‘Avatar’ the best picture? With misgivings, yes
Something prevents me from calling “Avatar” the best film of the year. The story of a native people pitted in battle against a more technologically advanced, but morally and spiritually suspect culture, is simplistic and unoriginal. But my biggest criticism with “Avatar” is the concluding battle scene, in which the warriors fall away until the battle comes down to a mano-a-mano clash between the Earthling turned-Na’vi, Jake Scully, and the human – but inhumane – gun for hire, Col. Miles Qauritch (which rhymes with war-itch). Such a ground-breaking cinematic experience really deserves a more original ending, not one that writer-director James Cameron ripped from his own playbook (see, for example, “Terminator”).But the question remains: Will Cameron find himself again on top of the world – even if this time, the world is the not-quite-graspable moon called Pandora – as he did when 1997’s “Titanic” took the top Academy Award statue? I think yes, that “Avatar” will edge the other top contender, the narrowly focused Iraq War story “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Cameron’s former wife, Kathryn Bigelow. The excellence of “The Hurt Locker” is in its subtlety and poetry; it requires the viewer to bring a lot of imagination and knowledge to the table. “Avatar” is a something-for-everyone piece of cake, scrumptious and easy to take. I never subscribe to the “mood of the voters” school of thinking – but if I did, I’d say that Academy voters are going to get behind a phenomenal money-maker in these rough financial times, and that the Iraq War has receded to the back of the popular consciousness.On to the question of whether “Avatar” deserves to win. Despite my misgivings about the story and themes, I say yes. “Avatar” is a landscape-shifting movie event, one that reveals the full arsenal of the cinema experience like no other movie I can think of. My 10-year-old daughter, not generally an enthusiastic moviegoer, was captivated for the full nearly three hours. My wife, who isn’t warm to violence in film, raved, as did my mother, who usually goes for romantic comedies. I saw “Avatar” in 2-D and thought it wonderful, far beyond my expectations – and then saw it in 3-D, which was a whole other experience. Even in 2-D, I was awed, mystified, absorbed, emotionally engaged. And even able to put my criticisms way back in a corner, where they lay dormant and insignificant.”Avatar” was monumental, memorable, a financial powerhouse, and, in an era of sharp dividing lines between cultural touchstones, an event that drew everyone in. Cameron swung for the fences, and connected. And while the storytelling was not perfect, and not original, it was effective, clear, engaging and adequate for the task. At the least, “Avatar” is far more deserving than “Titanic.”••••So what was my best film of the year – the one that didn’t necessarily fulfill a cine-sociological function, but just filled me with satisfaction? An easy call for me, and one I’m sure precious few Academy voters will agree with.”A Serious Man,” by Joel and Ethan Coen, has gotten into my bones in a way that “Avatar” didn’t. (Although maybe if I see it in IMAX … ). The Coens raise the eternal issues of the cosmos: Is God out there? Does He love us? Or is He just toying with us, waiting for us to screw up, and then pouncing – kind of like that bad-ass Anton Chigurh in the Coens’ “No Country For Old Men?”The Coens being the Coens, they take these all-encompassing questions and wrap them in black humor, set it in a Minnesota suburb of the 1960s, and give us some of the most difficult-to-like characters imaginable. And oh yes, they give it a Jewish twist beyond even what Woody Allen ever did. “A Serious Man” begins with a prologue set in a Russian shtetl, the characters speaking in Yiddish. It doesn’t really get any less ethnic from there; the tale is set in Hebrew school, temple and a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. The story follows Larry Gopnik, a well-intentioned but overwhelmed family man who goes to a series of rabbis for guidance. It is the Coens at their funniest and most obscure – made me laugh to beat the band – and at the same time there is a sincerity in their raising of theological questions.Also rising to the top among the Best Picture nominees – 10 of them this year – were “An Education,” a smart coming-of-age drama set in 1961 London; “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney as a high-flying businessman who begins to question his detachment from others; and “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s audacious and entertaining story of Jews on the attack against the Nazis.Of the other nominees for the big prize, “Precious,” Lee Daniels’ harrowing story of an obese, abused girl trying to find her humanity in a rough urban environment, is a good movie with some brilliant scenes. “Up” is a visually unique piece of animation marred by several dull stretches. “The Blind Side” is a Sandra Bullock film – which is to say, I didn’t see it – and I’m still waiting for the library to notify me that “District 9” has come in.Of the films that didn’t receive nominations, two, both indie-feeling romantic comedies, are on my best of the year list: “Adventureland,” set in and around a mid-’80s Pittsburgh amusement park, and which bounced between goofy comedy and stormy romance; and “(500) Days of Summer,” a fresh anti-romance.••••Jeff Bridges might as well start walking to the stage as soon as they start reading the nominees for Best Actor. And Bridges was very good in “Crazy Heart.” But the film was one clich after another – by the time the little boy went missing, I cringed – and George Clooney did a better job in the far better “Up in the Air.”If Meryl Streep wins Best Actress for the listless, pointless “Julie & Julia,” I’ll be disappointed. (If Bullock wins, I’ll be vomiting.) Helen Mirren (in the fine historical drama “The Last Station”) and Gabourey Sidibe (in the title role of “Precious”) were both very good. But the standout here was young Carey Mulligan, who gave a complex life to “An Education.”Christoph Waltz, as the sinister Nazi officer in “Inglourious Basterds,” should get the Best Supporting Actor nod over Christopher Plummer, whose portrayal of Leo Tolstoy in “The Last Station” was very good, but not nearly as imaginative as Waltz’s role. If Monique doesn’t win for her role as the evil mother in “Precious,” I will lead a protest through the firstname.lastname@example.org
The 82nd Academy Awards ceremony will be televised Sunday, March 7 at 6 p.m.
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