It’s the month to fall in love with love – in all its messy, complicated, risky and sometimes life-saving ways. There’s awkward first love in a charming horror-comedy from French-Canadian filmmaker Ariane Louis-Seize, there’s familial love in a tender mother-son portrayal from Seoul-born Canadian director Anthony Shim, and screwball workplace will-they-won’t-they in the spy thriller from the co-creators of Atlanta.

It’s also the time of year to see Oscar-nominated movies in all their surround-sound, widescreen glory, from highly praised A24 release The Zone of Interest to the emotionally loaded performances of May December.

And if you’d rather stay close to home, literally and figuratively, Australian legends Eric Bana, Deborra-Lee Furness, Richard Roxburgh and Nicole Kidman give us captivating thrillers at home and in theatres. Plus, Letterboxd’s most-anticipated release of the year is almost here.

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For a queer comedy thriller: Drive-Away Dolls

In his first film made without brother Joel, Ethan Coen has teamed up with long-time collaborator Tricia Cooke (who’s edited a number of Coen brothers movies) to write and direct a lesbian rom-com road trip – and it’s just the ticket for a fun, fast and frivolous time at the cinema. It’s also the first in a trilogy of “lesbian B-movies”, according to the writers, an idea that sparked two decades ago and is launching with an all-star cast including Margaret Qualley, Pedro Pascal, Matt Damon, Colman Domingo and Beanie Feldstein. Qualley plays Jamie, who coaxes her friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) into a drive to Tallahassee. Except the car they’ve picked up has a mysterious suitcase in tow – one that’s linked to a group of inept crims. Drive-Away Dolls doesn’t take itself seriously. Expect laughs, funny accents, and uncharacteristic sex scenes for a Coen brother.
In cinemas from February 22.

For a chilling metaphor: The Zone of Interest

The monster you can’t see is often the most terrifying, and in Jonathan Glazer’s highly praised film the director doesn’t show us the horrors taking place on the other side of the wall. Instead he uses sound – and smoke – to remind us. The Zone of Interest is an adaptation of sorts of Martin Amis’s novel of the same name. It’s set at the home of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, with just bricks separating the Höss family from the death camp next door. Glazer worked with long-time collaborator Mica Levi (who composed the sound for 2013’s Under the Skin) to create a menacing soundscape that builds over time. Screen time otherwise focuses on the slow, methodical daily life of Höss’s wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, Anatomy of a Fall). It’s her comfort with and acceptance of the events next door that holds a disturbing mirror to the audience.
In cinemas from February 22.

For a tender coming-of-age story: Riceboy Sleeps

It premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2022, but this semi-autobiographical drama by Seoul-born Canadian director Anthony Shim has only just hit Australian cinemas, and it’s well worth seeking out. Its central story is about the push and pull between mother and son, So-young and Dong-hyun, as they navigate “otherness” in their new home in Canada. But settling into suburban school life isn’t without its heartache, isolation and reinvention. A young Dong-hyun experiences name-calling and food-shaming, and So-young is sexually harassed in the workplace. Though the film treads familiar territory, what sets Riceboy apart is its delicate, dreamlike quality. Shot on 16 millimetre, and set in the ’90s, the film has a nostalgic feel. Critics loved Ethan Hwang’s performance as the older Dong-hyun, and Shim really nails the internal struggle of feeling caught between two worlds.
In cinemas now.

For a return to Arrakis: Dune: Part Two

If Letterboxd users are the benchmark, then Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited follow up to 2021’s Dune is the most anticipated release of the year – and this time the star-studded cast includes Florence Pugh and a barely recognisable Austin Butler. The story picks up where it left off with Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides joining Zendaya’s Chani (finally!) to embark on a bit of revenge while trying to save the universe from a big, bad war. Space witch / Paul’s mum Lady Jessica is back, and in interviews actor Rebecca Ferguson has hinted at the epic scale and spectacle of part two compared with the first film. This one was shot entirely on Imax cameras, which is reason enough to see it on the biggest screen you can. The second reason is Hans Zimmer, whose soundtrack begs for your full attention.
In cinemas from February 29.

