This article contains mild spoilers
Ah, January. A fresh year, a chance to start again, with resolutions restored and hope renewed everywhere! Well, almost everywhere. If you go to the theater, you’ll likely find holdovers and awards favorites released in the final months of the previous year; the respectable stuff that does well around Oscar season. But the new offerings tend to be pretty dire. That’s when studios release dreck like the re-Heated Pacino/De Niro team-up Righteous Kill or dorm room staple The Boondock Saints. As the fine folks at Red Letter Media so eloquently point out, January is the worst time of the year for new movies.
But to the surprise of no one, studios aren’t always right about the quality of their movies, and sometimes a real classic ends up getting a January release. In fact, when you look over the past four decades, you’ll find lots of auspicious debuts and future classics sneaking onto theater screens during the first month of the year. You’ll even find enough to make a top ten list!
A quick note before we begin. I’ve chosen these from movies that released wide in January, but many of them had festival screenings earlier in the previous year. I’ve left off movies that released wide in other countries before coming to the U.S., which leaves off a lot of foreign films.
10. The Kid Who Would Be King (January 25, 2019)
Given the success of his debut film Attack the Block, which introduced the world to John Boyega, Joe Cornish had some high expectations to meet for his follow-up. But after teaming with Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright to write The Adventures of Tintin and contributing to the Ant-Man script, Cornish surprised viewers by releasing a children’s adventure movie, The Kid Who Would Be King. A spritely adventure grounded by outstanding performances from both established and new actors, The Kid Who Would Be King combines classic fantasy action with a modern urban setting for a satisfying kid’s movie.
At first glance, The Kid Who Would Be King looks like the kind of trash parents drag their kids to watch during the doldrums of Christmas Break. It stars Louis Ashbourne Serkis (yes, son of Andy) as Alex, an unremarkable 12-year-old who learns that the sword he found at a construction site is the mighty Excalibur. With the legendary sword freed, the sorceress Morgana (a deliciously hammy Rebecca Ferguson) awakens to exact her revenge, sending demons to attack Alex and his pals. Joined by his pals and a magically youthful Merlin (played by Patrick Stewart as an adult and Angus Imrie as a kid), Alex and the new Knights of the Round Table must save England and the world.
9. The Green Hornet (January 14, 2011)
Although it was still the early days of the third wave of superhero movies inaugurated by Iron Man in 2008, audiences were already growing wary of the genre’s turn toward formula. So when the oddball French director Michel Gondry announced that he would be adapting the radio/comics/tv hero the Green Hornet with Seth Rogen in the lead, audiences’ imaginations went wild with possibility. Sadly, the movie that hit screens was far more banal than anyone expected, hampered by a thankless love interest role for Cameron Diaz, Christoph Walz already wearing out his villain schtick, and Korean pop star Rain’s charisma dampened by his difficulty with English.
And yet, despite these shortcomings, Green Hornet often does deliver on exciting visuals and themes. As the Green Hornet’s chauffeur Kato, the role Bruce Lee made famous in the 1960s, Rain gets to do some awesome martial arts, which Gondry accentuates with shots that highlight every move. But even better is the surprisingly well-cast Rogen, who plays protagonist Britt Reid as the embodiment of the mighty whitey trope. At every turn, we’re reminded that Reid thought he hit a homer and is realizing that he was born on third.
8. Escape Room (January 4, 2019)
When I first heard about Escape Room, my eyes rolled a bit. After all, escape rooms are all about getting the chance to live through a Saw movie without having to wear a reverse bear trap. What’s the point of watching a safe version of a safe movie riff? Director Adam Robitel ups the stakes partially by making the rooms deadly (at least to a PG-13 degree), but mostly by giving us gloriously expansive escape rooms, which regularly mutate to reveal new, outrageous rules.
But the real draw is the excellent cast assembled by Robtiel. Escape Room stars Taylor Russell as young genius Zoey, bringing levels of genuine vulnerability to what could be a standard “shy kid learns to believe in herself” trope. She’s joined by a fine group of character actors, including Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll as a soldier with a soft side and Tucker and Dale vs Evil sweetheart Tyler Labine as a good dad. Together, these elements make Escape Room one of the best teen-friendly PG-13 releases.
7. Amira & Sam (January 30, 2015)
And now for something completely different. As you’ve already noticed, movies dumped in January tend to be genre fare because, let’s be honest, we horror fans will watch anything. But somehow, Amira & Sam slipped through for a small theatrical release in January 2015 before going to video. Written and directed by Sean Mullin, Amira & Sam stars Martin Starr (Freaks & Geeks) as veteran/aspiring comedian Sam Seneca and Dina Shihabi (Archive 81) as Amira Jafari, an undocumented Iraqi immigrant and niece of a translator who worked with American soldiers.
If you squint your eyes a bit, it’s clear that Amira & Sam follows the standard romance movie tropes, complete with lovers who initially dislike each other, then come together, and then get separated. But two things make Amira & Sam stand out. First, there’s the 2008 setting, a period of post-9/11 xenophobia that presents existential danger for immigrants, especially Muslims. But the real draw is the easy chemistry between Starr and Shihabi, who quickly form a believable and humane relationship. It’s a surprisingly down-to-Earth movie, despite its heavy themes.
6. Teeth (January 18, 2008)
Okay, let’s just get this out the way. Teeth is a movie about a woman with teeth in her vagina. Therefore, anything that goes near those teeth gets bitten off. Yes, what you’re imagining absolutely happens in the movie. Several times. But as audacious as that premise certainly is, Teeth uses its absurdity to tell a moving story about a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality.
Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of Roy Lichtenstein, the guy who made money by ripping off comic book artists), Teeth stars Jess Wexler as Dawn, a teen spokesperson for a Christian abstinence group. Her experience with the group makes her ashamed of her body and her desires, which manifests in the titular teeth. While the movie can be often unpleasant (after all, characters need to get near the teeth for the movie to work) Lichtenstein infuses plenty of humor to lighten things up. But the real draw is Wexler’s performance, at once humane and comic, keeping the proceedings grounded.
5. Split (January 20, 2017)
M. Night Shyamalan has one of the most satisfying arcs among American directors. After breaking out with his third film The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan was quickly dubbed “The Next Spielberg,” and then just as quickly dubbed “The Worst Director,” after helming bloated flops Avatar: The Last Airbender and After Earth. Although his turnaround really began with the Blumhouse found footage entry The Visit, Shyamalan won back our hearts with Split.
Despite its lower budget and support from Blumhouse, Split boasts a surprisingly stacked cast, including Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Betty Buckley. But the real stroke of genius came when Shyamalan put James McAvoy in the lead and told him to go nuts. In the hands of a lesser performer, McAvoy’s performance as a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder would come off like self-indulgent acting exercises. But McAvoy somehow makes the whole thing so fun, that we don’t even think (too much) about the way the movie’s insensitive portrayal of mental illness or sexual abuse.
4. Waiting for Guffman (January 31, 1997)
These days, the mockumentary style is everywhere. We don’t even need characters in Modern Family or Abbott Elementary to explain why they’re being followed by a camera crew, we just want them to mug for the camera. But that wasn’t the case in 1997, when Waiting for Guffman bewildered audiences. Directed by Christopher Guest, who had co-starred in the most famous mockumentary up to that point This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman soon became a cult hit.
Waiting for Guffman has the simplest of premises, in which outrageous theater director Corky St. Clair (Guest) comes to Blaine, Missouri to produce a show for the town’s 150th anniversary. But that hook allows a cast of improv pros to create ridiculous and hilarious characters. In addition to Guest, the movie features Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara as a pair of travel agents, Eugene Levy as mild-mannered orthodontist Dr. Allen Pearl, and Parker Posey as Dairy Queen employee Libby Mae Brown. As Corky unlocks the Broadway dreams of these assembled bumpkins, the movie becomes ridiculous and delightful, paving the way for mockumentary ubiquity.
3. Final Destination 2 (January 31, 2003)
To be sure, Final Destination earned its share of fans after its release in 2000. But it was the second entry, directed by David R. Ellis, that cemented the franchise in the horror hall of fame, thanks in large part to its glorious opening sequence. Where the first movie started with a shocking plane explosion, the sequel leans into the Rube Goldberg effect that made the series famous. Ellis takes the time to not only show us how each little accident or mistake, from a distracted driver to a loose strap, has horrific and entertaining consequences.
While it’s the opening that sticks in the minds of most, it’s just one of the fantastic kill sequences in Final Destination 2. There’s the part where the bratty teen gets squished by a giant pane of glass or when a lady gets decapitated in an elevator, and the movie does give us one of the best airbag-related kills in cinema history. When you combine the return of Ali Larter’s improbably named character from the first movie, Clear Rivers, Final Destination 2 sets the model that the sequels followed (and perfected with Final Destination 5).
2. The Stepfather (January 23, 1987)
By 1987, the slasher craze inaugurated by the runaway success of Friday the 13th had fizzled into diminishing returns. By that point, we’d seen killer dream demons, killer birthday kids, and killer rockabilly musicians. But with The Stepfather, we got the scariest slasher of all: a killer Reaganite (in other words, a regular Reaganite). Written by great hardboiled author Donald E. Westlake and starring the inimitable Terry O’Quinn, The Stepfather uncovers the horror of the conservative family values push.
O’Quinn plays Jerry Blake, a seemingly average middle-class man who marries widow Susan Maine (Shelley Hack). A likable real estate agent and suburbanite, Blake quickly earns the trust and respect of everyone around him, except stepdaughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). As Stephanie digs into Blake’s past, she discovers that he has been married several times to single mothers before, under different names. After these families failed to meet his expectations, he murdered them, took on a new name, and gave it another shot. From this fantastic premise, The Stepfather provides both trenchant social commentary and solid horror, anchored by a haunting performance from O’Quinn.
1. Tremors (January 19, 1990)
Not only is Tremors the best movie on this list, it’s also the perfect encapsulation of the January movie phenomenon. It’s easy to see why Universal dumped an effects-heavy creature feature filled with good-natured character actors in a desert town at the beginning of the year. Even though the slasher craze had certainly died down by the end of the 80s, there was no reason to believe that a movie about underground worms would catch on with viewers. And they were right, as the movie failed to find an audience in theaters.
But it’s also easy to see why Tremors became a classic on video and cable. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward lead an outstanding cast, which includes Reba McIntire and Michael Gross as the only lovable gun nuts, David Lynch collaborator Charlotte Stewart and Jurassic Park’s Ariana Richards, and John Carpenter staple Victor Wong. Director Ron Underwood uses amazing creature effects from Amalgamated Dynamics sparingly and effectively, while also leaning into some delicious dialogue from writers Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson. Tremors wound up being a perfect movie, and a true jewel among the January dumpers.