January is often thought of as Hollywood’s prime “dump month”: that time when studios and distributors release all the films that, in their eyes, aren’t quite worth too much effort. These are the movies that most feel have no shot at awards consideration, hence don’t need to be released closer to the end of the year; they are also the ones that aren’t expected to reap much box-office bounty, and thus need to steer clear of any big summer or holiday weekends. In a Vulture piece back in 2013 (entitled “Just How Bad of a Movie Month is January?”), Adam K. Raymond wrote: “For decades, studios have used the first month of the year as a dumping ground, either to even out their equilibrium from the past few months of releasing intelligent Oscar bait or to serve lovers of shlock who have been dying of crap starvation through said Oscar season.”
Indeed, the “January movie” sometimes has its own, brazen essence: It knows it’s going to be an also-ran, as Hollywood goes from worrying about holiday box office to worrying about Sundance to worrying about Oscar. Consider: Last week, Escape Room came out, and actually did okay financially — even as the box-office field was still led by the December release Aquaman, and the cultural conversation was dominated by fallout from the Golden Globes. Nevertheless, those who wanted a fun, dopey horror flick knew to look out for it.
But January is also when we sometimes see the best foreign films of the year — which don’t need a theatrical release to qualify for the Oscars, and thus often hold their release dates until right around the time nominations are announced. And in recent years, some films and filmmakers have turned the limitations of January into strengths. (Could Taken have been such a hit had it come out in summer? What about M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, which used its under-the-radar quality to hide its true nature?)
So, what are the best movies to be released in January? That Vulture piece in 2013 determined that the worst January ever, in both financial and critical terms, came in the year 1989. So, I took a look at the years since 1989 and ranked the best films to have opened in this cursed month over the last three decades. For the purposes of this list, I considered only titles that had their U.S. theatrical premieres in January, so those with limited awards-qualifying releases the previous year that then went wide in January (such as, say, American Sniper) didn’t count.
(One movie you won’t find here, however, is perhaps the greatest dump-month release of all time: Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. That Vulture piece erroneously cited its release date as January 30, 1991, which appears to be an internet fiction. In fact, it was released during the slightly less dumpy dump month of February — on February 13, 1991, with nationwide sneak previews on February 2, 1991. So close.)
25. Taken (January 30, 2009)
Yes, yes, it’s sleazy and problematic, but the movie that started the Dadsploitation revenge-flick craze is now basically canon. Liam Neeson is the retired Special Forces killer who basically destroys half of Paris looking for his mysteriously abducted daughter. And the actor turned out to have the ideal screen presence for a part like this: You totally buy both his rage and his iciness — that he’d do anything to save his girl, and that he’d do all his killing with the same preternatural calm he brings to the film’s signature line. (“What I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”)
24. The Count of Monte Cristo (January 25, 2002)
Remember that brief period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when swashbucklers were suddenly hot again? (No? Man in the Iron Mask, Mask of Zorro, The Musketeer … Don’t any of these ring a bell? Sigh.) Kevin Reynolds’s Hollywoodized adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s classic of swashbuckling vengeance came in a bit late in the game, but it was actually one of the better entries. As the unjustly imprisoned, long-stewing Edmond Dantes, Jim Caviezel provoked an unusual amount of pathos, and Guy Pearce, as his disarmingly droll and snide friend-turned-nemesis Fernand Mondego, practically demanded that audiences hiss loudly at him. This was a modest critical and financial hit at the time, and its old-fashioned, spirited sense of adventure still feels like a breath of fresh air.
23. Fish Tank (January 15, 2010)
Andrea Arnold’s gritty story of a troubled, headstrong teenager and wannabe dancer who carries on an affair with her mom’s scuzzy but likable boyfriend (played by one Michael Fassbender) demonstrated the director’s deft handling of messy human relations, as well as the power of her loose, improvisatory style. Not to mention her phenomenal ability to steer actors toward great performances: Released in the wake of his appearances in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds, this was a phenomenal demonstration of Fassbender’s range.
22. Haywire (January 20, 2012)
Could Steven Soderbergh’s spare, intense action flick starring Gina Carson as a wronged former Marine and black ops agent plowing her way through an assorted series of dudes (including Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, and Ewan Mcgregor) have been better suited for release in a more high-profile month? Maybe. The director’s no-nonsense approach to the action, utilizing impressive stunt work and steering clear of elaborate effects, as well as his fairly cavalier attitude toward the story itself, might have gotten lost amid a mess of studio tentpole behemoths. Even so, this effective, ruthless piece of filmmaking probably deserves to be better known.
21. Cloverfield (January 18, 2008)
J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves’s found-footage monster flick, shot like a home movie that just happened to capture the end of humanity, was shrouded in secrecy for many months. Its cast of relative unknowns, its opaque title, its lack of connection to any existing properties — these were usually no-no’s in Hollywood, which Cloverfield turned into advantages. In that sense, the January release date was sort of ideal, too — freeing it from the kind of big expectations (and possible disappointments) of opening during a more high-traffic period. It helps, also, that the picture is quite effective, the kind of thriller where the gathering sense of doom is enhanced by the fact that we have no idea who will, or can, survive by the end. This is one of the more hopeless monster movies ever made.
20. Dirty Grandpa (January 22, 2016)
I don’t wanna hear it. Yes, some people consider this corrosive comedy about Zac Efron going to Florida with his recently widowed, absurdly horny grandfather Robert De Niro to be the nadir of both actors’ careers. They are wrong. De Niro embraces his role with such shameless, demonic glee that you wonder if maybe he himself has been waiting to cut loose for some time. And it’s a hilarious, snort-laugh-inducing movie, albeit the kind that makes you want to take a shower afterward.
19. 27 Dresses (January 18, 2008)
Katherine Heigl never quite wound up becoming the next Julia Roberts — for a variety of reasons, some of them quite understandable — but she certainly gave it a good shot with this charming romantic comedy about a young woman who’s been a bridesmaid at 27 different weddings. It may not sound like much, but this is actually one of the more memorable titles from the tail end of the rom-com’s era of dominance. Partly it’s the game supporting cast (including a splendid Malin Akerman, playing our heroine’s outgoing sister), and partly it’s director Anne Fletcher’s zippy handling of the material. But what really makes this movie is Heigl’s performance, given right before her public image started to implode. Here, she offers an energetic mix of longing, narcissism, uncertainty, and vivaciousness. You can’t help but root for her.
18. Black Sea (January 23, 2015)
Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, and Ben Mendelsohn in a submarine? Yes, please. This sub thriller directed by Kevin McDonald didn’t initially look like it’d be much, but it turned out to be quite effectively claustrophobic, even moving. Law plays a recently out-of-work captain who puts together a crew of suspicious misfits to salvage a lost cargo of gold from a sunken German U-boat. Needless to say, everything goes wrong. It’s a disaster flick, a submarine adventure, a heist movie, and an economic crisis drama all in one. And it builds suspense not just by the usual submarine shenanigans but also through its pervasive atmosphere of dead-end desperation and paranoia.
17. From Dusk Till Dawn (January 19, 1996)
Back when Quentin Tarantino was still a fresh young voice, Robert Rodriguez was an industrious young go-getter, and George Clooney had yet to ruin Batman, they collaborated on this nutty, chatty, gory horror-comedy extravaganza about two criminal brothers who hide out in a sleazy nudie bar where all the employees turn out to be vampires. It’s a lark, but it’s a sharply written lark, with a go-for-broke action-movie irreverence. Plus, it might be the only good performance Tarantino has ever given.
16. Half Baked (January 16, 1998)
Written by co-star Dave Chappelle and his writing partner Neal Brennan years before they created Chappelle’s Show, this stoner comedy about a trio of affable, aimless dudes who become weed dealers was something of a punch line for many years; Jon Stewart regularly used to mock his appearance in this as a sign of his failed acting career, and even Chappelle himself seems to think that the movie’s not all that. And true, it was mostly critically reviled at the time of its release. But here’s some news, guys: Half Baked is hilarious, its odd rhythms and dashes of surrealism making for an ideal analogue to the zonked-out state of its characters. And it’s understandably become a cult item over the past couple of decades.
