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‘Avatar’ Robbed Like ‘Citizen Kane’? March 8, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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There’s an interesting debate brewing on Twitter over whether Avatar was robbed for Best Picture. Frankly I was surprised Hurt Locker had won. While critics had eventually forecast it would take the prize, I had put my money on Avatar, only for industry/political reasons. That said, I’m delighted Hurt Locker beat out Avatar, which spent too much money on creating lifelike blue people and not enough on script doctors.

A growing faction is claiming Avatar was cheated. /Film editor Peter Sciretta tweeted the first salvo: “The Hurt Locker will be this generation’s How Green Was My Valley” … and it began!

John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley beat out nine films for Best Picture in 1942, one of which was Citizen Kane, obviously now considered the greatest film of all time (or at least the greatest American film). We can debate it, but it’s pretty safe to say Kane has had more staying power.

Sciretta’s argument, which has a great deal of legitimacy, is that we will remember Avatar but not The Hurt Locker. Avatar, the argument goes, created a truly new and stupendous experience, whereas The Hurt Locker is just a good film.

Perhaps. Time will tell. I can’t imagine us forgetting Avatar. Let’s be real: it’s made a ton of money. It’s big. It’s 3D. This is not really an issue of remembering and forgetting.

The Oscars are about moments, specific, and fleeting, moments in history. Hurt Locker was the right film for this year. Not only because of Kathryn Bigelow (first womanhood and all) but also because it created a different kind of war movie, one which toes the line between valorization and criticism, which intimately shows the confusion and tension of fighting a 21st century war in an urban Middle East landscape, using 20th century American tactics — a war, by the way, which by 2010 Americans have forgotten is still being waged.

Avatar is about the contemporary world too, but in the worst way: it’s poorly written, full of half-drawn and stereotypical characters; its treatment of political issues is pat, to be kind; its depiction of native people is woefully unimaginative; it begs to be read as important simply because it dramatizes important issues, not because it portrays them with sophistication. We might remember Avatar, especially as we continue to deplete the Earth’s resources (as if a 5-year old couldn’t spot that trend?), but I’m not sure we’ll see it as art in the way we do Citizen Kane. Actually, I’m sure we won’t. Did Avatar create a different kind of sci-fi epic? No. Its themes, its narrative conventions, its ideology and even, yes, its visuals are almost textbook; its innovation lies almost entirely on technical mastery, which is not to downplay its value in film history.

Getting to the point: We should remember that as much hype as the Oscars generate, they are not really focused on establishing any film canon. The Academy does an okay job of honoring actors generally (though not always for their best performances), and directors too (white manhood aside), but Best Picture winners do not always produce classics. Scanning the top winners from 2000-2010, none of them make my personal list of the most significant films of the decade, with the possible exception of Slumdog Millionaire. I’m not sure if either The Hurt Locker or Avatar qualify, to be honest.

Oscar history is rife with regrettable upsets, in part because the Oscars are never about the future, or film-as-art, and always about the industry, its players and the politics of the time

The Oscars are really about industry insiders weighing many, many competing claims to the award: negotiating the complicated politics of which directors/actors/producers/below-the-line workers have won before, have never won, need to win, have campaigned properly, have campaigned unconventionally; in addition to which films are timely, which may be timeless, which other films have won recently, which kinds of films have never won; how much each film costs, how much each film grossed, how the critics feel, how the guilds/associations feel, which films will help the broadcast’s ratings, which films will help perceptions of the Academy, and on and on. After considering all of that, which voter can honestly take historical relevance or significance into account? It’s simply too abstract, and we can’t tell the future anyway. How else can you explain Driving Miss Daisy winning over The Color Purple? Or Crash over Brokeback Mountain?

“It isn’t the public who votes, it’s the public who cheers,” Academy president Tom Sherak told the New York Times, referring to the ceremony’s function as entertainment. As for the awards themselves, Mr. Sherak said: “I think the Academy voters did what they do. You and I might disagree with one thing or another. But they did what they needed to do.” (The Times article has some great information about the makeup of the Academy in general, which skews increasingly indie/foreign).

