in studio alone whittles this motion picture from a $500m gross down to, I don't know, $200m?
Elsewhere in the voice cast, we have a curated selection of breakout or standout actors from the last precisely two years of cinema - Rami Malek as a gorilla, Kumail Nanjiani as an ostrich with glaring eyes, John Cena as a big old polar bear (the resemblance is..., etc.), Emma Thompson as a parrot, and Selena Gomez as something called "Betsy." Catch 'em all.
Again to the film's star. Yes, Stan Lee was a titan. And Kevin Feige bears some of the responsibility too. But perhaps Robert Downey, Jr. like no one else is charged hereby with cementing the 21st century as the century of the superhero: as a highly-acclaimed dramatic actor with an exciting past and exactly zero $100m movies on his filmography (really), he was an unlikely casting choice who turned Iron Man, historically not an A list comic book character, into a breakout hit that inspired sequels, a monster of a parent franchise (the MCU), and then all the many other comic book and assorted films that are also building up their own "universes" for use at some needless point down the road.
So monumental was Downey's impact that, by the end of the decade, Spider-Man - Spider-Man! - you know, the first guy to open a movie to $100m - was calling Downey "sir." That's really all you need to know.
And it's kept him busy.
Let us recap the rest of the decade in Downey, briefly, since that's all the time we'll need: in the time outside of making Marvel and Avengers movies, which are really, truly, awful, unbearably; he has starred in a totally necessary Sherlock Holmes sequel, played Robert Duvall's son in The Judge (the most judgmental movie of the year, 2014), and buddied up with Zach Galifianakis for the comedy Due Date (2010), which actually was reasonably entertaining. Aside from a fleeting cameo in Chef (2014), that's about all the films you could see Downey in if you happened to really, really, dislike anything with Marvel above the marquee.
Direction is by Stephen Gaghan, who has previously not made anything even vaguely resembling a children's film (no child could sit all the way through his Syriana without bawling repeatedly, and I think they have a point). The audience is relevant - the last children's film to open before Dolittle is scheduled to hit town was, indeed, Tom Holland's Spies in Disguise, and given the $70m or so that film's currently careening towards, there's enough room for Dolittle to flag down some shocking unexpected box office total. (the next children's film? well, if you ignore, uh, Harley Quinn, it's Sonic the Hedgehog on February 14th. Shivers.).
Children's films make a rather lot of money in January, sometimes, and no one knows quite why. Maybe we should ask them. For who can forget January 2005, when Are We There Yet? (Rotten Tomatoes score: minus 22 percent) grossed a completely remarkable $82m, just a mere seven days after Racing Stripes, another children's film that perhaps has not become a family favourite, took in $49m. Between the two, that's one hundred and thirty one million dollars ($131m), in 2005 money! Just think if Dolittle can get all those same kids back into theaters again (well, you know what I mean).
Since there was such a gap in the schedule a few months ago, the film could have opened on around November 8th, where I say it would have been assured a $200m gross.
Maybe I'm off-base on dreaming so big on this box office, though the "broken clock" theory states that I could just, just be right. Dolittle even has a chance of being the biggest movie of the first four months of 2020, just by a hair, if only it beats out giggly psychotic clown lady (Feb.), the new Pixar trolling movie, the (allegedly) live action Mulan (March), and Daniel Craig's James Bond Vol. 5 (April). (I think there's a new Saw movie, too).
Can Robert Downey, Jr. do it? I hereby present the challenge.
Opening weekend: $45 million (4-day) / Total gross: $145 million
2. 1917 (expands January 10th)
This acclaimed, thrilling, and Golden Globe-nominated war story was originally slated to open quite close to another World War I film, The King's Man (Kingsman 3), which has instead found itself shunted off to next November, for, uh, its own awards-friendly release date.
1917 is one of those real time thrillers (like Johnny Depp's Nick of Time) shot to simulate the action taking place precisely from the moment the trailers stop to when the credits appear. All 119 minutes are consecutive. No montages set to uplifting songs can work here. And the title is not messing around. The film is indeed infact set in 1917, sufficiently removed from the war's end on November 11, 1918 (remember that date) so that all involved still believed the conflict may last forever. Two British soldiers are tasked with delivering a very important message to spare thousands of their friends from a deadly ambush. With no Twitter or Instagram Deluxe to assist them, the message must be delivered manually. And they've got a time limit. That's when the minute-by-minute storytelling begins.
