My Case Of posts where I serve as the defense for and prosecution against the Best Picture, Director, and four acting competition hopefuls arrives at our second contender in the biggest race of all. That’s Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s long-in-development sequel to 2009’s 3D game changer.
The Case for Avatar: The Way of Water:
If the Academy wants to honor the highest grossing worldwide pic of the bunch, this is your movie. Cameron’s follow-up just surpassed $2 billion at the global box office and has ruled the domestic box office for seven weeks running.
The Case Against Avatar: The Way of Water:
If the Academy wants to honor the highest grossing domestic pic of the bunch, Top Gun: Maverick is their movie. It’s the sequel that had the best nominations haul on Oscar noms morning. Water‘s four overall mentions are less than half of the nine achieved by the original 13 years ago. It won three – Art Direction (now Production Design), Cinematography, and Visual Effects. This one seems destined for a sole victory. Cameron couldn’t make the final five for his direction (he did get a Globes nod) and editing is another significant omission.
Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects
That likely win is in Visual Effects. With the aforementioned whiffs in direction and editing and the less than impressive haul (compared to part 1), Water was pretty fortunate to make the cut at all.
My Case Of posts will continue with The Banshees of Inisherin!
If you missed my posts covering the other BP contenders, click here:
Avatar: The Way of Water is both visually sparkling and narratively flat. In that sense, James Cameron’s sequel is much like the 2009 original (which happens to be worldwide highest grosser in history). The effects thirteen years ago were revolutionary and kicked off a mostly unfortunate trend of tentpoles getting the three-dimensional treatment. That sense of wonder from Avatar is present occasionally below the surface in a few astounding underwater sequences. Many blockbusters have competed with this franchise in visual splendor and come up short and that includes some shoddy MCU battles. Cameron and his crew can still wow, but subpar writing and a lack of tight editing remains a problem. If you loved the forests of Pandora in part 1 and didn’t want to leave, you’ll likely love lounging in the aquatic action of this follow-up. If your feelings were mixed like mine were, expect a similar reaction.
Former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na’vi spiritual leader in waiting Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are married with four kids as Water begins (it’s set a decade and a half plus post Avatar). Adopted teenage daughter Kiri (voiced by Sigourney Weaver) is miraculously spawned from Sigourney’s scientist in the original. We suspect she might have special powers if she can get over her Jan Brady lot in life. Older brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) is the responsible one while second born boy Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) is the rebel. Youngest girl Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) is eight and precocious. The Sully tribe are living a peaceful existence until those mean corporate Earthlings return to Pandora. On their list of plays is total colonization as the home planet is dying.
Due to a memory implant system, Stephen Lang’s villainous Colonel is leading the charge in the guise of a Na’vi big blue boy. He has revenge on his mind since it was Neytiri who arrowed him to death years ago. There’s also a son he left behind that the Sully’s are raising who goes by Spider (Jack Champion). Clad in a loincloth, his character comes off as a cartoonish plot device. He’s got about as much depth as Bam Bam Rubble. The dynamic between Spider and his father is one of a few daddy issues happening. I half expected a sky complected Maury Povich to interrupt and start moderating.
Since Jake is being targeted for his skill in fighting off the Sky People, he relocates his brood to the tropical island of At’wa Attu. They feel out of place among the residents who spend much of their day submerged. The chief of their clan known as the Metkayina is Tonwari (Cliff Curtis). He and his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) are skeptical about harboring their guests. It’s in and around the island where some memorable moments happen. The Metkayina share a spiritual connection with the giant mammals swimming below. Lo’ak befriends one of them and it’s a subplot that clicks.
Part 2 relegates Jake and Neytiri to the sidelines for much of its three hours and 12 minutes. A larger focus is on their offspring and how they feel like fish out of water. The filmmaker’s own well-documented fascination with the deep comes in handy with the whale tale portions and beyond. The bulk of its themes, on the other hand, are heavily borrowed from before. Cameron and his tech wizards can enthrall us and exasperate us in this new habitat that questions our humanity.
Avatar: The Way of Water surfaces on your 3D and IMAX screens this Friday. It is, of course, James Cameron’s follow-up to 2009’s original which still stands as the biggest worldwide grosser of all time (and third overall domestically). The social media embargo lifted last week and the common refrain was “don’t bet against James Cameron”. I held off on my Oscar speculation until the official review embargo lapsed. That happened today.
