Historically and annually speaking, January is a bad month for Hollywood movies. It’s a “dump month,” that time of year when the major studios offload the projects in which they have no faith. Sandwiched between the holidays and the Super Bowl, these four weeks are generally treated like a write-off season, as bad comedies, bad action flicks, and bad horror movies are slipped quietly into theaters to fulfill contractual release obligations, under the assumption that they’ll basically be ignored in favor of December’s holdover hits or expanding Oscar hopefuls. There are, of course, exceptions. Every once in a while, a Hollywood studio will drop something genuinely good onto the winter wasteland, either hoping to capitalize on the dearth of new competition or failing to recognize a special movie when they have it. These are the diamonds in the rough, the silver linings in the New Year clouds, the true January gems.

With the month just about over, we’ve culled together the best movies released before February over the last four decades. (Hollywood has always reserved its winners for every season but winter, but the practice of getting the worst stuff out of the way early arguably didn’t go from trend to tradition until the early 1980s.) To qualify for inclusion, a movie had to open wide (a.k.a. on more than 600 screens) in January; Silence Of The Lambs, to cite one high-profile exclusion, was released in New York in January of 1991, before expanding into wide release the following month. Also missing from the list below are titles singled out in The A.V. Club’s previous rundown of “salvageable flops” from January and February, so consider Tremors, Matinee, Cabin Boy, The Pledge, and Haywire additions to what we’re affectionately calling The January Canon.


Scanners

January 14, 1981

David Cronenberg, the cerebral Canadian prince of body horror, took a circuitous route into the mainstream. He started his career with a couple of sci-fi art films, moved into the genre grindhouse, and finally conjoined the two (in unnerving Cronenberg style) in the post-modernist Videodrome—fittingly, a film about mind-altering transmissions coded inside violent, sadistic trash. Rushed into production without a finished script so the producers could claim it as a tax write-off, 1981’s Scanners would be his last real B-movie—a pulp sci-fi horror film in which telekinetic rivals try to (literally) blow each other’s minds. Although the ambiguous, indifferent mystery plotting in many ways presages Videodrome, the film’s true claim to fame is the vein-bulging, blood-boiling, head-popping special effects. A memorable transitional film for Cronenberg, Scanners hit theaters at a transitional moment in North American moviegoing. As the rise of the blockbusters and studio horror and sci-fi films spelled the end of the drive-in season, it also solidified the status of January (already considered an off month) as Hollywood’s dumping ground. But even then, there was gold in the dross. Released in mid-January, the low-budget Scanners became a modest commercial hit, setting Cronenberg on a path that led to The Dead Zone, The Fly, and beyond. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Black Moon Rising

January 10, 1986

“Very much a January movie,” wrote New York Times critic Vincent Canby in his review of this deeply silly, self-aware super-car caper. By the mid-1980s, the month of January looked a lot like it does today, filled with muttlike low-budget programmers and arthouse and foreign-language release counter-programming, give or take the occasional Woody Allen film. Co-written by John Carpenter and directed by Harley Cokliss (BattleTruck), a minor specialist in movies about ugly-ass futuristic automobiles, Black Moon Rising stars a young Tommy Lee Jones as a wisecracking burglar trying to recover a MacGuffin computer tape that he stashed inside of a water-powered prototype vehicle that’s been stolen by a car thief (Linda Hamilton). Even more so than Carpenter’s other writing projects (the giallo-esque Eyes Of Laura Mars, which co-starred Jones; the TV Westerns El Diablo and Blood River), the movie is an exercise in pure genre mechanics. Cokliss’ direction isn’t as stylized as the material, but the contorting outrageousness of the plot is hard to resist; the combination of nonsense and narrative geometry is nigh abstract. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