Sam Mendes won the Academy Award for Best Director for his very first film (I hate it when that happens). That was American Beauty. Now 20 years later, 1917 is arguably his most acclaimed picture since. The cast of Englishers & co. is vast and sturdy - Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, and the inevitable walk on by Benedict Cumberbatch (who may have literally been just visiting the set, and, luckily, was captured on camera unbeknownst to himself). The leads, the two soldiers (and you just know one has to die in the end), are George MacKay, who has starred in anything from Defiance (2008) to Stephen King's time-travel series 1963; and Dean-Charles Chapman, another of the numerous actors the show Game of Thrones has heaved out from deep inside the television and unto the cinema (that means this is almost the first thing I'll be seeing him in).
The reviews (ninety gazillion percent fresh) and the set-up seem about enough for what this movie needs for a strong open and worthwhile follow-up weekends.
Really, war movies have a strange and surprising tradition of expanding very well in January after platforming in December - the $28m opening weekend of Black Hawk Dawn in 2002, multitudinous sums for Zero Dark Thirty and Lone Survivor, and of course American Sniper, the biggest film of 2014 and its $89m three-day open, still looms in our minds (it grossed 99% of its money in January 2015 and beyond, but whatever. We'll take it).
I'll forecast short of $100m, spoiling the party, but this one could do better.
Opening weekend: $23m / Total gross: $81 million
3. Bad Boys for Life (January 17th)
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence reprise in one of those many-many-years after the fact sequels where it looks like not much has changed for the characters in the interim. Mike Lowery (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) are still Los Angeles police officers participating in chaos, explosions, and the obliviation of crime, and have most likely been on dutiful standby since last seen, waiting for us to spot them again and ready to deliver more of the same (Zombieland 2 was a recent sequel in that tradition, and indeed essentially matched its predecessor's box office haul. Maybe that's the idea).
Michael Bay made his directorial debut with the first Bad Boys (1995), so you know it's a little piece of history, and that was a film I remember little else of but for setting down a couple of other milestones: arguably Big Willie's first blockbuster; Martin Lawrence's first leading role on film; and Téa Leoni in her big break. $65m was the total. Nary one of them was 30 years old when the film was made, Bay included, and four careers were born (four eternities in doom, etc. ... I know).
Near 17 years have passed since Bad Boys II blazed through July 2003, grossing $138m and upping the quotients of violence, comedy, and incoherence as is tradition.
So where have the Bad Boys been since? To recount Will Smith's many victories and elations over the years since Bad Boys would be increasingly tedious and unnecessary, even by my standards. The man's got game, most recently visualized by taking a passing glance at the box office total for his big summer 2019 film, Aladdin. His voice over role in Spies in Disguise, an entertaining picture, is doing well, too, though I won't mention Gemini Man because it would be devastating to my case.
His fellow Martin Lawrence carried any number of lower brow comedies (Big Momma, where are you?) before leaving the big screen for other pursuits, undetailed. After the Momma sang her last song in February 2011, he was absent from fiction cinema for a good eight years, until being quite recently spotted having at least one leg being mawed off by an otherwise-harmless and misguided shark (the 2019 film The Beach Bum, a viewing experience best labeled indescribable).
And here they are again.
Apparently some individuals out there in the (I assume) darkest dankest corners of the internet somehow dislike Mr. Bay and his directing. Not me, sir. I like telling people that Michael Bay is my favourite director, him and Woody Allen. But, having been busy on his most recent, Netflix, film, 6 Underground, the man has neglected to rejoin his early compatriots, instead being replaced by a Belgian pair, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who continue the unusual 2010s trend of pair director who aren't even related.
Well, we'll see. Bad Boys for Life is opening opposite Dolittle, so while I assume it'll lose the weekend (who can say?), it probably doesn't have much in the way of direct competition in its core demographic, slightly older teenage boys (once more, Bad Boys III will probably be rated R, perhaps even a harsh R, and I hope it earns it). Let us presume Bad Boys II as the (financial) high point of the series.
Opening weekend: $39 million (4-day) / Total gross: $78 million
4. Just Mercy (expands January 10th)
Between Just Mercy and 1917, the Oscar season 2019 grants us two more films, not leftovers but platformers ready for their winning wide release weekends in January.
The title can be read two ways. Michael B. Jordan, fresh off carrying the Creed films, plays real life lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson, who journeys down to Alabama to free Walter McMillian; a six years-in death-row inmate who, as it indeed turned out, was innocent. The cast goes deeper. Brie Larson does the legal detail alongside him, rather in the manner of the Sandra Bullock character if this was A Time to Kill. Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall probably have villainous or at least unchivalrous intent. And Jamie Foxx, who has received much positive critical attention and an awards nomination or two, is McMillian. Reviewers, indeed, call it a crowd-pleaser, and tab it with 81%.
