Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hands Down The Best Movie In Years

I'll be honest with you guys -- I have about four posts already mostly written, at least in raw form, waiting and ready to be posted about various topics. The large amount of poker I have played over the past few days. A recent trip to Atlantic City to the 1-2 cash tables. Another big weekend of NFL playoff action. But something happened to me this weekend that I just had to sit down and start writing about right after it happened, almost in an attempt to extent the experience for myself as much as to share it with the rest of you out there. What did I do you may ask that had such an effect on me?

I went to see Avatar.

Now, if you've read here for any considerable period of time, then you will know that I am generally a very harsh critic on movies. I don't like mostly any of the drivel that comes out nowadays, mostly because movies today for the most part only get made if they are expected to turn a profit, and in order for a big studio to expect to turn a profit, they have a certain formula, or "mold" if you prefer that term better, that they compare every screenplay they see to. If it fits the "likely to turn a profit" mold, then they make it, and if it doesn't, they generally pass. The result is that most of the movies that hit the theaters today are designed not to be great or to stir up your emotions, but rather, ultimately, to make money. They just target different segments of the population from which to profit is all.

But every once in a while, a movie comes along that seriously challenges the status quo. I mean, a movie that you would not consider going to the bathroom during, one that not only has you breathless all the way throughout, but has you buzzing with excitement for several days afterwards. The kind of movie that even regular joes like myself would be willing to see twice. In the theaters. At $20 a pop. That, my friends, is Avatar.

I will not give any specific spoilers at this point here in case anyone out there has not yet seen this movie. But suffice it to say -- and this is coming from a guy who has to this day steadfastly refused to ever see Titanic -- James Cameron is a stark raving genius. Avatar has finally made that obvious to me beyond all doubt. I have really liked some of Cameron's movies in the past -- Terminator 2 and The Abyss come immediately to mind as great examples of his directorial prowess, in addition to all-time top-grossing film Titanic which as I mentioned I have to this point in my life proudly and purposefully skipped. But I never thought of him in that absolute upper echelon, up there with the Speilbergs and the Scorceses, the master storytellers of their time. But at this point, there can be no doubt. James Cameron is a mad scientist of movies.

Where can you even begin to describe what Avatar is to the institution of movies. No matter how hard I try, words cannot describe that certain je ne sais quoi that Avatar has. Ultimately, I think it comes down to creativity. There has most definitely never, ever been anything like this in the history of life on earth. Nothing even close, really. It's not so much that most of the characters in the movie are computer-generated and yet move, talk and interact amazingly exactly as if they were real actors. And it's certainly not the 3-D, which is very cool and certainly something that helps push this movie over the edge of all-time greatness, but in the end the 3-D is actually quite understated compared to other 3-D movies and experiences I have seen in the past. I would estimate the 3-D is only about 5% of the coolness of Avatar, despite the technology being wielded extremely skillfully by Cameron as he weaves the story of the world of Pandora into the pop culture of the earth around forever.

No, it's not really the incredible, best-ever computer animation, and it's not the 3-D that make Avatar so special. And it's not the plot either -- the plot that I had heard from several sources was the weak link of the movie, a trite, many-times-over told story as predictable as the day is long. The plot that had me with such painfully low expectations going in to this movie, just like I usually have and am most often vindicated for. But not this time. The plot of Avatar is actually pretty good. It's not stupendous. The story itself isn't going to literally change your life forever on an emotional level like going to see Shawshank Redemption or The Matrix did. But it's good. It's interesting, and it does the job in a big way, having been executed pretty much flawlessly by an absolute perfectionist in James Cameron. Truth be told, the plot pretty much is the weak link of the story, but that is only because the plot is probably roughly a 7 out of 10 while the rest of the movie -- the execution of the movie -- is the closest thing to a perfect 10 I can remember in a long time.

Which brings me back to what that special something-something is with Avatar: creativity. That's what it comes down to. Did you ever see The Fifth Element? For true science fiction fans, The Fifth Element is to me about as truly original and creative of a flick as we've seen since the 1970s brought us Blade Runner and the beginning of the Star Wars saga. So many new ideas, so many new-looking aliens, with new powers and new outlooks. It's a thrill to watch every time it comes on TBS or one of the pay stations, and I rarely turn it off whenever I happen upon it during my surfing. But Avatar clearly surpasses The Fifth Element in the originality department -- both in the way it is shot but even in just some of the little details as well that the great directors are famous for covering so adeptly. Some of the "animals" (for lack of a better term) that we run into on Pandora are simply incredible, even right down to whoever thought up the idea for them in the first place. For those of you who've seen the movie, I'm thinking for example of those wisps that look like forget-me-nots that cover the main character at the beginning. Or those spiral flowers that all disappeared their entire stalk to quickly when he touched them at the beginning? Or what about that incredible bug we saw a few times that, when touched, erupted its tail in a brilliant spinning sprial of light? What they thought of to make the world of Pandora seem real, and alive, and yet completely alien, is truly amazing, really, like absolutely nothing I can ever recall seeing in my lifetime.