Down And Out In Beverly Hills

January 31, 1986

What’s rarer than a good Hollywood comedy in January? How about a good Hollywood remake of a classic foreign comedy? With Down And Out In Beverly Hills, writer-director Paul Mazursky updated a French stage play, previously adapted by Jean Renoir as 1932’s Boudu Saved From Drowning, for the go-go 1980s, with Richard Dreyfuss as the bourgeois Los Angeles family man who rescues a suicidal hobo (Nick Nolte) from his backyard swimming pool, only to watch in horror as the homeless interloper seduces his wife, daughter, and maid. Far from dumbing down the source material, Down And Out In Beverly Hills gives it sharper edges, amplifying the phony altruism of Dreyfuss’ rich protagonist and making Nolte’s vagrant less of a boorish tramp than a sociopathic social chameleon, surviving by virtue of his ability to play whatever role his potential benefactors might desire. Broad and witty, the film ended up turning enough profit to inspire a sitcom spinoff, which holds the very January-worthy distinction of being the first show ever canceled by Fox. [A.A. Dowd]


Screamers

January 26, 1996

Another story from the perpetual motion machine of sci-fi adaptations, Philip K. Dick, Screamers is a grimy and blood-soaked variant on many of the author’s usual themes. War, illusion, and machines turning on their creators all get a workout in this tale of a group of soldiers on a distant and ravaged planet where the balance of a war has been tipped by “screamers”: self-replicating and artificially intelligent machines that hunt and kill soldiers on one side of the battle. When that side offers a truce, a core of exhausted opposing soldiers led by Peter Weller’s commanding officer set off across the dangerous terrain to meet and secure the peace. What they don’t yet realize is that the screamers have evolved and can now disguise themselves far better than anyone realized. The claustrophobic and harsh atmosphere is well-served by Christian Duguay’s steamroller direction (and Alien writer Dan O’Bannon’s script), plunging viewers into the midst of a war-torn scenario and letting everything slowly, thrillingly fall apart. [Alex McLevy]


Fierce Creatures

January 24, 1997

Nearly a decade after A Fish Called Wanda, its half Monty Python, half American farce team of John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin reunited for a non-sequel companion film. Fierce Creatures is best known today (to the extent that it’s known at all) as a footnote to the earlier comedic masterwork, and no, it’s not nearly as hilarious or brilliantly made as Wanda. But it does work as a warmer flip side to its merciless predecessor, and as evidence that time (and a baggier screenplay) could not diminish the central quartet’s chemistry. Cleese again plays an uptight Brit besotted with another smart, scheming woman (Curtis) and bedeviled by another brash American jackass (Kline, also playing his character’s imitation-Rupert Murdoch father), this time attempting to save a modest zoo. While Wanda generated sparks from a U.S./U.K. culture clash, Creatures is a homier and more English affair. But its satire of corporate consolidation still has some zing over 20 years later. [Jesse Hassenger]


Zero Effect

January 30, 1998

Reimaginings of Sherlock Holmes are practically network filler these days, but one of the smartest contemporary (and unofficial) riffs on the character is Jake Kasdan’s little-seen Zero Effect, whose initially slept-on January release probably helped turn it into a cult classic. Frequent Baxter and one-time president Bill Pullman gets a showcase role as detective Daryl Zero, a brilliant shut-in who solves cases with minimal interpersonal contact. His Watson is Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), introduced in a sequence that alternates his hyping of Zero’s abilities to a potential client (“He has a deeply nuanced and thoroughly functional understanding of human behavior”) with his complaints about his boss in a bar (on Zero’s amateur songwriting: “His metaphors are thin, his imagery is cliched”). That’s the movie in a nutshell: an exacting little mystery with some very funny oddball comedy, perfectly yoked together by Zero’s fascination with the inscrutable-to-him Gloria (Kim Dickens from Fear The Walking Dead). Kasdan made plenty of likable comedies since, but none with Zero’s sneaky originality and wit. [Jesse Hassenger]


