Avatar: The Way of Water is Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster this holiday season. Courtesy 20th Century Studios

It’s the young people who are keeping movie theaters afloat these days. How else to explain the recent box-office numbers? We’ve seen Black Adam and the Black Panther sequel consistently topping the charts while excellent adult-oriented fare like The Fabelmans goes begging for an audience. The older viewers have been staying home, which suits the streaming services just fine but doesn’t do much for the multiplexes. (The Knives Out sequel would have been a bigger hit if Netflix had left it in the theaters.) As people emerge from their houses for holiday activities and perhaps moviegoing as well, we’ll see if this state of affairs continues.

The big Hollywood release this December is Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s sequel arriving 13 years after the first fantasy-adventure. The original is the all-time box-office champion yet seems to have relatively few diehard fans, and whether the new film can draw anything like the original’s audience remains to be seen.

Aside from this, the cupboard is relatively bare when it comes to big studio releases. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish promises to be the ultimate adventure for the Shrek character voiced by Antonio Banderas, while I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a biography of Whitney Houston that’s officially sanctioned by the singer’s family. There’s also Emancipation, the needlessly grim slavery movie that stars Will Smith as a real-life Haitian slave who escaped to the Union side during the Civil War. Babylon, the epic by La La Land’s Damien Chazelle that’s set in the early days of Hollywood, has received heavily polarized advance reviews, so that entry has the highest ceiling and the lowest floor.


It’s the smaller-scale Oscar contenders that hold more interest this season. Sam Mendes pays a misty-eyed tribute to his childhood moviegoing days in Empire of Light, set at a once-palatial movie theater on England’s southern shore in the 1980s. Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is a stagey but well-written and well-acted drama about a group of Mennonite women deciding their next move after discovering that the men in their community, including their own husbands and brothers, have been drugging and raping them. That one may not see theaters until after the new year.

Melodramas receive a bad name (often deservedly), but Michael Showalter’s Spoiler Alert is a strong effort based on the memoir of Michael Ausiello, the gay TV critic who found love and then had to nurse his husband after his cancer diagnosis. Even more wrenching than that is Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, with Brendan Fraser giving a performance that already seems like a lock for an Oscar as a 600-pound gay man trying to reconcile with the teenage daughter whom he abandoned.

If you’re looking for something lighter (play on words not intended), Disney is putting out Night at the Museum: Kahmunrah Rises Again, which is drawing less publicity than the previous entries in the series because the original talents (including Ben Stiller) have all left. Netflix’s big holiday entry is Matilda the Musical, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book that includes songs by Tim Minchin and musical support by Emma Thompson, Lashana Lynch, and Andrea Riseborough. Don’t overlook Four Samosas, Ravi Kapoor’s delightful comedy about an Indian-American would-be rapper and his loser friends who decide to rob their local Indian supermarket. Tom Hanks stars in A Man Called Otto, a remake of the Swedish comedy A Man Called Ove, about a grouchy widower who’s shaken out of his misanthropy when some non-white neighbors move in next door to him. If you’re in the mood for something retro, Neil Jordan teams up with Liam Neeson for Marlowe, adapted from Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novels.

Overseas, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters) directs the Korean film Broker, starring Song Kang-ho as a criminal scratching out a living arranging for abandoned Korean babies to be illegally adopted by foreign parents. From the same country, Lee Jung-jae, the actor who won a historic Emmy for his role on Squid Game, makes his directing debut with the spy thriller Hunt, in which he also stars. Austria’s Oscar contender is Corsage, which stars Vicky Krieps as the 19th-century empress who decides she’s more than just an ornament. Jafar Panahi is currently unjustly sitting in an Iranian prison along with several of his colleagues, but his No Bears (which co-stars himself) comes to us this holiday with its dual plotlines about people getting into trouble with the government for their artistic pursuits. If any of these spurs you to give the local movie theaters your business, their underworked employees will be sure to welcome you like family.