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Can 'Avatar' defeat the Oscar curse against fantasy films?

December 11, 2009 |  7:17 pm

Avatar news james cameron movies entertainment

Battle scenes in "Avatar" are spectacular and thrilling, but the movie's greatest fight lies ahead, off-screen – at the Academy Awards.

James Cameron's fantasy is as terrific as we Oscarologists had hoped it would be and it will surely break into the best picture race, but "Avatar" will probably trip up in the home stretch. Last year's critically cheered blockbuster — "The Dark Knight" — didn't even get nominated for best picture. But now there are 10 slots in a weak year, so "Avatar" can't be denied its due place on the derby track.

But Oscar voters are stubborn, narrow-minded graybeards. Computer-generated fantasy films, however amazing, aren't "important" in their eyes. Voters like their best pictures real. Sure, "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" won the top prize. Indeed, it went undefeated in all 11 categories, tying the record for most wins held by "Ben-Hur" and James Cameron's "Titanic," but that was only because the franchise wore voters down over the years.

Avatar James Cameron Lord of the Rings news

The first installment, "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring," looked invincible when it entered the 2001 derby with the most nominations — 13, which is the second most in academy history. It lost best picture to "A Beautiful Mind," which prevailed despite being engulfed in scandal as journalists kept blasting it with repeated disclosures of how Ron Howard & Co. sugar-coated the life story of its protagonist. (There was absolutely no evidence of a smear campaign against "A Beautiful Mind" so let's not rehash that nonsense again.) "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (2002) was also nominated for best picture and lost to "Chicago." If the final installment of the most successful film trilogy in Hollywood history had also lost, it's safe to assume that hobbit fanboys and Oscar nuts everywhere would've nuked the academy in 2003. Voters knew that and were forced to surrender foolish old views.

But that fuddy-duddy bias against fantasy blockbusters still reigns. Nonetheless, "Avatar" can still pose a serious threat. Here's how.

Besides the expansion of the best-picture race to 10 slots, there's another curious quirk about this derby year. Due to the interruption of the winter Olympics in February, the Oscars aren't until March 7. Nominations come out on Feb. 2. That's two days after the Director's Guild of America Award winner is revealed. Usually, the final round of Oscar voting is well under way when we learn who wins DGA.

As every Oscarologist knows, the DGA winner repeats at the Oscars more than two-thirds of the time and the movie that wins best director at the Oscars usually wins best picture too. Given the stunning directorial achievement of "Avatar," Cameron could pick up his second DGA trophy after prevailing for "Titantic" (1997). However, since the odds are stacked against "Avatar" winning the top Oscar, the mirror effect between the guild and the academy may not repeat this year.

But maybe a ripple effect will. That's why I continue to bet on "Inglourious Basterds" to win the Oscar for best picture. I think the good-old-boy bias within the guild is too great for a woman to triumph (Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker") and I don't think guild members will consider "Up in the Air" to be a grand directorial achievement (they didn't even nominate Jason Reitman for "Juno"). Thus I consider Quentin Tarantino to be Cameron's biggest threat at DGA. "Basterds" is impressive, it's cool and it's Tarantino's most successful film to date ($300 million worldwide). If Tarantino wins the DGA trophy on Jan. 30, that should set off a "Basterds" juggernaut. That's what happened to "Midnight Cowboy" in 1969. After it failed to win best picture from any awards group earlier in the derby, it got a sustained bump from DGA.

But if I'm wrong about Bigelow and she wins at DGA, her victory will be historic; no woman's ever won there. It will also launch "The Hurt Locker" to an easy win at the Oscars, of course. It will also be terrific Hollywood soap opera to witness, considering she will beat her ex-husband. Bigelow and James Cameron were married from 1989 to 1991.

Hmmm . . . do you think any of Cameron's other three ex-wives will ever get a shot at that too?


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Photos: "Avatar" (20th Century Fox), "Lord of the Rings:Fellowship of the Ring" (New Line)

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The comments to this entry are closed.


Avatar is science fiction. However, Return of the King is fantasy. So a fantasy has won Best Picture already.

$12million vs $2billion ..the vote is in!

Should it? well it depends whether the academy realise the foundation of their role as an organisation since it inception in the very early 1900's- nearly 100 years ago or not far off is about :

1. Celebrating revolutionary film makjing that open the floodgates to future cinematic possibilites in it very format in this case
2. Pushing the boundaries of what is possible and realisitc in what it shows to audiences
3. Pushes technical and story telling boundaries to really challenge audiences
4. A film that strikes the balance between extraordinary critical acclaim and euqally huge popularity that is a pop culture defining film that defines a generation, that defines future cinematic trends
5. Revolutionary film making period the likes we have not seen since the advent of sound in motion picture

Of course we know the gen x's rule an increasingly anti public oscar ceremony

"Avatar is science fiction, not fantasy"

Avatar is both. James said it was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In A Princess of Mars, a soldier closes his eyes and opens them on a fantastic world where he fights 6-legged beasts and wins the heart of the alien princess. Sound familiar? We're talking about a movie where blue people fly on dragons around floating rocks. Everything else is what James calls "the pursuit of creating a patina of reality in what is basically a fantasy".

Ditto many of the comments below. Use of the word "fantasy" is wrong (Avatar is science fiction, not fantasy, and The Dark Knight is neither), and your analysis of why The Return of the King won the oscars (the academy was finally worn down) doesn't sound right to us at all.

Again, this is not Fantasy this is Science-Fiction. Science-Fiction is literature, anything that is not science-fiction these days is a "period piece" about the last millennium. The world has moved on and left you behind newspaper man. Next!

What a pathetic summation of how people weigh the intrinsic value of something! Instead of words of insight, Mr. O'Neil supplies words of incite ("graybeards," "fuddy duddies") to denigrate people who might have a different point of view.

How can QT win at the DGA, he's not a DGA member

Return of the King is the most boring of all the LotR movies. I'm guessing by the end of the trilogy the average voter decided that the series deserved some awards. Just another example of the weakness of group-think. The Dark Knight wasn't a very great film, which is why it didn't win. Do we really call it fantasy, though?

hands down the best films i have seen this are...
1. Inglourious Basterds
2. A serious Man
3. Moon

Inglourious Basterds best pick

After the third LOTR won 11 Oscars the title seems too much of a rhetorical question. And I do agree with Mark that with Oscars it obviously is not the case where best films win (Remember the year when we had The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, La vita è bella, Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love won?). And I also agree that Inglourious Basterds do not deserve to win an Oscar (but I do think that Christoph Waltz should be nominated in a Supporting Role category).'s a curse, though it really isn't since a fantasy film has won the Oscar for best picture. It's like saying westerns have a curse, though they have won best picture Oscars.

I guess you had to frame this story somehow. It's a "non" story though. Were you just sitting around thinking of something to write about Avatar and just thought to yourself "hey, let's play this up as some sort of curse against fantasy films". Again, guess you have to write something to get that paycheck, eh?

Oh, and this is science fiction, not fantasy.

You know, probably the main reason movies are doing so poorly in the box office is because they give away the entire plot during the commercials and previews, I already know what the movie is gonna be about; I don't want to go see it anymore. That sentiment is probably cutting into a demographic of people saying, Why see something that I know how it'll play out? It's pretty terrible, sometimes I see these trailers on Television and for the first few seconds I think its a joke trailer then realize it's an actual movie.

There is no way that Avatar should even be nominated for Best Picture based on the technological merits alone.

I have not yet seen Avatar. However, I already read many reviews and all of them agree that the film is amazing in terms of visuals and the way the technology was employed. And from what I've seen from the trailers, I will probably agree 90% with that myself. Yet they also say that the story (the backbone of every film) is not much to write home about. It's corny and filled with crappy dialogue. The plotline seems to be heavily inspired on other films such as 1990's "Dances with Wolves" and even "FernGully: The Last Rainforest". These are some of the complaints that I've read about the film.

