If you’re reading this, it stands to reason that you love going to the movies. Unfortunately, if you’re planning on going to the theater right now to see something, it better be for a holdover 2018 release. After all, the month of January is a notorious dumping ground for low quality cinema. No point in any calendar year is worse for film than January. Even the month of February has gotten better of late. This first month is truly the red-headed stepchild of the movie year. That being said, even bad months have their surprises.
Today, we’re going to be looking at ten of the best January releases ever. It may surprise you, but there’s even a classic or two in the mix. Beyond that, there’s just way more of note that hit in the first month of each year than you realize. Just last year, “Paddington 2” came out to charm the masses. Later this month, “Glass” will hope to add itself to this small club. Below you’ll see ten choice picks which did their best to prove to be exceptions to the January rule.
dir. Steven Soderbergh
When a master filmmaker crafts genre fare, some interesting things can happen. Sure, Steven Soderbergh casting MMA fighter Gina Carano as the lead is a bit of a gimmick. At the same time, it really works, as she makes for a believable black ops soldier out on a revenge mission. Plus, when something silly like this has such a good supporting cast, things are never boring. Michael Angarano, Michael Douglas, and Michael Fassbender make appearances, and that’s just the Michaels. There’s also Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, and Channing Tatum. It’s a fun effort from Soderbergh that’s one of the best genre offerings that January has ever had.
“From Dusk Till Dawn” (1996)
dir. Robert Rodriguez
Before all of the endless sequels diluted the brand, this hybrid action/horror outing pulled off a legitimately surprising twist. What starts as a hyper-violent action flick ends up turning into a vampire movie! Robert Rodriguez is one of the few auteurs who could pull that off and not have you roll your eyes. It’s undeniably dumb, but it’s also undeniably fun at the same time.
dir. Paul King
No franchise currently makes more audience members swoon than the “Paddington” series. This adorable bear has won hearts the world over. Paul King truly has made fun for the whole family. Oddly, both entries into the franchise have been early year releases, as if Americans aren’t to be trusted with the bear. Or, perhaps more optimistically, Paddington Bear is just here to continually elevate January in the years to come?
“The Grey” (2012)
dir. Joe Carnahan
The best of the Liam Neeson ass-kicking offerings, director Joe Carnahan mixed a desperate fight for survival with some genuine pathos. Many lesser January releases would have gone straight for the wolf fighting, but Carnahan makes you wait. By the time Neeson has glass shards on his knuckles and is ready for the fight of his life, it has truly been earned. Had this not been a January release, it arguably could have shown up here and there during the 2012 precursors.
“City of God” (2003)
dir. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund
Sometimes Academy Award nominees do come out of January. Considered by IMDb users to be one of the 20 greatest films of all time, voters in the Academy went hard for it as well. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director for Fernando Meirelles, it was one of the more unique movies to be embraced by AMPAS. The fact that it skipped a qualifying run the year before and actually came out in January is a true oddity, something that would never happen today.
“Radio Days” (1987)
dir. Woody Allen
One of Woody Allen‘s most underrated works, this love letter to the era before television is as charming as it gets. Nominated for two Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay, it hit during a period where Allen was nominated each and every year for either directing or writing. He truly was one of their favorite sons. That has led to this being a bit overlooked, but it deserves every citation it received. Allen occasionally would release his movies in January, so he’s one of the few filmmakers who didn’t consider it a dumping ground.
dir. Robert Altman
The first of two Robert Altman efforts on this list, the legendary filmmaker has done more than anyone to prove that January isn’t a total wasteland. This war dramedy/satire would go on to become perhaps the most acclaimed television show of all time, but the film more than stands on its own. The heart and humor are equally replayed by Altman here. A true classic, regardless of when it got released.
dir. Matt Reeves
The highest profile January release of all time. Who can forget that mysterious teaser trailer the summer before? Attached to “Transformers,” it suggested something wholly original, besides just an untitled secret project. Eventually, it would go from “1-18-08” to “Cloverfield,” and briefly set the world on fire. J.J. Abrams would play with this formula again in the future, but this surprisingly small work from Matt Reeves still stands as one of the most enjoyable January releases to date.
“Before Sunrise” (1995)
dir. Richard Linklater
Back in the mid 1990’s, no one would have expected that this romantic drama from Richard Linklater would launch a trilogy. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke portrayed these now iconic characters in an independent film with no expectations. Now, it’s seen two sequels, both of which have seen the trio nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, continuing the story. The original is still a delight. Too often, even the indie releases in January leave something to be desired. This, however, is one of the best.
“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)
dir. Robert Altman
An all-time classic and Altman’s masterpiece, this political comedy would be phenomenal whenever it was released. That it hit in the month of January only makes it stand out even more. What Peter Sellers pulls off here playing multiple roles is nothing short of staggering. Without question one of the best films ever made, the fact that it’s a January release is just a nice little bit of icing on the cake!