In an article about the filmography of James Cameron, an image of Jack and Rose in "Titanic."

Which James Cameron Film is the Best?

With the recent release of 'Avatar: The Way of Water,' it's time to determine the director's greatest movie.
January 6, 2023
8 mins read

Do you know the innovative cinematographer and director James Cameron? Never ceasing to amaze audiences, he constantly pushes the creative bounds of film and finds new ways to craft immersive and jaw-dropping visuals. His depictions of fantastical situations capture visceral perspectives that extend far beyond the human experience. Likewise, his storytelling explores characters through resplendent settings and imaginative scenarios. With his vastly acclaimed filmography comes the debate to determine his magnum opus, which begs the question: What film is objectively Cameron’s best?

With the recent hype for “Avatar: The Way of Water” comes immediate claims that its predecessor, “Avatar,” should be considered his best work. The film undoubtedly is a sight to behold, and the array of visual effects always captures the attention of moviegoers. The otherworldly setting of Pandora is immensely colorful and captivating in a tremendous, multi-dimensional scope. Its riveting character dynamics highlight the fantastic and distinct directorial style that Cameron employs in his films.

“Avatar” is considered one of the most groundbreaking movies of all time, and has received seemingly endless praise. It is widely known as one of the highest-grossing films in history, becoming the first to gross over $2 billion. The film won awards for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects at the 2010 Academy Awards. Additionally, “Avatar” greatly influenced the presence of three-dimensional films within movie theaters.

Even though it’s considered one of the best movies of all time, “Avatar” doesn’t deliver a powerful story. The progression and storytelling rely heavily on the visual appeal of the setting, which reduces the plot to a slow burn.  It’s a captivating, yet near-apathetic three-hour experience. Although the film is innovative, and a spectacle in every way, it can’t be considered Cameron’s preeminent feature.

The previous record-holder for the highest-grossing film, “Titanic,” is another title in the Cameron debate. Holding the record for over a decade strong, this epic film presents the tragic events of the real-life Titanic through the lens of an iconic love story. To this day, the film is quoted in all sorts of events, ranging from travels aboard cruises and boating voyages to the intimate moments between partners. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the oceanic scenery provides beautiful exhibitions of Cameron’s cinematography.

Unsurprisingly, “Titanic” was a massive commercial success. It was the first film to make $1 billion at the box office. Currently, it’s one of three films tied for the most Oscar nominations at 14 nominations, and one of three other films tied for the most Oscar wins with 11 awards. The soundtrack for the film has also been the best-selling classical soundtrack of the past 25 years. This success is well-deserved, considering that the movie reported a record budget of $200 million at the time.

Shocking as it may seem, “Titanic” is not Cameron’s definitive work. The romance between Jack and Rose falls into the extremities of being too quick or slow. Not to mention, they don’t feel like an actual couple; they blatantly feel like two performers trying to fall in love with each other. The side characters are severely underdeveloped, and the antagonist seemed rushed in his character development, especially at the ending. Despite the film’s many accomplishments, it undermines the setting by taking the audience from a captivated state to a near-captive condition.

Although not as popular, “True Lies” is a criminally underrated film that is often mentioned by diehard Cameron fans. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie tackles the double life of government agent, Harry Tasker, who attempts to keep his occupation a secret from his family while searching for a terrorist group. The action sequences are incredible and grander than life. Schwarzenegger’s acting is impressive, and balanced pleasantly by Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays Tasker’s wife. To put it simply, it’s an overall entertaining two hours of content.

“True Lies” was a commercial success for Cameron, albeit not as profitable as “Titanic” nor “Avatar.” It grossed $365 million at the box office, falling third behind “The Lion King” and “Forrest Gump” in 1994. Curtis won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her performance, and the film was nominated multiple times at several award shows. Similar to “Titanic,” it was the first film to have a reported budget of $100 million.

The discussion has been made for large commercial successes with lackluster stories, as well as a film that didn’t reach the same level of popularity, but is treasured by fans. These analyses present a dilemma: Where is that middle ground? What is Cameron’s one film that has gained appreciation from audiences and achieved critical success? The answer lies simply with a muscular assassin: “The Terminator.”

The movie is considered one of the best science-fiction films of all time. Its story about a cybernetic assassin (played by Schwarzenegger) sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor is simple, yet groundbreaking. The action and suspense are second-to-none, and it constantly feels like an edge-of-your-seat experience.

Schwarzenegger is perfect for the role and used it to solidify his place as a leading man in American cinema. Lucia Bozzola reviewed the film, saying “[a]s relentless as the taciturn titular villain, The Terminator (1984) established James Cameron as a master of action, special effects and quasi-mythic narrative intrigue, while turning Arnold Schwarzenegger into the hard-body star of the 1980s.”

Against a mild $6 million budget, the film grossed $78 million. The film led to a franchise consisting of several sequels, a one-season television show and various comic books and novels. “The Terminator” also helped launch Cameron’s career into the mainstream, serving as the catalyst for all the previously mentioned films. Without “The Terminator,” Cameron’s career may have never existed in its current form.

Whichever of Cameron’s films you choose as your favorite is entirely subjective. However, it’s worth noting the colossal accomplishments Cameron has achieved throughout his career. He has monumentally influenced the technological scope of cinema, and all these films are prime examples in their respective genres.

Paul Hoskin, Weber State University

Writer Profile

Paul Hoskin

Weber State University
Interpersonal and Family Communication

I strive to find passion and love for anything and everything I can find. I know a lot about a few things, and a little about a lot of things.

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