Currently at 85% on Rotten Tomatoes (part 1 ended up at 82%), many critics are claiming this is an improvement over the first. Some of the same gripes remain including that it is overlong (3 hours and 12 minutes) and underdeveloped in its screenplay. Praise for its technical work is more universal.
In 2009, Avatar made an Oscar splash with nine nominations: Picture, Director, Art Direction (now Production Design), Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing (the Sound races are now combined), and Visual Effects. It won 3 – Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects.
Water has a chance of receiving the same number of nods. On Monday, the Golden Globes put it in their five for Picture (Drama) and Director. I already believe the Academy will make room for this in BP. It should be the second massive international blockbuster (alongside Top Gun: Maverick) in the mix. Cameron showing up in the directing quintet is not as automatic.
Let’s dispense with the easiest items. This is going to win Visual Effects just like its predecessor. That’s one of the slam dunk categories you can cross off already. Production Design and Cinematography and Sound are all probable inclusions. I’m less certain about the score and editing. Then there’s the Weeknd, who contributed the song “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength)”. I’m not so sure about its strength in that competition. He needs to overcome other superstars such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Billie Eilish and that could be a tall order.
You’ll notice I haven’t discussed the performances or the screenplay. While there’s kudos for returnees like Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver (in a different role than in 2009), don’t expect the acting to capture the attention of voters. Given that the writing is the most faulted aspect, don’t hold your breath expecting Cameron and cowriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver to contend.
Bottom line: Avatar: The Way of Water looks to be Cameron’s third movie in a row (after Titanic and Avatar) to be in the BP race. Look for its nomination total to be at least 4-5 and maybe more. In other words, to borrow a phrase from most of Twitter last week, don’t bet against James Cameron. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…
Hollywood looks to be awoken from its box office slumber when Avatar: The Way of Water surfaces on December 16th. After plenty of delays in the release date, James Cameron’s sequel to his 2009 record breaking phenomenon comes with a reported budget in the neighborhood of $400 million. Clocking in at 3 hours and 12 minutes, the 3D sci-fi epic is the only newcomer on the pre-Christmas weekend and it should dominate the marketplace. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Giovanni Ribisi, Dileep Rao, and Matt Gerald reprise their roles from part 1. Joining the Pandora universe for the first time are Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, Jermaine Clement, and Brandon Cowell. Sigourney Weaver appears in a different part from 13 years ago.
It’s dangerous to underestimate Cameron. This is only his third feature in a quarter century. 1997’s Titanic withstood shaky buzz during its filming and became the highest grossing film of all time. That record stood for 12 years until it was broken by (you guessed it) Avatar, which also had troubling word-of-mouth until it didn’t. With $785 million domestically (which includes a September re-release which did impressive business), Avatar still ranks fourth all-time stateside behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. The international tally is $2.1 billion and that ranks as #1.
There are legitimate questions as to the sequel’s potency. 13 years is a long time between entries. Are younger viewers excited for a trip back to the planet with all the blue people? Disney and 20th Century Studios need this to make a splash as a third Avatar arrives in two years with fourth and fifth (and possibly more) editions planned.
One number is easy to know. The Way of Water will have no problem dwarfing the $77 million that Avatar made for its debut before it became the must-see picture for months. It was #1 for 7 weeks. The sequel is expected to take in double that figure with $160 million generally being considered the floor. The ceiling could be $200 million (and perhaps higher) though its length could hinder that possibility. There’s also some older moviegoers who may not feel the need to rush out opening weekend to view it.
I believe $175-185 million is likely for the Sully family as they land in theaters once again. My projection gives it the 14th biggest domestic premiere of all time between Iron Man 3 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. That’s also the 3rd largest opening haul of 2022 behind Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Black Panther: WakandaForever.
Avatar: The Way of Water opening weekend prediction: $173.1 million
David O. Russell’s Amsterdam exasperates more than it fascinates. Opening with the tagline “A lot of this actually happened”, the brief explorations of American history between the World Wars hint at a compelling narrative. Wanting to go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole afterwards doesn’t necessarily make for a gratifying experience.
Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is a member of New York high society through marriage. His snooty in-laws and high maintenance wife (Andrea Riseborough) ship him off to what will become World War I in 1918. Under the command of the kindly Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), the good doc practices his skills for an all black regiment. They must wear French uniforms since the American forces aren’t integrated. That’s a part that actually happened. Burt makes fast friends with Harold Woodsman (John David Washington). They fight together and are seriously wounded together. Burt is given a glass eye that’s often used for screwball comedy effect. Their injuries introduce them to peculiar nurse Valerie (Margot Robbie), who takes the soldier’s battle scars (such as the metal embedded in their flesh) and turns it into surrealistic art. Burt, Harold, and Valerie form a close bond including the romantic sort for the latter two. The trio live a joyous existence in the title city until Burt returns to the Big Apple. Harold eventually follows suit to become an attorney. The men stay friends and colleagues while Valerie’s whereabouts are unknown.
