December 2022 box office preview: James Cameron’s ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ will dominate remainder of year 

It’s the last month of the year, and though the holidays are very much on everyone’s minds, so is the awards season, which will start in earnest this week. Expect to see an interesting mix of family films and prestige pictures released in December, although few will make as big a mark as the highly anticipated sequel to “Avatar.” Read on for Gold Derby’s December 2022 box office preview.

Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century/Disney) – Dec. 16

This December’s mega-doozy blockbuster marks the return of filmmaker James Cameron to the world of Pandora from 2009’s “Avatar.” For the longest time, it was the highest-grossing movie in North America, opening with a mere $77 million, but going on to gross $750 million domestically and $2.7 million worldwide. Although it’s doubtful that a sequel 13 years later can exceed the original’s success, we’re experiencing a year in which Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick” could make a play for “Avatar’s” record 36 years after the original “Top Gun” blockbuster. That alone is a good reason not to doubt Cameron and his sequel, which could make over $115 million opening weekend and gross $500 million or maybe more by sometime in January. I will have more things to say about this in a few weeks.

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“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (DreamWorks Animation/Universal) – Dec. 21

It hasn’t been quite as long since the first “Puss in Boots” movie, although it’s still been 11 years since that spin-off from the “Shrek” franchise with Antonia Banderas voicing the main character. That made $149.2 million after opening with $34 million in an odd late October release. (Even though it opened over the less-than-ideal Halloween weekend, it ended up nearly making the same amount its second weekend.) It’s hard to tell if anyone even remembers the character or their love for “Shrek” and its sequels, but with Disney’s “Strange World” not doing so well, it enters a less-busy family market with little competition, so even with a moderate $25 to 30 million opening, it could have decent legs through the Christmas holiday.

“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (Sony) – Dec. 23

It’s been a long time coming, but the biopic about the late Whitney Houston is finally coming out, starring Naomi Ackie (“Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker”) as Houston and Ashton Sanders from “Moonlight” as Bobby Brown. It’s opening the Friday before Christmas Day, which is when it should start picking up business, although there doesn’t seem to be a ton of buzz for the movie directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”). I’ll probably have more insight on how it might do over the holidays once more people have had a chance to see it.

Babylon” (Paramount) – Dec. 23

Also opening the weekend of Christmas is the new movie from Oscar winner Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), which stars Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva and more in Chazelle’s look at the early days of Hollywood when debauchery was the name of the game. This will have more interest for awards watchers and fans of old Hollywood, but it’s likely to be a more limited older audience than anyone else, and it will be another test to see if adult-oriented fare will be recovering in a market where prestige films don’t seem to have much of a foothold. Chazelle’s last film, “First Man,” topped out at $44.9 million, and it’s hard to imagine “Babylon” doing that much better even with bonafide stars like Robbie and Pitt.

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“Violent Night” (Universal) – Dec. 2

Kicking off the month is this dark genre movie starring David Harbour from “Stranger Things” as Santa Claus, who has to step in to protect a wealthy family when their home is invaded by mercenaries. Directed by Tommy Wirkola (“Dead Snow”), the movie is hoping to bring in some pre-Christmas genre fans similar to 2015’s “Krampus,” which opened with $16 million, but these are different times, and “Violent Night” probably will be opening closer to $10 million. (We’ll cover the movie more at length in this week’s weekend preview on Wednesday.)

“Spoiler Alert” (Focus Features) – Dec. 2 (limited), Dec. 9 (wide)

Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) and Ben Aldridge (“Fleabag”) star in this adaptation of Michael Ausiello’s best-selling novel about dealing with loss when a loved one is striken with cancer. Directed by Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick,” The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), the dramedy is getting a lower-profile release, although it will expand nationwide next week and hope for the best.

“Empire of Light” (Searchlight Studios) – Dec. 9

Sam Mendes’ personal drama about the workers at a beach-side movie palace may not have been as well-received as his WWI movie, “1917,” but it features terrific performances by Olivia Colman and newcomer Micheal Ward as two very different co-workers who form a friendship. It’s more than likely getting a limited release on December 9, and then we’ll have to see how much it expands, but this is another example of adult-oriented fare hoping to break out.

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As always, there are a number of limited releases coming out this month, some of them which may eventually expand nationwide, though most of them are just qualifying for Oscars with a nominal release.

“Hunt” (Magnolia) – Dec. 2

“Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae makes his directorial debut with this South Korean spy movie, which costars Jung Woo-sung (“The Good, The Bad, and The Weird”). 

“The Eternal Daughter” (A24) – Dec. 2

Tilda Swinton stars in a dual role as a filmmaker and her elderly mother who visit a remote hotel in Scotland to reconnect, experiencing all sorts of spooky occurrences. 

“Emancipation” (Apple) – Dec. 2

Despite some concern over backlash from Will Smith’s now-infamous Oscar slap, Apple will give his slavery drama, directed by Antoine Fuqua, a limited release on Friday for Oscar qualification before streaming on Apple TV+ on Dec. 9.

“The Whale” (A24) – Dec. 9 (NY, LA), Dec. 21 (wide)

Another heavy drama opening in limited release this weekend is this adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s stage play, starring Brendan Fraser as a 600-pound recluse who never leaves his apartment. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Fraser is joined by a supporting cast that includes Hong Chau, Samantha Morton, Sadie Sink and Ty Simpkins.

“The Almond and the Seahorse” (IFC Films) – Dec. 16

Rebel Wilson and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in Celyn Jones and Tom Stern’s drama about an archeologist and an architect who have suffered from traumatic brain injury that puts them apart from those they love.

“Corsage” (IFC Films) – Dec. 23

Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread”) plays Austrian monarch Empress Elisabeth in Marie Kreutzer’s Indie Spirit-nominated period drama about the beloved 19th century monarch, who as she celebrates her 40th birthday in 1877 is trying to keep her public image intact.

“Living” (Sony Classics) – Dec. 23

Bill Nighy stars in this remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 drama “Ikiru,” this one transplanted into 1950s London with Nighy playing an aged civil servant who decides to make something with the last years of his life, in order to leave a legacy for himself.

“Women Talking” (UA Releasing) – Dec. 23

Months after its explosive fall festival run, Sarah Polley’s drama about a community of Mennonite women, tired of being sexually assaulted and abused by the men, gather to discuss and vote on whether to leave. Starring previous Oscar nominees Rooney Mara and Jessie Buckley, three-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, Ben Whishaw, Claire Foy and more, this is thought to be one of this year’s Best Picture frontrunners, and could easily walk away with more than just acting noms.

“A Man Called Otto” (Sony) – Dec. 25 (limited), Jan. 14 (wide)

Tom Hanks stars in this remake of the 2015 Swedish film “A Man Called Ove,” which received two Oscar nominations, one for Foreign Language Film and the other in the Hair and Makeup category.  Hanks plays the grumpy widower of the title who is constantly complaining and criticizing his neighbors until he forms a bond with the young family that moves in next door.

“Broker” (NEON) – Dec. 26

Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda (“Shoplifters”) returns with a Korea-set drama, starring Song Kang-ho from “Parasite” and Bae Doona (“The Host”) involving boxes left out for people to leave their unwanted babies.

That’s pretty much it for 2022, but check back on Wednesday for more on the movies opening this coming Friday.

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