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Does Avatar Deserve the Best Picture Oscar?

Last week, I posted about the inevitable post-Oscar analysis we would see if James Cameron took home the Oscar for Avatar. I bemoaned the possibility that this would be sold as the moment the Academy re-engaged with mainstream culture, observing that they would only give it to him because he was James Cameron, not because of the box office numbers or the fact the film had resonated with the public. Those who read this blog with any regularity will know that I’m not the biggest fan of the film, I have several huge problems with it, but I feel the need to clarify my position on Avatar. I don’t think that it doesn’t deserve to win – and yes, that’s a double negative. I wouldn’t feel robbed if James Cameron got another little gold statuette. I can even concede that Avatar  might have earned it.

James Cameron is probably going to need a bigger Oscar cabinet...

I’ve written quite a bit about Avatar in general – and my view can be summed up as such: it is an incredibly visceral experience, but that’s hampered by a bland and pointless plot with more than a few disturbing undertones. I’ve been surprised at the visciousness of the backlash against those who have pointed out the rather glaring plot deficiencies of the movie, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the beauty of the movie, even if I feel that the beauty is somewhat dampened by the problems the movie has as a story. I don’t feel it was the best film of the year – it didn’t even make my top ten – but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve an Oscar.

Keep in mind that I wrote in my introduction ‘I don’t think that Avatar doesn’t deserve to win’. That may be a double negative – but it’s an entirely different sentiment from ‘I think that Avatar deserves to win’. I personally think that Best Picture should be treated as a gold derby – there are individual categories for each aspect of production (special effects, sound, performance, writing and direction), so it makes sense that Best Picture shouldn’t really be thought of as another screenplay or directing category. But that’s my opinion. Experience has taught us that it’s generally just the second award given to the winner of Best Director, or treated as a bit of a joint prize with that one – the two are inexorably linked. I’d argue that there’s no reason the two should be linked – they are two different awards, after all – but should and are are two different words. Personally I don’t think that a movie with such glaring plotting issues as Avatar necessarily deserves an overall award for filmmaking, but I can understand why the movie’s other aspects might justify presenting it the Oscar.

Because, let’s face it, the Oscars aren’t about measuring the best film of the year in any form of objective manner. Occasionally there might be some overlap, but it’s hard to make the case that Titanic or Shakespeare in Love were the best films of their respective years. Besides, it’s not as if we can point to objectively ‘best’ films. The term is always a personal one – that may differ greatly between me and you – so why would it matter if what I considered the best film of the year were nominated or not? It isn’t as though my opinion is validated or invalidated by the fact that AMPAS agrees with me. And I think that’s a generally accepted fact, in that a lot of commentators keep their ‘best of’ lists separate from their ‘frontrunners’ lists.

A slightly – and admittedly only slightly – less objective criteria is recognising outstanding contribution to the world of cinema. Movies that define how we make cinema. That have had massive quantifiable impact on the way we look at movies and the way that they are produced. Okay, maybe that’s not actually the rationale used by the vast majority of Oscar voters, but it’s a fairly logical one. And it is – admittedly – one that favours Avatar. Or at least justifies its consideration.

There is no way to understate the technical magnificence of the project. I remarked in my review that literally the only way the audience knows that what they are seeing isn’t real is because it couldn’t possibly be. In one fell swoop, James Cameron has validated 3D as the next step in the evolution of cinema. It may not be as great a leap as the transition to sound or even to colour, but Cameron has knocked it out of the ballpark. Audiences have clearly responded to it.

And you could make the case that Avatar has reshaped the movie-making world in a way we haven’t seen in our generation. Yes, you can argue that this is simply hyperbole, but – crucially – there’s a strong case that it isn’t. Any movie you can mount a legitimate defense of as a ‘revolutionary piece of cinema’ probably deserves a solid gold statue to stick on it’s mantle piece.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have massive problems with the film. I’m not entirely convinced – for its technical mastery – that this is necessarily what we want to be the model for all movies in the future. I still favour story over spectacle. But still, not all sound movies were The Jazz Singer. Not all colour movies were The World, The Flesh & The Devil. Maybe next year we will see a movie that can be as emersive as Avatar with a more engaging plot, actual characters and with a solid script.

Still, none of this subtracts from Avatar’s amazing technical accomplishments. And that’s why – although it isn’t necessarily the best film of the year – I will understand if it takes home the award. It might even be the reason that the movie deserves the award.

Or at least that’s what I’ll be telling myself.

4 Responses

  1. I think I can side with you; I “favor story over spectacle” as well, and that may be why I didn’t fall ass-over-teacups in love with “Avatar” the way so many others did.

    Initially I was pulling against “Avatar” for Best Picture, and admittedly part of that was based on the residual bitterness I feel from the “Dark Knight” Oscar shutout. Now I suppose I can see why some would think “Avatar” is a viable contender, but I still say that the razzle-dazzle CGI shouldn’t automatically excuse the weaker storyline.

    • I feel your pain. Truth be told, there are far better choices than Avatar. But a lot of this is me self-rationalising. Trying to objectively justify something as inherently subjective as the Oscars is arguably pointless – the award will go to who it goes to.

      But it makes me feel a little better.

  2. Why is it people can’t leave Titanic alone? Yes Avatar is crap, but Titanic is one of the best films made, not only of its year but of all time. It most certainly is better that wildly historically inaccurate film Gone with the Wind which was a major insult to people.

    Titanic is a great film. Avatar is not. Why people feel the need to trash Titanic is beyond me. I can’t take anyone serious when they call Titanic a bad film because it is clear to me they don’t have great tastes in films. I hate artsy indie type people that love movies that no one likes (and for good reason too). Entertainment rejects become critics because they like to hear themselves babble about how terrible a movie is even though box office success says different.l

    • Ezzie, I don’t mean to be too cheeky, but surely the fact that Avatar made more money than Titanic means it is a better film – taking your logic at face value.

      I’m not an indie-minded critic. I like what I like, regardless of box office. I loved the financial disappointments of Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass, but I also loved huge hits like The Dark Knight, Inception and The Rock. Good films are good films, with box office success or without.

      So, I didn’t like Titanic. You did. That’s grand. I have my reasons and you have yours. Neither opinion is better, and none is right. I just write this blog to offer my own opinion. I hope I can justify it, but even just putting it out there encourages debate and discussion. Thanks for commenting, and don’t ever hesitate to give me what for.

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