Fifteen years later, the U.S. is in a depression. Our two New Yorkers have an even more pressing issue. Former war commander Meekins (now a Senator) turns up dead and mysteriously so. His daughter Elizabeth (Taylor Swift, in a performance that will surely generate memes) enlists dad’s former soldiers to investigate. This snooping leads to a vast government conspiracy – some of which falls under the actually happened headline. The case additionally leads them back to Valerie and an all-star cast beyond Bale, Washington, and Robbie.
Chris Rock is a member of the French uniformed clad force. Michael Shannon and Mike Myers are intelligence officers amusingly masquerading as bird experts. Zoe Saldana, in the picture’s most underdeveloped role, helps perform autopsy work and is a potential love interest for Burt. The most intriguing character is General Gill Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), a combat hero being recruited for fascist propagandist purposes. Russell’s screenplay gives De Niro a noteworthy role to play with (this is the fourth collaboration between them). The legendary actor has done some of his finest 21st century work with the filmmaker.
The political potboiler aspects kick into gear when Dillenbeck pops up for the second half. That’s when Amsterdam improves. The first half feels like Russell’s attempt to do a Wes Anderson or Coen Bros type whimsical comedy and he fails the test. There’s a lot of characters crowding the scene. Rami Malek is an affluent textile magnet with connections to Valerie. Anya Taylor-Joy is his wife, who has a funny fangirl crush on Dillenbeck. Alessandro Nivola and Matthias Schoenaerts are detectives assigned to track the lead trio.
Once Russell gets to what Amsterdam is really about (with some unmistakable current events overtones), I realized lots of these famous faces and subplots could’ve been jettisoned for a more focused approach. Of all the names, Bale (always committed) and De Niro come out best. The director’s eye for the solid material keeps getting dislodged – like Burt’s fake one. This makes it questionable as to whether it’s worth seeing. More of the stuff that actually happened and not the forced whimsy would have been a reasonable start.
David O. Russell’s Amsterdam will need to rely on star power to bring in audiences when it opens October 7th. Considering the middling word-of-mouth and so-so trailers and TV spots, that could be an uphill battle. The comedic mystery is the filmmaker’s first picture since 2015’s Joy. It boasts an impressive cast led by Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington. Other familiar faces include Zoe Saldana, Anya Tayl0r-Joy, Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Rami Malek, Alessandro Nivola, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Taylor Swift, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, and Matthias Schoenaerts.
From 2010-2013, Russell had a trilogy of Oscar and audience friendly titles. The Fighter, in addition to multiple Academy nods, made $93 million domestically. Silver Linings Playbook, in addition to multiple Oscar nods, took in $132 million. American Hustle, in addition to its several award nominations, earned $150 million.
Times have changed. The aforementioned Joy, which drew a more mixed reaction than Russell’s predecessors, grossed $56 million. In the seven years that have followed, the director has been embroiled in some concerning stories about his personal life.
20th Century Studios didn’t bother to screen Amsterdam for the film festival circuit a couple of weeks back. Critical reaction has skewed toward the negative with a 36% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Despite the pedigree, the red lights glowing indicate a high profile flop. This might not manage double digits.
Amsterdam opening weekend prediction: $8.4 million
For my Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile prediction, click here:
From 2010-13, David O. Russell made three pictures (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) that collectively earned an astonishing 25 Oscar nominations. This included acting wins for Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Jennifer Lawrence. The filmmaker himself has yet to receive a gold statue and his previous effort (2015’s Joy) nabbed just 1 Academy nod for its lead Lawrence.
His latest is Amsterdam and the comedic mystery will be lucky to garner any attention during awards season. It was a curious decision when Russell’s first feature in seven years skipped the festival circuit of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. Now we may know why.
Early reviews for the October 7th release are not encouraging. There’s only a handful of official reviews which show a 20% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Yet we also have plenty of social media reaction claiming this is a high profile disappointment. The impressive cast is led by Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington with tons of other familiar faces including Robert De Niro, Zoe Saldana, Taylor Swift, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Michael Shannon, and Chris Rock (to name some). I wouldn’t expect any to compete in the acting derbies. Bale and De Niro are getting some decent notices, but it shouldn’t matter (maybe Bale could show up at the Globes for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy if competition is light).
As I see it, Costume Design and/or Production Design are the only possibilities for Amsterdam to be an Academy player. It’s entirely feasible that it won’t show up at all. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…
20th Century Studios is hoping moviegoers are ready for a return trip to Pandora (and its Papyrus font) when it re-releases Avatar into multiplexes on September 23rd. It arrives three months before James Cameron’s long gestating sequel Avatar: The Way of Water. The original 2009 3D tale revolutionized that technology and it broke the director’s own record to become the highest grossing domestic earner of all time. (topping Titanic). That designation stood for six years until Star Wars: The Force Awakens came along.
Journeying to approximately 1800 venues, Avatar will look to add to the $760 million already in its coffers. The best case scenario is that it could top the charts over Don’t Worry Darling or The Woman King. A far likelier outcome, in my view, is a third place showing in the high single digits.
Avatar re-release opening weekend prediction: $8.5 million
For my Don’t Worry Darling prediction, click here:
It’s been an entire week since The Slap… check that, the 94th Academy Awards where CODA parlayed its Sundance buzz from January 2021 all the way to a Best Picture victory.
That also means I’ve managed to wait a whole week without speculation for the next Academy Awards which will hopefully be a slap free zone. So what are some titles that could be vying for attention?
On May 27th and after numerous delays, Top Gun: Maverick will find Tom Cruise returning to his iconic role some 36 years after the original. There’s a decent chance it could be up for similar prizes that its predecessor landed like Sound, Film Editing, and Song (courtesy of Lady Gaga apparently). Visual Effects is a possibility as well.
My weekly Oscar prediction posts won’t begin until mid to late August. In the meantime, you’ll get individualized write-ups for pics that open or screen at festivals.
Yet for today – I feel the need. The need to identify 21 other 2022 titles that might end up on the Academy’s radar. Enjoy!
Despite acclaimed movies like The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, James Gray has yet to connect with awards voters. This drama, rumored to be centered on his Queens upbringing, is the next hopeful and features a stellar cast including Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins, and Jeremy Strong. Release Date: TBD
The 2009 original amassed nine nominations and won took home three. The first sequel (there’s three more on the way) arrives in December from James Cameron. Will it capture the critical and box office magic of part one? That’s impossible to know at this juncture, but one can safely assume it’ll be up for some tech categories like Sound and Visual Effects. Release Date: December 16th
Damien Chazelle is no stranger to the big dance. Whiplash was a BP nominee and J.K. Simmons won Supporting Actor. Chazelle took Director for his follow-up La La Land along with Emma Stone’s Actress victory and it almost famously took BP. First Man nabbed four nominations, but missed the top of the line races. Babylon is a period drama focused on Hollywood’s Golden Age and should be right up the Academy’s alley. The cast includes Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Tobey Maguire. Release Date: December 25th
Robbie also turns up in David O. Russell’s latest ensemble piece. Anytime he’s behind the camera, Oscar nods typically follow (think The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). Slated for November, the dramedy also features Christian Bale, John David Washington, Rami Malek, Zoe Saldana, Robert De Niro, Mike Myers, and… Chris Rock. Release Date: November 4th
Arriving in June but with a Cannes unveiling in May, Baz Luhrmann’s musical bio of The King stars Austin Butler in the title role and Tom Hanks as The Colonel. If this doesn’t contend for the major awards, I would still anticipate potential tech recognition (Production Design, Sound, etc…). Release Date: June 24th
Empire of Light
Sam Mendes was likely in the runner-up position in 2019 for Picture and Director (behind Parasite) with 1917. His follow-up is an English set romance starring Olivia Colman (who would be going for her fourth nomination in five years), Michael Ward, and Colin Firth. Release Date: TBD
Everything Everywhere All at Once
From two filmmakers known collectively as Daniels, Once is already out in limited release with spectacular reviews (97% on RT). The sci-fi action comedy might be too bizarre for the Academy, but I wouldn’t count it out as its admirers are vocal. Picture, Director, Actress (Michelle Yeoh), and Original Screenplay are all on the table. Release Date: out in limited release, opens wide April 8th
Steven Spielberg directs a semi-autobiographical tale and cowrites with his Lincoln and West Side Story scribe Tony Kushner. The cast includes Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Paul Dano. Needless to say, this is a major contender on paper. Release Date: November 23rd
Killers of the Flower Moon
