By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist January 22, 2014 at 2:00PM
"Seraphim Falls" (January 26, 2007)
A couple of years before "Taken" made Liam Neeson the box office king of January, the actor starred in this modest, unloved Western, the feature directorial debut of TV helmer David Von Ancken, which proved out of step with the tastes of the time but holds up beautifully a few years on. Neeson plays a former Confederate officer, Carver, who leads a posse on the trail of Gideon (Pierce Brosnan), a Union man who he has a very personal connection to. It's sparse, spare stuff, reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and "The Outlaw Josey Wales," and while the pacing is somewhat languid, it's very deliberately so, and Von Ancken (who really should have gone on to bigger and better things on this basis) keeps your interest high nevertheless. Neeson and Brosnan (the latter in particular gives one of his best performances) are well-matched, letting your sympathies shift back and forth between them, but they'd surely both acknowledge that the real star of the picture is the landscape, stunningly shot by veteran DP John Toll ("Braveheart," "The Thin Red Line"). Not everyone will buy into the shift in the third act into more oblique, allegorical territory (aided by a fun cameo from Angelica Huston), but fans of the genre should eat it up.
"Cloverfield" (January 18, 2008)
"Ride Along" just took the crown for the all-time best January opening, but for years, that record belonged to "Cloverfield," the secret J.J. Abrams project that proved you could drop a potential blockbuster (albeit a cheap, relatively low-risk one) in the quiet months and still make a bundle. Perhaps even more surprisingly: the film was pretty good. Though all kinds of rumors flew about the nature of the film when the surprise trailer appeared before "Transformers" the summer before, it turned out that the film, directed by Matt Reeves, who went on to make the excellent "Let Me In," was a simple proposition: a "Godzilla"-type monster movie shot in a "Blair Witch Project"-style found footage form that, though now omnipresent, still felt innovative at the time. Sure, the leads feel like leftovers from Abrams and Reeves' TV show "Felicity" (though Lizzy Caplan and T.J. Miller, who've gone on to better things, are good value), but the script from "Cabin In The Woods" helmer Drew Goddard is lean and relentless, and Reeves keeps the pace thundering along, genuinely finding a new ground-level spin on the genre, with a monster that seems to defy logic with the glimpses you get of it, until the horrifying reality is revealed in full. Props to the filmmakers for sticking with such a bleak ending, as well, one that'd clearly be harder to pull off with a bigger property. Sure, it's probably more theme park ride than movie, but it's a very engaging ride while it lasts.
"Teeth" (January 18, 2008)
Having been a minor sensation at Sundance the year before, indie feminist horror "Teeth" was finally unleashed on unsuspecting audiences a full year later, and it's not surprising that it wasn't a huge smash, given the ... intimidating subject matter. But it's a shame, because audiences missed out on a smart and subversive film that, while uneven, was well worth the price of admission. Indie starlet Jess Weixler (who won a prize for her performance at Sundance) plays Dawn, a young Christian teenager who, after a classmate tries to rape her, discovers that she has vagina dentata, capable of severing the members of her partners. Melding Cronenbergian body horror with wish-fulfillment revenge and even some layers of John Waters-ish satire, the film, the debut feature from Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of pop artist Roy, and who also starred in Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet"), can't ever quite meld its tones, and suffers for it. But the central metaphor is richer than you generally find in the genre, there's a number of really watchably unwatchable sequences, and Weixler has a really excellent central turn that lingers long after the movie.
“Youth In Revolt” (January 8, 2010)
Coming at the end of a particular period of Michael Cera super-saturation probably didn’t bode well for the somewhat underrated “Youth In Revolt.” With the actor launched into fame thanks to “Arrested Development” and “Superbad,” audiences had arguably tired of Cera, who appeared to varying degrees of success in “Juno,” “Year One” and “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” by time it came to seeing him play the two lead roles in Miguel Arteta’s film. And that’s a shame because while it’s not perfect by any stretch—it runs out of gas well before it’s over, and it can be a touch too clever for its own good—there is much to enjoy in “Youth In Revolt.” Telling the story of a mild-mannered kid who develops an alter ego to help him find love and overcome the various problems in his life—only for that other persona to spin out of the control—Arteta’s film is a mostly successful dance on the high wire of that concept. Featuring a pretty terrific double turn by Cera, with some great supporting work from a vixen-ish Portia Doubleday, and an ensemble that features Zach Galifianakis, Ari Graynor, Rooney Mara, Fred Willard, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Justin Long and more, the film’s 90 minutes are never short on surprises. And frankly, in the doldrums of January, you are likely to find few films as effortlessly breezy as this, that has fun going right to the edge and crossing the line, even if it doesn’t always work.
"Fish Tank" (January 15th, 2010)
Her debut "Red Road" never quite found a U.S. audience, but British filmmaker Andrea Arnold's greatest success to date came with her second picture, "Fish Tank," which followed a Cannes debut in 2009 by livening up the January movie slate. Newcomer Katie Jarvis (found, famously, when a crew member spotted her arguing with her boyfriend at a train station) takes the lead role of Mia, an aspiring teenage dancer whose troubled home life is made even more difficult with the arrival of her mother's charming new Irish boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender, in the performance that, alongside "Inglourious Basterds" and "Hunger," helped elevate him to the A-list). The film, on the surface, feels like a checklist of kitchen-sink cliches—abusive parenting, statutory rape, traveler encampments, the near-death of a child. But Arnold's a more compassionate and humane filmmaker than that, never letting it slip into a series of miseries, and there's a soulfulness and even an optimism that's not found in comparable work. The director's collaboration with DP Robbie Ryan soars here, with the film unexpectedly but hugely effectively being shot in Academy ratio, the music's pretty great (particularly the use of Bobby Womack's version of "California Dreamin'") and there are two positively electric performances from Fassbender and Jarvis (the latter's barely been heard from since, which is a shame).
