One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 109
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The studios’ annual surge of their most distinguished films continues in December, the titles that they are angling to snatch up nominations for the awards season that culminates on Sunday, March 12, with the 95th Academy Awards.
The film industry trade papers have been going to town the past two weeks over the poor box office performances of a number of these prestige pictures. Leading the pack of disappointments is the journalism drama She Said, a well-reviewed look at the New York Times reporters who helped to expose disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment and assault. The Universal Pictures release opened on November 18 in 2,022 theaters to a dismal $2.2 million at the box office, which ranks as one of the worst openings for a major studio release in history.
A handful of other possible Oscar contenders have also flopped or, at best, underperformed. The acclaimed classical music drama Tár starring Cate Blanchett has barely made $5 million after seven weeks of release. Triangle of Sadness, a satirical look at the ultra-rich, has only made $4 million since its opening in mid-October. Even the lauded coming-of-age drama Armageddon Time has only rung up a barely-there $1.8 million after a month in theaters.
Meanwhile, the latest Marvel Studios release, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, is doing a bang-up job on the big screen, having rung up $304 million domestically since its release on November 11 in 4,400 theaters.
Clearly, non-fantastical, non-franchise, non-superhero, non-special effects films are not bringing in the adult audiences that the studios were expecting. The reasons include everything from the fact that older audiences continue to have Covid fears, to a poor economic climate where a night at the movies is no longer a nominal expense, to the perception that “adult dramas” are just as satisfying to stream as they are to see in a theater.
There is no single answer, but one thing is for sure: studios rely on audiences and box office returns to inform them on what films to make, and if “prestige” films aren’t delivering in the theaters, then the studios aren’t going to green-light them for the theaters.
But this year, the studios hoitiest and toitiest titles are still on deck for December. The batch Reel Streaming is highlighting here includes the latest films from heavy-hitting previous Oscar winners James Cameron (Titanic) and Sam Mendes (American Beauty), art house auteurs Darren Aronofsky (Mother!) and Scott Cooper (Antlers), and esteemed female filmmakers Sarah Polley (Away From Her) and Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir).
The early critical buzz on the ten films is strong and there is no doubt they are all of the highest production quality. But apart from Cameron’s long-awaited sequel to Avatar, are they going to lure people out of their homes? Hollywood, industry analysts, a curious public, and the owners of the 6,000-plus theaters in the U.S. anxiously await.
Sarah Polley wrote and directed this adaption of fellow Canadian Miriam Toew’s 2018 novel by the same name about women in a religious colony who have a crisis of faith following a series of sexual assaults by men in the community. A powerhouse cast includes Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara.
The Eternal Daughter
In this ghost story from acclaimed English filmmaker Joanna Hogg (Exhibition), a middle-aged artist and her elderly mother must confront long-buried secrets when they return to their former family home, a once-grand manor that has become a nearly vacant hotel brimming with mystery. The always-fine Tilda Swinton stars.
A runaway slave embarks on a perilous journey through the swamps of Louisiana to reunite with his family in this thriller inspired by a true story. Veteran action/thriller filmmaker Antoine Fuqua (The Magnificent Seven, The Equalizer) directs and Will Smith returns in his first film to be released since his on-stage assault on comedian Chris Rock in March during the 2022 Academy Awards.
Empire of Light
From writer/director Sam Mendes comes this romantic drama set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, in which a beautiful old movie house is the backdrop for an unlikely love story. The indispensable Olivia Colman and Colin Firth star.
The latest film from the provocative Darren Aronofsky focuses on a 600-pound man who is unable to leave his apartment and his attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter. A festival favorite, the movie stars a game Brendan Fraser and a whole lot of prosthetic bodywear.
Avatar: The Way of Water
James Cameron’s follow-up to his 2009 blockbuster Avatar arrives equipped with state-of-the-art sound and vision technology and a subaqueous story that’s set more than a decade after the events of the first film. Original Avatar stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver are joined by newbies Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis and Edie Falco for what is sure to be a razzle-dazzle, 3D-fueled production.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody
Naomie Ackie stars as Whitney Houston in this biopic on the soulful pop legend. Stanley Tucci and Tamara Tunie co-star as Clive Davis, the record honcho who molded her career, and Cissy Houston, her gospel-singing mother, respectively. Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) directs.
The Pale Blue Eye
At West Point in 1830, a world-weary detective hired to discreetly investigate the gruesome murder of a cadet enlists another cadet to help unravel the case—a young man who the world would later come to know as Edgar Allan Poe. Scott Cooper directs and Christian Bale, Gillian Anderson and Harry Melling star in what has been described as a “horror-tinged crime mystery.”
Bill Nighy plays a post-WWII London civil servant whose great ambition, after he receives a terminal diagnosis, is to build a playground. South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus directs this British remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Ikiru from a script written by the great novelist Kazuo Ishiguro of Remains of the Day fame.
Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie lead the beautiful people in this tale of ambition and excess in late 1920s Hollywood, the time when the industry was transitioning from silent films to talking pictures. This film marks writer/director Damien Chazelle’s second look at the moviemaking capitol following his 2016 hit La La Land.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.