Avatar won't even be the first "real 3D" film ever made. The animated feature "Coraline" (made using a two camera system) was one of the first to show incredible 3D visuals on the big screen. I guess you could argue that it is the first "live-action" film to use advanced 3D technology. But then again, a large percentage of the film is computer generated... so I dunno.

I also have doubts that this will become a new franchise that will be as big as Star Trek or Lord of The Rings. The alien designs (the cat people) aren't really appealing to most people (especially men). They look like fugitives from some girly Anime series. So I don't think that most toy collectors will go after the cat-people action figures. And on top of that, it seems that the humans are mostly portrayed as villains in the film (the military at least). So that reduces the appeal even more so.

However, I hope Avatar does well since I rather see films like this being made that to see yet another remake or rehash of classic films coming out of Hollywood. I mean, is remaking "The Thing" or "Escape from New York" really necessary? No. So give me more Avatar please.

ummm. you do realize that there is a difference between fantasy and science fiction, no? If not, can I please have your job while you go back to school?

Can we all stop this "The Hurt Locker" nonsense? It will not win Best Picture. Period. Not because of quality but because of box office $12 million does not make a Best Picture. Sorry. Next.

New Title for this article ... Can 'Average Humans' and the La Times tell the difference between Sci-Fiction and Fantasy films? Nope!

If it breaks the Laws of physics it is fantasy.

If it does not breaks the Laws of physics it is not Fantasy.
Avatar is Science In Fiction or Sci-Fiction. Just letting you know .

Curse was Broken, Lord of the Rings : Return of the King.

This articles title is terrible..

"wore voters down over the years"

Not true averybody thought all 3 were the best movies all 3 years. They really could not give it to them 3 years in a row though . They held out and gave Lord of the Rings it's in the last movie rather than the first.

But no one cares about the oscars anymore. A bunch of has-beens and self-promoting hanger-ons deciding what they think is best, while the rest of us always disagree. Odd categories, with films/people we've not actually seen, its all totally hollywood in the worst sense. As for the DGA, ha!

How about we see the film first before we crown it as the best movie of the year, decade, and / or all time?

"Fellowship of the Ring" is not a good example of a bias against fantasy because the Academy knew that the second and third installments were coming, and they saved up the accolades for the end. Otherwise they would have either had to hand out three best picture Oscars to the franchise, which is a bit excessive, or hope that the 2nd and 3rd films were not as worthy as the first. "Return of the King" winning 11 Oscars including best picture and director seems to dispose of the premise that fantasy films cannot be winners. They could have given the top nod to Seabiscuit or Mystic River -- but they didn't. They recognized the LOTR, and did it the right way. There was never any doubt that #3 was going to win, and that #1 was not.

"Titanic" was a wonderful (yes corny, but wonderful) "LA Confidential" was revisiting territory explored much better in "Chinatown"...a film on a whole different level....

I doubt seriously though whether "Avatar" wins Best's just not "grown up" enough for the voters. I'd put my money on Mr. Eastwood.


Of course, there's another issue with the LOTR trilogy: By the release of TTT, the buzz was that the big Oscars would be held back until ROTK. Surely everyone knew from the beginning that LOTR was a trilogy; that hurt the Oscar chances of the first two films, which in turn led to ROTK's sweep. That's not an issue with "Avatar"; besides, James Cameron is already an Oscar-winning director.

OTOH, will Oscar voters see "Avatar" as "Titanic" set in outer space, like I do? Even in the fantasy genre, "Star Trek" has a better story; J.J. Abrams & co. successfully rebooted a well-known movie franchise while remaining true to its roots. IMO, that's more worthy of an Oscar nom than Cameron's warmed-over story.

I wish 'Avatar' could break this curse, but I know that it's not. Heck, if 'The Dark Knight' couldn't last year, 'Avatar' won't win for Best Picture. Although, like 'The Dark Knight', will be in the conversation, but really? Will it win? It's still a long shot even with 10 spots now.




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