Movies to watch in December, from Avatar: The Way of Water to Babylon

A movie theater.
A movie theater. Illustrated | Getty Images

2022 is set to go out with a bang at the movies, as December will see the release of a long-awaited sequel to the biggest film of all time. Plus, we'll finally get a look at some Oscar contenders that critics have been raving about. Here are all the new movies to watch in December: 

Violent Night (Dec. 2 - In Theaters)

He's making a list … of enemies. David Harbour plays a murderous Santa Claus in this R-rated Christmas movie, the pitch for which is essentially, "What if Santa starred in Die Hard?" It sees a group of mercenaries attempt to break into a wealthy family's home on Christmas Eve, only to encounter jolly St. Nick, who proceeds to kick butt in a shockingly brutal fashion. The trailer teases plenty of hilariously violent holiday-themed gags, including Santa knocking over a man with a stocking stuffed with billiard balls. To be clear, Harbour is playing the real Santa, not just a guy dressed as him, and we even see him with a magical bag of toys in the trailer. Early reactions have been strong, with Collider's Perri Nemiroff saying the film delivers "one gleeful bloody set piece after the next" and that Harbour is "downright delightful." Insider's Jason Guerrasio also predicted Violent Night could be a "sleeper hit" — in which case, get ready to see the Easter Bunny go full John Wick next.

Spoiler Alert (Dec. 2 - In Theaters)

Spoiler alert: You're probably going to cry watching Spoiler Alert. This new romantic drama starring Jim Parsons is based on a true story, as recounted in the memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies by journalist Michael Ausiello. The book chronicles the romance of Ausiello and his husband Kit Cowan, who was diagnosed with cancer and (this is where the "spoiler alert" comes in) died in 2015. Parsons plays Michael, while Ben Aldridge plays Kit, and Sally Field stars as Kit's mother. The film comes from director Michael Showalter, who helmed one of the best romantic comedies of recent years, The Big Sick. Dan Savage, author of the Savage Love column, also co-wrote the screenplay, and Parsons says Ausiello was on set during production. The Hollywood Reporter described Spoiler Alert as a "genuinely moving, pleasingly old-fashioned four-hankie tearjerker" — and as a bonus, it's also apparently a Christmas movie. Bring whichever loved ones you won't feel embarrassed openly sobbing nearby.

Emancipation (Dec. 9 - On Apple TV+)

Could Will Smith be nominated for another Oscar less than a year after being banned from the ceremony for a decade? That's the big question going into Emancipation, the actor's first film since he slapped Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. From director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), the movie stars Smith as an escaped slave who joins the Union Army, and it's based on a true story. Emancipation was thought to be a potentially major Oscar contender prior to the slap, though in its wake, analysts questioned whether Apple would delay its release. Instead, Apple is moving full steam ahead with a Dec. 9 debut, meaning Smith will be eligible for Best Actor at the 2023 Oscars — and some pundits have predicted he'll be nominated, though he won't be allowed to attend. Smith told FOX 5 DC's Kevin McCarthy that if "someone is not ready" to see the movie after the slap, "I would absolutely respect that." But speaking with Vanity Fair, Fuqua asked, "Isn't 400 years of slavery, of brutality, more important than one bad moment?"

Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio (Dec. 9 - On Netflix)

It seems safe to declare Guillermo del Toro the winner of the epic 2022 Pinocchio showdown. The Pan's Labyrinth filmmaker co-directed the second new take on Pinocchio in just the past few months, with the first being Disney's live-action version starring Tom Hanks. But the Disney movie was widely panned, whereas del Toro's has been getting euphoric reviews. It's set in 1930s Italy with a voice cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz, Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard, and Cate Blanchett. The film depicts Pinocchio as an "innocent soul with an uncaring father who gets lost in a world he cannot comprehend" and ends up with a "deep understanding of his father and the real world," as Del Toro described. It has long been the director's passion project, and he was trying to get it made for years before Netflix finally stepped up to the plate. Early reactions have been so positive that some pundits have suggested Pinocchio could even become a rare animated movie nominated for Best Picture — assuming the Academy can tell it apart from the Tom Hanks one when voting, at least.