So this is a Hollywood package of the old-school, an awards-friendly film with a timely theme, but I wish it had been released weeks earlier. The holidays of 2019 were, and are, lacking in a strong, adult-oriented entertainment, the kind of film that in November-Decembers past has varied from It's Complicated (2009) to The Mule (2018), and which this year was perhaps best embodied by Little Women, to a point. There should have been more. I don't know what people say about adults going to the movies these days, but everyone goes out during the Christmas season, sometimes once, sometimes twice, sometimes yet more times. They ought to have something to see that doesn't involve Star Wars (jezzz, Star Wars, again!) or The Rock, masterful as he is.
Still, it's not a bad date alltogether. Last year, The Upside, an uplifting if cliched buddy drama with Bryan Cranston and the ever-lucrative Kevin Hart, opened on just this weekend and totaled a remarkable $108m, even right past the holiday season. I swear I almost kind of saw that coming.
Really. Sometimes, the audience is there if the movies are.
Opening weekend: $11 million / Total gross: $63 million
5. Like a Boss (January 10th)
This seems like a nice comedy with three female leads engaging in rambunctious behaviour. Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne are on hand to re-dabble in the plot of Horrible Bosses 2 (for who among us does not remember that film) as two up-and-comers with a great idea who are conned by an evil businessmaness (Salma Hayek), and who must then seek sweet, satisfying revenge, and do it comedically. The title isn't subtle.
This is a solid team. Tiffany Haddish appeared in Meet the Spartans in 2008 (sorry, I just had to) and broke out in Girls Trip in July 2017, and then has starred in exactly one film at every single month since (ok, that's not literally true, but it feels like it could or should be). She has a Netflix special (Black Mitzvah) and took over from the kindly Bill Cosby on hosting Kids Say the Darndest Things. Hey. She's doing well.
Hayek has often journeyed into comedy (though she's always come back) and Byrne has been in her share. Their director, Miguel Arteta, helmed one of Michael Cera's best roles, Youth in Revolt, which coincidentally was released on essentially the same weekend in January 2010 (on the 8th), though I wonder if a December release date wouldn't have added a good $10m-$20m to the total of either film. No matter, the fundamentals of Like a Boss are strong. Let's see if critics give it an ok.
Opening weekend: $15 million / Total gross: $48 million
6. The Turning (January 24th)
Other than October and maybe August, January is just about the best month for horror, or at least most populous. And The Turning could be the highest-reaching of four.
This film is a reprise of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898), as a young job-seeker ventures out into the remote outdoors, where she is flagged down at a large and scaly mansion and assigned governess roles to two teenagers who evidently hold some manner of unholy secret. Yes, this is apparently set in the 21st century, where cell phones will offer the heroine no help.
And who doesn't love a governess? Our heroine is Mackenzie Davis, one of the women who fought back the future in the recent Terminator part six (six?), and who also played Charlize Theron's night nurse in Tully. And if you've seen that movie, perhaps you're also hoping this one doesn't have the same twist ending.
Her wards are Brooklynn Prince, the evil little girl from The Florida Project, and Finn Wolfhard, a very good young actor who stars in the next Ghostbusters movie (...yes, they did it again) and who here plays what looks like easily the least comedic role he ever will and would have, the extra-gaunt child whose pale face, wavy dark hair, and large eyes seem near an archetype for gothic storytelling in the Burton tradition.
Movies about children and the spirits that haunt them have visited our screens quite more often than usual in the last year, with The Prodigy ($14m total) last February and Brightburn ($17m) in May. Decent films. Modest returns. The Turning has a trailer with a lot of good, scary moments, and it's got Steven Spielberg as an executive producer, which has to give it extra points on a tally somewhere. I think this film could win this month in horror. We'll see.
Opening weekend: $17 million / Total gross: $41 million
7. The Grudge (January 3rd)
Before I begin... can we please stop using the exact same title. Why are there two movies called Halloween released just twelve years apart? (and I'm not even counting the porn parody version!). Why are there two movies called Hellboy released 15 years apart? (And I'm not even count---)
I've enough material to work with to ask these questions all day.
This long and you will agree riveting history begins in the late 1990s, when some Japanese genius directed "Ringu," about a pixel-made little ghost girl that promised to kill you in seven days if only you watched her videotape (hint: she was completely serious if grossly misguided. When the last video casette was destroyed in 2004, she went out of business).
