This Christmas, James Cameron is riding in on his billion-dollar sleigh with a delicious gift for cinemagoers around the world — Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to his 2009 megahit about banshee-riding blue people battling military forces from Earth for possession of the lush green planet of Pandora.
Could Cameron, the famed director of Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, and Titanic, deliver the next significant cinematic experience? How will the Avatar sequel stack up with other December releases, notably last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home?
You see, while summer delivers huge, popcorn-infused blockbusters, December often serves up a healthy dose of good old-fashioned epics. Think Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Star Wars. While this trend dates back to the beginning of time, the intervening years since Avatar offered a nice blend of big-budget spectacle and more artistic fare. But which of these Christmas-time releases over the last 12 years is the best? Have any of them surpassed Avatar? Let’s find out.
15. Aquaman (2018)
I’ve never understood the appeal of James Wan’s Aquaman. Jason Momoa rocks, but the film is a messy hodgepodge of unconvincing effects, bland writing, and predictable plotting. Somehow this would-be epic legged its way to a $335M domestic haul and took in over a billion worldwide, despite arriving a year after 2017’s Justice League debacle.
14. Tron: Legacy (2010)
Tron: Legacy arrived with so much promise, but ultimately faltered at the box office thanks to some woeful (though ambitious) CGI and a decidedly somber tone that left this whimsical fantasy floating in dead space. I’d still book a return trip should a sequel ever emerge.
13. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
My admiration for The Last Jedi comes and goes. Rian Johnson crafts a fascinating character study with outstanding performances, astonishing visuals, and some incredible action, but the sequel to The Force Awakens ultimately leaves one yearning for more magic from that galaxy far, far away.
12. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
After nearly ten years, audiences were eager to return to Middle-Earth for more high-octane adventures, interesting characters, and kick-ass battle sequences. Peter Jackson certainly ups the spectacle, but the surprising thing about An Unexpected Journey is how boring it is. I stayed up until midnight to watch this slog on opening night — a theatrical experience that marked my last foray into the wild and rambunctious midnight shows.
11. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
Better than An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug hits the ground running and holds one’s interest for much of its runtime. However, once that dragon starts chasing Thorin’s motley crew about the Lonely Mountain, my attention pivots elsewhere. At least it features some truly exquisite effects.
10. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Kudos to Peter Jackson for swinging for the fences with his Hobbit trilogy, but there wasn’t enough story to justify another 10-hour journey — and this is coming from someone who adores The Lord of the Rings trilogy. So while Battle of the Five Armies entertains in spades, the film’s confusing plot, bland characters, and mindless action make one long for the epic days of Frodo and Sam.
9. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
No, it’s not great, but The Rise of Skywalker hews closer to classic Star Wars than The Last Jedi and has more of a pulse than any of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. Plus, the Emperor’s scenes are pretty great and the finale is appropriately epic. I wish those involved would have tried harder, but Rise of Skywalker certainly gets the job done.
8. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
More entertaining than it had any right to be, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle all but stole The Last Jedi’s thunder in 2017. I guess that goes to show you can never count out audience interest in a good comedy — especially one starring Jack Black and Kevin Hart. Sorry, Rock.
7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Remember when Star Wars was so awesome that a good film like Rogue One felt lackluster by comparison? Sure, we were all excited to see Darth Vader kick some ass, and the last battle packs a punch, but I remember much of the response after Rogue One being tepid at best. Today, the film looks like a masterpiece compared to the endless sludge we’ve received in the years since its release. Who knew that 2016 would be the high point for Disney Star Wars?
6. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
After Mission: Impossible III fizzled at the box office, I assumed this tired action franchise had self-destructed. Little did I know that the best was yet to come. Ghost Protocol is a solid entry in the long-running spy franchise that gave Tom Cruise his first opportunity to risk life and limb for our enjoyment, and it gave way to the terrific Rogue Nation and Fallout. I can’t complain.
5. Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
No Way Home is dumb, but it’s good dumb. Bringing back Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield was a stroke of genius, and while the surrounding film isn’t as thrilling as it should be, Tom Holland and pals offer enough goofy fun to rank this one near the top of the charts in terms of entertainment. Plus, we got to see Alfred Molina and Jamie Foxx return as Doc Ock and Electro. What’s not to love?
4. Django Unchained (2012)
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit was supposed to have the box office all to itself, but Quentin Tarantino swooped in and raked in $425M from viewers eager for a little more substance. Django is often brutal to watch and a little too self-indulgent for its own good. Still, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson fit so snuggly in Tarantino’s eccentric universe that I’m willing to look past Django’s shortcomings. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, though.
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Hate all you want, but The Force Awakens is a blast! Yes, it shamelessly copies A New Hope, and no, it’s not nearly as epic as imagined. Still, I can’t recall a more exciting theatergoing experience than the opening night of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars sequel. Granted, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker fell short of expectations, but The Force Awakens set Disney Star Wars off on the right foot and made George Lucas’ dormant franchise relevant again.
2. Avatar (2009)
Despite his fantastic work, people tend to dump on James Cameron. Say it with me: The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, T2: Judgment Day, True Lies, and Titanic. That’s a remarkable filmography. While Avatar certainly ranks on the lower tier, the sci-fi epic is still a groundbreaking achievement in visual effects and blockbuster filmmaking that should be celebrated rather than reviled. Avatar 2 is gonna kick all kinds of ass, people.
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Spider-Man: No Way Home earned $2 billion by riffing on the animated classic Into the Spider-Verse, which might be the best depiction of the webhead yet. A mix of computer and hand-drawn animation, this action-packed splash of pop culture breathes life into the stale superhero genre and stands tall as one of the finest comic book entries to date. More of this, please!