Cloverfield

January 18, 2008

The J.J. Abrams school of tantalizingly vague movie marketing began in earnest with Cloverfield, a project so shrouded in secrecy that its first teaser didn’t even reveal the title. The strategy paid off nicely, as months of online buzz, amateur detective work, and media speculation (was it a stealth Godzilla reboot? A live-action Voltron?) helped a modestly priced monster movie triple its budget—and in January, no less. Thankfully, the film itself was pretty good, too. Directed by Matt Reeves, who would later take over the Planet Of The Apes series, and written by Daredevil’s Drew Goddard, Cloverfield squeezes all the city-destroying mayhem of a classic kaiju flick into the viewfinder of a handheld video camera, offering an intimate, ground-level vantage on the destruction of New York City. And while not especially credible as found footage (T.J. Miller’s wisecracking camera-bro character has the mad skills of Emmanuel Lubezki), the film also works as a dark mumblecore parody about self-involved Tri State hipsters getting a skyscraper-sized priorities check. They need exactly what Cloverfield provided the giant-reptile genre: a change in perspective. [A.A. Dowd]


Daybreakers

January 8, 2010

As was recently argued on this very site, the genre films of Ethan Hawke often succeed through sheer dint of the actor’s commitment to the material. Hawke’s unexpected latter-day career as one of the masters of the American B-movie (horror, sci-fi, supernatural, action, you name it) was unofficially launched with this deft yet gonzo potboiler, in which a world run by vampires is rapidly running out of human blood. That high-concept blend of ecological apocalypse narrative and horror tropes sounds ludicrous but works thanks in large part to Hawke’s wide-eyed commitment to playing a middle-manager type in way over his head when the bullets start flying. Much like its corporate bloodsuckers, Daybreakers eventually bleeds its various ideas dry, though not before exploring issues of class resentment, scarce resource allocation, and the perpetual greed of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, just with the added benefit of a bunch of vampires running around causing mayhem and gore. [Alex McLevy]


Edge Of Darkness

January 29, 2010

Mel Gibson’s first comeback attempt cast the star as a Bahston-accented cop trying to uncover the shadowy military-industrial conspiracy that killed his daughter. Although Edge Of Darkness is more conventional than the mystically paranoid 1985 British miniseries on which it’s based, we feel that The A.V. Club went too hard on the movie in our original review; directed with typical cold-blooded determination by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), who also helmed all six episodes of the original series, it’s bleak in outlook and punctuation, even by the standards of the genre. While nothing-left-to-lose revenge thrillers are often “about” death, the suddenness with which Campbell handles the film’s violence is unsettling—which actually gives its political pessimism some bite. That, and the man knows how to direct a good hand-to-hand fight. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


The Grey

January 27, 2012

Jeff Winger is right: The Grey is a four-star movie. Joe Carnahan’s surprisingly meditative survival thriller didn’t make Taken bank, maybe because its R rating kept away some of the target audience for a movie about Liam Neeson battling wolves. But it comes closer to art than most January genre offerings and much closer than any of Neeson’s other aging-asskicker star vehicles. His character, whose “particular set of skills” this time includes a suicidal acceptance of his own mortality, is a bereaved huntsman leading the survivors of a plane crash through the frosty Alaskan wilderness, a pack of wild canines in hot pursuit. Hawksian in its macho poignancy, Herzogian in its pitting of human will against harsh natural elements, The Grey subverts multiplex conventions at every turn, offering something much more fatalistic than its star, premise, and release date might suggest. Even the whole Neeson-puts-glass-between-his-knuckles-to-punch-a-wolf part doesn’t go how you think it will. [A.A. Dowd]


Mama

January 18, 2013

January is a lucrative month for horror, because who doesn’t feel a little homicidal after the holidays? Unfortunately, the almost-foolproof success of scare fare during this timeframe has severely lowered the bar, making the first month of the year a safe haven for cheaply, indifferently made crap like The Bye Bye Man and The Devil Inside. Helmed by Argentine writer-director Andy Muschietti and produced by Guillermo Del Toro, Mama is a blessed exception: an effective potboiler about a pair of orphans rescued by their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) from the forest cabin where they were abandoned. What neither adult knows is that the girls were looked after by a phantom guardian—a spectral parental figure that’s followed them out of the boonies and into their new home. Plot-wise, Mama is no great shakes. But the monster effects are inventive, the set pieces are inspired (one involving the girls playing tug-of-war is especially good), and Chastain brings a real conviction to a stock horror-heroine role. The film’s success, critical and commercial, certainly paid off for Muschietti: His next project would become the highest grossing horror movie of all time. [A.A. Dowd]