"Haywire" (January 20, 2012)
An interesting experiment in seeing if you can sell an arthouse-tinged actioner as something much dumber and more populist (a D+ Cinemascore suggests not...), Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire" is nevertheless a thrillingly executed foray into action cinema for the filmmaker, one of an incredibly strong brace of pictures leading into the filmmaker's retirement from features. Reuniting the director with "The Limey" screenwriter Lem Dobbs, the film was built from the ground up to showcase MMA asskicker Gina Carano, who plays Mallory, an operative for a private security firm who's set up and made a target by her husband (Ewan McGregor), who's also her boss. One probably has to acknowledge that Soderbergh's hopes that Carano was a movie star in the making didn't really come to pass: she kicks ass like nobody's business, but has a very flat screen presence. Fortunately, she's surrounded by A-grade talent here, including McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum (who gives the best performance in the film, a sign of what was to come with "Magic Mike"). But really, her line readings are a forgivable sin, because the clear, crunchy fight sequences, and Soderbergh's trademark vibe (helped by David Holmes' hall-of-fame score) are the real pleasures here. Is it style over substance? Yeah, perhaps, though the feminist reading of the genre is always welcome. But when the style is this good, that's not a huge problem.
"Miss Bala" (January 20, 2012)
The Mexican drug cartels have been popular fixtures in movies over the last few decades (normally as anonymous action movie villains, it should be said), but few portrayals are as powerful or wrenching as in "Miss Bala," Gerardo Naranjo's searing thriller that went from being the talk of the Croisette in May 2011 to a sadly overlooked U.S. release in January 2012. Naranjo's film takes as its lens Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a young Mexican woman who enters a beauty competition, only to witness a mass shooting caused by cartel members. This leads her into the world of the drug runners, who soon make her an uncomfortable mascot and pawn, as she sinks ever deeper into their world. Some writers (including this one) did take issue with the passivity of Laura's character, but to be fair, that's hardly untrue to life, and it's also about the only thing wrong with Naranjo's picture: it's a killer debut, shot with a style that melds docudrama with vintage Scorsese, but with a wrenching emotional punch that even something like "Traffic" couldn't manage. The set-pieces in particular are remarkable, immediately making Naranjo a hot name in Hollywood (his follow-up was the excellent pilot to FX's "The Bridge"). It might have struggled a bit on its January release a few years back, but it's well worth catching up with now.
"The Grey" (January 2, 2012)
You'd be forgiven for thinking that "The Grey" looked pretty dubious on paper. Hailing from Joe Carnahan, who'd squandered the immense promise of "Narc" on disappointing actioners "Smokin' Aces" and "The A-Team," it seemed to be a somewhat generic action/survival horror picture whose main appeal seemed to be that Liam Neeson—post-"Taken," the king of the disappointing first-quarter programmer—might at some point, punch a wolf in the face. And the January release date hardly helped the perception of its quality level. But the film sneakily turned out to be a little gem, a pitch-black, existential drama that anticipated the current vogue for philisophical survival tales ("All Is Lost," "Gravity" et al.) by a couple of years. The top-flight filmmaking saw Carnahan firmly back on form, with sharp, expressionistic editing and gorgeous photography from the excellent Masanobu Takayanagi ("Silver Linings Playbook," "Out Of The Furnace"). Neeson gave his best performance since, well, "Seraphim Falls," and a hugely engaging band of undersung and grizzled character actor favorites—Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozi, Joe Anderson—play his fellow survivors. It's a deeply sad, bleak movie, but an enriching one, to the extent that you're not remotely disappointed when Neeson fails to live up to the selling point of the movie and punch a wolf in the face. If "The Grey" can turn out to be a legitimately excellent movie, maybe there's hope for "I, Frankenstein" yet...
Honorable Mentions: Those are probably the best January releases of the last decade, but there are plenty of others that are worth mentioning. The "Assault On Precinct 13" remake in January 2005 remake wasn't great, but was better than it had much right to be, while the same month also brought James Cameron's IMAX documentary "Aliens Of The Deep." January '06 saw Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight" and Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble," while the next year saw the arrival of Nick Cassavetes' fitfully interesting "Alpha Dog" and the semi-decent Jennifer Garner-starring romantic drama "Catch And Release." January 2009 brought Terence Davies' moving documentary "Of Time And The City" (which we might have included in the main list if it had played more than one screen) and grisly British horror "Donkey Punch," while Chris Evans and Bryce Dallas Howard made a decent attempt at an undersung Tennessee Williams with "Loss Of A Teardrop Diamond" in January 2010. In January 2011, Gregg Araki's "Kaboom," Im Sang-Soo's "The Housemaid" and Stellan Skarsgård vehicle "A Somewhat Gentle Man" arrived, and the next year brought Murakami adaptation "Norwegian Wood," documentary "Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song," Felicity Jones/Jessica Brown-Findlay starrer "Albatross" and the OK Mark Wahlberg vehicle "Contraband." And finally, January 2013 saw the releases of Michael Apted's "56 Up," "I Am Not A Hipster," the first film from "Short Term 12" director Destin Daniel Cretton, Arnie comeback "The Last Stand," Alex Karpovsky-starrer "Supporting Characters," more Im Sang-Soo with "The Taste Of Money" and horror "John Who Dies At The End," all of which have something to recommend them. —Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth