Oscar Experts Typing: Can ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ sink its Best Picture competition?

Welcome to Oscar Experts Typing, a weekly column in which Gold Derby editors and Experts Joyce Eng and Christopher Rosen discuss the Oscar race — via Slack, of course. This week, as “Avatar: The Way of Water” opens, we discuss Best Picture.

Christopher Rosen: Hello, Joyce! It’s the last Friday before the last Friday before Christmas, and while the holiday came early with the release of the “Barbie” trailer, we’re actually here to type about what might be left under the Tree of Souls at the 2023 Oscars. (I don’t know either.) But let’s get to the biggest movie of the year. “Avatar: The Way of Water” made landfall on Thursday night and it has already seemingly made waves in the Best Picture race. Here’s what notable screenwriter and academy member Rod Lurie passed along via Facebook this week: “Right now I am leaning to this film as my best picture choice… and I assure you, from the rapturous applause of my academy screening, that I am not at all alone.” As we’ve discussed, I’m an Avastan this time around — “The Way of Water” is so much better than the original “Avatar” that it feels like a reboot more than a sequel. James Cameron’s technical wizardry makes the movie the year’s best spectacle, but it’s the emotion he’s able to wring out of the character relationships that stand out in the final calculus. Multiple people I’ve talked to about the movie were (like me, obviously) left tearing up by the film’s conclusion, which combines elements of “Titanic” and “T2” and other Cameron classics. Unlike the first movie, there is a groundswell of passion for “The Way of Water,” and I do think that can only grow as the weeks stretch forward. Despite his status as King of the World, with public statements of bombast to match the designation, Cameron almost feels like an underdog. People were betting against Big Jim despite protestations to the contrary. That he delivered on the movie feels like a potential game-changer — especially in a race where there isn’t a lot of passion around the perceived front-runner, “The Fabelmans.” Or maybe I’m stuck in September. This week, a great many were wondering if “Everything Everywhere All at Once” could be this year’s Best Picture steamroller — and it’s easy to imagine a path to victory for the Daniels’ multiverse movie. But usually, when the “underdog” elevates, it happens much later in the season. Most people didn’t take “CODA” seriously until late February. “Parasite” came on strong in Phase 2 as well. So what I’m wondering here is: Is “Everything Everywhere All At Once” in danger of peaking too soon as an underdog, and does that leave room for a third film — maybe “Avatar,” perhaps “Top Gun: Maverick” or “The Banshees of Inisherin”? — to materialize as the ultimate choice?

joyceeng: Listen, you don’t have to tell me about people stanning “Avatar: The Way of Water” when I told you that you would like it and cry, and you were skeptical. Do you even know your own taste? This is the top whale film of the year and it’s safely in Best Picture, but, just like its predecessor, I doubt it’s winning right now. It’ll probably perform similarly, if not exactly, to the first film, except this time it wouldn’t be the likely runner-up. If anything, its presence could hurt fellow blockbuster sequel and savior of cinema “Top Gun: Maverick” and vice versa. “Everything Everywhere” and “Banshees” both had a very good week, and the former continues to plow through the regional critics circuit as expected. So going by that, you can argue that they’re top two, but it’s still early and it’s not the industry. “Everything Everywhere” has also been riding momentum since March, so I don’t even know if it can “peak too soon,” and lots of folks dog-eared it for the win months ago. “Banshees” is more of an underdog here because most people (including us!) were thinking its best shot was in screenplay earlier in the fall. But now? It can legit win four above-the-line Oscars. (Colin Farrell’s domination of every level of critics’ awards is my favorite development of the season so far.) I don’t think anyone is ready to go there yet with the Best Picture victory, but that’s probably working in its favor. “The Fabelmans” had an OK week. It’s in a weird spot because it is the perceived favorite, so it already has a target on its back that it doesn’t want to get too big, but it doesn’t want to be too quiet either. Outside of Steven Spielberg’s Best Director win at the National Board of Review, the film hasn’t won any critics’ prizes yet in any relevant category. “Roma” and “Belfast” were presumed front-running movie memoirs that came up short in Best Picture, but both — especially the former — pocketed a bunch of critics’ awards in multiple categories. But as I said the other day, even though nearly everyone likes “The Fabelmans” and it has great reviews, it feels like Spielberg is not a “cool” enough pick for them. Again, it’s still early and this can all turn around at the Globes. But what if “The Fabelmans” wins nothing else before then? And not to play sliding doors, but how different would the complexion of the Best Picture race be had Michelle Williams been in supporting, where she’d very likely be cleaning up right now?