15. The Pledge (January 19, 2001)
Once upon a time, Sean Penn was actually a promising director — never more so than with this brooding mystery in which Jack Nicholson played a haunted, veteran cop on an obsessive quest to find a child killer. It’s a disturbing movie — both in the grim, pervasive sense of menace it conjures and in its open-ended, existentially despairing finale, which of course satisfied nobody and ensured that the film would be a box-office afterthought.
14. Juice (January 17, 1992)
This atmospheric, intense Harlem-set drama was the feature directorial debut of the great Ernest Dickerson, then known primarily as Spike Lee’s cinematographer. It also provided the first starring roles for Omar Epps and the late Tupac Shakur, who play two friends who find themselves at odds when the latter kills a man during a holdup. It’s an impressive, gritty, and superbly acted melodrama — particularly by Shakur, who gives his character generous doses of charisma, anguish, and psychotic zeal. And unlike some of the other films it was compared to at the time, its reputation has only grown over the years.
13. Split (January 20, 2017)
Maybe releasing a film in January was just one of the final acts of penance M. Night Shyamalan had to undertake before getting back in the world’s good graces. But it worked. Shot on a budget, this thriller about a man with dissociative personality disorder (as well as a few other, um, issues) who takes a group of teenage girls hostage arrived with relatively little hype and wound up being one of the director’s biggest hits. And with a finale that revealed that it was a sequel to his earlier Unbreakable, Split turned out to be that ideal January phenomenon: a big movie posing as a little movie.
12. Final Destination 2 (January 31, 2003)
The Final Destination films looked largely disposable from the outside, but they were among the most inventive and cinematically exciting horror franchises of the aughts, with the most delicious of conceits: A group of people (usually teenagers) narrowly survive a horrific catastrophe that surely would have killed them; then, Death — the concept of Death — attempts to correct the ledger by coming for each of the survivors through a series of elaborate, Rube Goldbergian scenarios. Silly, and amazing. And Final Destination 2 was perhaps the silliest, most amazingest of them all, in part thanks to the incredible, extended, apocalyptically gruesome multicar pileup with which it opens, one of the most hilariously nightmare-inducing sequences ever put on celluloid.
11. Before Sunrise (January 27, 1995)
A Sundance premiere that then hit theaters not long after its festival premiere, Richard Linklater’s romantic drama about brash, young American Ethan Hawke and inquisitive, young French Julie Delpy’s all-too-brief European dalliance didn’t quite let on at the time that it would be the opening salvo of a masterful trilogy about life, love, and disillusionment. Full disclosure: I hated it when I first saw it. But as the years have passed, both the stars and their director have matured into artists of surprising subtlety and vision, and the simple idyll of Before Sunrise now makes for a touching overture to the deeper romantic yearning and anguish to come in Befores Sunset and Midnight.
10. Paddington (January 16, 2015)
The first appearance of everyone’s favorite marmalade-loving immigrant bear did not at first look like anything worth paying much attention to. But its intricate, deliriously escalating slapstick sequences, along with a genuinely tender and nuanced approach to all its characterizations, came as a welcome January surprise. And in some ways, that turned out to be an ideal month in which to release this film. Too gentle to try to compete among holiday-season or summer behemoths, and too modest to aim for awards glory, Paddington was a perfect movie for the early days of the year — a palate cleanser as well as a reminder of the pleasures of simplicity.
9. Mama (January 18, 2013)
A modern horror classic, Andy Muschietti’s chiller — about two orphaned, lost kids who are raised by a demonic ghost that then pursues them when they are reunited with their relatives — is not only filled with heart-stopping jump scares, it also features one of the more complex, scary, and sensitively drawn monsters in recent genre memory. And it also has a curiously disquieting ending, which also manages to be — somehow, sort of — a happy one.
8. Waiting for Guffman (January 31, 1997)
Despite the cult phenomenon of This Is Spinal Tap, one could argue that it was this Christopher Guest mockumentary — a now-beloved, gently sidesplitting portrait of a small-town theater company’s attempts to stage a ridiculously ambitious historical pageant — that really established the deadpan aesthetic and humanist ethos of this particular subgenre, which would go on to include such classics as A Mighty Wind and Best in Show.
