The last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, an oaken and indestructible 103 episodes old, was probably our most ambitious one since that time we tried to review every single James Bond movie. In it, if you were lucky enough to listen, you got to hear William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I down huge amounts of caffeinated tea, and fret rhapsodic about every single movie to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger in a lead role. His latest, The Last Stand, we agreed to be a trim and muscular entertainment whose unmitigated entertainment value stands in direct defiance of the film's January release date. January releases are, after all, often used as handy analogy for Hollywood failure, or a studio's lack of faith in their own product. It's pretty common knowledge to most film-goers that January is the “dumping ground” of movies; a place where studio quietly release all their schlockier product while the world is still catching their breath after the recent deluge of December prestige pictures.
I often agree with this assessment. I even once wrote an article in the Free Film School detailing how yearly release patterns tend to operate, and how the whole thing got started. By all measure, January is just a suck month. At best, we have a year like, well, this one, which has provided us with numerous entertaining B-pictures like The Last Stand, Mama, and Texas Chainsaw 3D. Some Januaries warrant up films like the George C. Scott ghost story The Changeling. I was a sucker for Terry Gilliam's oddball time travel thriller 12 Monkeys. And I'm kind of fond of the John Schlesinger potboiler Eye for an Eye. Despite however fun these movies were, though, I think we can all agree that Best Picture nominees and “Top 10” material rarely come out of January.
But sometimes, of course, quality slips through the dreamcatcher of January. An examination of January release schedules usually includes the expected Satanic thriller or thrillers featuring a big star that was shot several years ago but is only coming out now to bank in on that actor's newly-acquired fame. But there are some films that came out in January that are actually legitimately excellent. Consider Alive, Frank Marshall’s notorious biopic of the Uruguayan rugby team trapped in the mountains. Some, you may find, are even the best ever made. Let's use our eyes to look at these:
City of God (dir. Fernando Meirelles)
Release Date (in America): January 17, 2002
Not just one of the greatest crime movies ever made, I would count Fernando Meirelles' City of God to be amongst the best films of the '00s. A raw, energetic, violent, turbulent, operatic, and beautiful examination of life in the crime-riddled favelas of Brazil, City of God plays like a more bustling version of Scorsese. It contains unflinching looks at the child warriors who are cultivated by a culture of drug money and open gun use, eventually zeroing in on a young boy who attempts to use the art of photography and underground journalism to escape the prison-like shantytowns. Roger Ebert loved the film so much, he put it on his Top Ten list… from the previous year. It regularly made best-of-the-decade lists. And it was a January release.
Waiting for Guffman (dir. Christopher Guest)
Release Date: January 31, 1997
The first – and arguably the best – in Christopher Guest's cycle of largely-improvised mockumentaries, Waiting for Guffman tells the somewhat pathetic but overwhelmingly heartwarming tale of a would-be local theater troupe from Blaine, MN, whose high school auditorium-level musical to celebrate the centennial of their small town becomes the life, the hope, and the dreams of all the people in it. There is even word that if it is seen by the right person (Guffman), the show may be taken to Broadway. The film is naturally and easily hilarious, full of one-liners and casual slapstick, but it also captures the bustling energy and roiling emotions that come from performing on stage. No matter if the show is a little silly, or the setting small. Guest loves the stage, and so do all the people in the film. What joy. And it snuck in early in the year.
Blood Simple. (dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen)
Release Date: January 18, 1985
As it turns out, The Coen Bros. have always been The Coen Bros., as evidenced by their shocking and taut debut feature Blood Simple. The directors' trademark quirkiness is present, although at a much more subdued level when compared to later opuses like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, used to compliment the noir-ish storyline about a cuckolded husband who hires a ruthless older hitman to murder his wife and wife's lover. The film preceded the indie boom of the 1990s, but still feels very much of a part with the indie scene, marked, as it is, by its streak of Coen-flavored dark humor. Stylish, exciting, and brutal, the film is often discussed highly by fans of the directors. The studio clearly didn't know what they had, however, as they dumped it in the middle of January. The movie, and the Coens, survive.
