By Darren Franich
Updated February 03, 2012 at 04:00 PM EST
Alan Markfield/Twentieth Century Fox

We can all agree that February is the shortest month of the year. That’s even true in a leap year like this, when Science lets February have an extra day. Now, where February is a good month for movies is extremely debatable. It’s not a dumping ground, like January; it’s also not a platform for releasing not-ready-for-Summer action movies, like March; and most of the best movies that “open” in February are just hitting the festival circuit. (The average civilian won’t get to see those movies until this time next year, when they’re disappointingly nominated for Best Picture.) But February is full of surprises — remember when Cedar Rapids opened last year? — and the most important movie to see this weekend is certainly a big surprise:

1. Chronicle

As superhero movies have become more popular, their essential formula has also become undeniably stale: An origin story, a love interest, a hero struggling to triumph over personal issues while simultaneously struggling to save the world. And then there’s Chronicle. Commercials have emphasized the movie’s found-footage aesthetic, but the film’s real achievement is making the possibility of superpowers feel new again, decades after Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider.

2. The Innkeepers

Director Ti West has made it his mission to rescue the horror genre from the murk of slasher remakes and Paranormal Activity knock-offs. The Innkeepers, like his retro-chiller House of the Devil, harkens back to a time when the people in horror movies were actual characters, not just walking meatbags filled with fake blood. (Innkeepers is currently playing on On Demand, if your local theater is only playing Money Train or whatever that Katherine Heigl movie was called.)

3. Haywire

After grossing a mere $15 million in two weeks, Haywire is quickly fading from the public consciousness, and star Gina Carano is likely staring down the barrel of a direct-to-DVD action career starring alongside Lance Henriksen in movies with Google-friendly titles. So be sure to catch her at her finest, knocking in the faces of Hollywood It Boys past (Ewan McGregor), present (Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum.)

4./5. The Artist/Hugo

The two most-nominated movies at this year’s Academy Awards also make a nice double bill: They’re both about the primordial days of moviemaking, but their tones are so madly divergent — Hugo is suffused with sadness, The Artist is a peppy charmer — that you’re almost guaranteed to love one and hate the other. Take a few friends and have a rousing debate afterwards.

6. The Descendants

I mean it as a compliment when I say that The Descendants is the single most normal movie in the Best Picture race. It’s not a stylized recreation of an older style of moviemaking. It’s not a period peace. It doesn’t focus on a pivotal moment in American history. It’s not a cosmic juxtaposition of one human life against the life of the universe. It’s not about the Oakland A’s. It’s just a movie about a dad trying to connect with his daughters. (Admittedly, that dad also owns hundreds of acres of Hawaiian land, and also looks like George Clooney on a bad day, which is better than I or any other man will ever look. But in Hollywood, “normal” is all relative.)

7. A Separation

The breakout Iranian film is a lock for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It even take Best Original Screenplay, unless the Academy suddenly decides it likes comedies (yay, Bridemaids!) or stays true to form by rewarding charm and weightlessness (meh, The Artist!) A Separation is also expanding to theaters throughout these United States. Check out the list of theaters here. If you’re a resident of Edina, Minnesota, then tomorrow is your lucky day, filmically speaking.

8. The Woman in Black

There’s a big question hanging over this horror movie. Can Daniel Radcliffe possibly star in a project that will ever make us forget about his generation-defining iconic role as Alan Strang, the nudist horse enthusiast of Equus? A nation, nay, a whole world of Strangheads will be lining up at movie theaters this weekend to find out.

9. Kill List

When my elder brother read the Oscar nominations, he had only two questions. 1) Where was Tintin, and 2) Where was Kill List? It’s admittedly a bit surprising that the Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson adventure film didn’t get nominated for anything other than its score. It’s slightly less surprising that Kill List was unrecognized, since it’s a British film that is just now opening in America, and also since it’s a horrifically disturbing film about contract killers with non-patrician English accents. It’s in select theaters and On-Demand. Treat yourself.

10. Drive

Admittedly, Drive is probably not playing at a theater near you, unless you live in a pretentious city or a college town, in which case you probably already saw Drive months ago. But the vast majority of America has yet to experience last year’s Goslingest Ryan Gosling movie, which is by turns swooningly romantic, shockingly violent, and violently romantic. That last one sounded wrong, but you get what I’m saying. Drive has just hit DVD (with a hammer). Watch the film, then download the soundtrack and take a long drive down a lonely freeway. Happy Weekend!

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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