Each year, winter brings a slew of unfortunate consequences. For moviegoers, January and February are almost always the worst months of the cinematic year, clogged with throwaway productions the studios are too ashamed of to even fully promote while people catch up on awards season favorites still expanding to certain theaters. Even among the crop of lousy films that characterize Hollywood’s so-called “dump months,” there are occasionally a few winners. Let’s look back at some of them, and hope there will be a few of them this year too.
1. The Silence of the Lambs
Only a select handful of films throughout history have been able to snag awards in all top five categories of the Academy Awards — best picture, director, actor, actress, and adapted screenplay — but The Silence of the Lambs managed it despite having a release date in February 1991. This chilly crime thriller, centered on a rookie FBI agent’s attempt to use one serial killer to track down another, made enough of an impression on general audiences and Academy voters that it managed to stay fresh enough to clean up at the Oscars almost an entire year after its release.
2. Office Space
Office Space most certainly didn’t get any recognition from the Academy, but this workplace satire from King of the Hill creator Mike Judge managed to find its audience after its disappointing if not disastrous release on February 19, 1999. After barely making back its $10 million budget in theaters, in part due to an advertising campaign Judge despised, the film eventually sold well on DVD and is now recognized as a cult classic — a well-earned status, given the clever commentary present in this story of a depressed white collar drone (Ron Livingston) who becomes refreshingly apathetic after a hypnotherapy session gone wrong and decides to pull off an embezzlement scheme.
Amid dozens of unoriginal found footage horror movies, 2008’s Cloverfield stands as one of the most original and, thankfully, one of the most successful. The monster movie, as seen from the terrified people on the ground, mined a considerable amount of tension and even humor from the script by Drew Goddard and the shaky cam direction, which strategically hid its hulking monster for most of the runtime, even as it ran amok in New York City. Audiences responded favorably to the film, and it made $170 million from a $25 million budget, becoming the most successful January release of all-time (though it has since been surpassed by Ride Along). Now it looks like a Cloverfield sequel may be on the way.
There’s a lot going on in Matinee, released in January 1993, between its detailed portrait of a small town gripped by the Cuban Missile Crisis to a goofy depiction of old B-movies featuring a lovable shyster promoter played by John Goodman, and one gets the feeling Universal Pictures wasn’t quite sure who would be interested in such a singular movie-going experience. In spite of its flaws and overstuffed ensemble cast, Matinee succeeds thanks to its clever attention to period detail and honest love of film. Joe Dante, who moviegoers will know for such silly classics as Gremlins and The ‘Burbs, managed to make Matinee into a movie that works as both genuinely affectionate tribute and ruthless satire.
Who wants to watch a movie where Kevin Bacon leads a small group of rural desert dwellers against giant underground monsters? As it turns out, plenty of people. Before its release on January 19, 1990 — at the height of dump season — even Bacon thought Tremors must be a lowpoint in his career, but audiences and critics reacted warmly to the creature feature based on its clever mix of horror and comedy as well as its entertaining ensemble cast. Spawning a series of sequels and earning a respectable $48 million at the box office, Tremors may not have much to it, but it’s at least quality entertainment no matter what time of the year.
6. From Dusk Till Dawn
Quentin Tarantino was at the height of his cinematic influence around the mid-’90s when Buena Vista Pictures dumped From Dusk Till Dawn, which featured Tarantino as a writer and star with his buddy Robert Rodriguez directing, unceremoniously in January 1996. The film is an audacious switcheroo, blending typical Tarantino stylish bloodshed and tension with outlandish horror in one of the most jarring shifts between genres you’re ever likely to see. Critics and audiences alike had lukewarm responses to the delirious film, which earned back its budget but not much else, but it has since become revered as a cult film.
7. Before Sunrise
Director Richard Linklater won more than a few awards at international film festival for this early triumph in his career, which features Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as young strangers who meet on a train to Vienna, where they do little more than walk around and speak for the entirety of the film’s run time. The actors and their conversation topics are fascinating, and the direction is stylish but non-intrusive, deftly following them through romantic locations as they shyly discuss themselves and their sometimes naive beliefs about the world around them. It wasn’t promoted enough to have a major impact at home, but it still made more than twice its measly $2.5 million budget upon its January 1995 release.
8. Groundhog Day
February isn’t prime real estate for a dark comedy with a philosophical bent, but it makes sense that Groundhog Day was released only 10 days after its namesake holiday in 1993. The Bill Murray vehicle, directed by frequent collaborator Harold Ramis, is one of the actor’s greatest comedic roles and pointed toward the dramatic bent of his later roles by focusing on his sometimes bleak evolution as a person who becomes trapped living the same miserable day on repeat, confined to a tiny Pennsylvania town for seemingly all eternity. Reception was generally favorable upon its release, but Groundhog Day has only continued to rise in the estimations of movie fans in the intervening years.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!