There’s no month quite like January on the movie release calendar. It’s the worst. January is a month to catch up on the awards contenders released in the weeks prior and for studios to drop all their wide releases they have no idea what to do with. The reasoning is simple. There are no major vacations for one. And two, if a movie is really good, the studio would’ve either released it earlier over the holidays, or will hold it until the summer.
Basically, if a movie comes out in January, most of the time you know it’s going to stink. Over the past few years, however, the early calendar-dump months have been getting slightly more competitive. In the near future, we’re going to start getting legitimate blockbusters in March. But that’s a new practice. For the past several decades, January has been a horrible month to release movies.
With that knowledge, we decided to go back through history. Were there any really good movies released in January? The answer is “Yes,” but it’s not as many as you’d think. In fact, in the past 35 years, I found only about 30 films most people would consider “good.” We’ll mention them all below, then dive a bit deeper on the better ones. Below, read about the 15 best January movie releases of the past 35 years.
Before we get to the list, a bit about the self-imposed rules. I eliminated any film that opened in December and then got a wide release in January. If it premiered at Sundance, which is in January, that didn’t count either. And anything that was re-released in January didn’t count. (Sorry, 1997’s Star Wars: Special Edition.)
As for why I picked 35 years, that just seemed like the right amount of time. It’s a few years after the birth of the modern summer blockbuster, and just enough time for Hollywood to pay more attention to the calendar. The number is mostly arbitrary, but there is some thought behind it.
To begin, here are 15 films I considered while making the list, but simply didn’t make the cut either because they weren’t good enough or haven’t become classic enough.
- The Falcon and the Snowman – January 25, 1985
- Fandango – January 25, 1985
- Outrageous Fortune – January 30, 1987
- Gleaming the Cube – January 13, 1989
- Internal Affairs – January 12, 1990
- White Fang – January 18, 1991
- The Hand That Rocks the Cradle – January 10, 1992
- Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight – January 13 1995
- She’s All That – January 29, 1999
- Orange County – January 11, 2002
- A Walk to Remember – January 25, 2002
- Torque – January 16, 2004
- Assault on Precinct 13 – January 19, 2005
- Notorious – January 16, 2009
- The Book of Eli – January 15, 2010
In that list you start to see a trend as time gets closer to the present. More teen fare, more urban films, and more horror. That’s probably because many films in those genres did well in this month over history. Now onto the list.
The 15 Best January Movie Releases of The Past 35 Years
15. Hostel – January 6, 2006
Eli Roth’s slow-burn torture horror film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in late 2005, but didn’t open wide until January 2006. It opened number one with almost $20 million and ended up with a gross of $80 million worldwide, spawning multiple sequels. Not bad for a $5 million budget.
As a film, I still enjoy Hostel because though Roth really goes for it with the gore towards the end of the film, the movie is never in a rush to get there. It’s a deliciously excruciating wait until the blood really starts to fly.
14. Leprechaun – January 8, 1993
Though it spawned a copious number of sequels after its release, the original Leprechaun – which starred Warwick Davis and Jennifer Aniston – was not a hit. It made about $8.5 million domestically upon initial release. However, that early Nineties release date and the fact it probably hit home video around the summertime started the ball rolling in what would eventually become a big cult series.
No, Leprechaun isn’t that good. But it’s one of those horror movies that’s enjoyable simply because it’s so goofy. And there are some scares and gore here and there too. It’s both not a surprise it wasn’t a hit at the box office, nor that it actually had a life after.
13. Higher Learning – January 11, 1995
After Boyz N The Hood and Poetic Justice, director John Singleton was hot. He followed up those films with this racially-charged story that feels as poignant today as it did 20 years ago. The January release was probably a result of the studio being unsure how to handle the movie. As a result, it ended up doing okay, grossing almost $40 million overall and opening at #2.
Though I haven’t seen it in a long time, I find myself thinking of Higher Learning a lot. Not only because, as a young man, it was one of the first times I’d seen issues like these portrayed on screen, but the incredible cast including Omar Epps, Michael Rapaport, Cole Hauser, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Connelly and Ice Cube.
12. Smokin’ Aces – January 26, 2007
Action movies that are kind of weird are perfect for January. Joe Carnahan’s kinetic crime thriller was a good fit back in 2007. It opened at #2 and ended up grossing over $57 million against a $17 million budget. Not a great return, but the film generated enough good will to birth a few sequels.
Smokin’ Aces is definitely not Carnahan’s best movie, but it’s filled with incredible energy and fun performances. It’s the director really swinging for the fences before learning to dial things back and bit and save the big action and spectacle for when it was needed.
11. Juice – January, 17 1992
By the time Juice opened in 1992, the hip-hop influenced urban drama was peaking. Boyz N the Hood and New Jack City hit the year before, Menace II Society would come out the year after and Juice, unfortunately, got kind of lost in the middle. It grossed about $20 million total after an $8 million opening.
Juice might have been a bit lost in the shuffle but the tumultuous relationship between the four lead characters, specifically those played by Tupac and Omar Epps, give the movie a real strength. Unlike Boyz or New Jack City, both of which are a bit more about the areas in which they take place, this movie was primarily great a character piece. It boasts solid performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Queen Latifah, too.