Once upon a time, January was the absolute pits when it came to movies. It was a month best known for dreck like Mortdecai, Meet the Spartans, and Movie 43. These films were more masochism than cinema, stuff that would challenge the most dedicated Bad Movie Night aficionados. Yet in the year of our M3GAN 2023? It may be the only good movie month left.
That shift is likely due to a confluence of changes. Big franchise blockbusters are stretching further outside their traditional summer window: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania will premiere on Feb. 17, the earliest a Marvel Studios release has arrived in theaters apart from Black Panther. Blockbusters already stretch until December, a month also staked out by Star Wars and Avatar movies, and sometimes, a Spider-Man (or men). This means January is now the only month left that’s reliably free from franchise fare. That’s because it’s a month uniquely resistant to branding: a 31-day stretch mostly defined by not belonging to the previous year.
In the old days, studios often used the first month of the year as a dumping ground, a place to offload projects that had little chance of success, due to poor quality or questionable marketability. Since awards season is in full swing in January as well, prestige pictures also took up a lot of oxygen in January, extending their theatrical runs or returning to theaters as word-of-mouth built around Oscar nominations. Streaming services changed this calculus: Now every streamer needs buckets of content. Studios have to decide what’s worth pawning off to a service, and what’s worth a January theatrical release. That’s a tricky question, and no one seems to have a set answer yet.
That’s left January as a month worth looking forward to, a way to kick off the year with a bunch of movies where you can see all sorts of unusual shit: the avant-garde, abrasive horror of Skinamarink. The brawny flight-crew action of Plane, a film that barely has a title. The petty little murder doll M3GAN, who will almost certainly graduate into a summer blockbuster in 2024. If you’re lucky, you can even catch a long-awaited international cult release like Shin Ultraman.
January’s existence outside of the hype cycle and perpetual franchise demands also means that streaming movies or on-demand releases can also breathe and be enjoyed on more generous and equitable terms than they can during the rest of the year. Under-the-radar films can soar in January if viewers take advantage of the lull and find them. Last year’s Indian action-comedy An Action Hero, the fantastic 2022 directorial debut of Anirudh Iyer, came stateside via Netflix on Jan. 27, and the pulpy Christian Bale period mystery The Pale Blue Eye was one of the first big Netflix releases of 2023.
January and its window of diverse, unique cinema won’t last forever. An MCU movie is a little over two weeks away, and soon, the blockbuster machine will start up again. Franchises will stir back to life. They will be ranked, and the rankings will be argued about. Debates about what they mean to us and whether or not we want to see where they go next will be renewed. It will again become difficult to talk about movies as singular works, instead of as points gained or lost on a corporate scorecard. For 11 more months, the din will continue, disconcertingly similar to the noise that raged the year before. Then it will be January again. Praise M3GAN.