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Christopher Rosen: I actually wondered aloud to a friend the other day if the academy will wind up going against the campaign on Williams to make her this year’s LaKeith Stanfield. I don’t think it’ll happen, but I also don’t think it’s out of the question. But to the issue at hand: If she were in the supporting actress field, it would make “The Fabelmans” this year’s “West Side Story.” My sense is that voters knew they could honor that film with Ariana DeBose, so there probably wasn’t a whole lot of pressure to put it over the top anywhere else. So I think by having Williams in Best Actress, that kind of makes Spielberg himself the flag carrier for the film. It’s why I feel like he’s still the overwhelming choice for Best Director even without many precursors wins so far. Spielberg being “The Fabelmans’” Oscar winner of choice just feels right, especially since the movie doesn’t have a lot of detractors. The issue is that there’s not really a lot of passion around it either. Now that could go two ways in the final accounting. “The Fabelmans” feels like a great preferential ballot movie — lots of 2s and 3s — and it could win Best Picture… but something with consensus passion could make its solid standing moot. Right now, it feels like “Everything Everywhere” has that kind of passion. But allow me to go back to “Avatar: The Way of Water,” because I’m obsessed and I love it, and why not? This movie is moving people! And it offers something that not even “Top Gun: Maverick” really does in terms of broad appeal: a vision of the future of cinema, not a respectful treatment of the past. “Avatar” is a blockbuster with bleeding-edge technology that expands visual language and gives people a reason to see movies on the big screen going forward. I know the academy isn’t a monolith, but could there be a better message for the industry to send out in 2023 — especially with the state of theatrical moviemaking in some disarray and the relevance of the Oscars itself in doubt? Maybe “Avatar: The Way of Water” is the message: Movies, now more than ever?

joyceeng: I think you are thinking about this more than they are. No offense to the maybe one Oscar voter reading this. I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, but I think they just vote for what they like at that moment, so whatever the majority likes the most between March 2 and 7 is what’s going to win. Could it be “Avatar” by that point? Sure. As we know, some voters rubber-stamp what’s been winning through inertia or because they just want to be part of “the winning team.” “Avatar” could totally win Best Drama Picture and Best Director at the Globes again. Can it win PGA? Why not? Remember the tie between an innovative tech spectacle (“Gravity”) and socially important smaller film (“12 Years a Slave”)? The latter in this case would be “Everything Everywhere.” It has loads of passion and famous fans, but it might also have the most detractors of these five films? I know people IRL who are not into it for various reasons and they’re not all olds confused by the multiverse madness. That being said, I also don’t know a normie who has seen “The Fabelmans” yet and the one person I know who’s seen “Banshees” was already an “In Bruges” acolyte. But none of them are voters, so anyway, enough about the top. How are you filling out the bottom of the list? I still don’t know what to do here, but this lineup is on track to be the most populist one in years. Cinema is back?

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Christopher Rosen: I’m still going populist on the bottom: “Glass Onion” and “Babylon.” The review embargo for that latter film, one of my absolute faves as expected, broke overnight and the knives were predictably out from critics. Snooze. But either way, I’m not sure reviews matter for this one since “Babylon” could get in on the support of actors alone — and that’s before counting up the numerous tech categories where “Babylon” can and should compete. My sense is that it’ll do really well as an overall nominee even if it misses above the line. But how about you? What are your final spots looking like right now?

joyceeng: I, predictably, have made no changes, so I still have “Babylon” and “Glass Onion” hanging out in the basement (and, sadly, right above them, “Women Talking,” which did not have a great week, that iconic tie with “Jackass Forever” notwithstanding). I want to make room for “RRR” and am leaning toward chopping “Glass Onion,” but I’ll probably feel differently after the latter hits Netflix on Festivus. I’m also not ready to rule out “The Woman King” or your fave (🙃) “Triangle of Sadness” on the strength of Euro support. If only we could go to 11 slots!

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