Such foreign a film could not be seen by American eyes, U.S. distributors concluded, and so began the short and arduous process of remaking it in English. Naomi Watts starred, and it was a diverting enough film that played out the kind of horror movie legs rarely seen even in those days, opening with a $15m and finishing many (many, many) weeks later with $129m. A sequel was commissioned forthwith and appeared in March 2005, totaling at $76m and thus following the first-time horror sequel rule of making less than its original. Then, after many moons, the series was sequeled or rebooted with Rings in 2017, which by that point had settled for just $27m in the can.
This American The Ring initiated not one but two very important trends. First, after the magical invention of the MPAA rating in 1968, horror films alternated between the PG and the R, with the latter rating gradually gaining ground during the 1970s, and becoming set in stone as the norm after Halloween in 1978. And then since the creation of the PG-13 in 1984, just about all horror films that weren't (directly) aimed at children were still rated R. If you're a 1990s horror movie that's not Addams Family or Hocus Pocus, R is what you got.
But the release of The Ring in October 2002 ushered in an amazing discovery - why not make a horror film that's rated PG-13, especially if it involves bloodless ghosts, with their usual reputation for keeping gore-hounding at an absolute minimum? Could attendance be increased, profit margins accrued? It was something no one had quite thought of doing for eighteen years, and then, once it was done, it was so obvious that everyone started doing it forever.
What Lies Beneath in 2000 and then especially The Others in 2001 helped set this up, too, but The Ring sent the message crystal-clearly. And there was another messenger - The Grudge was yet another PG-13 horror film based on a Japanese movie, and as Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jason Behr walked bloodlessly around the Japanese lands, their film opened to $39m (!) and totaled $110m on almost the same weekend as The Ring, but in 2004. (This also established that second trend - remakes of Asian horror films. But this is less with us now.)
Everything that The Ring does, The Grudge can do bette... no, not that word. The Grudge remake was quite dull, with unfortunates wandering in and out of many rooms, waiting for the spirit with its complex backstory to enter the frame and remove them from the film. As CinemaSins would say, this went on for some time.
The Grudge 2 followed ($20m open/$39m total) in 2006, and this complex yet eerily fascinating history then brings us here: As The Ring got a third, bad movie after its disappointing first sequel, The Grudge must follow suit, at least on the "third" part (whether "bad" or "good" I'll leave to opening weekend audiences).
The Grudge 3 stars England's Andrea Riseborough and also John Cho, a resurgent leading man of middlebrow thrillers (the recent Searching did him favours). It's directed by Nicolas Pesce, of the 2016 film The Eyes of My Mother.
And it opens on the first weekend of the new year, the new decade, and is thus the first and best film of the 2020s. Of course, being sophisticated residents of the '20s, we take horror films released on the first weekend of January as a long-standing tradition. In the modern-day, it began, in fact, in 2005, with White Noise (coincidentally, a PG-13 ghost horror film) opening with $24m on January 7. And since, it's been the rare horror movie not to triumph on this release window, with any number of films in the genre having overperformed expectations - titles as, uh, varied, as One Missed Call ($12m), Texas Chainsaw 3D ($21m), Insidious: The Last Key ($29m), and the motherlode, the biggest horror film opening ever on this set-up, The Devil Inside with $33m in 2012 (I know, right? What's The Devil Inside? Nobody knows).
The open-to-total box office multipliers for a lot of these titles is truly... frightening. For one, Texas Chainsaw took its $21m first three days to a total of... $34m. How often does that happen?
No matter. The later days are irrelevant. It's the giddy headlong rush of dropping the pretetiousness of the holidays and heading to the movies to see a horror film at last, that counts. And so whatever forecasts are saying about The Grudge, the film can do better.
Opening weekend: $14 million / Total gross: $33 million
8. Gretel & Hansel (January 31st)
Signing off the cold month of January on the lonely, quiet, foggy superbowl weekend is this title, a retelling of the age-old Hansel and Gretel story, beloved by all. And like all fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, this was a morbid and violent exercise that nevertheless had a powerful cautionary tale: if you're a child-eating witch who lives in the woods, be sure that the tender pair of teenage siblings you've captured for your lunch are at least fairly low-IQ individuals. Your taste palette won't know the difference, I assure you.
The story seems to get itself adapted once in a while, but especially in the last 20 years (very topical): like the 2002 version with Dakota Fanning that played on only a handful of screens, or the action movie Hansel & Gretel with Jeremy Renner, where it seems this innocent childhood encounter had doomed the sibling pair to a lifetime of pedantic witch-slaying. And I just rewatched Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971), a sort of takeoff on the premise where angelic Mark Lester (Oliver!) accidentally boils harridan Shelley Winters alive under the mistaken, if perhaps understandable, impression that she is in fact the witch from the Hansel story. Children can be so impressionable.
