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Jared challenged me to explain why I loved Avatar so much. Believe me, there’s no one more surprised at how much I loved it than me. Big, loud, action flicks aimed towards a broad audience rarely appeal to me, but this is something special. Avatar is a cinematic event that only comes around once in a blue moon, the kind of experience that film fans will talk about for ages.

And, yes, I’m primarily talking about the visuals. The stunning 3-D, lush landscapes, and CGI creatures are wonders to behold. Feeling immersed in this world really does feel like something; even two-plus hours into the film there were visuals that made me jump and cringe in my seat. I have a fear of heights and I don’t think any film has managed to parlay that fear into such pulse-quickening excitement.

Avatar is getting a lot of flak for its plot. I know it’s not an original story, but it’s a classic story for a reason and it is effective. There are enough original story elements to keep me satisfied and as a sci-fi film set on a foreign world the more fantastic parts are acceptable.

But the best thing about it is the world it creates. I love being transported by film to unfamiliar worlds, be they current or past or future, fictional or not. One reason I really liked Frozen River, a film about as opposite from Avatar as possible, is its depiction of life on a poor, cross-border Native American reservation, which is an unfamiliar world for me.

Science fiction and fantasy often create their own worlds, but they don’t usually feel fully realized or they don’t follow a logical set of rules. Harry Potter is fun but which wizards have what level of power and can perform what kinds of spells is inconsistent; the dead are conveniently called upon to fight in Lord of the Rings but then immediately forgotten. Avatar creates a world with its own rules and then adheres to those rules. All the Mother Nature stuff may be hokey to some, but Mother Nature mysticism is what exists in the alien and fictional world of Pandora and it remains consistent, so it is acceptable.

Brian says a major film like this needs a score that makes you hum as you walk out of the theater and James Horner’s work for Avatar falls short. First, I loved the score and found it to be a great accompaniment to the film. It enhances several intense scenes, like the one where the Na’vi encircle the tree, clasp hands and chant to save Dr. Augustine’s life. I’ve listened to the soundtrack at least a dozen times already.

But I also think his criteria are too high. Yes, many classic films have classic scores. But if you walked into the film blind and not knowing the score, would you really know it well enough to hum it on the way out? Not even in Star Wars, I’d posit. The music very much stayed with me as the film ended, but I think it’s too much to expect the actual notes to linger after one viewing and before they enter the mainstream consciousness like many classic scores.

I walked out of that theater totally floored and I still remain literally excited to see Avatar again. In fact, my only regret is that I won’t get a chance to experience it for the first time ever again.

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I am not a member of the Academy. I am instead but a lowly professional economist. Which means not only do studios not send me dozens of screeners but every time I go to the movies I’m always wondering if it’s worth my money.

But today I am pretending I’m a member of the acting branch and casting my ballot for Best Actor.

Acting nominations are made by ranking up to five actors in each category. If the ballot’s number one choice does not have the support needed to receive a nomination, the ballot is counted instead as a vote for the #2 choice, and so on. There is no guidance as to how to separate between Lead and Supporting categories; that determination is left up to individual voters.

1. Matt Damon, The Informant!

Damon puts on the pounds and a mustache for this film, but it’s his complex performance and not the gut that make it so memorable. His squirrelly character is outrageous but not flashy and even though he’s exasperating we’re always able to empathize.

2. Peter Sarsgaard, An Education

I’m not sure whether this is really Lead or Supporting. If I had a ballot I’d put him in both categories just to make sure. He must walk a thin line as a character that’s both charming enough to win over a teenage girl – and the audience, to some extent – but also creepy enough to be trying to win over a teenage girl. At least Damon got a little recognition and a Golden Globe nod; the utter lack of respect this awards season for Sarsgaard is confounding.

3. Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

This film is essentially two hours of the world shitting on the main character so the man portraying him better be someone the audience wants to watch. The role calls for Stuhlbarg’s exasperation to forever increase while never overcoming his nebbishness and I think Stuhlbarg does a great job of keeping us all frustrated but empathetic.

4. George Clooney, Up in the Air

I’m always impressed by Clooney’s quiet performances. He’s one of those uber-famous, attractive Hollywood types that it’s easy to forget is damn good at what the does. He’s interesting in zany roles like in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Men Who Stare at Goats, but there’s so much talent in his subtle acting that requires a role like this one or in Michael Clayton to really display.

5. Paul Rudd, I Love You, Man

Not a conventional choice,but the man needs some recognition for his wonderfully awkward performance. I don’t think it’s easy to pull of bumbling faux machismo. Most comedies in this vein feel a little rough around the edges in the performances, like the punchlines don’t come across quite polished enough. No offense to the Jonah Hills of the world, but Rudd has the comedic chops and smooth delivery that are often lacking even in the comedies I love. Rudd was so great in this and Role Models and I hope he gets more and more leading roles.

Next on my list were Sam Rockwell for Moon and Michael Sheen for The Damned United.

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