A Cinematic Dumpster Dive

Gauging potential hits and misses of the chilly winter season

The first months of the year are known as the “dump months” in Hollywood. It’s a bleak stretch for cinephiles, traditionally packed with movies that studios dislike, and want to release with little fanfare. In the Hollywood ecosystem, the dump months serve an important purpose; not only is winter often a low point for movie revenue, regardless of content (the top-grossing film of January generally earns half of the haul brought in by December’s top grosser), but padding theaters with celluloid sacrifices allows for all-important Oscar coverage to dominate the news cycle.

But winter 2013 isn’t too bad, as far as dumps go. There are a number of questionable releases, but nothing as apocalyptically awful as last year’s John Carter. So what else makes a flick worth dumping? A couple of categories spring to mind:

It’s Big … and Bad. If a movie has the makings of a blockbuster and it’s getting released in January or February, then it’s fairly safe to assume that it sucks. Take Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (Jan. 25) as an example. It’s got fairy tale/fantasy cred and tons of CGI violence; it’s got a big, bad witch; it’s got Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner. If this flick were any good, it would be coming out in June.

It seems odd that a Lasse Hallström-directed adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel would get a quiet release—that’s a recipe for date movie heaven, but Safe Haven (Feb. 14), a chipper Sleeping With the Enemy knockoff, downgrades from Gosling/McAdams to Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel. Or how about The Last Stand (Jan. 18), in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a small-town sheriff trying to take down an escaped drug cartel kingpin on his way to Mexico? It’s billed as an “action-comedy” and co-stars Johnny Knoxville. Back away slowly.

It’s Scary. Perhaps inspired by the cold, dark landscape, winter often sees an uptick in gore-porn flicks and creepy thrillers. In the former category, we have Texas Chainsaw 3-D (Jan. 4) and The Last Exorcism Part II (March 1), which I hope don’t require further explanation.

In the latter there’s Mama (Jan. 18), which involves two little girls, and which, thanks to The Shining, I am already having nightmares about; Dark Skies (Feb. 22), which features Keri Russell battling aliens in the suburbs; and a reboot of Carrie (March 15) starring Chloe Grace Moretz as the blood-drenched anti-heroine and Julianne Moore as her fanatical mother. Like we needed another reason to be afraid of redheads.

It’s Weird. Studios sometimes take a gamble on bizarre films this time of year. If they do well, everyone wins, and if they don’t … to paraphrase Chinatown, forget it, Jake, it’s dump month. Charlie Sheen manages to star in the surrealist dramedy A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Feb. 8), about a 1970s man in free-fall after his girlfriend dumps him, which is directed by Roman Coppola with a hyper-stylized aesthetic that falls between Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and an acid trip. Warm Bodies (Feb. 1) also attempts offbeat genre-bending, with Nicholas Hoult playing a zombie in an apocalyptic world who falls for a human teen—think Romeo and Juliet, only with more flesh eating and sarcasm.

It’s Small. Winter can be a boon to little movies with niche audiences, such as Quartet (Jan. 11), Dustin Hoffman’s screen adaptation of a British play about a retirement home for musicians that features multiple septugenarian scene-stealers, including Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon; or Struck by Lightning (also Jan. 11), a coming-of-age comedy starring—and based on the book by—Glee’s Chris Colfer.

It Tested Poorly With Audiences. I’m just guessing here, but how else do you explain star-studded releases like Broken City (Jan. 18), in which Mark Wahlberg plays an NYPD cop-turned-private investigator following the mayor’s (Russell Crowe) cheating wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones)? And I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors of Movie 43 (Jan. 25), a mash-up of raunchy comedy vignettes (the red-band trailer includes references to poop, periods, pubes, and “sucking off a hobo”) starring Halle Berry, Emma Stone, Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet and Gerard Butler as an angry leprechaun! No word yet as to who sucks off the aforementioned hobo. You’ll have to buy a ticket for that.

It’s Originally From 1986. See also: Top Gun 3-D (Feb. 8, IMAX). That volleyball scene will really come alive.

But just as bad movies seem worse during the dump months, good movies are often great, owing to the fact that they need to be strong enough to overcome the box-office slump. Of course, some of these might end up falling into one of the above categories, but I’m hoping they’re as kick-ass as they sound.

Gangster Squad (Jan. 11), for example, is a cops-and-mobsters drama with a Dick Tracy look and a stellar cast led by Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Josh Brolin. It was originally slated for September but got pushed back in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado, shooting—both a good call on the part of the distributors and a telling sign that it’s much better than its release date would suggest. Other worthy thrillers include Side Effects (Feb. 8) an edgy Steven Soderbergh meditation on drugs, and Stoker (March 1), a creepy, cerebral horror story pitting troubled teen Mia Wasikowska against a wild-eyed Nicole Kidman as her unstable widowed mother. And A Good Day to Die Hard (Feb. 14), the long-awaited fifth installment in Bruce Willis’ balding but still brawny franchise, seems like a summer blockbuster sent early to cure us of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Hell, even Snitch (Feb. 22), a vehicle for The Rock about an undercover drug informant, looks pretty decent—or, have I just had too much New Year’s champagne?

March ramps up the seratonin-boosting screen time with two sweeping, CGI-packed live-action epics based on children’s stories. There’s Jack the Giant Slayer (March 1), with Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci; and Oz the Great and Powerful (March 8), an origin story starring James Franco as the titular wizard. And three comedies look amazing based on their leading duos alone: Identity Thief (Feb. 8), which unites Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in a credit card fraud caper; Paul Weitz’s Admission (March 15), a dramedy that brings together Tina Fey and Paul Rudd; and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (March 15), in which Steve Carell and Jim Carrey play dueling Vegas comedians in Siegfried and Roy mullet wigs.

So, don’t let the dump months get you down. There are diamonds—at the very least, Skittles—to be found in the rough.