Movie Sequels Aim for Best Picture — and to Make Oscar History

Not another one! Through most of its history, that’s been the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ knee-jerk reaction to any movie sequel seeking Oscar recognition. Only two sequels have ever won the best picture prize. Only a handful of others have been nominated in that category. But this season, all that could change, because there are at least four sequels knocking at the best picture door.

Sure, most sequels are brand extensions and cash grabs. No one was ever going to make a best picture argument for a movie like 1989’s Police Academy 6: City Under Siege. But, occasionally, there have been sequels that aspire to the achievement of their predecessor. In 1990, for example, Jack Nicholson, screenwriter Robert Towne and producer Robert Evans reteamed for The Two Jakes, attempting to recapture the magic of 1974’s Chinatown as Nicholson’s gumshoe Jake Gittes tracked a new murder amid an L.A.-based land scheme. But where Chinatown was nominated for 11 Oscars, including best picture, The Two Jakes was completely shut out.

With Oscar nomination balloting beginning Jan. 12, the prejudice against sequels could lift — even as the gold standard for sequel success remains 1975’s The Godfather Part II, which collected 11 noms and went on to win six trophies, including best picture, besting 1972’s The Godfather, with its 11 noms and three wins. Of course, The Godfather Part II was sui generis, since it functions as both a prequel and a sequel, tracing the rise of the young Vito Corleone, as played by Robert De Niro, and the gradual corruption of Vito’s son Michael, portrayed by Al Pacino.

None of this year’s sequels is quite so narratively ambitious. But with 10 best picture slots to fill, there is room for one or more of them to squeeze in.

At the moment, the best positioned appears to be Top Gun: Maverick, which supercharged the box office last summer and was consequently hailed as much for resuscitating moviegoing as for its tale of heroic flyboys. Though the original 1986 Top Gun was not itself a best picture contender — it received four crafts noms, winning best song for its anthem “Take My Breath Away” by Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock — its sequel is showing more strength, already attracting six Critics Choice nominations.

For its star Tom Cruise, there also has to be a whiff of déjà vu involved, since Cruise starred in 1986’s The Color of Money, a sequel to 1961’s The Hustler, starring Paul Newman. In both Maverick and Money, the young hotshot of the original film — Newman’s pool hustler, Cruise’s jet pilot — has graduated to legend status as he hands the baton to a new, upstart successor. Unlike The Hustler, The Color of Money didn’t make it into the best picture circle, though it did result in Newman earning a best actor Oscar, the first competitive Oscar of his career.

Like Maverick, the sequels Avatar: The Way of Water, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery have all received six Critics Choice noms each, so they are also in the mix for Academy consideration.

From left: Best picture-winning sequels The Godfather Part II and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Courtesy Everett Collection; New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection

As a big-budget effects spectacular, Avatar — which in early 2023 flew past Maverick to become the world’s top-grossing film released in 2022 — could follow in the path of 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the only other sequel besides Godfather II to win the best picture Oscar. There were those, however, who read King‘s victory as a prize recognizing the cumulative accomplishment of all three of Peter Jackson’s Rings movies, released in three successive years. While the new Avatar comes 13 years after James Cameron’s first visit to Pandora, if a similarly cumulative honor is coming his way, he might have to wait until the fifth and (possibly) final Avatar movie is released. On the other hand, since Cameron lost the best director and picture awards to Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker the last time around, the Academy may not feel the need to wait any longer to reward him now.

In the case of Wakanda Forever, it’s been just four years since the original Black Panther became the first Marvel movie to earn a best picture nom. And Wakanda just may have faced the longest odds, since director Ryan Coogler not only had to guide the franchise into new territory but also negotiate the difficult challenge of paying tribute to the late star Chadwick Boseman. As for Glass Onion, writer-director Rian Johnson has argued that, strictly speaking, the movie is less a sequel than part of a series, a self-contained tale that, with the exception of Daniel Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc, sports a whole new cast of characters in an entirely new setting.

But that could become a stumbling block when it comes to the Academy, since while Oscar has ignored most sequels, it’s been even more loath to grant best picture status to series like the James Bond or Mission: Impossible movies. Though if Blanc is looking for a new locked-room mystery to solve, he might want to consider the Academy Awards themselves.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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Movie Sequels Aim for Best Picture — and to Make Oscar History

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