In his landmark poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot famously declared that “April is the cruelest month.” All due respect to a man whose name is a perfect anagram of “toilets,” but he clearly never tried to go to the movies in January. Post-holiday fatigue combines with the bitter cold of the outside world to discourage audiences from making the journey to the neighborhood cineplex, and so most studios capitalize on the expected dip in viewership numbers to dump properties they know will tank. Sure, January usually sees some prestigious end-of-year pictures trickle out to wider release, but as far as movies released for the first time between Jan. 1 and 31 go, it’s bleak. Take last week’s Norm of the North, for example. It’s a classic January Movie: innovatively dull, exhaustingly unfunny and pert-near unwatchable. This month’s 13 Hours and The Forest were not much better, but hey, maybe next week’s Dirty Grandpa will be good. I would comment on Dirty Grandpa with more authority, but Lionsgate cancelled all advance press screenings, which is another thing studios do when they know full well that a movie is terrible.
But there are genuinely solid films bobbing like little buoys of entertainment in January’s vast sea of mediocrity. They’re hard to find, and they’re often saddled with marketing that makes them look much worse than they are, but they’re there. Read on for a thorough rundown of the best films of the last sixteen Januaries, and take solace in the knowledge that not even gale-force freezing winds can stop half-decent movies from sneaking into local theaters.
USDA-certified beef slab Chris Hemsworth as an elite hacker was, shall we say, a tough sell. But Michael Mann’s high-gloss technothriller didn’t tank at the box office over mere miscasting; audiences were turned off by the highly technical cyberchatter the characters trade back and forth, and an ad campaign that played up Mann’s idiosyncratic action sequences rather than the thriller plot or central romance. None of that diminishes the bravura spirit of Mann’s go-for-broke setpieces, or his troubling meditations on connection in an isolating age. Like many of the films on this list, Mann’s latest isn’t bad, per se. Just suited to particular palates — like nori. Slickly produced, poorly scripted nori.
12 O’Clock Boys (2014)
One of the most cathartic moments in Ryan Coogler’s recent Creed saw our hero throw his hands to the sky during an intense workout as street kids on ATVs encircle him. These are the young men who lend Lotfy Nathan’s documentary its title, so called for their ability to jump their ATVs and dirt bikes almost perpendicular to the ground, like the hand on a clock. The film burrows into this thriving subculture, regarded as an official menace to the peace by local law enforcement, and finds expected social frictions threatening to spark into flame. The arresting passages of ethereal beauty, however, come as something of a surprise. Nathan finds gorgeous lyricism in footage of his chosen subject Pug as he reckons with the cold realities of adulthood and finds time to exult in his own youth.
John Dies At The End (2013)
Director Don Coscarelli has no trouble supplying the same weirdness that made his Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep into cult classics, but fitting his untethered id to the template of Jason “David Wong” Pargis’ novel is another matter entirely. The collision of deranged sensibilities sometimes results in overreaching efforts (a nauseatingly gory animated sequence, for one), but there’s no denying that watching John Dies At The End is a fun time. It’s delightful even when baffling, which is pretty much the whole time, starting with the title — John does not, in fact, die at the end. Spoiler alert? Maybe, but that’s beside the point. We’re here for the strange journey, not the destination. Ghosts appear from nowhere, locations shift without warning, and the open-minded viewer just tries to keep up.
The Grey (2012)
Liam Neeson has proven himself to be the king of the January Movie (this is not the last time he’ll show his face in this article), even when they’re not released in January. Neeson classes up whatever genre fare he’s collecting a paycheck from, bringing real gravitas to aging men who aren’t too old to kick a little ass when threatened. Neeson leads a band of survivors who drag themselves out of the frying pan of a plane crash and into a fire which, in this metaphor, is also full of wolves. Joe Carnahan establishes the stakes early — it’s the men or the wolves, they can’t both survive — and then moves through his beats with a ruthless intensity. The bitter, unyielding cold has a way of toughening up every shot, and not just the people in them. He’s doing something familiar very well, and there’s still plenty of merit in that.