Empire of Light (Dec. 9 - In Theaters)

How many movies about the magic of the movies can one year handle? We're about to find out. Director Sam Mendes' follow-up to his Oscar-winning war film 1917 is Empire of Light, which looks like a love letter to the power of movies themselves. It's described as a love story set in the 1980s around an English movie theater, and it stars Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, and Michael Ward. Initially, the film seemed like it could be a frontrunner to win Best Picture, though that buzz dissipated after it earned surprisingly mixed reviews. Vanity Fair called the film "achingly lovely" and The Guardian praised it as "poignantly observed and beautifully acted," while The Wrap said it's "frustratingly uneven and often meandering." But Olivia Colman's performance was widely praised, so she might not be out of the Best Actress conversation just yet. Get ready for a cinematic experience in which it's not clear where the Nicole Kidman AMC ad ends and the movie begins.

The Whale (Dec. 9 - In Theaters)

November brought us the Lohanassaince, but now, it's officially time for the Brenaissance. Brendan Fraser may be headed for a Best Actor win at the 2023 Oscars for his performance in The Whale, the latest movie from Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler). For the role, Fraser transformed into a 600-pound man who struggles to reconnect with his daughter, played by Stranger Things' Sadie Sink. Hong Chau also stars as the nurse and friend of Fraser's character, and she's in the conversation for an Oscar nomination, too. The role is a major comeback for Fraser, who's been largely out of the spotlight in recent years. Speaking with GQ in 2018, he revealed he felt "reclusive" after allegedly being groped by the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the group that puts on the Golden Globes. Now, Fraser has been receiving massive standing ovations seemingly every time The Whale is screened — though he'll naturally be skipping the Golden Globes because, as he told GQ, "My mother didn't raise a hypocrite."

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (Dec. 16 - On Netflix)

It really is the fall of semi-autobiographical films. After Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans, there's also Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, the new film from Birdman and The Revenant director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. It stars Daniel Giménez Cacho as a documentary filmmaker who, according to critics, is clearly based on Iñárritu himself. "After being named the recipient of a prestigious international award," Silverio is "compelled to return to his native country, unaware that this simple trip will push him to an existential limit," Netflix's plot synopsis says. Bardo was originally expected to be a possible Best Picture nominee until it premiered at the Venice Film Festival to surprisingly mixed reviews, with some critics blasting it as self-indulgent. But then something unusual happened: Iñárritu went back and cut 22 minutes out of the movie. A major early complaint was that the film was overlong, but Next Best Picture's Matt Neglia said that while Bardo is "still not perfect," the new, shorter cut "definitely played better." The power of self-editing!

Avatar: The Way of Water (Dec. 16 - In Theaters)

The day some thought would never come is almost here. It's been 13 years since James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster Avatar, the highest-grossing film in history, and a sequel has been in the works for pretty much that entire time. It was repeatedly delayed (the original release date was 2014), but The Way of Water finally arrives this month with an epic runtime of 3 hours and 10 minutes. It picks up over a decade after human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) decided to permanently become a Na'vi at the end of the first film, and he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) now have kids — including a 14-year-old daughter played by 73-year-old Sigourney Weaver. Stephen Lang is also back, despite his human villain dying last time, and Kate Winslet joins the cast. At least three more Avatar sequels are planned, and a third has already been shot. But Cameron told GQ that The Way of Water is so expensive, it must become the "third or fourth highest-grossing film in history" to even be profitable. No pressure!

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (Dec. 21 - In Theaters)

Our long, national Shrek-free nightmare is nearly over. A whopping 11 years later, Dreamworks has finally gotten around to making a sequel to its 2011 Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots. This time, though, Puss has got a spiffy new animation style similar to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, giving the movie a totally different look than the original or any of the Shrek movies. The film sees Puss realize he is at the end of his nine lives, meaning if he dies one more time, he won't be coming back. So he heads on a journey to find a legendary wishing star, hoping he can use it to grant himself more lives. Salma Hayek returns to voice Kitty Softpaws, and the new cast includes Florence Pugh as Goldilocks, John Mulaney as Jack Horner, and Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, and Samson Kayo as the "Three Bears Crime Family" (a.k.a. Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear). This marks the first Shrek-adjacent movie in over a decade, so see this one if you're invested in that franchise coming back … or if Avatar is sold out.