The 2020 version is renamed from the time-honored, commercially branded moniker Hansel & Gretel to put Gretel first, maybe because Gretel does get the bigger star: he is Sam Leakey, making his film debut, and she is Sophia Lillis, who semi-slew the evil alien clown in It (2017) and was Nancy Drew in a near straight-to-video film last year. Holda the Witch (the one who hasn't learned the lesson) will be played by Alice Krige, whose legacy of villains stretches so far that she was the nubile ghost in Ghost Story (1981) and was positively delightful as the murderous cat lady mother in Stephen King's Sleepwalkers (I don't mean she kept a lot of cats, I mean she turned into one. Real big bastard, too).
Gretel & Hansel treats the material seriously, is assigned PG-13, and was filmed in the wilds of Dublin, with a hint of British Columbia. It seems interesting, nice, and, dark, the kind of horror movie that could get good reviews and raise a solid fanbase, even if it doesn't quite ever get to win its weekend. And when it comes to beating back the monsters of the night, Ms. Lillis is building up quite the filmography.
Opening weekend: $8 million / Total gross: $20 million
9. The Rhythm Section (January 24th)
For a movie about a stone-cold killer assassin killing a bunch of people, this has a title that's poetic and charming.
Star Blake Lively has journeyed from her show Gossip Girl and movies about movable pants and green lanterns into a solo career as a lead in mid-range films - The Age of Adaline ($42m total) and then a series of thrillers spanning the plot possibilities of that genre - the femme fatale (A Simple Favour), nature attacks (The Shallows), and the husband who's not to be trusted (All I See is You). In The Rhythm Section, she's a world-class assassin with a sad backstory, the kind who dispatches every target with salient ease and time to spare while tending internally to the wounds of the past. Her dilemma is ageless - is every addition to the body count healing the pain, or revving it stronger?
For the film to proceed, she must be scorned, either by a lover or employer or preferably both: betrayed, killed, or left for dead, and then seek revenge. Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown co-star, leaving all of these possibilities completely open. The film is produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who usually make James Bond movies, and is based on a novel by Mark Burnell. The literary origins would explain the title, which may look better in a bookstore than on a marquee.
Opening weekend: $6 million / Total gross: $16 million
10. Underwater (January 10th)
This is a crew of deep-sea researchers, furthering man's cause by practicing science at the very bottom of the ocean waters. There, they are attacked by evil, scaly, physically intimating water creatures, and eaten. What's the life lesson to be learned here?
Kristen Stewart stars as the final girl on the ocean floor. She is co-starred by Vincent Cassel, the flagrant French actor who was actually pretty well satirized by Scary Movie 5 (2013), and T.J. Miller, the sidekick of one Wayde Winston Wilson in all those Deadpool movies (it feels like there've been about six, and in about ten years, there will be).
Speaking of historical allusions... The tragic circumstance the group finds themselves attached to is much like that of the crew in DeepStar Six (1989), a little-remembered film that opened on essentially the same weekend, January 13, and indeed was directed by the man who made Friday the 13th. The DeepStar Six bunch had to fight off an aqua-dwelling scorpion monster, and for all their troubles their film had a first weekend of 3 million dollars and totaled at about 8. As a serial and very proud plagiarist, I'm going to copy-and-paste the number here. This is probably a little low given the 31 year difference, but it's not that low as to be implausible. That's the problem.
Opening weekend: $3 million / Total gross: 8 million dollars
11. The Informer (January 10th)
If you liked Bryan Cranston as The Informant, you'll love Joel Kinnaman as...
A film that's been siphoned around the release schedule at last finds a home on our 2020 shores. Kinnaman stars as a police officer who is placed deep into a world of crime, drugs, and excess, which he must fight to escape even as he gathers sufficient prosecutorial evidence to leave the criminal underworld just a little better place than he found it.
He is assisted by Rosamund Pike, menaced by Clive Owen and Common (the rapper, not the word), and is presumably in awe at Ana de Armas, as she is the star of the recent Knives Out and the soon-to-be-recent James Bond film No Time to Die. This is the one she has that's in between.
January used to be the natural home for titles like these, programmers about cops and robbers and cigar-smoking villains, the latter who climb way too high in their rank, damp abandoned warehouses so as to gain gravitational momentum when they inevitably fall down, to their deaths. Some of those movies were good. Others were very bad. You know what, the box office didn't really care either way most of the time. I wish The Informer well.
Opening weekend: $7 million / Total gross: $13 million