Gregg Araki didn’t reinvent the wheel with his erotic fantasy/thriller/comedy Kaboom, either; he disposed of the wheel entirely and sprouted rocket boosters out of his feet as his main mode of transportation. High on adolescent hormones and ecstasy, this crazytown teenage dream barrels through increasingly bizarre plot twists at a breakneck pace. Our man is Smith, a bisexual film undergrad who’s been having nightmares with an unsettlingly prophetic air to them. Maybe they’re related to the trio of masked men that keep abducting all of his friends. But wait, look over there, it’s a B-plot about his bestie falling for a lesbian witch who doesn’t take too kindly to her ghosting after a few hookups. And what’s that? A paranoid conspiracy that leads to an ending so abrupt it can only cause either incredulous laughter or outright rage? And a killer soundtrack made up of shoegaze deep cuts? Is this heaven, or just Las Vegas?
Youth In Revolt (2010)
Michael Cera has all but retreated into marshlands of microbudget indies, but it wasn’t too long ago that he was an emerging comic leading man in need of a role that’d show off his specific sensibility, but also grant him the chance to demonstrate a little range and stave off typecasting. He found it in Nick Twisp, the articulate young cinephile at the heart of Youth In Revolt, and Francois, the ultrasuave alter ego he invents to provide him with the confidence to hit on the girl-next-trailer, Sheeni. Gustin Nash’s script, adapted from C.D. Payne’s doorstopping novel of the same name, is sometimes a little full of itself (watching teenagers discuss the finer points of Truffaut and Ozu is both engrossing and infuriating) but young Cera’s magnetic charisma-absence is still something to behold, and Portia Doubleday shows tremendous promise as Sheeni.
Liam Neeson’s, at it again! In the role that kicked off the greying-badass phase of his multivalent career, Neeson warned of his “very particular set of skills” and gave a surprisingly wide audience (almost $227 million on a $22 million budget is the sort of return-on-investment that makes executives hot under the collar) a stone-cold soliloquy they could quote over and over again. But what’s more than that, he imbued what could’ve been a flat character with genuine humanity, ensuring that the many glorious beatdowns all come from a place of fatherly caring. The imitators that followed, such as Run All Night and Non-Stop, wouldn’t quite match this film’s heights of kineticism or the panache of Luc Besson’s script. But their existence is a testament to the resonance and enduring popularity of Pierre Morel’s flair for combat and Neeson’s singular screen presence.
The recently released trailer for the upcoming 10 Cloverfield Lane re-opened the raging debate “Cloverfield: Does It Suck?” And while zealots remain dug in on both sides, the trailer was a reminder of producer J.J. Abrams’ knack for creating mystery and cultivating tension. The mutant freak tearing a swath of destruction through the middle of Cloverfield doesn’t rear its ugly head until deep, deep into the film’s slim 86-minute run time. It doesn’t need to; director Matt Reeves, now the captain of the good ship Planet Of The Apes Reboot Franchise, can rely on his own artistic inventiveness to keep the audience on their toes. In one of the few appropriate uses of the found-footage aesthetic that kept production costs low, Reeves gooses viewers with camera jitters and videotape tracking that turn the medium into the real bad guy.
Stomp The Yard (2007)
The dancesploitation flick is a pretty well-worn microgenre with little variation among its entries. Stomp the Yard puts a slight spin on the usual formula by selecting a milieu with a bit more specificity than the average urban cityscape and introducing a few new themes. This film narrows focus to the fictitious HBCU Truth University (yeah, I know, you just gotta power through until it’s time for the dancing) and the rival fraternities of Theta Nu Theta and Nu Gamma Xi. Like many Southern, black fraternities, both groups engage in the time-honored art of “stepping,” a specific style of dance that dates back into the annals of Greek-life history. The context reframes dance, normally posited as a method of self-expression, as a form of historical tribute that puts young black men in touch with their own legacies and strengthens them by association.
Appreciation of Hostel depends on whether the viewer considers torture porn to be a joyless stain on the horror genre, or a bold new depth of pure and senseless fear. To the former, Eli Roth’s film united with Saw to spawn a mini-movement in the horror genre that made the American people dumber, colder, and more desensitized. To the latter, Roth dared to go where few had gone before, to plumb untouched crags of gore and inhumanity. The changing winds of American pop culture notwithstanding, the film made buttloads of money and inspired a pair of sequels, both of which legitimized the original by proving how easily it could’ve been done wrong. And if nothing else, nobody who sees this movie looks at a scalpel without flinching ever again.
