Pop quiz, hotshot. What do these directors — Kim Jee-woon, Steven Soderbergh, Joe Carnahan, Frederick Wiseman, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Gregg Araki, Im Sang-soo, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Miguel Arteta, Carlos Reygadas, Cristian Mungiu, Alex Gibney, and Woody Allen — have in common?
Answer: they've all made movies that opened in January in the last 5 years.
That's right, January: that time of year when movie theaters are supposedly as devoid of signs of intelligent life as the dark side of the Moon. Last week in The New York Times Magazine, Ty Burr compared January movies to a leper colony; "a hot zone of cinematic contagion," as he put it. He's far from the first, too; "January=bad" has been the general consensus amongst cinephiles for as long as I've been covering movies.
Stereotypes may not be accurate, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're baseless either — and sure, I've seen plenty of crummy January releases in my day. But in the last couple years, I've started to look at January with anticipation rather than dread. I've started to love January movies. And I've started to think that if the stereotype was ever true, it's really not anymore.
Dear reader, I can hear your skeptical huffs through my computer (so please huff a little more quietly). Right now you're probably naming a dozen bad January movies as evidence of my stupidity. You'll tell me about the horrors of "Hide and Seek," the terror of "White Noise," the assault of "Assault on Precinct 13," the lack of electricity in "Elektra," and the way "Alone in the Dark" made you feel truly alone in the dark. And you'll point out that all of those horrible movies came out in just a single, wretched January, back in 2005.
Like I said, stereotypes have to start somewhere. Do bad movies open in January? Sure. Do more bad movies open in January than, say, June? I'm not so sure. Let's use 2012 as a case study. Here's some of the movies that opened last January:
"The Devil Inside"
"One For the Money"
"Man on a Ledge"
And here's some of the movies that opened last June:
"Snow White and the Huntsman"
"Rock of Ages"
"That's My Boy"
"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"
"Seeking a Friend For the End of the World"
"People Like Us"
"Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection"
Now, you might quibble about a title or two. You might say you really liked "Prometheus" or that you admired the message of "Brave" or that you found "Seeking a Friend For the End of the World" a heartwarming romantic comedy about Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as the world's least convincing vinyl records enthusiast. But I could just as easily say that I liked "Contraband" as a no-frills B-movie thriller. Or that I admired the chutzpah of "Red Tails," which was a passion project for producer George Lucas for years. Plus, I didn't even mention the widely liked January releases from 2012: Soderbergh's "Haywire" and Carnahan's "The Grey."
Sure, some of those January 2012 releases were epically bad in a way that few of June's stinkers can touch. In my book, that's a good thing. A June bad movie has way too much money riding on it to be anything but mediocre and boring. With hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, a crummy June film is going to be test marketed and reshot and reedited to within an inch of its life. By the time it makes its way to you, if it's not working, anything interesting or unusual in it will have been focus-grouped into oblivion so the studio can protect their enormous investment.
A January bad movie, on the other hand, receives no such care (or meddling). Why throw good money after bad? Just cut your losses and let the thing really suck. And that's how you wind up with a movie like "The Devil Inside" which is so intensely stupid it's almost brilliant — and entirely entertaining. To put it another way: in January, you get trainwrecks. In June, you get controlled demolitions. I know which one I'd rather watch. And hey: no "Transformers" movie ever opened in January.
In other words, with low financial risk comes the opportunity for high creative risk, an agreeable quality shared by many January releases. Take, "Cloverfield," for example, whose enormous success at the box office in January 2008 seems to be the start of the reversal of the "January=bad" trend. "Cloverfield" had no stars, a found footage gimmick that was unusual at the time, and an admirably bleak ending. Similarly, last year's "The Grey" was sold as an over-the-top exercise in wolfpunching but was, in fact, a serious meditation on how people find the will to live in the darkest of circumstances. I don't want to spoil "The Grey"'s ending if you haven't seen it yet but let's just say it ain't exactly a happy one either. When was the last time you saw a big Hollywood movie with a big Hollywood star that had an unhappy ending in any month other than January?
Just last night, I saw another adventurous January release: "Mama," an unusually thoughtful horror film executive produced by Guillermo del Toro. It's a classic January movie; a boldly uncommercial spin on a disreputable genre, a horror film with no teenage characters or blood that's as interested in themes and ideas (like the nature of motherhood) as things that go bump in the night. It ends darkly and ambiguously and features a "monster" that is arguably less frightening than the two small children it raises for five years in a remote forest cabin. Anchored by a strong lead performance by Jessica Chastain as the kids' reluctant guardian and enlivened by strong suspense sequences, inventive visuals, and a thoroughly moody atmosphere, "Mama" is the sort of mature entertainment we all claim we want Hollywood to make more of — and here it is in the middle of January.
And these are the so-called "leper colony" movies; let's not forget all those auteurs I mentioned at the start of the piece. While Hollywood's track record in January is spotty (but increasingly successful), independent and foreign filmmakers' success rate is even higher. "4 Months, 3 Week, and 2 Days" opened in January. So did "City of God." And "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." And "Kaboom." And "Of Time and the City." And "Fish Tank." And "Silent Light." True, many of these movies only opened in New York and Los Angeles in January, and they didn't play your hometown. But with the increasing proliferation and decreasing stigmatization of video on demand, that's less and less true each year.
This weekend is admittedly not the most promising of January 2013. The fantasy horror adventure "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" looks like a disaster, while the anthology comedy "Movie 43" looks like 43 disasters in rapid succession. Still, there's also "Parker," starring action cinema's current standard bearer, Jason Statham, who's no stranger to January — his 2011 movie "The Mechanic" was yet another underrated but utterly satisfying dispatch from the Hollywood "hot zone." If you want to venture into indie territory, there's the trippy horror comedy "John Dies at the End" from "Bubba Ho-Tep" director Don Coscarelli. If you're in New York, Werner Herzog has a new documentary — "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga." Or I'd strongly recommend you catch up with "Mama" (I even liked "The Last Stand"). If this is what they show in the leper colony, someone diagnose me and ship me off.
Read more of "January is Hollywood's Very Own Leper Colony."