For gut-punching drama: May December

“It’s the moral grey areas that are interesting,” says Natalie Portman’s character Elizabeth – an actress playing the role of a woman who groomed and abused a 13-year-old student when she was 36. Elizabeth, embarking on research ahead of her big role, goes to live with the notorious Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her husband/victim Joe (Charles Melton). What follows is an uncomfortable watch – there’s the unravelling of the exploitation behind Gracie’s relationship with Joe, then there’s Elizabeth’s sticky motives to get under their skin. It’s based on the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau and her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau, and director Todd Haynes has made sure it’s a bit of a head scratcher. You’re supposed to feel the ick. You’re also supposed to question your complicity (and the filmmaker’s). You’re also invited to laugh, which is unsettling. Melton gives a powerful performance, and Haynes ensures he’s never the punchline.
In cinemas now.

For a bushwalk from hell: Force of Nature: The Dry 2

Eric Bana is back as the unrelenting, personally entwined federal police agent with a conscience in the much wetter follow up to the very successful 2020 film The Dry. It’s a straight adaptation of Jane Harper’s Force of Nature, which sees agent Aaron Falk go on a hunt for a missing informant, Alice (played by The Newsreader’s Anna Torv), who disappeared after a team-building hike. It’s an “everyone’s guilty” web of murky backstories, with satisfying performances from Deborra-Lee Furness and Richard Roxburgh as the power couple and top dogs. Where the first film was set in a drought-stricken country town, the sequel’s biggest character is the threateningly wet and disorienting Giralang Ranges (filmed in the Yarra Valley, Otways and Dandenong Ranges). Director Robert Connolly makes the most of that landscape in both the current-day mystery and the flashbacks to Falk’s childhood hikes. It wraps up neatly, but the pace and twisty character reveals keep it entertaining.
In cinemas now.

For a charming horror-comedy: Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person

Thought the sensitive-but-bloodthirsty vampire trope was sucked dry? It seems there’s always room for more, and this French-Canadian film is particularly playful with its deadpan comedy and transparently human coming-of-age themes. Ariane Louis-Seize won the best director prize at 2023’s Venice Days, which runs parallel to the Venice International Film Festival, and critics have loved its droll humour and straight-up fun approach to consent, finding one’s place in the world and parental pressure. It follows young vamp Sasha (Sara Montpetit) on her first attempt to draw blood – which she wants to do with a consenting human, naturally. Paul (Félix-Antoine Bénard) is ready to leave his life behind, but there are some things he’d like to tick off the list first. It’s no accident this kooky teen rom-com hits cinemas around Valentine’s Day.
In cinemas from February 15.

For sexy screwball action: Mr & Mrs Smith

Erase the thought of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt immediately. Yes, this is a redo of the 2005 film, but that was a remake of a ’90s American TV show – and this version is a whole lot smarter. Co-creators Francesca Sloane and Donald Glover (who worked together on Atlanta) have zeroed in on the relationship between two people in the same line of work who happen to be very hot and also good at killing people. Sloane refers to it as a “remix” that’s about clumsy, relatable humans as much as it’s about spies and guns. John and Jane are played by Glover and Maya Erskine (PEN15), who are very easy to fall in love with. Where the Jolie-Pitt version started with a couple realising they shared a vocation, this version is more of a workplace will-they-won’t-they. Their chemistry is as explosive as the onscreen action – and it’s wild to think Phoebe Waller-Bridge was originally cast as Jane. Erskine makes it her own.
Stream it on Prime Video now.

For a nuanced drama: Expats

If you liked the drama of The Undoing and the privilege of Nine Perfect Strangers, you’ll likely enjoy Nicole Kidman’s role in this six-part series set in Hong Kong. Kidman is Margaret Woo, one of the three American women living the high life in all the ways we can imagine – hiring “help” and being disconnected from the daily hum of the real Hong Kong. Margaret is trapped in limbo when her son goes missing at a busy market, where Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) is present but distracted by her phone. There are scenes both before and after this life-altering moment, and from various characters’ perspectives. It’s directed by Chinese-American Lulu Wang, based on the novel The Expatriates by Janice YK Lee, and though the focus is on Margaret, Mercy and Hilary (Sarayu Blue), the series branches out beyond the central tragedy to include stories about the 2014 umbrella protests and a 90-minute episode about the Filipina housekeepers. As Wang puts it, “I wanted to show that these characters are all human and that everyone, regardless of their circumstance, is fighting their own battle.”
Stream it on Prime Video now. Episodes launched weekly.