Blackhat

January 16, 2015

Blackhat can feel like “minor” Michael Mann, fodder only for those devotees who would follow him down any lurid, neon alleyway. But for those who do, it’s a feast of sensory thrills: the violent rattle of assault rifles in a cement quarry; moody late-night hookups between doomed loners; men and women in immaculate suits tersely discussing the play of data and money in a global economy. Follow the pulpy plot, if you care to—Chris Hemsworth plays a hacker pulled out of prison to trace down some rogue software—or just follow Mann’s stylistic impulses, which trace his familiar skylines and synth lines down new digital rabbit holes. The result is one of our premiere genre stylists operating on his weirdest and most singular wavelength. There’s nothing minor about it at all, in that respect. [Clayton Purdom]


Split

January 20, 2017

Even before dropping its final, franchise-establishing surprise, last year’s Split felt like a callback to M. Night Shyamalan’s heyday—the kind of wildly entertaining thriller that once positioned him as a 21st-century Hitchcock disciple, not a walking punchline whose name above a title inspires groans from the peanut gallery. Running with the high-concept hooey of its premise, which pits three kidnapped teenagers against the 23 distinct personalities of their captor (James McAvoy, in the tour-de-force performance(s) of his career), Split is essentially Shyamalan’s Psycho: a low-budget, career-rejuvenating pulp thriller that mines cruel, visually imaginative shocks from an outlandish depiction of dissociative identity disorder. (In this case, the expository psychiatrist character gets a whole subplot, not just one load-bearing scene.) But it’s also just pure Shyamalan, reviving the values of his biggest, most enduring hit, including an evocative use of color, a reliance on a strong cast, and a closing twist that’s so mind-blowing it threatens to overshadow the rest of the gripping horror movie it punctuates. [A.A. Dowd]


The Commuter

January 12, 2018

The most recent collaboration between star Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra might also be the best one yet. Much in the vein of the pair’s previous Non-Stop, The Commuter is a delightfully (and unabashedly) flashy B-movie dressed up in sly political allegory. Collet-Serra has mastered the art of the twisty, faux-Hitchcockian pressure-cooker thriller, and delivers maximum crowd-pleasing tension as both Neeson and the camera pace frantically up and down the aisles of a packed rush hour train throughout this exercise in all-is-not-what-it-seems mystery. Neeson’s former cop is an insurance agent who’s just been laid off, and as he gathers the nerves to go home and tell his wife, a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) sits down opposite him, and offers a deal: $25,000 to simply go look for a bag in a bathroom, and then $75,000 to figure out who doesn’t belong on the train. The ending may quite literally go off the rails, but for more than an hour, this satisfying film delivers shades of De Palma, Fincher, Spielberg, and more—any stylistic flourish to push the daffy intensity of the story further along. There are inevitable bumps along the way, but it’s one hell of a ride. [Alex McLevy]


Paddington and Paddington 2

January 16, 2015
January 12, 2018

Releasing the Paddington movies in January is a brilliant bit of off-market promotion: Sending these charming, family-friendly movies out after the busy holiday season had passed—but with kids still climbing the walls and parents ready to toss them into the nearest snowdrift—practically insured that the series would be a hit (though the sequel isn’t quite keeping up with its predecessor, in terms of box-office). The Paddington movies are sweet but not sugary, whimsical but not foolish: The cozy, colorful domestic splendor of the bear’s English world is a wonderful place to hang out in the dead of winter, whether he’s riding a bathtub down a stairway or turning a bleak prison into a pastel-hued bakery. The villains add necessary sharpness and wit, with Nicole Kidman as a twisted taxidermist and Hugh Grant doing his best work in years as a stage diva at odds with the marmalade-loving bear. Even better, Paddington offers a non-cloying message about the importance of kindness: a valuable year-launching reminder for kids and adults alike. [Gwen Ihnat]