That being said, The Hurt Locker will certainly stand on its own, if only as a particularly skilled reinvention of the war movie. Meanwhile, I’m not sure if Avatar can shake its at times dreadful script and the Dances With Wolves/Pocahontas/District 9/Heart of Darkness meme. Once again, time will tell. But I doubt you could mashup Hurt Locker with any other film quite as easily as you can with the clearly derivative Avatar:

Like Lawrence of Arabia, Avatar has already earned its place in film’s technical history, the kind of mastery, paid for with hundreds of millions of dollars, that created new and enticing visual pleasures. This much is obvious. But there’s something to be said for creating an equally engrossing and doubly innovative experience for less than 1/10 the budget. When you get down to it, this is really why The Hurt Locker won.

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1. Uncontainable Spirit - March 8, 2010

Avatar was robbed. The Hurt Locker along with anything that Precious garnered was an affirmative action pick. Yeah I know… it’s politically incorrect but oh well. James Cameron and his brilliance was robbed yet again. It’s kinda sad.

Aymar Jean Christian - March 8, 2010

I’m not sure what you mean by “yet again.” He won for Titanic: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000116/awards, which was his last major film. He’s directed the top two highest grossing movies of all time. I wouldn’t feel sorry for him; he’s a big boy.

It’s interesting to think about “affirmative action” here. Yes, James Cameron made a stunning-looking film. But he had the biggest budget in movie history to do so. Daniels and Bigelow made fantastic films whose cumulative budgets (around $25 million) were one-tenth that of “Avatar’s”. Historically speaking, minorities and women don’t get $250+ million to make films. When they do, we can have a serious conversation about affirmative action.

Thanks for commenting!

Uncontainable Spirit - March 8, 2010

By ‘yet again’ I mean this;

Terminator, The Titanic, Avatar, The Abyss, True Lies, Terminator 2. Classic movies. Movies that you actually KNOW. He’s been snubbed time and time again BECAUSE he’s a sci-fi movie guy. The win for the Titanic was only because it wasn’t a sci-fi movie.

The reason that he’s been given a 250+ million dollar budget is because he’s an excellent director and his films make large sums of money compared to the budgets that he’s been given. It is not, contrary to popular belief, easier to direct a film with a large budget. People don’t give 250+ million to people who don’t know what they are doing.

Who’s feeling sorry for him, one needn’t feel sorry for someone to recognize that they have been cheated of an honor that they deserve.

Yes… affirmative action, I said it and i’ll stand by the term. Historically speaking minorities and women haven’t made movies that can make huge sums of money on smaller budgets either. When they do we can have a serious discussion on why they don’t get budgets that eventually escalate to the 250+ mil mark.

BUT you’ve shown your bias by saying that James Cameron has made a stunning “looking” film when in fact it was actually a ‘stunning film’ period. Millions around the globe have agreed to the tune of a couple of billion and many people have watched the movie more than once.

I’ll let this article by Lea Goldman finish it off for me…
____________________________
So why is Bigelow such a crowd favorite this go around? Precisely because she is a woman. Unlike other female directors (Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers come to mind) Bigelow seems almost preternaturally averse to the usual, telltale markers of a chick-helmed flick-the teary climaxes, overt morality tales, and, interestingly, women characters. All swagger and sweat, The Hurt Locker is obstinately a guy’s movie-about guys, the mad risks they take in war, about the gory bits that never get mentioned in letters home to ma.

But it’s downright inconceivable that the Hurt Locker would generate the same fist bumps if directed by a man. It’s inherent flaws would be more difficult to gloss over: the muddled politics, the canned-war-movie relationship between lead character Jeremy Renner (evocative of Russell Crowe in his salad days) and an Arab pipsqueak nicknamed Beckham, and the fetishizing of what can only be described as one soldier’s criminally insane bravado. No film is perfect, of course. But this one, in particular, is the cinematic equivalent of a defibrillator-it’ll get your attention, but don’t try parsing the experience too finely. “Bigelow is a ballsy showoff,” writes The New Republic’s Christopher Orr with unsubtle irony. “And [like her protagonist], she has ice in her veins.” Subtext: don’t worry, fellas, she won’t go all soft on you.

