2009
Avatar
, directed, written, produced, and co-edited by James Cameron, is a journey of self-discovery – in the context of colonialism and deep ecology – disguised in a riveting sci-fi action adventure. The film combines live-action with computer-generated characters and live environments, using groundbreaking stereoscopic motion capture techniques. It stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, and Sigourney Weaver

Development of Avatar begins in 1994, when Cameron writes an 80-page treatment. Filming is supposed to take place after the completion of Cameron’s Titanic (1997), for a planned release in 1999, but Cameron finds out that the technology is not yet ready to achieve his vision of the film. Cameron instead focuses on making documentaries and refining the technology for the next few years. When watching Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Cameron is convinced that CGI effects have progressed enough.

20th Century Fox advances $10 million to Cameron to film a proof-of-concept clip for Avatar, which he shows to Fox executives in 2005. Meanwhile, Cameron works on the script and develops a culture for the film’s aliens, the Na’vi who are living on the moon Pandora (their language is created by Dr. Paul Frommer, a linguist at USC). Production design takes several years, involving two different production designers, and two separate art departments. Stan Winston, who collaborated with Cameron in the past, supports him in the creation of different species living on Pandora.

Principal photography begins in 2007, using Cameron’s digital 3-D Fusion Camera System – a new way of directing motion-capture shots (allowing the director to adjust scenes on set by showing the actors’ virtual counterparts in their digital surroundings in real time). New Zealand-based Weta Digital creates the visual effects for the film, with ILM working alongside Weta to create the impressive battle sequences

Cameron gives fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson a chance to test the new technology. Spielberg says, “I like to think of it as digital makeup, not augmented animation … Motion capture brings the director back to a kind of intimacy that actors and directors only know when they’re working in live theater.” Jackson and Spielberg will later use the technology in their film The Adventures of Tintin (2011).

According to Cameron, Avatar implicitly criticizes the United States’ role in the Iraq War and the impersonal nature of mechanized warfare in general: “We know what it feels like to launch the missiles. We don’t know what it feels like for them to land on our home soil, not in America.” Not incidentally, the destruction of the towering Na’vi Hometree, collapsing in flames after a missile strike, eerily resembles the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

In his third collaboration with Cameron, James Horner composes the brilliant score, recording parts of it with a small chorus singing in the alien language Na’vi. According to Horner, “Avatar has been the most difficult film I have worked on and the biggest job I have undertaken.“ British singer Leona Lewis sings the film’s theme song "I See You” which is criticized as a “Celine Dion clone singing in Na’vi.”

Before its release, various critics and fan communities predict the film would be a significant financial disappointment. Criticisms range from Avatar’s whopping film budget of $237 million (or more), to its use of 3D "blue cat people“.

Avatar premieres in London on December 10, 2009, to positive critical reactions. In his review, Roger Ebert calls the film "extraordinary” and gives it four stars out of four. “Watching Avatar, I felt sort of the same as when I saw Star Wars in 1977”, he says, adding that like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, the film “employs a new generation of special effects” and it “is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It’s a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message.“

During its international theatrical run, the film breaks several box office records, eventually grossing $2.788 billion. It becomes the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassing Titanic. It is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, winning three, for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects

Cameron says his inspiration for the film was "every single science fiction book I read as a kid”, acknowledging that Avatar shares themes with films such as Dances with Wolves (1990), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), and Princess Mononoke (1997), all featuring clashes between cultures and civilizations. He admits that he got the idea for Avatar after watching Disney’s 1995 animated film Pocahontas (1995). Due to these obvious inspirations Avatar is not nominated for a Best Screenplay award.

Following the film’s success, Cameron signs with 20th Century Fox to produce three sequels, all directed and co-written by Cameron. They will be released each year starting from December 2017 to 2019.

A themed land called Pandora—The World of Avatar is being constructed for Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida and set to open in 2017.

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2009
Michael Jackson dies
of a heart attack while lying in his bed at his rented mansion in Los Angeles.

The news of his death spreads quickly online, causing websites of The Los Angeles Times, Twitter and Wikipedia to crash. The Wikimedia Foundation reports nearly a million visitors to Jackson’s biography within one hour.

Celebrities pay tribute to Michael Jackson, such as the following…

Madonna, the only pop star to rival Jackson’s fame in the 1980s, says in a statement:

“I can’t stop crying over the sad news." 

Quincy Jones, who produced Jackon’s record-selling album Thriller, declares:

"I am absolutely devastated at this tragic and unexpected news.” He says Jackson “had it all – talent, grace, professionalism and dedication. I’ve lost my little brother today, and part of my soul has gone with him.”

Martin Scorsese who directed the music video Bad tells MTV.com:

“Michael Jackson was extraordinary. When we worked together on Bad, I was in awe of his absolute mastery of movement on the one hand, and of the music on the other. Every step he took was absolutely precise and fluid at the same time. It was like watching quicksilver in motion. (…) He was wonderful to work with, an absolute professional at all times, and – it really goes without saying – a true artist. It will be a while before I can get used to the idea that he’s no longer with us.”

Steven Spielberg tells Entertainment Weekly:

“Just as there will never be another Fred Astaire or Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley, there will never be anyone comparable to Michael Jackson. His talent, his wonderment and his mystery make him legend.”