Coach Carter (2005)
Inspirational sports movies are a bit like McDoubles: they’re all pretty much the same, but sometimes they’re really good if you’re in the right mood, and in all honesty, you secretly find their sameness sort of comforting. Coach Carter is one of the good ones, with all the pickles placed strategically and condiments proportioned out perfectly. Bolstered by a juuuuust-to-the-top-without-going-over performance from Samuel L. Jackson, this film hits its prescribed beats with a bit more heart and sincerity than the average sportsploitation flick. As the gruff educator that whips his squadron of hoodlums into fighting shape — perhaps raising some problematic questions about what constitutes “respectable” behavior in young black men — Jackson bellows and barks, but never verges into the cartoonish territory that’s made some of his more recent roles such a blast.
Touching The Void (2004)
Simon Yates and Joe Simpson successfully reached the summit of Peru’s Siula Grande mountain in 1985, but the hard part was coming back down. This documentary chronicles the fraught, grueling return journey that Simpson never should have survived, beginning with Yates’ tough decision to drop Simpson into a canyon in an act of desperation and finishing with his devastating miles-long crawl back to camp, broken leg and all. Watching the film is enough to make a body start shivering, but the most memorable moment comes when Simpson is nearing salvation. Dehydrated, demoralized, and losing his grip on sanity, he’s plagued by memories of an annoying Boney M song he could never stand. There’s a certain poetry to nearly dying after having summited a mountain with your least-favorite song stuck in your head.
The Slaughter Rule (2003)
Barely out of his teen years, a babyfaced Brando worshipper named Ryan Gosling sought to up his actorly street cred by taking on the sort of difficult role in a little-seen indie that gets awards pundits chattering. This barely released film didn’t have nearly enough presence to bring Gosling any gold, but it did afford him the opportunity to flex some muscles that his years as a Mouseketeer never exercised. Here, he plays a troubled high-school senior — Mom doesn’t talk much, Dad offed himself — that gets drafted onto a special independent football team by David Morse’s kindly Gideon. It offers the wayward boy an opportunity to feel a sense of purpose and worth in his otherwise dead-end life, but then, of course, queasy questions about why an adult man would spend so much time with teenage boys must arise. Along with 2001’s The Believer, this was one of the first chances Gosling got to do some capital-A acting, and he grabbed the role with both hands. He’d have a long way to go before his scruffy heartthrob schtick coalesced into superstardom, but the potential here is clear.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
The title is, like, the fifth-best thing about Mark Pellington’s unlikely 2002 sleeper hit adapted from John Keel’s book. The fourth is the atmospheric score from the braintrust known as “tomandandy” which creeps in, foglike, and makes itself known all at once. The third is Richard Gere in the starring role as a Washington Post reporter who comes to town to investigate the eponymous cryptid, only to lose his wife to the creature in short order. (He doesn’t say, “Now it’s personal,” but it’s easy to imagine him doing so.) The second-best thing is the eminently capable supporting cast, filled out with reliable character actors like Alan Bates, Laura Linney and Will Patton. But of course the best part of the film is the Mothman itself, an inconsistently changing foe who sometimes seems like a feral beast and sometimes prank calls our hero pretending to be his dead wife.
Save The Last Dance (2001)
The themes in this dancesploitation picture are as clearly demarcated as the ballerina’s five foot positions. But even though the courtship between classically trained Julia Stiles and street-educated Sean Patrick Thomas wears its subtext on its sleeve — different worlds, bridged through the unifying power of dance! — that doesn’t make it any less affecting. Their love, casually controversial in its interracial makeup, comes from that magnificently un-self-conscious part of the heart that only teenagers can access, where every slight feels like the apocalypse and every kiss is an entry to heaven. And naturally, the dancing is muscular and impressive, American cinema’s closest analog to the virtuosic kung fu that made Hong Kong into a hub of film production.
Fantasia 2000 (2000)
It ain’t Fantasia, but don’t hold that against it. Following up one of Walt Disney’s greatest achievements is no enviable task, but its formula is pretty simple: the music supervisors gather eight or nine timeless orchestral compositions, and then all the animators have to do is match them with cartoon sequences of dazzling beauty and imagination. Easy, right? Hardly, but Disney’s finest still did a bangup job with the pieces they were given. Respighi’s “Pines Of Rome” soundtracks an eerily calming sequence of whales floating through space, and Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” accompanies a mythical vision of annihilation and rebirth. (Unlike its 1940 predecessor, this film knows that it will provide chemically altered teenagers with hours of entertainment.) It’s a worthy follow-up to Disney’s high-water mark, and a perfect point of entry to the world of music and art for youngsters with brows slowly moving upward.