Then there’s the other major factor contributing to Bigelow’s ascent as Oscar frontrunner: her biggest threat for the win is ex-husband James Cameron, whose record-breaking Avatar ($2 billion and counting) has, according to the umpteen thousand headlines surveying the box office fallout, practically reinvented filmgoing as we know it. Both The Hurt Locker and Avatar earned nine Oscar nods apiece, making their duel for gold the most buzzed about rivalry in Hollywood since Angie vs. Aniston. Given Cameron’s notorious, almost Biblically inspired levels of hubris, Hollywood (and the media that covers it) is chomping at the bit for a takedown. Could there be a more cinematic comeuppance than the ex-wife, rising like a phoenix from the Hollywood Hills, to snatch the Oscar from James Cameron’s itchy palms? Hell, some of us would fork over $10 a ticket to watch that, 3D glasses be damned.
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2. Anonymous - March 8, 2010

Avatar had a great plot and was a movie experience of a life time. They kept the script simple as to not chase people away with a complicated scifi plot. Your a douche.

3. Anonymous - March 8, 2010

Avatar was robbed! I saw Hurt Locker with a crowd and it was ok< no one cared to see it again. Most people I know that have seen Avatar has seen it more than once, yea its that good… Hands down best movie this year / in the last few years… Sucks they got robbed today

4. Jules - March 8, 2010

I say this as a Soldier, who has been deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq, been in the military over 25 years, and as a female, over 50 years old, who has seen thousands of movies in my lifetime because I love going to the movies: Avatar was robbed! The Hurt Locker didn’t even get it right. Watching Avatar, I felt like a person watching their first talking picture…it was that revolutionary. People criticize Avatar for its ‘simplistic’ take…however, as a Soldier I really appreciated its depiction of what can happen when corporations take over the military. Its themes are timeless, and reach further back into myth from all cultures than people realize. In any case, Hurt Locker was not realistic, except in fantasies of those who have never been there. What a shame! I hated Titanic, but Avatar deserved to win Best Picture. I don’t mind the Best Director award, but come one — Avatar completely blew my mind, and changed movie making forever. The advancement in movie-making and our conceptions of movies far exceed an ernest but incorrect depiction of yet another Hollywood War Movie.

Uncontainable Spirit - March 8, 2010

I love you Jules!

5. ter - March 8, 2010

Robbed. Absolutely robbed. And excuse me but you’re outta your mind if you give “film editing” to The Hurt Locker”
THAT IS AVATARS AND YOU KNOW IT !!!

6. Hamed Alazri - March 8, 2010

People, it is obvious! Avatar is the best movie of the year, one of the best ever, and a breakthrough in movie making.. What’s the name of that winning movie again??!!!

Avatar had a beautiful political message that shows the dirty side of war. They robbed it its deserved Oscars because of that. And the winning movie? One that shows occupying soldiers as heroes! Coincidence? I think any sane and unbiased person will not miss that!

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8. 'Wardo - March 8, 2010

The Hurt Locker would have been gravely wounded if it was as realistic as its greatest fans say it is. They use unmanned machines to take care of the most delicate explosives, which precludes the possibility of a lot of Hurt’s more faux-gripping scenarios. Have so many people forgotten the robots component of modern warfare that will define the ill-defined pseudo-conflicts to come? Not to discount the horrors of war, but only mischaracterized or mismanaged operations look like The Hurt Locker. The emotions are quite real, the chronic lack of professionalism is not. It’s a stunning character piece, no doubt, but there is much fantasy here as well.

AVATAR has had more impact on the film industry, its technologies, and international audiences than The Hurt Locker ever will or would have, even in a parallel world where it had similar distribution and a 3-D offering. AVATAR is pretty shallow under the restricted lens of a purist, which does include a large part of myself, but in its simplicity it is universal, which gives it a depth its elite critics blithely dismiss. At least AVATAR has worthy consolation prizes: status as an actual cinematic landmark, new lives in two sequels, and the billions to show for its supreme accomplishments, including giving myself and so many others to actually go to the theatres again for something breathtakingly unique to the venue, even as spare change becomes scarcer.

