I saw Avatar the other day. It was, and is, amazing. I've got to hand it to James Cameron, he really ascribes to the "go big or go home" school of film making. And for James Cameron he generally goes big in a good way. Unlike, say, Michael Bay, who thinks he's going big, when in actuality he's just making steaming piles of dung that happen to cost a lot of money to produce.
For James Cameron, he has consistently pushed the edge of the technology available in film making, while at the same time also concentrating on making the story interesting. I'm thinking of The Abyss, Terminator, Terminator 2, Titanic. All of these movies were on the cutting edge of the technology in their days, but each of them also had a pretty interesting story to tell. I certainly don't want to argue that Titanic was like the best movie ever or anything, but I will say that it was pretty engaging, made spectacular use of technology, and was downright epic in its scope. And let's not forget how groundbreaking Terminator 2 was when it was released. And if you've seen the Terminators that came after Cameron was involved, you have some good evidence of what happens when you take an interesting idea and a bunch of special effects without really caring for the story. You just get crap.
The skeleton outline of the plot of Avatar is fairly predictable. Given the premise, I'm sure you can guess exactly how it will play out. The humans go to a planet in some far off star system in order to mine some extremely rare compound. The bulk of the compound is directly underneath the settlement of the indigenous humanoid people. The humans are uncaring for the indigenous people, only want the compound, and are willing to force out the indigenous people if they won't simply agree to move. Part of their diplomacy effort was to create these "avatars" that look like the indigenous people and are controlled remotely by humans a lot like the virtual self in The Matrix. One of the avatar dudes gets lost and is taken in by the blue people and sortof acts as a spy for the humans while at the same time getting to know the ways of the blue people. You can imagine where it goes from there (I don't think they even have cable).
Anyhow, even given the predictable nature of the plot, the story is very engaging. But the story alone wouldn't make it the best picture of the year. It's not incredibly deep, despite the fact that it is very well told. What makes this the best picture is the integration of the technology into filmmaking in a way that I've never seen before. First of all, it's in 3D. If you've ever seen a 3D movie you know that the bulk of the time is spent just fawning over its 3Dness. Evil villains shooting their hands out toward the audience, some random object flying in your face, things that don't really fit just to be in 3D. This movie is not like that. After like 5 minutes, you don't even notice the 3D except for the fact that it more fully immerses you into the environment. It's not like I felt like I was on a distant planet in some far off solar system, but it was a step in that direction.
Even aside from the 3D this movie is rife with special effects. The bulk of the movie was shot in front of a green screen, and obviously all the scenes that involved the 9 foot tall blue people with tails were computer generated, though based on actor performance. Again, this movie was not a showcase for the effects, the effects really just served to tell the story. The way that all of those effects, which were essentially innumerable, were integrated in a way that didn't really stand out in terms of being special effects is really incredible.
Most movies, a good example is the suckfest of an (air quotes) "movie", Transformers, will spend all kinds of time on a special effect and then just bask in the special effect like, "yeah, that just happened. What!", instead of just telling the story. Special effects are cool, but if they don't help to tell the story, then they're just unnecessary.
I feel like the Lord of the Rings ushered in an era where special effects could simultaneously predominate a movie without overpowering it. And Avatar does this spectacularly, and on a whole new level. Watching this movie was an entirely new experience. And since this movie in a lot of respects is a game changer, a groundbreaker, a watershed (did anyone else just flash back to Dr. Gallo's class?), that is why it has to be the best picture of 2009.