Credit: Courtesy of Monterey Media

(WOMENSENEWS)–Few movies get released the first week in January as the film world preps for Jan. 14, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its Oscar nominees.

Nonetheless, I do have a couple of tips for getting the New Year off to a great cinematic start. "Lamb" is a must-see. Also go see "Yosemite," a first feature opening Jan. 8, and pair it with a DVD or online screening of Gia Coppola’s "Palo Alto" from 2013.

"Yosemite," written and directed by Gabrielle Demeestere, is a coming-of-age tale about three Palo Alto fifth grade boys (beautifully played by first-time feature actors Alex Mansky, Everett Meckler and Calum John). Their separate paths lead them all into the woods where they converge and intertwine with innocence-ending dangers and wonders. Adapted from James Franco’s "A California Childhood," "Yosemite" is the second femme-helmed film–following "Palo Alto"– that is based on Franco’s fictional work and also features him in a starring part. The similarities and differences between the two films provide a chance to contrast the two female directors.

The most obvious difference between the two films is that "Yosemite" is boy-centric, set in wilderness where "lost" characters find themselves, while suburban "Palo Alto" is about girls and boys discovering and exploring their sexuality and relationships. "Yosemite’s" storytelling structure is impressionistic and meandering, while "Palo Alto’s" is linear. Both films present disturbing elements of explicit or implied pedophilia. Both are truly watch-worthy.

Other Jan. 8 Openers

"Lamb," adapted from Bonnie Nadzam’s eponymous first novel, is the profoundly moving and provocative story of an accidental encounter and unusual friendship between a young girl (brilliantly played by Oona Laurence) and a middle-aged man. Writer-director Ross Partridge stars as emotionally distraught David Lamb, who is approached by Tommie, a precocious 11-year-old Lolita-like nymphette, who says her friends "solicited" her to bum a cigarette from him. He gives her a smoke, and then suggests that they feign a kidnapping to teach her friends a lesson. She agrees and off they go on an unusual buddy journey. He quickly learns that she’s neglected by her parents and as he takes her under his wing, spending way too much time with her, his true intentions aren’t always clear. Each turn of the story is fraught with unsettling innuendos and underlying tensions of possible sexual improprieties. But – okay, it’s a bit of a spoiler – that never happens and the young girl and older man deliver each other to a better place in life. Partridge’s handling of the provocative theme is remarkably brave, strong and sensitive. The performances are stunning. "Lamb" is a must-see.

"Anesthesia" is a complex multistoried drama in which various interconnected relationships are played out under the umbrella of an insightful Columbia University professor’s philosophical musings. The professor (Sam Waterston), the victim of a recent mugging, arrives at insights that he shares with his students. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, an actor who has also moved into writing and directing, the film gathers an extraordinary ensemble cast, with exceptionally strong performances by Kristen Stewart, Glenn Close, Gretchen Mol and other actresses who effectively weave their story strands into the film’s philosophical fabric. See "Anesthesia" for their performances.

"The Forest" is the year’s first femme-centric horror flick, and it’s a real frightener. The plot revolves around the determination of Sara (Natalie Dormer) to find her twin sister Jess (Natalie Dorner), who has mysteriously vanished in a Japanese forest known locally as "The Suicide Forest," a restricted area where lost people are not found but linger as mysterious and dangerous entities. The setting could just as well be Yosemite, but the scriptwriting team and the director, Jason Zada, use the Japanese locale to add a different dimension that helps heighten the horror.

Stay tuned for more January openers and Oscars comments next week.

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