Is Avatar the leading Best Picture contender?

On the 28th of December, 5777 nomination ballots were sent out to all voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Actors, writers, directors, producers and many others involved in each aspect of the filmmaking industry will decide on the films most worthy of Oscar glory. The mailing of ballots is perhaps not a monumental event, but nonetheless a significant moment for any film hoping for Academy consideration.

In what may prove to be serendipitous, James Cameron‘s Avatar led the U.S. box office to its biggest ever weekend over the Christmas break. It grossed $US75 million (the biggest ever second weekend in history), ahead of new releases Sherlock Holmes ($US62.4m) and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel ($us48.9m). They contributed to a cumulative box office gross of $US270 million, almost $US10 million more than the weekend of July 18-20 2009, when The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia debuted to startling numbers.

Avatar has so far grossed $US623 million worldwide with no signs of slowing. It is looking more and more likely to crack the billion dollar mark by the time Oscar nomination ballots are due back on the 23rd of January 2010. It will be a tremendous feat and the Academy are likely to reward director James Cameron and his team accordingly. No one doubts that Avatar will sweep the technical categories of the Oscar ceremony (Best Visual Effects etc.). But can Avatar achieve the same success as Cameron’s previous film Titanic? It seems unlikely that it (or any film) will match Titanic’s $US1.8 billion gross. However, leading Oscar prognosticators believe the film might equal Titanic’s haul of 11 Academy Awards – that includes claiming the Best Picture prize.

Pete Hammond over at the LA Times reports that Avatar was given a rapturous reception by the Academy at a packed members-only screening a couple of weeks ago. He continues on to claim it is now “the one to beat”.

“Avatar seems strongly positioned to win Oscar’s heart with its strong environmental and social messages, its not-so-thinly-veiled Bush bashing and, most important, its technological breakthroughs that present endless new possibilities for the movie industry. Make no mistake about it. It’s the industry that is voting in this contest. I can see the academy that showered a record-tying 14 nominations and 11 Oscars on Cameron’s last film, “Titanic,” 12 years ago ready to do it all over again.”

Hammond is not alone. Over at Movie City News, the Gurus of Gold also believe Avatar is the frontrunner in the Best Picture category, ahead of Jason Reitman‘s Up in the Air, Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Hurt Locker, Lee Daniels’ Precious and Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds. Of course, this doesn’t mean the critics believe the film deserves Best Picture over these other films. Movie City News also has a tally of Critics’ Top 10 Mentions, which is topped by The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, The Coen BrothersA Serious Man, Pete Docter‘s Up and Inglourious Basterds. Avatar is 11th on this list.

So these are the facts. Avatar is making a ridiculous amount of money. Critics like it very much, but they don’t love it. Audiences do love it however and the Academy would surely be aware that the inclusion of a beloved blockbuster in the Best Picture race would bring in viewers (I mean, that’s why they expanded the category to 10 spots in the first place). Finally, it wouldn’t be the first sweeping epic of Cameron’s to claim Oscar glory.

So, yes, we can probably rest assured that Avatar will be nominated for Best Picture. And yes, based on the above, it wouldn’t be crazy to consider Avatar a likely Best Picture winner (especially in the face of low-grossing former favourites Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker).

But what are the ramifications of Avatar winning Best Picture? Sure, the Oscars don’t actually mean anything. Often, they’re only brought up in conversation as movie lovers reflect on the Academy’s most cringeworthy decisions (Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction or Crash over Brokeback Mountain for instance). In fact, the Academy’s declaration of “Best Picture” is ultimately pointless. Time will sort out the best films from the forgettable.

Therefore, the question becomes: “what can the Oscars mean?” What is more important for the film industry? Would we rather a zeitgeist capturing blockbuster (and certainly the most talked about film of the year) like Avatar be named the Best Film of 2009? Or does the glory need to go to the smaller films that deserve a box office bump? Does the attention need to be directed to filmmakers and screenwriters who could use some publicity and respect (the team behind 500 Days of Summer for instance)?

In my opinion, Avatar was a very good film. But it didn’t match the genre-shattering heights of Inglourious Basterds, nor the touching honesty of 500 Days of Summer, the comedy and human drama of Up in the Air, the tearjerking power of Up, the existential mania of A Serious Man, the haunting beauty of Where the Wild Things Are or even the migraine-inducing thrills of The Hurt Locker.

Avatar was supremely well made and deserves to be remembered as a cinematic classic, if only for its technical achievements. However, if it claims Best Picture, it will be remembered as one of the many undeserving winners – an overrated movie. Perhaps that is the fate for every Best Picture winner (the backlash against Slumdog Millionaire has already begun to emerge). I would far prefer a filmmaker like Spike Jonze or Pete Docter or Kathryn Bigelow to experience the brief fleeting glory of the Oscars. Avatar was good filmmaking, but it wasn’t brave filmmaking, and for once in Academy Award history, it would be nice to see a brave film take the top prize.

The nominees for the 82nd Academy Awards will then be announced February 2nd, 2010. The Oscar ceremony will take place on March 7th, 2010.

Discuss: What does the Best Picture Oscar mean to you? Should the prize go to the film that best capture the zeitgeist of the year, or perhaps a lesser known film that featured brave filmmaking?

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