And it was more than just the visuals that Cameron worked so hard, and in fact waited for several years for the 3-D and other technology to catch up to the vision he has had for Avatar for the better part of a decade, that make Avatar the brilliantly original film that it is. The movie is just as rich in interesting and truly creative ideas as it is in visuals. Again, for those of you who have seen the film, but without giving any real spoilers, I'm thinking of the whole notion of linking the pony tails in their hair with the animals. Or the Tree of Souls. Or the whole Matrix-like use of avatars to begin with. As I keep saying over and over to anyone who will listen since seeing this movie this past weekend, you have most definitely never seen anything like this, period. Until now, no one has pushed the envelope quite this far in terms of what you can think of and then portray on-screen.

And I would be remiss if I did not as well mention specifically the way this movie is shot. If you read that link I had up above, it describes how James Cameron not only waited for years for 3-D technology to catch up with his vision for Avatar, but he also personally developed a new camera that shoots in hyper-realistic images directly to the human eye. Between that, the 3-D factor, and Cameron's impeccable taste for shooting all different kinds of scenes in just the right way, sitting back and watching this movie is like a huge palatial feast for your rods and cones. It's that simple. The fight scenes are tremendous, sort of combining the best of Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Evolution and The Matrix if that makes any sense at all, and the imagery, the characters, really everything are an incredible combination that you just don't see in movies today.

I think I've said all I need to right now about the specifics of the movie, but would love to hear anyone's thoughts on the movie if you've seen it in the comments. Hammer Wife and I are still talking nonstop about Avatar after more than 72 hours since leaving the theater, and we are already planning to drop another $50 to go see it for a second time in the IMAX theater, which will mark the first (and I bet only) time Hammer Wife and I have ever seen a movie twice in the theater, or even remotely considered doing so. But there is just nothing in the world today like seeing this movie, plain and simple. I don't think there is any doubt that Avatar is among the top ten movies of all time, although I think I will give it some time before I try to figure out where exactly to place it in the all-time pantheon of cinema. One thing is for crystal clear sure though: Avatar is not just the Best Picture for 2010. It is hands-down the best movie in at least ten years. The Matrix in what, 1999, definitely gives Avatar a run for its money, interestingly for many of the exact same reasons that make Avatar such an incredible and amazing gift to the human race. But I'm just thinking back to the films that have won Best Picture since 1999 -- Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, the third Lord of the Rings, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire, and having seen all of those but for Crash, it is honestly hilarious how badly Avatar. destroys them all. I am sure you will agree, if you don't already.

Please go see Avatar, James Cameron's gift to humanity.

Just make sure you have the $20 a ticket you are likely to pay to get in.

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Blogger OES said...

I gotta say, you articulated my own Je ne sais quoi incredibly about the way I felt about the movie.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Shrike said...

Yep, truly great movie. Seen it twice.


11:30 PM  
Blogger jjok said...

I've seen The Abyss about 8 thousand times.....but Titanic only once.

i.e.....I agree.

I guess I have to go see this thing then....

11:31 PM  
Blogger BLAARGH! said...

ok, I'll go for a little bit of the jaded view... Avatar is ONLY about money. The art, as beautiful as it is would not have been there if cameron hadn't dumped his 300 mil or so into it. Compare to the matrix, or blade runner, and avatar falls flat because of the story. While not horrendous, it ain't shakespeare... while matrix and blade runner add amazing visuals to frigging mind blowing stories. This is also where Pixar kicks the competitions ass. They start with a great story, then fit the visuals around it.
Cameron is a good businessman because he knows how to choose the best in the biz to get his stuff done and can get the huge budgets to fund it... weta, ILM, winston... Avatar is not mind blowingly new in any of the effects it uses, it just pushes them to the next level. Weta cut it's teeth on gollum, pushed it with kong, and now have main characters that are believable even in close ups. The technology isn't new, but the amount of money and skill to pull this off haven't been there until now.
OK, enough grousing... having been the devils advocate there for a minute - Avatar is DEFINITELY visually stunning and an absolute must see. I will go see it again (I'll post my attempt to see it a second time on my blog).

11:43 PM  
Blogger Micah Seymour said...

Dances with Avatars plot isn't just weak. It's lifted piece by piece. Let's call the Indians Na'vi. Let's call the wolves dragonny things, and let's call cavalry space marines. Now let's go remake Dances with Wolves.

4:52 AM  
Blogger KrazyBangs said...

Getting to see it free with a friend during the employee screening made it twice as amazing.

7:04 AM  
Blogger michael said...

Avatar for now is one of the best, but don't count lord of the rings.


8:01 PM  

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