In hindsight, it probably wasn't such a good idea to see "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker" back to back. I was thinking they were the only Golden Globe best-picture nominees I hadn't seen yet -why not squeeze both into a single trip to town?
Five hours later, I realized those five hours had been spent watching war. And you know what they say about war.
The weird thing about war movies is that most try, on some level, to show how horrible war is but they basically have to glorify war, or at least spend millions of dollars recreating it on screen, to make their point.
20th Century Fox photo
“Avatar’s” Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington
20th Century Fox photo
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Most movies about World War II have a certain moral certainty about them. We're still pretty sure we were on the right side of a noble struggle in that one, even if Quentin Tarantino carries it to a ridiculous extreme in "Inglourious Basterds." But ever since Vietnam, we haven't been so sure.
So by the time you get to "The Hurt Locker" - a harrowing account of a month in the life of a crack bomb squad in the streets of Baghdad in 2004 - being sure of what's "right" and "wrong" is almost as challenging as just trying to stay alive, from one moment to the next.
As opposed to armies firing at each other from trenches, death is absolutely random here. One moment you're alive, the next, you're dead. In Baghdad, there are always bystanders, people watching, from windows or balconies or rooftops. Are they onlookers, or the ones detonating the bombs buried in the street? It's impossible to tell until it's too late.
Revolving around one steel-nerved soldier cowboy (Jeremy Renner brilliantly leading the ensemble), director Kathryn Bigelow orchestrates "The Hurt Locker" like a documentary. The foreignness of the setting and the bottomless cultural chasm between the occupiers and the occupied are punctuated by the snipers or random explosions that are liable to happen at any moment.
Everyone knows that war is hell, but "The Hurt Locker" starts with a different message from war correspondent Chris Hedges: "War is a drug."
It's adrenaline, rather than moral purpose, that fuels American miliary actions in the world of "The Hurt Locker." In this world, Iraq and Afghanistan are interchangeable, despite being two entirely different places, geographies, cultures, histories. One morphs into the other, neither offering an answer to the question of what we're doing there.
For the cowboys on the front line addicted to the war drug, these are just the places where the enemy is and the enemy is what gives meaning to these soldiers' lives.
For making this point, "The Hurt Locker" has topped many critics' best-of-the-year lists, is a Golden Globe heavyweight and a likely contender at Oscar time.
But the night I saw it, I was one of four people in the audience. Its Kaahumanu 6 run didn't even last a week. Like the ageless riddle about the tree falling in the forest, can a movie be "great" if nobody sees it?
Filmmaker James Cameron, in contrast, still believes that war is about something. He makes his point in epic fashion in "Avatar." Unfortunately, what war is about is greed and imperialism - exploiting the world for its "treasures." Carried out by the societies that have the technologically, this has been the undoing of indigenous populations around the planet ever since history has been written.
Cameron carries the theme into outer space where a military-industrial operation is mining the moon of a distant planet. Since the place has a population of Na'vi - humanlike beings, only they're 12-feet-tall and have blue skin and yellow eyes - the mission has scientists along to interact with the locals.
They do this through genetically-engineered avatars - like artificial Na'vi - operated by humans in pods at mission control. Sam Worthington plays a paraplegic Marine vet who is liberated by the physical freedom his avatar provides as it, in turn, becomes a mighty Na'vi warrior.
Making this complicated stuff readily understandable is one of Cameron's many achievements in this brilliant and thrilling film. He is as adept at making blue-skinned, icon-faced Zoe Saldana seductive, or chain-smoking head scientist Sigourney Weaver lovable as he is at attending to every detail of the amazing world and its wondrous creatures he creates on screen.
Cameron may indeed have a titanic ego, but he shows himself once again a monumental filmmaker. He pushes "state of the art" for 3-D and motion capture to the next level, but never lets his technology trump storytelling, or strip his characters of emotion.
Ironically, "Avatar" pays a price with film reviewers for the connection it makes with audiences. Critics carp that the film's popularity has been cheaply earned; in fact, the $300 million Cameron spent making it is all up there on the screen.
It may be set on a world far away populated by exotic beings, but "Avatar" has much to tell audiences about how to live on our own planet, and what makes human beings human.
Both these movies made it onto my Top 10 movie list, although this probably has more to do with a short memory span than with which movies were really the year's best.
These lists are always works in progress. For one thing, there are still the movies, like Jeff Bridges' "Crazy Heart," that you haven't seen yet. Then there's the neener-neener factor, where certain critics let you know they have seen those movies already, so there. Not to mention "The Hurt Locker" factor, which is, no one wants to see it, but it's the critic's job to tell everyone why they should.
And finally there's the thin-skinned herd factor, where the last place movie reviewers want to find themselves is out on a limb, alone, raving about something on their fellow critics' worst-of-the-year lists.
With all that said, here are 10 (give or take) of my favorite movies this year. They're not exactly in any sort of order, due to frequent changes of mind.
1. "Up in the Air" - Love, loneliness and hard times in this bittersweet romance - part comedy, part not - featuring perfect performances by George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga and writer-director Jason Reitman.
2. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" -Clooney again, at home with the wife (Meryl Streep) in Wes Anderson's wonderfully whimsical stop-action animated sitcom about life in the Fox family.
3. "Invictus" -Clint Eastwood guides Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon back to Nelson Mandela's South Africa for a parable about redemption and forgiveness, rather than mere politics, won on a rugby field.
4. "Avatar" -See above.
5. "Zombieland" -It's been a very good year for Golden Globe nominee and part-time Maui resident Woody Harrelson, and this unlikely zombie horror-comedy scores the most unexpected bull's-eye of all.
6. "The Hurt Locker" -See above.
7. "A Serious Man" - After winning all those Oscars, the Coen brothers get personal, recasting The Book of Job as an inquiry about what it means to be Jewish in America, coming up with profound questions, laughter and pain but no answers.
8. "The Blind Side"/"The Proposal" - Cardboard cutout characters and predictable plots turn into gems with the presence of Sandra Bullock, whose irresistible charms became the movie story of the year, stealing hearts and making lots of money as everyone realized they like her, they really like her.
9. "Where the Wild Things Are" - Spike Jonze adapts Maurice Sendak's moody children's favorite, managing to push the artistic boundaries of both book and movie with a cast of neurotic monsters too caught up with their own problems to inspire many nightmares.
10. "Taken" - Liam Neeson sheds his usual nobility, playing a former intelligence agent tracking sex slavers who have his daughter in this rarest of action films where the vengeance and over-the-top violence feel not only justified but satisfying.
Pinch hitters: "(500) Days of Summer," "District 9," "Precious," "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs."
* Happy holidays! Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.