Just to expound on my case for the universal aspects of AVATAR and their importance, it’s flat-out impressive it reeled in as many Chinese moviegoers in as it did. They are an incredibly tough sell for digital media as natives of the copycat capital of the world. The Chinese government even attempted to ban AVATAR out of fear of the film’s basic but clear messages. In this case, the afflictions of the Na’vi echoed the plight of the oft-oppressed Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese government. Chinese moviegoers protested until the government lifted its ban on the film’s distribution. Though China’s old men of the hour are among the few with the balls (or arguably lack thereof) to attempt to withdraw AVATAR, the Chinese aren’t the only ones who can trace back its narrative to their homefront.

Slumdog Millionaire was a great segue into Bollywood for foreign audiences and it was captivating despite its predictability, but your opinion of it is on the verge of hyperbole. Possibly the most significant of the decade? Spare me! *laughs*

We all have our biases. But if The Hurt Locker deserves more than AVATAR because you think it did more with less money, take Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project to the polls. Haha, just kidding. Kind of. :)

Aymar Jean Christian - March 8, 2010

Thanks for all the comments, folks! Keep them coming. Great insights.

For the record, I’m not denying “Avatar” is important or even impressive. It is undeniably both of those things. I’m merely saying the Oscars aren’t *only* about those two things. They never have been and never will be. It makes me upset and should make everyone upset, but it’s built into the system: look at who’s voting! The Oscars are very different from, say, the Director’s Guild, NY Film Critics, Cannes or even the People’s Choice Awards. Each one serves a different purpose. “The Hurt Locker” did what the Academy needed this year, and it was deserving.

I have mixed feelings on “Slumdog,” but without a doubt it’s an important attempt at global cinema (and, once again, did a lot with a very small budget). One could argue filmmakers like Mira Nair do it better, and one might be right, but it’s still important.

[Also: it should be said that the world does not need to be introduced to Bollywood. Bollywood is hugely popular around the world, just not in America for some reason.]

9. Anonymous - March 8, 2010

Just face facts guys. When in Oscar history have you seen a sci-fi, animated, horror, fantasy, comedy flick get Best Picture? Frankly, I think the Academy is totally biased against some aspects of film, which is sad really. But I think Avatar got what it deserved in the visual/cinematics category anyways. Hurt Locker deserved Best Picture, but not best director imo. I think it should have gone to Jason Reitman, which didn’t win anything. I guess it was because the film was partly comedy…..

10. Lollerskates - March 8, 2010

Just face facts guys. When in Oscar history have you seen a sci-fi, animated, horror, fantasy, comedy flick get Best Picture? Frankly, I think the Academy is totally biased against some aspects of film, which is sad really. But I think Avatar got what it deserved in the visual/cinematics category anyways. Hurt Locker deserved Best Picture, but not best director imo. I think it should have gone to Jason Reitman, which didn’t win anything. I guess it was because the film was partly comedy…..

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12. Alex - March 8, 2010

I absolutely agree with this article! I was one of the few among my friends and family that found Avatar’s plot, script and acting trite and tired. While the special effects were innovative, I didn’t come away from the theater feeling any different than I did seeing “The Day After Tomorrow” for example. My preferences in film tend to run more towards thought or period pieces, yet Avatar seemed so immensely simple and produced to be palatable for the masses that I wonder what the response would have been had the same script been instead produced as an animation for children. I doubt it would have been received as groundbreaking by any means.

In regards to the Hurt Locker, I enjoyed it immensely, particularly for the performances, but I didn’t feel it deserved the Best Picture win either. My vote would have been for A Simple Man for emotional resonance and District 9 for originality, but I suspect in both cases I am in the minority :)

Aymar Jean Christian - March 8, 2010

You’re probably in the minority for Tom Ford’s flick, District 9 has had more champions (especially for those who actively sought to snub Avatar). I think the bronze medal for Best Picture went to Inglourious Basterds, according the LA Times’ Envelope blog: http://goldderby.latimes.com/awards_goldderby/2010/03/oscars-academy-awards-predict-news-predictions-481926375-story.html

