CATEGORIES Features
In Hollywood, the word January has historically meant one thing: take out the trash early. The beginning of the year is generally a dumping ground for low-budget horror, clichéd romantic comedies and zany (read: unfunny) spoofs and satires.

With the December deadline to submit movies for Academy Award consideration now history, studios typically unload the detritus in January so that when the year is over, they can deny ever making the film. (That's our assessment, anyway.)

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. This month's irreverent comedy 'Youth in Revolt' and the vampire sci-fi 'Daybreakers' have both gotten impressively positive reviews, prompting us to look back on a few other January Surprises in recent years.
In Hollywood, the word January has historically meant one thing: take out the trash early. The beginning of the year is generally a dumping ground for low-budget horror, clichéd romantic comedies and zany (read: unfunny) spoofs and satires.

With the December deadline to submit movies for Academy Award consideration now history, studios typically unload the detritus in January so that when the year is over, they can deny ever making the film. (That's our assessment, anyway.)

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. This month's irreverent comedy 'Youth in Revolt' and the vampire sci-fi 'Daybreakers' have both gotten impressively positive reviews, prompting us to look back on a few other January Surprises in recent years.

'Notorious' (2009)
If there's one thing most musical biopics have in common, it's the desire (or mandate) to scrub the subject clean of their worst transgressions and focus on "the music, man," as if their past experiences had nothing to do with the songs they created. 'Notorious' looks at the life of rapper Notorious B.I.G., warts and all, presenting as accurate a description as you can get from a major Hollywood film. It doesn't hurt that Jamal Woolard's uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to the fallen rapper is eerily perfect.

'Cloverfield' (2008)
We're guessing this one will elicit the most polarizing responses on the list. While some thought the reveal of the monster was as phony-looking and disappointing as the end of the M. Night Shyamalan-directed 'Signs,' Matt Reeves' debut film combined a cinema verité shooting style with 'Godzilla'-levels of destruction, leaving viewers both exhilarated and dizzy. With J.J. Abrams on as producer, the film naturally builds up a sense of intrigue even while approaching its apocalyptic dénouement.

'Hostel' (2006)
After the cult success of his 2002 debut 'Cabin Fever,' Eli Roth wrote and directed this horror film about two American students looking for hedonistic debauchery in Europe. While the thought of drunk college students invading Europe would be scary enough for most people, Roth flipped teen horror conventions and avoided most of the standard clichés found in "torture porn" films.

'Glory Road' (2006)
While 'The Blind Side' is getting all the attention for race-based sports drama, we're partial to this true story about Texas Western University college basketball coach Don Haskins who, in 1962, started an all African-American team on the court. For some people in the South at the time, this was nothing short of heresy, yet the movie deftly shows the team's journey up to their dramatic NCAA Finals meeting with University of Kentucky. A thoroughly solid sports drama.

'City of God'
(2002)
The surprise hit of 2002 made Time's 100 Greatest Movies of All Time and countless critics' Top 10 lists (including a #2 spot on our Best Movies of the Decade list). The charm and despair of Rio de Janeiro's Cidade de Deus favela, one of the roughest neighborhoods in a city optically known for its lushness and beauty, is seen through the eyes of photographer Buscapé. Fast pacing, tear-inducing performances and a combination of action and heartache made this the Little Foreign Film That Could.

'The Count of Monte Cristo' (2002)
Alexander Dumas' classic 1844 novel of revenge and justice has made it to the screen numerous times, but Kevin Reynolds' version, a throwback to the storied swashbuckling films of the 1940s, stands among the best of them. When Mondego (Guy Pearce) frames Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) to win the love of his fiancée, Dantes must spend 14 years on a remote island before escaping and plotting his revenge. A visually stunning film whose narrative consistently remains fascinating.

'Brotherhood of the Wolf'
(2001)
Part groundbreaking special effects movie, part horror, part fantasy, this French film focuses on the legend of the Beast of Gevaudan, a ravenous, wolf-like monster that attacks mercilessly and leaves bodies strewn across the French countryside. When the King sends two men to find and kill the beast, the plot weaves action with the supernatural for an unprecedented visual head-trip.

'Next Friday'
(2000)
After the surprising success of F. Gary Gray's 'Friday' in 1995, we'll argue that the sequel actually holds its own against the original. Written by Ice Cube, the film's plot takes a backseat to its dialogue and characters which brings back John Witherspoon as Mr. Jones, one of the foulest and funniest characters in recent years.

'Higher Learning'
(1995)
The third film from John Singleton depicts life at the fictional Columbus University and shows interlocking narratives revolving around an intellectual, a professor, an athlete and a neo-Nazi, among others. Sure, Singleton does employ some overused college tropes here and there, but riveting performances by Omar Epps and Michael Rapaport keep this one engaging.

'Alive'
(1993)
Better known as "that cannibal movie," 'Alive' details the true story of a 1972 Uruguayan rugby team who, after their plane crashed over the Andes mountains, were forced to eat the flesh of their dead teammates. Based on a 1974 book, the story riveted and nauseated the country upon its release, and was retold in the 2007 highly underrated documentary 'Stranded: I've Come From A Plane That Crashed on the Mountains.'