Least Dire Jan Header

This week sees the release of "I, Frankenstein," and if ever there was a definition of a January movie, it's "I, Frankenstein." Once-promising actor reduced to action-movie paychecks en route to some kind of TV series? Check. Terrible CGI? Check. "Underworld"-aping plotline pitting mythological beasties against each other? Check. Barely screening for the press? Check.

The first month of the year, when the box office is still dominated by awards fare that opened in limited release at Christmas, tends to involve fairly slim pickings when it comes to new releases, with orphans, rip-offs, horror sequels, and contractual obligations generally making up the arrivals, which tend to slink out of theaters by the time February rolls around.

But there are always exceptions to the rule, and so to commemorate the arrival of the most January-ish January release of all time, we've picked out ten movies released in the first month in the last ten years that prove that, sometimes, it is worth leaving the house before Valentine's Day. For the record, we've included only movies that went into limited or wide release in the U.S. for the first time (no awards season expansions or re-releases) between January 1st and January 31st of their given year. Take a look below, and add any omissions in the comments section. And if you're in the mood for some more nourishing January fare in 2014, why not try "Gloria" or "Stranger By The Lake," which come highly recommended and hit theaters on Friday.

Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World

"Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World" (January 20, 2006)
It's probably no wonder that the now-defunct Warner Independent Pictures decided to sneak out a movie called "Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World" in the quiet months of January, given that it was less than five years after 9/11, and it had the potential to offend pretty much everyone from the title or premise alone. But it's a shame, because Albert Brooks' film (his last directorial effort to date, and a few years before "Drive" and "This Is 40" revived interest in him again), while not a classic like "Real Life," Modern Romance" or "Lost In America," is a reminder that he's a comic voice that we deserve to hear much more frequently in the movies. Brooks plays a version of himself, sent by the government (represented by actor/politician Fred Dalton Thompson, also playing himself) on a mission to India and Pakistan to find out what makes Muslims laugh. The term "equal-opportunity offender" has been bastardized by the likes of Seth MacFarlane, but here, Brooks gives it a good name—he doesn't pull his punches, with some genuinely close to the bone gags, but the real object of his satire is the ego of both his on-screen surrogate and the country from which he hails. Not everything works, and it's probably for fans of Brooks' earlier work more than for newcomers, but it's still a sly, uncommonly funny and much-misunderstood piece of satire that deserves a boost in its reputation.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story

"Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story" (January 27, 2006)
The second of the five collaborations to date between director Michael Winterbottom and actor Steve Coogan, "Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story" never hits the heights of "24 Hour Party People" or "The Trip," but certainly stands head and shoulders above "The Look Of Love," and makes a damn good fist at adapting a novel that many had deemed unfilmable. Laurence Sterne's book, published between 1759 and 1767, is ostensibly a simple biography, but one where the author's inability to tell a story, getting lost amid transgressions and sidebars, was always going to be tricky, but Frank Cottrell Boyce's smart, Kaufman-esque screenplay finds a way in by setting it against the backdrop of Michael Winterbottom (Jeremy Northam) and Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan)'s attempt to make a film of the book. In its pricking of Coogan's celebrity, and the depiction of his rivalry with co-star Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon), it's a precursor to "The Trip," but the film's also its own beast, unsatisfying almost by design but hugely enjoyable along the way. In main part, that's thanks to a game cast (also including Gillian Anderson, Keeley Hawes, Shirley Henderson, Stephen Fry, Ian Hart, David Walliams and Naomie Harris), but also Winterbottom and Cottrell Boyce's willingness to embrace the more profound aspects of the novel, and the post-modern in-jokes help make it more of a faithful adaptation than one that followed the spirit of the text more closely.