13. john - March 8, 2010

im so happy hurt locker won and avatar did not. avatar was simplistic bullshit with cgi no better than the 3 new star wars films, and its script and story was just as bad. people went and saw it more than once because of the 3d quality which was brilliant, but it did not make it a good film, simply a good experience. I didn’t even know hurt locker had been directed by a woman till a few weeks ago but even before that thought it was the best film of the year. lets all remember the gayness of the superior technology of the us being beaten by rhino/elephant style animals romping through the forest, how queer. plus a fight scene at the end involving a machine i seem to remember seeing in aliens, how new and creative of him. And the hammy bullshit of him being one of only 6 people to train the big bird, oh we didn’t see that coming a mile off the instant the story had left the cartoons lips. any way yes hurt locker won brilliant and there is nothing any one can o about it if you say avatar was robbed then you are saying the academy was wrong and if the academy was wrong then your belief in the oscars is redundant because that means by conclusion that if avatar had won it could still of made a mistake.

14. MPG - March 9, 2010

Hmmm. Hurt Locker and Precious as “affirmative action” picks. I suppose that’s supposed to mean that lesser quality items get ahead because of identity. Hmm, that sounds to me much more like George W. Bush, Al Gore, and similar mediocre to miserable Ivy-Leaguers whose accomplishments are based entirely on family connections. Oops! Can’t talk about that! So the whole raft of subpar white guys in every field and endeavor gets tossed aside. Why are they invisible?

I was reading a review of Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Light in Sidney Brustein’s Window” circa 1965. It basically carried the “affirmative action” accusation — before there was even such a thing as affirmative action!

Logically, and historically, the talk of affirmative action is nonsensical, to put it nicely — provocative, but not revealing. Perhaps when the captains of industry and government are all a bunch of unqualified Mexican immigrant women who exercise nepotism and croneyism, I’ll be willing to consider that complaint.

But, for the sake of argument, some questions for “uncontainable spirit”:

Would it be possible for a person of color of a white woman to win an award and you *not* call it affirmative action? What would those circumstances be? Are there any past films, directors, or performances that you might suggest?

If not, it would seem that, by definition, any nonwhite, non-American, non-male, nonhetero would have to win on a sympathy vote, which seems to suggest that your definition of quality filmmaking — not to mention your definition of human — is remarkably narrow.

Aymar Jean Christian - March 11, 2010

Nice takedown of the “affirmative action” argument. “Provocative but not revealing.” Once someone has been charged as an affirmative action pick, there’s nothing they can do to escape it. And all minorities and women have been called affirmative action picks. I bet people even argue that about Obama. It’s like, what do I have to do to prove my worth?!

15. inrock - March 11, 2010

To claim Avatar got multiple viewings because of 3D only is pretty stupid. There have been many 3D movies, and truthfull Avatars 3D was so subtle you almost forgot it was there after 15 minutes. It got multiple viewings because it connected with audiences all over the world on an emotional level, something The Hurt Locker has never done. Avatar is a polarizing movie though…many people deride the film because it perhaps it wasn’t “high art” like they require, and it tackled a lot of well-worn themes. But people forget Avatar was a movie for 10 year olds as much as it was for 40 year olds…and it was incredibly revolutionary in the visual department, to offer to complex a tale would lose too many viewers. It was actually a genius move…and despite cheesy dialogue here and there, the script was structured fantastically. Also very original in the sense that it featured 2 cgi main characters in a romance…and they were aliens. It actually had the balls to believably develop their relationship as opposed to putting action scene after action scene.

I really feel bad for people who think they’re above Avatar, yet praise films that even more generic and simple, for instance the original Star Wars is no more original in plot, themes, and no superior in dialogue and acting. But I understand, when something becomes so successful, praised, and really pushes boundaries, people are gonna be that much quicker to look for then point out it’s flaws. The fact is Avatar is a monumental cinematic achievement…it never intended to redefine narrative (although in ways it did), but it certainly has redefined the cinema going experience for many people. That alone makes it worthy of Best Picture honors. The Hurt Locker, while decent, was not very memorable. Talk about no plot…I understand it was about the characters, but it wasn’t highly successful in that aspect either. I guess turning a bomb squad into a super hero unit is what people pass as quality, but I recommend looking again, and being sincere.

