The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has released the list of the seven films that are in the final running for the Best Visual Effects Oscar. As it stands every year, this is the chance for populist films (such as those Michael Bay makes) and mediocre films (The Golden Compass comes to mind) to take a shot at a little gold statue. It is also a heavily contested category, fought out by bug summer blockbusters and science fiction epics. You can see why it resonates with the crowds that hang around the web.

This year is as congested as any, with seven equally interesting finalists that will eventually be whittled down to a final three, then to the ultimate one on Oscar night. Among the finalists are titans of special effects (that Titanic guy) and masters of the explosion (Bay), alongside effects-heavy British wizards, bumbling Terminators and the end of the world. The landscape is vast, but there are frontrunners. Which is why I’ve broken down each film’s chances for you below.

Avatar

James Cameron’s latest is the leader in the clubhouse, with a late-December release that is fresh in the hearts and minds of the Academy members and a film that may or may not have changed 3D as we know it. Humanizing aliens is nothing we haven’t seen before (see District 9 below), but doing it on such an immense scale for 3-hours is a skill Cameron keeps all to his own. If there’s a sweep for Avatar, this will go with it. But a more discerning vote from the Academy will see it glad to be nominated.

District 9

I’m unabashedly in love with this movie and everything it means for filmmaking in the wild, on a moderate budget, and doing with with fucking style. Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson’s WETA wizards did something rare: they made aliens that we believe could exist. Furthermore, they let these aliens roam around in our real world, not a distant planet with electro-trees. It was an accomplishment ahead of its time. About three months ahead, to be exact.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Low thought the fruit may hang, director David Yates and team were not quick to grab. And like Alfonso Cuaron did with the third entry in the Potter set, number six was dark and gritty and magical. It was big and sweeping, as an Potter should be. But it wasn’t anything that stood out in the tall forest of visual effects Redwoods. Does that make sense? Sure it does. Potter isn’t going to win this year.

Star Trek

If you were to pick a darkhorse in this race, it would be the space epic of J.J. Abrams. It was the year’s great shiny toy, the first polished and pretty blockbuster of the year. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t awesome. It was awesome. And there are few shots more breathtaking than the emergence of the U.S.S. Enterprise for the first time. If one shot could win you an Oscar (it’s been done before), that shot could win. Unfortunately for Star Trek, there was a slew of equally impressive sci-fi engagements that came out later in the year.

Terminator Salvation

No.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I will just come right out with it. Michael Bay was robbed in 2007. Transformers should have earned him a statue. Everyone knows this to be true. Instead, it was whisked away from him by CGI polar bears of The Golden Compass. The whole situation was tragic. Even more tragic is the fact that Bay and the masters at ILM came back with a bigger, better gathering of transforming alien robots in 2009. Some people complain that Bay’s movies are all visual effects, that they lack story. This is probably true. But the effects are awesome. Sadly, the fate of Bay and ILM will be similar to 2007, but they should make it to the nomination stage.

2012

Have we not grown tired of seeing Roland Emmerich end the world as we know it? It’s become so redundant that these special effects feel like re-tweaked versions of those used to blast mother Earth in The Day After Tomorrow. All Digital Domain had to do was pull up files from 2004 and dust them off a bit. You get an A for effort, Mr. Emmerich. At least you keep trying. But repetition does not an Oscar nomination make. Go hug the one you won for Independence Day to help subdue the pain of not earning a nomination.

Who will win?

In all likelihood, Avatar will take home the prize. This year is shaping up to be the year of James Cameron, and the Oscars may very well follow suit. While District 9 would be a wonderful surprise, as would Star Trek, neither of these films has the sheer amount of force behind them that Cameron has built with Avatar. An unlikely but not surprising win for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (a payback from the Academy to Michael Bay for their egregious mistake of 2007) is the only alternate scenario I see.


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