In Hollywood, the month of January is not traditionally known for delivering great numbers in terms of box office receipts. With the bulk of the prime moviegoers back to school and work, as well as millions of football fans tuned into the Super Bowl, January is usually considered a 'dead zone', with only leftovers from the Christmas season and some Oscar hopefuls in circulation. Thus, this has also been the time of year when the studios usually 'take out the trash', dumping films that wouldn't stand a chance at any other time of year. For example, at this time last year, audiences had slim pickings to choose from in terms of new films ("Supernova", "Next Friday", "Down to You", "Play It to the Bone", and "Eye of the Beholder"), as well as only a handful of Oscar-hopeful leftovers from 1999 (such as "The Cider House Rules", "The Hurricane", and "Girl, Interrupted"). Not surprisingly, the total box office take of new releases was only a paltry $50 million and total take for all films was $376 million.
However, the story was remarkably different for January 2001. By the third week in, the total box office take up to that point, $404 million, had already exceeded January 2000's total, and was poised to make January 2001 one for the record books (including an already record-breaking Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in the United States). Why the difference? Unlike last year, there was a surprisingly good selection of good product making the rounds this year, with several strong new releases making their debut, as well as double the number of Oscar-hopeful leftovers going wide.
Thus, for January 2001, the 'Winners' thankfully outnumber the number of 'Sinners':
"Save the Last Dance": Leading the pack of winners is current box office champion "Save the Last Dance", essentially a more teen-friendly remake of last year's "Billy Elliott". Only in this case, Julia Stiles is the hero and the story is transplanted from the bleak desolation of a British coal mining town to Chicago's rough-and-tumble South Side. A breezy and slick feel-good flick, "Save the Last Dance" is unexpectedly substantive and able to overcome its otherwise 'teen movie' trappings.
"Snatch": Another January surprise is "Snatch", a crime-comedy of errors revolving around an 84-carat diamond and the dim-witted criminals trying to get their hands on it. British director Guy Ritchie's latest offering is essentially a re-hash of his cult-fave "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" from 1998, albeit with a weaker script. But if you enjoyed the twisted 'Quentin Tarantino meets the Coen Brothers' black humor of the previous film, "Snatch" will be right up your alley.
"The Pledge": At first glance, Sean Penn's latest directorial effort may appear to be yet another 'serial killer thriller'. However, it becomes a rather unconventional and thought-provoking psychological drama/character study about a retired homicide detective (masterfully played by Jack Nicholson) who becomes obsessed and ultimately driven to madness by an unfulfilled promise to find a child's murderer.
In addition to the above new releases, January 2001 saw the expansion of several holdovers from 2000, all winners in their own right: "Finding Forrester", perhaps the best film of 2000; "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", Ang Lee's almost unstoppable wu shu epic; Cuban Missile Crisis historical drama "Thirteen Days" (despite Kevin Costner's terrible accent); "O Brother Where Art Thou?", the Coen brothers' take on Homer's Odyssey and Hollywood musicals; "Shadow of the Vampire", an interesting take on what really happened on the set of 1922's "Nosferatu"; Steven Soderbergh's ensemble piece "Traffic", an emotionally-cold yet thought-provoking dissection of America's illicit drug trade; "The Gift", Sam Raimi's return to the horror genre featuring a credible and compelling performance by Cate Blanchett; "Before Night Falls", director Julian Schnabel's visually-stunning yet meandering examination of the life and times of exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas; and "State and Main", David Mamet's wicked satire on Hollywood that crackles with a great cast and memorable dialogue.
Finally, looking at the 'Sinners' of the month:
"Double Take": Acclaimed novelist Graham Greene must be rolling in his grave, as his novella "Across the Bridge" was apparently the basis for this banal and incomprehensible road movie featuring second-banana actors (Orlando Jones and Eddie Griffin) in a third-rate script that can't even keep its story straight for more than ten minutes.
"Antitrust": About the only good thing you could say about "Antitrust" is Tim Robbin's spot-on imitation of Bill Gates. With plot holes so big that you could drive a truck through them, this cliché-ridden conspiracy thriller will only appeal to those who can't get enough of Ryan Phillippe, or really have it in for Microsoft.
"Sugar & Spice": A cross-pollination of "Bring It On" and "Set It Off", where inept cheerleaders try to rob a bank, "Sugar & Spice" ends up being sweet and sour in execution-- while it may have some memorable moments, they are far outweighed by the ones that fall flat.
"The Wedding Planner": After a couple of remarkable turns in "Out of Sight" and "The Cell", J. Lo settles for this painfully-contrived and often-illogical romantic comedy that should have been left at the altar.
"Chocolat": This leftover from 2000 is a comic fable about a comely chocolatier (Juliette Binoche) who enlightens a small French town with her magical sweets. Despite the Oscar-caliber cast and crew (including "The Cider House Rules" director Lasse Hallstrom), "Chocolat" has the moral complexity of "Footloose" (the movie from the 80s where Kevin Bacon teaches a town how to dance). But it's certainly not stopping Miramax from pinning all their Oscar hopes on it.
Will the good selection of high-quality films hold-up into the month of February, especially when buoyed by the release of the long-anticipated "Silence of the Lambs" sequel "Hannibal"? Or will the upcoming month be like last February, which saw a revolving door of mediocre efforts such as "Reindeer Games", "Hanging Up", and "The Beach"? Stay tuned until next time...