Five Films to See This January… That Aren’t Avatar: Way of Water

If you vaguely follow film news at all, you’ve likely seen the mildly obsessive tracking of the box office take of James Cameron’s latest film, Avatar: Way of Water. While it is – by all accounts – a visual spectacle that deserves a cinema outing, its dominance threatens to smother some of the other genuinely great films that are releasing in January 2023. A long time ago, January used to be a dumping ground for some of the worst of the worst films, but things change, and now we have Oscar hopeful films and instant family classics being released at the same time.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at five films that you should see this January… that aren’t Avatar: Way of Water.


The Banshees of Inisherin

In Cinemas Now

For older audiences.

British-Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh has an impressive ability to slip between drama and comedy effortlessly, often in the same line-delivery. With his latest film, The Banshees of Inisherin, he reunites Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson once more after their iconic turns in McDonagh’s debut, In Bruges. Here, the two play lifelong friends who have their bond split when Gleeson’s Colm decides to unexpectedly end their friendship. The catch is that if Farrell’s Padraic talks to him, then the musically inclined Colm will remove one finger from his hand.

What eventuates is a bleakly comedic, utterly heartbreaking, and monumentally tragic masterpiece of a film that at its close will become part of you in a way that precious few films do. Farrell delivers a career-defining performance, while supporting turns from Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan layer what life during the Irish civil war may have been like. Visually stunning, The Banshees of Inisherin is a rarity of a film, and it’s one that you simply must see in a cinema.

Blueback

In Cinemas: January 1

For older kids and families.

Robert Connolly opens the year with another family-friendly story, with his latest film Blueback adapting Tim Winton’s much-loved novella of the same name. Environmentally focused and passionately Western Australian, Blueback tells the story of Abby (Ariel Donoghue, Ilsa Fogg & Mia Wasikowska) and her mum Dora (Radha Mitchell & Liz Alexander) throughout the years. Ultimately a story about the relationship between mothers and daughters, Blueback is accentuated by an additional relationship, namely that of Abby and the titular ‘blueback’ blue groper.

Most appropriate for older kids, Blueback is an ode to our oceans and the life that lives within them. It charms and moves in equal measure, while Nigel Westlake’s score lifts your spirits brilliantly. The creature effects of Blueback are stunning, leaving you wondering exactly how Connolly and co. managed to train a wild groper (no secrets will be revealed here folks). The delight of watching Blueback comes from seeing the wonder of our natural world on a big screen, and it’s one that will leave you hoping for more action on climate change.

The Fabelmans

In Cinemas: January 5

This one is for younger adults and film loving families.

It’s a strange time we live in that critics like myself are begging people to head along to see a Steven Spielberg film, but here we are. After the less than exciting box office response of his latest film The Fabelmans in the US, attention turns to global audiences in the hope that they turn up to see this film which acts as a culmination of Spielberg’s work. Naff title aside, The Fabelmans pulls from Spielberg’s own life, with Gabriel LaBelle portraying the filmmaker in his youth. His parents are portrayed brilliantly by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, with Seth Rogen impressing in an important supporting role.

This is Spielberg reflecting on his own past, with the impact of seeing the Best Picture winning The Greatest Show on Earth in the cinema causing shockwaves throughout his life, inspiring the emerging artist to tell his own stories. Spielberg fans will see the influences of his life in his own work; moments of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saving Private Ryan, E.T. and more carry a different weight after watching The Fabelmans. What eventuates is a tender and compelling drama that entertains and engages completely, culminating in a memorable final scene that features a wonderful cameo from a famed Hollywood filmmaker.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

In Cinemas: January 5

For families of all ages.  

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a film that does what it says on the tin: it’s ridiculously cute, sweet, and downright charming. This is the story of Marcel (Jenny Slate), a one-inch-tall shell, who lives in an Airbnb with his grandmother, also a shell, Connie (Isabella Rossellini). When they encounter Dean Fleischer-Camp (who also directs), a man going through a separation, Marcel and him decide to find the rest of Marcel’s family.

What eventuates is a stop-motion delight of internet sweetness, as Marcel, Dean, and Connie, all turn to the internet to find where the rest of Marcel’s family has gone. In between these viral moments, we get a glimpse into how Marcel navigates a gargantuan home, whether it be in a tennis ball, or walking on the walls with honey. Additional sweetness comes from how Connie interacts with insects and grows a garden in a planter box. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On feels like it could slip into saccharine pap quickly, but the magic of its existence is that it never does, with the film ultimately leaning into the goodness of Marcel, positivity of family, and the tenderness of Marcel’s hopeful outlook at life. This is a sweet and uplifting experience that you’ll feel better for having experienced.

Emily

In Cinemas: January 12

One of the older audiences out there.

Frances O’Connor is no stranger to costume dramas and period films, having featured in an impressive array of notable films such as Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999), Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), and even James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 (2016). Now, O’Connor has taken the move into writing and directing with her first feature film Emily, telling a fictionalised version of the life of Emily Brontë (played with an astonishing turn from Emma Mackey), exploring the relationships of her life, including a painful and powerful bond she has with William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).

Emily left me stunned and moved like precious few films have done recently. Precisely made with O’Connor’s keen vision for how she wanted to tell this story being immaculately and tenderly presented on screen. Mackey’s performance sweeps you up in her wake, just as Nanu Segal’s cinematography embraces her presence and the world around her. Equally so, the era is presented in a manner that feels appropriate, with shots of dust hanging in the harsh cold of the English winter air accentuating the stillness of life, all the while it’s contrasted by the openness of the fields near the Brontë’s homestead. Emily sways between genres effortlessly, shifting from drama, to romance, with an element of horror added to amplify the ‘weirdness’ of Emily by way of an instantly iconic scene featuring a mask. Let this film encompass you completely on the big screen.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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