Aymar Jean Christian - March 11, 2010

Thanks for your insights. You make a solid case. I’m not sure if your “Star Wars” analogy lines up 100%, but I see where you’re going. Time will tell how well “Avatar”‘s story/themes holds up.

As I mentioned, there are many good cases for “Avatar” for Best Picture. No doubt, and you’ve made the best case (though I still think there’s nothing new in “Avatar’s” narrative). But like I said, Best Picture is not just about reinventing the film experience for generations to come. It’s about what feels appropriate now, based on over a dozen different factors. So while “Avatar”‘s simple narrative/dialogue might sound good and universal in 20-30 years like “Star Wars” does now, in our current historical moment “The Hurt Locker” reads as more intelligent and deserving.

PS – I don’t think “The Hurt Locker” is about turning a bomb squad into a super-hero unit. It’s much more ambiguous than that. Jeremy Renner’s character is complicated: he makes lots of bad decisions. His revenge trip for the little boy is one, his decision at the end is another, in addition to all the other times he breaks the rules. “The Hurt Locker” is about both the bravery and the stupidity of men, the army, the Iraq War. On top of all that, it gives us a feeling (even if exagerrated) of being “on the ground” without preaching to us how to make sense of that charged experience. This is what I mean by being a much smarter film.

BUT I think you are right to point out that “Avatar”‘s target audience is much bigger than THL’s: adults and t(w)eens. “Hurt Locker” is an adult film, to be sure; by the end, it’s about adulthood.

16. MPG - March 12, 2010

@ AJC –

You might recall that Geraldine Ferraro made precisely that argument about Obama during the primaries. The most laughable part to me: It was an *election*. Candidate Obama won the states that he won in the same way that anyone else did. 10 percentage points weren’t added to his count after the ballots were counted.

It’s patently ridiculous. Now, when we can get some of these duf– I mean, uninformed people, to realize that it was Republican President Nixon who signed the half-hearted affirmative action measures we ever got, and that even his weak measures were challenged and limited immediately, I think we might be able to have an intelligent conversation about the topic. (You and I already could… I mean “others” who need a boost to compensate for their racially-privileged obliviousness to be considered knowledgeable enough to participate in the conversation…

As for the Oscars — and major media today throughout the States — the calculus is suggestive. Considering that most of the decision-makes and award-selectors in the industry are still overwhelmingly white and male and considering that (occasionally) they have mixed a sprinkling of undeserving white women and people of color with the odd undeserving whiteguy, we probably have to look more to advertising rates than to liberal guilt. In other words, if the Oscars were to become *known* as racist, 1) fewer white viewers would watch (most black people I know don’t watch religiously and aren’t usually considered by the major networks anyway), 2) advertising revenues would decrease, and 3) the networks might no longer be willing to broadcast it when more lucrative programming could be found.

At least since the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it seems to have been economic calculation far more than guilty conscience that has pushed for recognition of white women and people of color — deserving and undeserving. If an occasional dud sneaks through (Halle, I’m talking about your perf in Monster’s Ball) then we can put it alongside Pacino’s win for Scent of a Woman or Charlize Theron’s for Monster and keep moving.

PS: I very much agree with your Hurt Locker comment re: the bravery and stupidity of men. I guess one of the (political but not aesthetic) problems is that the Renner character can too easily be made into a hero by unobservant viewers.

Aymar Jean Christian - March 12, 2010

Apparently he can be read as such! I saw him as a talented fool, but I guess that’s my own biases. Love the industrial analysis for the Bigelow win. Hadn’t thought of that, but makes a great deal of sense.

17. jezza - March 18, 2010

It wasn’t James Cameron who was robbed of Best Director, it was Quentin Tarantino. He’s practically the new Martin Scorsese.

First it was Robert Zemeckis, now Katheryn Bigelow, who else is QT going to lose to?

Aymar Jean Christian - March 22, 2010

I actually kind of agree with you, despite my complex feelings about Tarantino.

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19. jez - May 20, 2010

Avatar didn’t deserve to win. Inglourious Basterds, Blind Side and Up were robbed though.

If Avatar won it would have been like Titanic beating Beauty & the Beast, Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump in the same year.


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