20 Actually Great Movies Unceremoniously Dumped in January

Screenshot:  Before Sunrise/Warner Bros.
Screenshot: Before Sunrise/Warner Bros.

Big-budget movie spectacles tend to open in the summer, when there’s less chance bad weather will ruin critical opening weekend grosses. Movies with awards on their minds tend to come out in the fall, so that they’ll be fresh in the minds of critics and viewers as voting deadline approach. So where does that leave January?

Though studios never openly admit it, the first months of the year are widely recognized as a dumping ground: where problem projects go to die, and the province of lower-budget action and horror movies, comedies, and teen-oriented movies that don’t need to break big to make (a little) bank. And there is no dumpier month than January.

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However! If you are of both triangulated summer blockbusters and obvious awards bait, January can actually be a fun time to go go the movies—everything feels a bit less calculated, and a little more unpredictable. And every once in a while, you see something that’s actually pretty good. Here are 20 January releases that are actually worth your time. Some of them were even box office hits.

Scream (January 14, 2022)

Scream | Official Trailer (2022 Movie)

After a break of over a decade, the fifth Scream film (which really should have been called 5cream) revitalized the franchise, providing one of its biggest box office takes despite having a very nearly series-low budget. Sc6eam (not, it’s not called that either) arrives in March.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Bad Boys for Life (January 17, 2020)

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE - Official Trailer

The long-awaited third Bad Boys movie wasn’t just a monster January hit (and a series box-office best), it was also...good? The first two provided signature Michael Bay cinematic overload, leaning on the solid chemistry between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. The third (from directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, late of HBO Max’s canceled Batgirl film) blends comedy and action for a pretty perfect popcorn experience.

Where to stream: Fubo

Split (January 20, 2017)

Split - In Theaters This January - Official Trailer #2

M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t exactly stand with our most consistent directors; in fact, “split” might be a fitting epithet for his career. Indeed, after generating excitement with this twisty thriller, his immediate follow-up, Glass, did decent business (it was also a January success story) but opened to dismal reviews. But Split, which cost a paltry $9 million dollars, rode strong performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy to box office success. The “Shayamalan is back!” narrative didn’t last long, but the director is never down for long: Pandemic release Old did decent business in 2021 ($90 million against an $18 million budget), and this year’s Knock at the Cabin (based on an acclaimed Paul Tremblay novel) is already generating strong horror buzz.

Where to stream: Fubo

Mama (January 18, 2013)

Mama - Trailer 2 (HD)

Argentine director Andy Muschietti (It and It: Chapter Two) made a big splash with his debut, which follows two girls orphaned girls who for years have been living alone (sort of) in a cabin in the woods—though it quickly becomes clear that they’re being watched over by...something. It was a surprise January horror hit, and a surprisingly good one.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Taken (January 30, 2009)

Taken (2008) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The surprise hit that kicked off an endless stream of generally quite entertaining films (some direct sequels to Taken, others sequels in name only) involving Liam Neeson and his very particular set of skills.

Where to stream: Starz

The Grey (January 27, 2012)

The Grey Official Trailer #2 - Liam Neeson Movie (2012) HD

This one was marketed like another Taken-esque action movie, but plays more like a potential awards-contender: it’s far moodier and more introspective than Neeson’s other recent output. it did decent business, though. Also, Liam Neeson punches a wolf.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Cloverfield (January 18, 2008)

Cloverfield (2008) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

A triumph of viral marketing, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield was a surprise success, blending found footage tropes with Godzilla-style monster-movie action. It was never going to be an awards season contender, playing more in summer-blockbuster territory, so it’s all the more interesting that it did so well in January.

Where to stream: Pluto

Hostel (January 6, 2006)

Hostel (2005) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Thanks to 2004's Saw, we were swimming in torture porn circa 2006, but writer/director Eli Roth’s followup to the clever, gruesome Cabin Fever did it better than just about anyone, blending believable characters with stomach-churning gore. Certainly not to every taste, there’s an artistry to Hostel that made it a money-making hit with horror fans.