Alongside The Fabelmans, this might be the most obvious nominee from a personnel standpoint. Martin Scorsese helms this western crime drama featuring Jesse Plemons, Lily Gladstone, and his two frequent collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. Apple TV just became the first streamer to get a BP victory with CODA. This could be the second in a row. Release Date: November
In 2018, The Favourite scored a whopping ten nominations. Based on an acclaimed 1992 novel, Poor Things is Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up and it reunites him with Emma Stone along with Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, and Mark Ruffalo. The plot sounds bizarre but it could also be an Oscar bait role for Stone and others. Release Date: TBD
One of Netflix’s contenders is George C. Wolfe’s profile of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (played by Colman Domingo). In 2020, Wolfe directed Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman to nods for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Look for Domingo to be a competitor and the supporting cast includes Chris Rock (maybe he will be back at the show), Glynn Turman, and Audra McDonald. Release Date: TBD
See How They Run
The 1950s set murder mystery could provide 27-year-old Saoirse Ronan with an opportunity to land her fifth nomination. Sam Rockwell, David Oyelowo, Adrien Brody, and Ruth Wilson are among the supporting players. Tom George directs. Release Date: TBD
Five years after the scandal rocked Hollywood, She Said from Maria Schrader recounts the New York Times sexual misconduct investigation into Harvey Weinstein. Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, and Patricia Clarkson lead the cast. Release Date: November 18th
Florian Zeller won Best Adapted Screenplay in 2020 for The Father along with Anthony Hopkins taking Best Actor. This follow-up (based on the director’s play) finds Hopkins reprising his Oscar-winning part in supporting fashion. Other cast members seeking awards attention include Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, and Vanessa Kirby. Release Date: TBD
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Todd Field behind the camera. Previous efforts In the Bedroom and Little Children received 8 nominations between them. A decade and a half following Children comes this Berlin set drama with Cate Blanchett, Noemie Merlant, and Mark Strong. Release Date: October 7th
Three Thousand Years of Longing
Scheduled for a Cannes bow in May, Longing is a fantasy romance from the legendary mind of George Miller (who last made Mad Max: Fury Road which won six tech Oscars). Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton star. Release Date: TBD
Darren Aronofsky directed Mickey Rourke to a comeback narrative nod for 2008’s The Wrestler. Two years later, his follow-up Black Swan earned Natalie Portman a statue. Brendan Fraser is hoping for the same treatment with The Whale as he plays a 600 pound man attempting to reconnect with his daughter. Costars include Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, and Samantha Morton. I’d expect Makeup and Hairstyling could also be in play with this. Release Date: TBD
Not a remake of the Michael Keaton supernatural thriller from 2005, this is Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to Marriage Story. Based on a 1985 novel, it’s the filmmaker’s first picture based on other source material. Marriage landed three acting nods (with Laura Dern winning Supporting Actress). The cast here includes frequent Baumbach collaborator Adam Driver, real-life partner Greta Gerwig, Raffey Cassidy, Andre Benjamin, Alessandro Nivola, and Don Cheadle. This could be Netflix’s strongest contender. Release Date: TBD
The Woman King
Expect this West Afrian set historical epic from Gina Prince-Bythewood to be heavily touted by Sony with awards bait roles for leads Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu. The supporting cast includes John Boyega and Lashana Lynch. Release Date: September 16th
Based on a 2018 novel, Sarah Polley writes and directs this drama focused on eight Mennonite women and their story of abuse. The sterling cast includes Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw, Claire Foy, and Rooney Mara. Release Date: TBD
And that’s just a small preview of the features that could materialize for the 95th Academy Awards! As always, the speculation on this site will continue throughout the year and into the next. Stay tuned…
Hitting Netflix today is Shawn Levy’s The Adam Project, a sci-fi adventure that re-teams the director with his Free Guy lead Ryan Reynolds. Costars include Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Garner, Walker Scobell, Catherine Keener, and Zoe Saldana.
Focused on a 12-year-old who meets his fighter pilot future self, many reviews are kindly comparing this Project to 80s era Spielberg product. The Rotten Tomatoes score is a decent though not overly impressive 70%.
Since it’s available for some theatrical showings, this will be eligible for Oscar consideration. Levy and Reynolds, as mentioned, collaborated just last year for Free Guy and that resulted in a box office hit and a slot in the Visual Effects race (where it will almost certainly lose to Dune in two weeks).
Based on the write-ups, Free Guy appears to be a flashier experience than Adam and I doubt this manages to garner any awards attention. My Oscar Prediction posts will continue…