Let me tell you I am a fan of having ten nominees for best picture. Instead of devaluing the award, I think it almost means more – your film had to fight it’s way past nine other great films to pull out the top honor. In fact, this blog has been really hard for me to write because I am so excited about the films that received nominations this year that as underwhelmed as I was by last year’s nominees, I seem to be making up for it this year by being beyond excited to see who will win and what surprises are in store.
When I sat down to finally write this post I actually surprised myself. Instead of going with my immediate gut instinct I decided to take the list of the ten nominees and come up with reasons why each one of them would deserve my vote (if I had one) for best picture; my factors were qualities like acting, technique, craftsmanship, enjoyment, aesthetics, and even my own drive to see the film in the theatre – basically I wanted the film that I thought had the greatest artistic merit and compelling draw to it. I thought for sure when I put it all on paper that my initial gut reaction would be correct and I would be writing about Up In The Air which is the film that probably moved me the most out of any film I saw this year. While Up In The Air did score higher on my criteria than The Hurt Locker & Inglorious Basterds there was one film that I scored high above all of them…one I didn’t think I’d vote for despite my love of the film.
So I sat. I thought about all of my qualities as a director, as a lover of films and as a critic and what I think the best picture Oscar is for. It’s then I realized if I truly wanted to award the film that I think will do the most for the craft of filmmaking, the art of storytelling and last with audiences for years to come I would have to cast my vote for Avatar.
Why Avatar? I’m going to start with the obvious – technology & innovation. I have a quote on my wall from James Cameron which he received from Stan Winston before his death: “…once you’ve shown something is possible everybody can do it.” James Cameron likes to try the impossible and for some reason he usually succeeds. For Avatar he ignored the naysayers and decided he wanted to create an entire alien planet and nine foot tall blue aliens that would actually be played by real actors and he did it – he even re-imagined how 3-D works for the film. Because Cameron was able to accomplish this we are now seeing an even larger influx of 3-D films and I guarantee you people will be using and pushing the technology Cameron used for Pandora & the Nav’ii for years to come. He made something new.
However, technology isn’t enough. They have the sci-tech awards for that. This leads me to another quote on my desk, this one from Spielberg that reads “We try to understand as filmmakers through empathy…because you can’t understand the human motivation without empathy.” Arguably the most powerful & well respected filmmaker of our time, the point Spielberg is making is that if you can’t feel your characters motivations & emotions and effectively put those on screen then the audience has no hope of connecting with your characters or your story. Think about it carefully – it’s hard enough for us to find some humans in films as empathetic, likable characters, but somehow in Avatar we are caught in the emotional journey of Jake Sully, Neytiri and an entire race of giant blue aliens. That is commendable and brilliant, a sign of true talent and a great story.
I’m also not one that tends to put a lot of stock in box office numbers, but with Avatar you can’t ignore the fact that the film smashed records worldwide and was in the top spot on the box office charts for almost two months. That tells me that Avatar is a film that managed to draw in an audience and do the most important thing – keep them. Unlike most of the best picture nominees almost everyone I’ve spoken to has seen Avatar and out of those the majority of them adored it. I have myself seen Avatar in the theatre three times – I haven’t seen any of the other films more than once. That tells me the film has a massive draw and appeal, and the sheer span of its reign in the box office tells me it’s not just because it had a budget behind it, an advantage the smaller films didn’t have to reach their audience. It is much more typical for a large budget film to have a huge opening week and then have a 40-70% drop for every week thereafter, but Avatar broke that model. In the U.S. alone box office actually went up after the first weekend.
There are even more things I could pull out about Avatar but I’ll wrap it up with something personal. Up In The Air may have been the film that connected with me on an emotional level I didn’t expect, but Avatar connected with me emotionally too. Avatar reminded me why making films is my passion. It reminded me about the powers of imagination, the exhilaration a great film can provide and what it looks like to produce something that no one has ever seen before. It reminded me that no matter what story you are telling there is always a unique and fresh way to tell it and if you have a passion for the story you are telling that passion will show up on screen. James Cameron is a master of his craft and with Avatar he managed to reinvigorate the cinema lover inside me again, which is quite the feat as I am already an enthusiastic lover of cinema. Cameron proved that he has a supreme talent to work with actors, artists and transfer a story to the screen.
Even with all the support and adoration I’ve laid out for Avatar (and I could keep going) I still think that awarding one film over another is as futile as choosing your favorite shade of blue, but what I do believe in is supporting good work. All of the nominated films this year were great works and each deserved the best picture award for very different reasons – I will enjoy it no matter who wins and have reasons to think each deserved it. However, I think if I ever do get a vote in the Academy I might just have to pull out this technique again and cast my vote that way.