7. Tremors (January 19, 1990)
One of the great cult movies of its era, Tremors was due to be released at a more opportune time in 1989, but was delayed because the filmmakers had to retool it to get out of an R rating. A genuine mix of horror and comedy — where the horror elements are still quite scary, and the comedy witty and fast — this tale of an attack by wormlike monsters that burrow and travel underground did okay business theatrically, but became a massive hit on video, even spawning some sequels. As a hybrid genre effort, it really is quite rare — the kind of picture where no element overpowers the others. And Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon are terrific as the two wisecracking handymen who find themselves having to battle these mysterious creatures.
6. Matinee (January 29, 1993)
John Goodman’s boisterous performance as a William Castle–style B-movie impresario anchors Joe Dante’s delightful and layered nostalgia trip to the days of cheapo creature features and shameless promotion tactics. (Mant! “Half man. Half ant. All terror.”) But Matinee is more than just a re-creation of late ’50s, early ’60s schlock. Set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it portrays both the delirious artifices of the era as well as the political and social unease that fueled them. As always with Dante, there’s a lot more going on beneath the (admittedly wonderful) surface. And somehow it makes perfect sense that this paean to glorious, innocent trash would come out in the trashiest movie month of the year.
5. Blackhat (January 16, 2015)
One of the greatest January flops also happens to be one of the best. Director Michael Mann may have set out to make a topical, popular techno-thriller about a group of ex-hackers and government officials trying to track down an enigmatic cybercriminal, but instead he delivered a very odd, audacious art film, and nearly lost his shirt in the process. Blackhat is more about the contrasting surfaces of the modern world than it is about any kind of cat-and-mouse thriller. Even when it delivers the occasional spectacular set piece — and it does, on multiple occasions — it does so with an eye toward mood and emotion rather than narrative ins and outs.
4. Paddington 2 (January 12, 2018)
The sequel to 2015’s talking-bear hit might not have made as much money, but it perhaps garnered even more critical raves. Somehow more ambitious in scope without compromising the sincerity and modesty of the original, this one leans into the idea of softness and kindness being able to change the world. (Even when that world is a scary-looking prison filled with snarling criminals.) But it also gives us the spectacle of Hugh Grant as a deliciously flamboyant villain, as he goes to town on the role of a disgraced theater actor whose duplicity and narcissism know no bounds.
3. Like Father, Like Son (January 17, 2014)
In one of the greatest films from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (whose Cannes winner Shoplifters might well be one of this year’s Oscar contenders), a workaholic businessman who thinks he’s got everything figured out learns that his son was switched at birth. He then has his entire worldview thrown into chaos when he meets the family that raised his biological child all these years — they’re nowhere near as successful as he is, and yet they may be better parents. The director’s tender treatment of an otherwise high-concept setup makes this a uniquely powerful work — and, of course, prompted talk of an American remake. (Steven Spielberg was reportedly interested at one point.)
2. Timbuktu (January 28, 2015)
It had already won awards at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, had a triumphant festival run all over the world, and been nominated for an Oscar, but it wasn’t until early 2015 that this masterpiece actually hit the screen. And maybe that was the right decision; it made more than a million dollars in very limited release, which, for a film like this, was a solid result. Director Abderrahmane Sissako’s understated, mesmerizing drama about a town in Mali that’s taken over by Islamist guerillas is one of the great humanist classics of our time. In showing the insurgents’ attempts to impose strict religious law, as well as the villagers’ alternately bemused, furious, and horrified reactions to their new, awkwardly enforced edicts, Timbuktu says more about some of the sociopolitical realities of our time than any number of ostensibly more topical, higher-profile films.
1. The Grey (January 27, 2012)
The marketing for this Liam Neeson hit (which had a Butt-Numb-a-Thon premiere in 2011, but opened theatrically in 2012) would have had you believe this was “Taken, but with wolves.” But in truth, Joe Carnahan’s moody, macho action classic is as much a reverie on manhood and mortality as it is a terrifying thriller about a group of plane-crash survivors in Alaska being attacked by wild animals. Neeson’s death-obsessed character is already suicidal with grief at the start, and the rest of the film, it could be said, is all about the proper way to die. Which might explain why the studio decided to sell it as a wolf-punching flick instead. January!