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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Leads the Last Minute Best Picture Race Entries

"Avatar: The Way of Water" provides an end-of-the-year sea change to the Best Picture race.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, (aka AVATAR 2), Jake Sully (voice: Sam Worthington), 2022. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

This article contains IndieWire’s past Best Picture predictions for the 2023 Oscars. We regularly update our predictions throughout awards season, and republish previous versions (like this one) for readers to track changes in how the Oscar race has changed. For the latest update on the frontrunners for the 95th Academy Awards, see our 2023 Oscars predictions hub.

We keep updating these predictions through the awards season, so keep checking IndieWire for all our 2023 Oscar picks. Nominations voting is from January 12 to January 17, 2023, with official Oscar nominations announced on January 24, 2023. The final voting is March 2 through 7, 2023.  And finally, the 95th Oscars telecast will be broadcast on Sunday, March 12 and air live on ABC at 8:00 p.m. ET/ 5:00 p.m. PT.

Our Awards Editor, TV & Film Marcus Jones joins Editor at Large Anne Thompson on the latest Oscars Predictions updates. See their previous thoughts on what to expect at the 95th Academy Awards here.

The State of the Race

One prevailing narrative currently forming around the 2023 Oscars race for Best Picture is celebrating the films that have been vital toward keeping the moviegoing experience alive.

Movie sequels in particular have never been more on the Academy’s radar, with “Top Gun: Maverick” both a critical and commercial hit. In its second wave of awards campaigning, the film was able to position itself as the movie that saved the 2022 global box office ($1.5 billion). Then came Ryan Coogler’s Marvel phenomenon “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Disney, November 11), which has scored $734 million worldwide and counting.

And now James Cameron’s long-awaited “Avatar: The Way of Water” (December 16, Disney) will hit theaters like a holiday season tsunami after 13 years of breath-holding anticipation.

Rave reactions to the “Avatar” sequel — which not only boasts a $350 million budget but will benefit from recency bias —suggest that the hugely entertaining VFX-heavy E-ride could eclipse some Oscar hopes for the “Black Panther” sequel to Marvel Studios’ only Best Picture nominee. “Wakanda Forever” seemed not only likely to grab the same seven nominations as the original (which earned three craft wins), but could add Angela Bassett (Supporting Actress) to the fray as well.

Now “The Way of Water” and “Wakanda Forever” will go head to head in the craft categories. “Avatar” landed nine Oscar nominations back in 2010, including Best Picture and Director, winning three: Cinematography, VFX, and Art Direction. With the two Sound categories collapsed into one, the sequel is poised to nab six: Picture, Director, Costumes, Editing, Production Design, and Sound, same as before. Cameron does not tend to be lauded for his screenplays, and despite superb acting from his ensemble, actors so far have not rewarded “captured” performances.

Original Score is a competitive category; never-nominated composer Simon Franglen may not repeat the Oscar nomination for original composer James Horner, while The Weeknd has supplied an uninspiring closing credit song titled “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength).”

Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Allyson Riggs/A24

Original screenplays like “Elvis,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “The Woman King” also benefit from their unexpected box office triumphs. And they also showcase their powerful leads, from Best Actor contender Austin Butler to Best Actress contenders Michelle Yeoh and Viola Davis.

The same could be said of “Till” and its star Danielle Deadwyler. The film has become one of the few success stories at the specialty box office. While it has been difficult overall to pull older moviegoers (the foundation of the Academy) back to theaters, “TÁR,” “Triangle of Sadness,” and “The Banshees of Inisherin” show hope for movies with legs at the box office. Alas, festival favorites “The Fabelmans” and “She Said” weren’t able to sustain their theatrical runs and headed to PVOD, but the new box office reality may not harm their Oscar ambitions.

After rapturous receptions at AFI FEST and TIFF, where the celebrated “The Fabelmans” won the coveted Oscar-predictive People’s Choice Award, Steven Spielberg’s most personal film is playing well for Academy audiences and may still be the heart-tugging frontrunner for Best Picture.

Meanwhile “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s profane epic about the dark side of Hollywood’s shift to sound pictures, may inspire other bodily reactions from Academy viewers. Although the Paramount release is a filmmaking marvel, it’s an experiment that may be too out there for even the crowd lauding “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Triangle of Sadness.” Many describe it as a beautiful mess, but with a weaker screenplay than one would expect from the young Oscar-winning auteur, and no standout acting performances (the always dependable Margot Robbie is unlikely to break into this year’s incredibly competitive Best Actress race), only craft voters may reward its bravura set pieces.

It remains to be seen if the Academy (which despite inclusion efforts is still 66 percent male and 81 percent white) will support this year’s raft of female-oriented films, or the strong women in “TÁR,” Sarah Polley’s ensemble drama “Women Talking,” Africa-set period actioner “The Woman King,” and seriously sober “She Said.” “Empire of Light,” a Sam Mendes film starring recent Best Actress winner Olivia Colman in one of her most complex roles yet, is already an example of a film fading from view since its festival premieres.

TAR, Cate Blanchett, 2022. © Focus Features /Courtesy Everett Collection

TAR, Cate Blanchett, 2022. © Focus Features /Courtesy Everett Collection

©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Another awards front promoted by campaigners is category expansions for international films from the likes of Oscar regular Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Bardo”), documentary contenders like Laura Poitras “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Those films usually stay in their lane, unless they become hugely popular, like “Parasite” and “Drive My Car,” though with support from writers and composers, animated films occasionally do make it to Best Picture contention.

The one that could land this year is from beloved Oscar perennial Guillermo del Toro, “Pinocchio.” The stop-motion retelling of author Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fairy tale has become Netflix’s greatest hope for a Best Picture nomination, winning raves out of its London Film Festival premiere, and continuing to generate buzz from its well-packed screening at the 2022 AFI Fest.

Netflix is also aspiring for Rian Johnson’s twisty Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” which pulled audiences for a one-week Thanksgiving holiday run to promote its eventual Netflix streaming release on December 23. The original scored an Original Screenplay nomination but not Best Picture. This time around, Adapted Screenplay seems the likeliest slot for the popular sequel.

What else could fill out those last Best Picture slots? Watch out for Sony Pictures Classics’ “Living,” adapted by revered novelist Kazuo Ishiguru from the Kurosawa classic “Ikiru,” about an executive (Bill Nighy) who rises from his office cubicle to see the world around him in a new light when he receives a terminal diagnosis.

Contenders are listed in alphabetical order, below. Only films we have seen will be deemed frontrunners.

“Avatar: The Way of Water”
“The Banshees of Inisherin”
“Everything Everywhere All at Once”
“The Fabelmans”
“Top Gun: Maverick”
“The Woman King”
“Women Talking”

“All Quiet on the Western Front”
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”
“Empire of Light”
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”
“She Said”
“Triangle of Sadness”

Long Shots:
“Armageddon Time”
“Bones & All”
“Decision to Leave”
“The Whale”

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