Where to stream: Tubi, The Roku Channel

Save the Last Dance (January 12, 2001)

Save the Last Dance (2001) Official Trailer # 1 - Julia Stiles HD

In many ways, it’s a predictable high school dance flick/romance—but it’s also just a little smarter than many other exampled of the form, with great performances from Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas. It was a big early aughts hit for MTV.

Where to stream: Paramount+

Zero Effect (January 30, 1998)

“Zero Effect (1998)“ Theatrical Trailer

Bill Pullman plays a modern Sherlock to Ben Stiller’s Watson in writer/director Jake Kasdan’s debut. Its blend of clever Holmes references and downright goofy comedy proved to be a disaster at the box office, but it quickly developed well-deserved cult status.

Where to stream: Digital rental

From Dusk Till Dawn (January 19, 1996)

From Dusk Till Dawn Official Trailer #1 - (1996) HD

This team up of director Robert Rodriguez and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino is probably the ne plus ultra of January releases: an elevated B-movie about a couple of criminals trapped in a saloon overrun by vampires, it was never going to win awards, but it immediately won a place in the hearts of genre fans.

Where to stream: HBO Max

Before Sunrise (January 27, 1995)

Before Sunrise (1995) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Richard Linklater’s two-hander romantic drama about young strangers who spend a night walking the streets of Vienna kicked off a nearly flawless trilogy that took nearly two decades to unfold. It made quite a bit of money against its small budget, but maybe it should have been released later in the year: The soon-to-be-classic was ignored during awards season.

Where to stream: HBO Max

Matinee (January 29, 1993)

Matinee Official Trailer #1 - John Goodman Movie (1993) HD

Nobody knew what to do with this smart, funny Joe Dante horror (?) movie that pays tribute to master of movie marketing and exploitation William Castle. It flopped, but took on cult status pretty quickly.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Juice (January 17, 1992)

Juice - Trailer

Ernest R. Dickerson’s directorial debut is a gritty, wildly atmospheric melodrama, with brilliant central performances from then-newcomers Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Silence of the Lambs (January 30 and February 14, 1991)

The Silence of the Lambs Official Trailer #1 - Anthony Hopkins Movie (1991) HD

This one’s on the borderline, only because it didn’t open wide until Valentine’s Day (of all days). Still; it opened in New York at the end of January, and mid-February isn’t terribly far removed from the January dead zone. Certainly this one deserves a mention for beating the odds (early release, horror movie) and having an incredible Oscar night—it’s one of only three films in history to sweep the five top awards categories, and the most recent to date. If Orion knew what it had on its hands, it almost certainly would have positioned it more overtly for awards season.

Where to stream: Tubi, The Roku Channel, Pluto, Showtime

Down and Out in Beverly Hills (January 31, 1986)

Down and Out in Beverly Hills 1986 Trailer HD | Nick Nolte

Writer-director Paul Mazursky’s remake of the 1932 film Boudu Saved From Drowning was very nearly as sharp, and perhaps funnier, than its source material, with Richard Dreyfus’s as a Beverly Hills yuppie who rescues hobo Nick Nolte from his pool, only to find Nolte’s character seducing pretty much everyone in his family. It did very solid business.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Scanners (January 14, 1981)

Scanners (1981) ORIGINAL TRAILER [HD 1080p]

Horror often does well in January, and then there’s David Cronenberg’s genre-defying breakthrough about competing groups of people with psychokinetic abilities (they mostly use it to blow up heads). It’s a cult classic to this day, and even made it into The Criterion Collection.

Where to stream: HBO Max, The Criterion Channel

M*A*S*H (January 25, 1970)

M*A*S*H (1970) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Not only was the film a breakout hit for fourth-time director Robert Altman, becoming the third-highest grossing movie of the year, it was also a major critical success, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It arguably should have won—the year’s other big movies included Love Story, Airport, and Patton, all of which are fine, but more conventional films. M*A*S*H served as a bit of counterculture counter-programming, a key to its success (and longevity). (OK, sure, the TV show helped too.)

Where to stream: Digital rental

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