I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Dec. 21 - In Theaters)

It wouldn't be the tail end of Oscar season without at least one more musical biopic. After Elvis was a surprise hit over the summer, this biopic from director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) is about the life of Whitney Houston, with Naomi Ackie (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) starring in the lead role. Ashton Sanders also plays Whitney's husband Bobby Brown, while Stanley Tucci plays her record producer, Clive Davis. The film was written by Anthony McCarten, who also penned a previous Oscar-nominated musical biopic, the Queen film Bohemian Rhapsody. As of the time of writing, reviews for I Wanna Dance with Somebody aren't yet in. But even before a trailer dropped, Oscar pundits were already predicting Naomi Ackie could be nominated for Best Actress, if only based on how much the Academy loves performances as real people — though going up against Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh for a win may be a tall order.

Babylon (Dec. 23 - In Theaters)

If you see just one Oscar contender this year that features an elephant defecating into the camera, make it this one. Babylon is director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to La La Land, and from the sound of it, he must have seen all the debauchery in The Wolf of Wall Street and said, "Hold my beer, Martin Scorsese." Set in 1920s Hollywood, it depicts the industry's transition from silent films to talkies, starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. But the movie has mostly been making headlines for being surprisingly graphic, featuring "cocaine-fueled orgies," projectile vomiting, and an elephant that "s--ts directly into the camera lens." Yeah, this isn't your grandfather's Singin' in the Rain. Despite all that, the movie still has plenty of Oscar buzz and will probably end up among the 10 Best Picture nominees. But brace yourselves for another long runtime, as this one is 3 hours and 8 minutes — so for the sake of your bladder, we'd strongly advise against a double feature of this and Avatar.

Women Talking (Dec. 23 - In Theaters)

Yet another likely 2023 Best Picture nominee is Women Talking, the first film from director Sarah Polley in a decade. Based on the novel by Miriam Toews, it revolves around women in a Mennonite colony who realize a series of rapes have been committed, leading them to debate what must be done. As you'd imagine, it's rather dialogue-heavy, with a cast that includes Oscar-nominated actresses Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, and Jessie Buckley, as well as Emmy-winners Claire Foy and Ben Whishaw. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and drew largely positive reviews, with IndieWire noting the "electric" drama "never feels like it's just 104 minutes of bonneted fundamentalists chatting in a barn," even though for the most part, "that's exactly what it is." Critics have identified Buckley and Foy, in particular, as stand-outs, so don't be surprised to see one or both of them nominated for Best Supporting Actress. McDormand's role, though, is reportedly on the small side, so great news for this year's other Best Actress contenders: You may actually have a chance!

Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical (Dec. 25 - On Netflix)

You've heard of movies based on musicals and musicals based on movies, but what about a movie based on a musical based on a book that was already turned into a movie? From director Matthew Warchus comes this screen adaptation of Matilda the Musical, the stage show based not on the 1996 movie Matilda but on the original Roald Dahl book. Like the book, it revolves around a young girl with telekinesis, played in the film version by Alisha Weir. Lashana Lynch also stars as Miss Honey, Matilda's teacher, while Emma Thompson is unrecognizable as headmistress Miss Trunchbull. The original Matilda stage show was nominated for several Tonys, including Best Musical, and Dennis Kelly won Best Book of a Musical. He returns to write the screenplay for the movie, and Warchus, who directed the stage show, is directing. Best of all, they'll manage to tell the whole story in one movie, unlike a certain upcoming musical adaptation that shall remain nameless.

White Noise (Dec. 30 - On Netflix)

Noah Baumbach apparently heard everyone declaring the novel White Noise "unfilmable" before deciding, "Challenge accepted." The director's latest film following 2019's Marriage Story, White Noise is an adaptation of the 1985 postmodern Don DeLillo novel, which is widely acclaimed but was long thought to be impossible to make into a movie. Well, Baumbach went ahead and did it, casting Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in the lead roles. Driver plays a professor of Hitler studies whose family is forced to evacuate their homes following an "airborne toxic event," which will surely make it especially relevant amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It's another movie that pundits thought might be a Best Picture nominee until reviews were more mixed than expected. Still, Vulture's Bilge Ebiri wrote that while White Noise is "uneven," it's "never boring, always eager to throw something new at the viewer," and "eager to entertain." Consider it a warm-up before Baumbach and Gerwig unleash their true masterpiece: Barbie.

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