If you're a movie buff, you probably spend most of January catching up with all the awards movies released in December, especially since most of them initially open in big cities, and then expand across the country. But movie critics see all the December movies in December, leaving only January movies in January. And it doesn't take long to notice that January has become a dumping ground for terrible movies that no one wants and no one wants to see (witness: Bride Wars, Paul Blart Mall Cop, Not Easily Broken, Hotel for Dogs, The Unborn, etc.). But fortunately, that's not a hard and fast rule; every so often a true gem comes along in January, perhaps misjudged by the powers that be, or just overlooked.
Released January 18, 2008
In last year's surprise hit, a group of twentysomethings race across Manhattan, dodging a giant city-stomping monster, to rescue Odette Yustman. Because... wouldn't you? It feels like a low-budget monster movie, but also features top-of-the-line effects and citywide destruction. Its characters may struggle for interesting things to say on camera, but the film nonetheless reveals hidden depths. It's vaguely similar to The Blair Witch Project and Diary of the Dead, but has its own ideas. (It was recently chosen by the editors of the prestigious French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema as one of the year's ten best films.)
2. The Pledge
Released January 19, 2001
Sean Penn directed this slow, reflective mystery with Jack Nicholson in one of his very best performances as a retired police detective who can't let go of a case. It flopped and disappeared, but it haunted my memory for the rest of the year. And just try and beat this cast: Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Vanessa Redgrave, Patricia Clarkson, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard, Lois Smith and Harry Dean Stanton.
3. Radio Days
Released January 30, 1987
Woody Allen was basking in critical glory for Hannah and Her Sisters when he released this follow-up, and it went nearly unnoticed -- or at least unappreciated. It's one of the sweetest and warmest movies about nostalgia ever made, wandering almost randomly from one segment to another, drifting from slapstick to heartbreak and moments of quiet beauty.
4. Before Sunrise
Released January 27, 1995
Richard Linklater's third film probably sounded like a risk: an American boy (Ethan Hawke) and a French girl (Julie Delpy) meet and walk around Vienna and talk for an entire day. Just talking? Where's the bad fiancée? The "best friend" character? Where's the gimmick? Is one of them a ghost? Is there a race to stop a misguided wedding? Nope. Sorry. Just a movie about people, and one of the best of the 1990s.
5. From Dusk Till Dawn
Released January 19, 1996
The previous January, Tarantino fans rushed to see Four Rooms and walked away disappointed. This one wasn't exactly a return to Pulp Fiction form, but it had a crackerjack first half full of Tarantino gangster dialogue and characters, and slick, fun, gory second half with lots of vampires and Salma Hayek's legs.
Released January 27, 2006
One of Steven Soderbergh's most fascinating movies was part of a bizarre experiment: it was released (almost) simultaneously in theaters and on DVD. How this plan was supposed to work I have no idea, but the film finally grossed less than a tenth of its budget. Aside from that, it's a stunning movie, filmed with unknown actors, in gorgeous, deep focus widescreen (on digital video), and dripping with small town ennui. It's more or less a love triangle and a murder story set in and around a doll factory, with lots of creepy doll heads for atmosphere.
7. Guilty Pleasure Movies
Along with all the usual January junk, one can sometimes be caught off guard with a bad movie that's unpretentious or fun or just plain odd. And frankly, sometimes these movies can seem refreshing in comparison to the long winter of dry, bland Oscar hopefuls. The following are some of my January guilty pleasures from over the years: Cabin Boy (1994), Spice World (1998), Antitrust (2001), Sugar & Spice (2001), Impostor (2002), The Mothman Prophecies (2002), The Big Bounce (2004), Torque (2004), Alone in the Dark (2005) and Imagine Me and You (2006). Yes, I'm ashamed, but I stand by all of them.
Runners Up (Non-Guilty Pleasures): Tremors (1990), Matinee (1993), Red Rock West (1994), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Great Expectations (1998), Manderlay (2005), Seraphim Falls (2007). Have we forgotten anything?