Sleeping Beauty (dir. Clyde Geronimi)
Release Date: January 25, 1959,
Of the so-called “Golden Age” of Disney animated feature films, most agree that Sleeping Beauty is amongst the best. I'm guessing its January release was intended to have the film mingle less with the prestige fare of December, and more with the kiddie matinees of the day. The 1950s weren't as commercialized a time as the current era where everything is marketed to within an inch of its life, but release patterns to tend to belie a certain savviness to what Academy audiences would react to, even if films were not yet being released on a national scale. Into this environ stepped Sleeping Beauty, a gorgeous, boldly colorful romance fraught with the grand, square 1950s Disney design that is unmistakable to any child who grew up watching these kinds of movies on home video. The film, based on a Grimm fairy tale, follows a trio of friendly fairies in their attempt to guard a blushing blonde princess from the machinations of a green-skinned harpy. You've seen it. If you haven't, for goodness sake, do.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Release Date: January 29, 1964
Wouldn't you believe it, this was a January release. I admit, this film and Sleeping Beauty did come out at a time when films opened in one city, and typically spent months – sometimes years – circling the country in ever-smaller theaters. The notion of a “national release” wasn't introduced until the 1970s. So the January release date did have less of a stigma then. But when it came to wooing Academy voters, December was still the preferred time to release film, in Los Angeles at the very least. It's baffling, then, that a film as famously subversive and amazing as Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove should be a January release. This is a political nuclear-struggle satire that is salient to this very day, and is so universally discussed and admired, it's often shown in high school classrooms (at least it was in mine). Did the studio have no faith in it? I would love to have heard the concern from the 1964 exec who either hadn't yet seen the completed film, or was afraid of audience reaction to it. “Dr. Strangelove? Too weird for most people. We can't release this during Awards Season!” Incidentally, the film was nominated for Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
I am currently besotted by ice, snow and schmoozing in Park City, Utah, covering the Sundance Film Festival. I may have already mentioned that it is cold. But if the string of mostly ambitious independent films I have seen over the last few days has done anything, it has reminded me that great movies come from just about anywhere, and – although the industry has very specific ideas about what type of film should come out at what time of the year – they can also come at any danged time.
Let’s look, very briefly, at a list of less-than-acclaimed films that were released in January over the last few years. That list includes such gems as Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Hotel for Dogs, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Bride Wars, When in Rome, The Spy Next Door, Bitch Slap, Season of the Witch, From Prada to Nada, The Devil Inside, Joyful Noise, One for the Money, Man on a Ledge and A Haunted House. Are they all stinkers? Well, yeah, kind of. Even the two or three films on that list I kind of liked are rather quantifiably bad on at least two or three levels. That’s a lot of cheap, often condescending genre fare that, at some point, studios probably stopped believing in, and dumped into January because even if they failed, there’s always the excuse that they, obviously opened in January. What did the studio executives expect?
But as Witney pointed out, there are quite a few films that turned out quite a bit better than studios probably expected, and earned a reasonable amount of respect, acclaim or at least durability in the years that followed. Some of them even made money. I’ve got a few January releases of my own that I’d like to remind you of, to give you some hope for the month’s upcoming releases, and to remind you that – no matter what stigma we may place on it – you can find diamonds in even the roughest rough. So go ahead and see Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Maybe it’s a lot better than it looks.
