Movie-wise, the first three months of any year are always rough-going. The second and third month, actually, because January, bad as it is commercially, is always covered by the Sundance Film Festival. And yet last February and March each offered a film that ended up on some 2010 ten-best lists: Roman Polanski‘s The Ghost Writer on 2.19 and Noah Baumbach‘s Greenberg nearly 30 days later.

Not this year apparently, to go by appearances and guesstimates. Which January, February or March openings will at least get me through the bad patch? A few seem intriguing, but ingredient- or expectation-wise I’m not seeing anything that’s remotely Ghost Writer or Greenberg-level. If somebody knows something I don’t, please advise.

The best January release (1.21) I’ve seen so far — certainly the one with the strongest performance — is Martin Pieter Zandvliet‘s Applause (1.21). It’s a straight character-driven drama that feeds off the magnetic Danish actress Paprika Steen, who plays a divorced stage actress with anger, alcohol and general-incompatibility-with-the-world issues. It opens during Sundance but Steen has been gathering admirers since Applause began screening two months ago.

There’s also Sang-soo Im‘s The Housemaid (1.21), which I saw and half-liked eight months ago in Cannes. “A sexual hothouse melodrama made in the spirit of Claude Chabrol and Brian DePalma,” I wrote. “Dark perversity within a well-to-do family…I wasn’t entirely floored but was done with it for the most part.”

Peter Weir‘s The Way Back opens the same day, but you can take your time. “I knew going in that anyone making a journey of 4000 or 5000 kilometers on foot will face terrible strain and hunger and hardship,” I wrote on 11.24. “What, then, did The Way Back tell me? It told me that making a journey of 4000 or 5000 kilometers on foot involves terrible strain and hunger and hardship.

Nor was I taken with John WellsCompany Men, which opens the same day. A drama of layoffs and despondency affecting three Boston-area white-collar guys (Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper), it “plays like an intelligent funeral in a nicely furnished minimum-security prison,” I wrote during Sundance ’10.

There’s also Richard J. Lewis‘s Barney’ s Version (1.14), which I panned on 12.6. “[It’s] so steeped in the lives and culture of Montreal Jewry that I was having trouble breathing,” I wrote. “Barney’s Version isn’t just about boomer-aged Canadian Jews who grew up and lived in Montreal, but will probably only play with boomer-aged Canadian Jews who grew up and lived in Montreal.”

There’s a chance that Gregg Araki‘s Kaboom and Hans Petter Moland‘s A Somewhat Gentle Man (which I’m watching on disc tonight) could pan out so let’s not say anything.

I haven’t seen Ron Howard‘s The Dilemma, Ivan Reitman‘s No Strings Attached (rumored to be a possible Norbit-in-the-ointment film that could diminish Natalie Portman‘s Oscar chances), Season of the Witch (i.e., the latest Nicolas Cage IRS-debt film) or The Green Hornet (forget it).

It’s too early to discuss February or March with any authority. But the only February release that looks even half engaging right now is Miguel Arteta‘s Cedar Rapids (Fox Searchlight, 2.11 — a Sundance ’11 premiere). And only three March releases stand out for me — Jonathan Liebesman‘s Battle: Los Angeles (Sony, 3.11), Jonathan Hensleigh‘s Kill The Irishman (Anchor Bay, 3.11) and Carey Fukunaga‘s Jane Eyre (Focus Features, 3.11).