I will be very disappointed if Avatar wins Best Picture or James Cameron wins Best Director this year. Avatar was a very good movie; I’ll even go so far as to say it was one of the best movies of 2009—but clearly, definitely, not the best movie of 2009, or any other year.


Sometimes I think movies should be selected for Best Picture like athletes selected for the Hall of Fame: you’re not eligible until five years after you retire. Sure, there are people you know who will go on the first ballot—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, even T.O.—but there are always those guys (like the late Bob Hayes) who had a lasting impact on the game but were not recognized at the time for one reason or another. There are movies that are pivotal in the way they affect movies that come after them (Rorschach is an extreme version of Christian Bale’s Batman, for example). When it is loudly proclaimed that Avatar is “the future of movies,” does that mean every successful movie will have to cost $300 million to make and take fifteen years to produce?


The biggest reason Avatar should not be Best Picture is… shouldn’t the best picture be made from the best script? This is not always the case; Titanic won Best Picture (and Director) but got no nominations for writing (or acting, a precedent that could be repeated?). But its competition was As Good as It Gets, Good Will Hunting, The Full Monty, and L.A. Confidential. All have become “significant” movies, but hardly “landmark,” and all would easily be among the “honorable mention” movies that round out this year’s expanded Best Picture slate.


The thing is, for all its technical wizardry (and it should be recognized for that, except for Sound Editing), did it really do anything new? Did anything happen that you did not expect or could not see coming? And even if it is a story where you already know what’s going to happen (the Titanic sinks, the Apollo 13 astronauts make it back to Earth), you have to tell it in a way that shows the audience something new. (And while Titanic was not a great script—I never bought the grand romance between Jack and Rose—I do give Cameron props for sinking the boat early on, the foreshadowing worked). A great example of how you do it right:


Watching Apollo 13 we get to the point where the astronauts are coming out of the communications blackout and nobody knows if the heat shield stayed on. They call the ship and there’s no reply. They call again, no reply. The camera cuts to all the people waiting to hear—Lovell’s kids in school, his wife at home, the people in Mission Control—and there’s dead silence—


—and I notice not only is there silence on the screen, but the entire theatre was dead silent. Everybody knows what happened, but we were all waiting there, holding out breath, wondering, caught up in the story. We were engaged in what was happening on the screen. For me, Avatar was entertaining, interesting, but never engaging. You pretty much knew the whole story from the trailers.


Now, District 9 truly deserves its Best Picture nomination—but that’s another story…

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