Ten Great Movies That Opened in the January Wasteland

The wisdom has long been accepted that movie studios dump their crappiest product into theaters in January. What made these ten rise above the ashes?

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The wisdom has long been accepted that movie studios dump their crappiest product into theaters in January. This is a month when everybody is far more concerned with positioning their prestige films from the just-completed year for awards. Movies that may have gotten a one-week qualifying run in New York or Los Angeles (so they can compete for awards) are now getting rolled out to the rest of the country. Money is going into marketing and campaigning films and stars for that elusive Oscar. And since nobody has the time or money to dedicate to the next year’s product, might as well give the shaft to the movies that are generally believed to be junk.

Oh, nobody will say this outright. But if Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit or I, Frankenstein were any good, they would be almost certainly opening in higher-profile release slots. This doesn't mean that January is an iron-clad guarantee of crappiness, of course. It's just that the flowers that grow up among all these weeds are all the more rare. Most often, the good January movies come from genres that are critic-proof and attract their niche audiences in steady numbers no matter when they open. Horror movies, say.

We decided to pick ten favorite movies that managed to open in January and actually be worth the price of a ticket. We limited the list to post-1990, when the month really began to take shape as a wasteland of quality.

10. Final Destination 2

For the most part, this list is going to avoid some of the movies that, while terrible, are also deeply enjoyable. Your Spice Worlds. Your Varsity Blueses. Final Destination 2 [clip Not Safe For Work, by the way] may, for some, belong in that category. But it's so emblematic of a series that got very smart about its best assets—the Rube Goldberg devices of happenstance and danger that would end up felling all principal characters—and this was the movie that kind of cemented the template for good.

9. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle

Not only is this a delicious little bit of elemental suburban horror (your nanny is going to replace you! IN EVERY WAY!), it's also a career peak for Rebecca DeMornay, an early glimpse at Julianne Moore, and the first real look at what Curtis Hanson could do with genre before he rattled off a string of excellent (and often underrated) movies like The River WildL.A. Confidential, and In Her Shoes.

8. Teeth

A body-horror comedy that manages to tear down the misogynist "vagina dentata" myth by investing fully into literalizing it. Watching this movie in a theater full of yelping, squirming horror was one of the best cases for watching horror with an audience.

7. The Grey

Liam Neeson has kind of become the king of January Movies, even if most of them don't actually come out in January. As it happens, only The Grey and Taken have opened in the year's crappiest movie month, though doesn't it seem like UnknownTaken 2, and both of the Clash of the Titans movies should have opened then? Not to mention his upcoming February release Non-Stop. Of all of them (Non-Stop excluded, for now), The Grey is the best of them, with a snarly Neeson pitted against nature, fate, and some hungry wolves.

6. City of God

A big part of the reason why City of God's unexpected Oscar nominations came as such a big shock was because it had opened waaaaay back in January, after trying (and failing) for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination the year before. The success of the film shot Fernando Meirelles into prominent, where he stayed through The Constant Gardener and was promptly punted out after Blindness.

5. From Dusk 'til Dawn

Robert Rodriguez's best movie (yes) and his most successful teaming with Quentin Tarantino (YES), this manages to be a tip-top road movie, western, and vampire movie, one right after the other in rapid succession. No film better represents Tarantino and Rodriguez's "throw it against the wall and see what sticks" ethos. Literally.

4. Aileen: the Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Documentaries are not a commercial venture, really, so it's not that big of a surprise that even one of the genre's best examples might have been dumped in January. That's no comment on its quality, just on the fact that a documentary audience will show up, even in its modest numbers, whenever there's a good product to be seen.

3. Cloverfield

The J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie was kept under lock and key until a surprise trailer appeared before the first Transformers movie in summer 2007. The fact that Cloverfield was a January movie getting a buzzy pre-release treatment was kind of a new phenomenon, and not one that has been repeated too much (though February has become  surprisingly fertile ground for mid-level quasi-blockbusters), which is surprising since Cloverfield made a ton of money.

2. Before Sunrise

Slightly less popular opinion: Before Sunrise is the best of the trio of Richard Linklater/Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy films, though they all have their wonderful qualities. The chatty way in which infatuation is expressed across a night while backpacking across Europe is so intoxicating. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Columbia decided to release it right away, birthing a cult hit and two of the least expected sequels ever.

1. Waiting for Guffman

Despite the cult status of This Is Spinal Tap, I guess you could forgive studios for not quite understanding what they had in Christopher Guest's repertory company and their mockumentary about community theater and its lovable, deluded denizens. Still .... they saw the movie, right? After playing a couple festivals, to January it went, whereupon its songs about stool production and interplanetary travel could flourish.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.