Gridlock’d (dir. Vondie Curtis Hall)
Release Date: January 29, 1997
Before Vondie Curtis-Hall directed Glitter, before anyone knew who Thandie Newton was, and before the untimely death of Tupac Shakur, there was Gridlock’d, an often overlooked but rather exceptional satire of a relatively unexplored issue: drug rehabilitation. Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth play heroin-addicted members of a jazz band, but when their lead singer, Thandie Newton, overdoses on her first hit, it’s an unmistakable wakeup call that inspires both men to enter rehab immediately. Although they run afoul of police and criminals alike, Shakur and Roth are basically decent people who are genuinely motivated to turn their lives around, but they can’t, because government sponsored rehabilitation programs are a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic red tape and indifference. Funny, thought-provoking and very moving stuff, and Shakur probably gives his best performance.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (dir. John McNaughton)
Release Date: January 5, 1990
Although John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was actually finished in 1986, it wasn’t released until January of 1990, and once you’ve seen it, you will probably understand why. Henry is probably the least-romanticized depiction of a serial murderer in movie history, grounded by a career-best performance from Michael Rooker in the title role. Henry is a drifter with dead eyes and non-existent charms who shacks up with a lug named Otis (Tom Towles) and his long-suffering sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Becky has a crush on Henry – her standards being rather low – and Otis is the kind of guy who, when he discovers Henry’s hobby, asks to tag along. The quiet horror of the main character is amplified when he has to contemplate his crimes with another person, and the fact that any two human beings could connect over such monstrous activity is as soul chilling as horror movies ever get. The scene where Henry and Otis videotape themselves murdering an entire family and the watch the tape afterwards, nearly apathetic, is the definition of evil. It’s unforgettable cinema.
Zero Effect (dir. Jake Kasdan)
Release Date: January 30, 1998
Zero Effect was marketed as a broad comedy starring Bill Pullman as a wacky Sherlock Holmes-type, with Ben Stiller as his straight man sidekick, hired to as private investigators to find a rich businessman’s keys. And while Pullman is indeed unhinged as Daryl Zero, and prone to outlandish behavior, Zero Effect interprets that behavior as deeply tragic. True, Daryl Zero is the kind of detective who can tell you everything about yourself at a glance, but the cost of his keen insight is a punishing and lonely objectivity that’s tested when his latest mark, a blackmailer played by Kim Dickens, is smart enough to challenge his notions and even break him out of his shell. Sure, you’ll laugh, but more importantly you’ll be fascinated by the characters, enmeshed in a satisfyingly twisty storyline, and really wish they’d made a sequel. A pilot was eventually filmed for a Zero Effect television series, with Alan Cumming taking over in the lead role, but it was never picked up for a series.
Man Bites Dog (dirs. Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel & Benoit Poelvoorde)
Release Date: January 15, 1993
Although typically billed as a mockumentary, this shocking serial killer story meets the criteria of the found footage genre, officially created years later, to an impressive “T.” A documentary film crew, playing themselves, has found a fascinating new subject: a homicidal maniac (co-director Benoit Poelvoorde) willing to chronicle his exploits on camera and reveal the secrets to his madness. Although not strictly a horror film, the film’s recurring theme – of journalistic objectivity challenged by documenting a story that demands moral outrage – is deeply unsettling, as the filmmakers find themselves struggling with just how much they are enabling Ben’s crimes, since they have every opportunity to prevent them. Man Bites Dog is violent in a physical and intellectual level, and it’s one of the very best films of its kind.
Taken (dir. Pierre Morel)
Release Date: January 30, 2009
Nobody expected much from Taken, on the surface a rather standard abduction thriller starring Liam Neeson, but when the film trounced the box office competition everyone took notice. And for once, the success was warranted: Pierre Morel’s film is a smartly written, excellently acted film whose simple concept – a former spy hunting for his kidnapped daughter – was easy to follow, even easier to sympathize with, and universal enough to allow Taken to cover more meaningful issues without seeming preachy. It can be taken as a face-value kidnapping movie, a metaphor for zealous American reactions to 9/11, or simply an empowerment fantasy for divorced dads who wish their families appreciated the importance of their time-consuming day jobs. No matter how you look at it, however, Taken kicks all kinds of ass. The sequel, Taken 2 (how they resisted “Taken Too” is beyond me), was disappointed, but not really the train wreck most critics said it was either.
Can you think of more great movies that came out in January? Let us know in the comments, or hell, just tweet us. That’s a thing people do.