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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Academy Award Showdown

As Academy Awards nominations will be announced Tuesday, February 2nd, those close to the process know it's essentially coming down to two films: Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker. So, which of these films will win Best Picture and which should win?

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="215" caption="Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker" courtesy of"][/caption]

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's portrait of the war in Iraq through the eyes of an adrenaline junkie is certainly an exciting display of filmmaking.

Jeremy Renner's lead performance is something to behold - a complex man who thirsts so often for thrill and danger that he can't even explain why. His recklessness is almost a breath of fresh air in a war that many see as useless.

His colleagues in the Bravo company's bomb diffusion unit are as fearful of James (Renner) as they are of their enemy. Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are pushed well to the edge of insanity and can't comprehend why.

Bigelow uses wide shots to portray the vast separation we have with the Iraqi war and how the men and women who fight can't feel anything more than alone on an island. We try to understand why James has no problems doing the job that robots specifically designed to help avoid fatalities will do, but James shows no deliberate reason. At the heart of the film is the contrast between three types of soldier - the soldier who is terrified to be there, the soldier who is there because "it's his job", and the soldier who actually enjoys battle and the chance of death.

This behavior is made more interesting when we learn James has a wife and son at home. He has a paternal instinct that he displays when he interacts with Eldridge and it doesn't seem like it's outside of his comfort zone.

Bigelow's direction is detailed and tight - we are made to feel the stress of the bomb unit's situation. In similar films, we see a focus on the battle, on the bloodshed, and on the violence. Bigelow makes us focus on the process these soldiers go through to avoid exactly that. Her direction is almost at odds with Renner's performance, almost like they are pushing back onto each other. While James feeds on the possibility of death, Bigelow wants the focus to be on character and method.

The Hurt Locker is an Oscar-worthy film because it doesn't try to be. It takes an overdone theme and makes it a thriller, in a way. The film isn't about the war - the film is about the suspense the soldiers go through trying to prevent war.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="255" caption="Still from "Avatar" courtesy of"][/caption]


James Cameron has basically done it again.

In 1997, Titanic was released and took the world by storm. No one could believe what they were seeing on screen. The magic of Titanic was that it took a terribly overplayed "lady and the tramp" story and made it interesting given the backdrop. He has taken the same approach with Avatar.

Avatar may very well be the least subtle film I've ever seen. There are no arguments whatsoever on what the film is tring to say and what anything means. But, as most recent James Cameron movies have shown, the story is not the important part. Regardless, the film is an experience like none other, especially in 3D. James Cameron doesn't just make a film because it would look good in 3D.

Cameron creates a completely new world with Pandora, the planet on which the film takes place. This is a completely fictional place with a fictional race, animals, and language. Cameron spares nothing - he takes no shortcuts. Everything you see in this film is almost completely original, don't to the dirt and dust that puffs into your face during chase scenes.

Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine who is given the opportunity to take on the qualities and physicialities of one of the Navi, the race that inhabits Pandora. He is able to walk, run, and do things he could never do. He really falls in love with the people, the environment, and the situation. You guess why this may be a problem.

What Avatar lacks in story and performance it more than makes up for in experience. Just because you fell off your bike five times when you first learned to ride doesn't mean the experience isn't worth the time.

The Verdict

In a year dominated by good screenplays and human drama, Avatar has really become a phenomenon. Compare it again to 1997 and Titanic. The best film of that year was not Titanic (Boogie Nights, L.A. Confidential), but it changed the way movies are made. If anything, its effect on the film industry is and will be substantial. The Hurt Locker may be the better film, but it won't change the game. That's why Avatar will win and it really should win.

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