Reportedly, Jackson’s and Spielberg’s friendship remained strained after Spielberg decided not to cast him for the lead role in Hook (1991). 

However, in 2000, Jackson meets Spielberg to discuss a script for a planned movie called The Nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe, in which Jackson is set to play the famous horror writer. According to Jackson’s co-executive producer, Gary Pudney“Michael had conversations with Steven Spielberg, who is a good friend. (…) Spielberg was enthusiastic and suggested several people, including Tim Burton, who did Sleepy Hollow and Edward Scissorhands.” Unfortunately, the project remains in limbo until Jackson’s death.

2009
At the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, Martin Scorsese presents the Cecil B. DeMille Award to Steven Spielberg

Spielberg thanks Martin Scorsese and acknowledges that they have known each other for almost 39 years and calls him an inspiration. He also talks about how Cecil B. DeMille’s movie The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), the first movie Spielberg ever saw, inspired him to do his own first film: an 8mm amateur film involving train wrecks.

The Cecil B. DeMille Award was to have been presented to Steven Spielberg one year earlier – but he ceremony was cancelled due to the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike, so the Hollywood Foreign Press Association deferred the award to the 2009 ceremony.

2009
United States of Tara
, a television comedy-drama created by Diablo Cody, follows the life of Tara (Toni Collette), a suburban housewife and mother coping with dissociative identity disorder

The series is based on an idea by Steven Spielberg, who serves as executive producer, and is developed by DreamWorks Television.

While the story is set in Overland Park, Kansas, principal photography takes place in Los Angeles, California. The show runs on Showtime until 2011 (for a total of three seasons, with 36 episodes). In its first season, it averages 2.67 million viewers per week

Initial critical response to the show is positive, with many reviewers praising Toni Collette’s acting. She wins the 2009 Primetime Emmy Award and 2010 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series for her role; the opening title sequence also wins an Emmy

2009
Steven Spielberg announces an Abraham Lincoln biopic
, with Liam Neeson attached to star (Neeson later bows out and is replaced by Daniel Day-Lewis). Tony Kushner pens the screenplay. 

Spielberg comments on the rival project from Robert Redford, The Conspirator (2010), that focuses on Lincoln’s assassination: “It is completely different from what our DreamWorks Lincoln movie will be, and we believe that it will add to the commercial potential of our film. Lincoln as a subject is inexhaustible.”

Spielberg is also planning to do a remake of Henry Koster’s comedy Harvey (1950), the original of which starred James Stewart as a man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit. Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr and Tom Hanks are considered for the Stewart character, but the project is abandoned at the end of 2009.

2009
Former US President Bill Clinton presents the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal to Steven Spielberg for his artistic and personal commitment to the preservation of human rights. The jury explains its decision:

“Through his award-winning films, Spielberg has presented stories of the struggle and triumph of humanity over tyranny, informing and inspiring millions to better understand the abiding call of liberty. Spielberg has also dedicated himself to gathering and archiving the testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust, ensuring future generations will never forget the tragedy of liberty lost.”

2009
Barack Obama is inaugurated as US president
after having defeated Republican nominee John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. Obama is the first African American to hold the office

No official count is taken of the number of people attending the inaugural ceremony. According to multiple sources, the ceremony has the largest audience of any event ever held in Washington, D.C. Government agencies and federal officials, who coordinate security and traffic management, estimate the attendance count to be 1.8 million people.

Celebrity guests include Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé Knowles, and Steven Spielberg – who is among the donators giving $50,000, the maximum that Obama’s inaugural committee would allow. 

For the ceremony, John Williams composes, and arranges the quartet Air and Simple Gifts (videoclip), performed by Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero.

In his first few days in office, Obama issues executive orders and presidential memoranda directing the U.S. military to develop plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. He orders the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp (but Congress prevents the closure by refusing to appropriate the required funds and preventing moving any Guantanamo detainee into the U.S. or to other countries).

In his speech at Cairo University in Egypt, Obama calls for “A New Beginning” in relations between the Islamic world and the United States and promotes Middle East peace.

2008
Kathryn Bigelow
’s The Hurt Locker is a viscerally exciting film about a three-man bomb disposal team during the Iraq War. Produced and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film stars Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. The screenplay is written by Mark Boal, a freelance writer who was embedded as a journalist in 2004 with a U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal team in Iraq.

Bigelow is fascinated with exploring “the psychology behind the type of soldier who volunteers for this particular conflict and then, because of his or her aptitude, is chosen and given the opportunity to go into bomb disarmament and goes toward what everybody else is running from.”

Principal photography begins in 2007 in Jordan and Kuwait, within miles of the Iraqi border, to achieve Bigelow’s goal of authenticity. Iraqi refugees are used for extras, and the cast works in the unmistakable heat of the Middle East, with temperatures averaging 120 °F (49 °C) over the 44 days of shooting. Initially, Bigelow wants to shoot in Iraq, but the production security team cannot guarantee their safety from snipers.

Describing her approach to the film, Bigelow wants to immerse audiences “into something that was raw, immediate and visceral”. Impressed with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s work on United 93 (2006), Bigelow invites him to work on her film. Ackroyd and his camera team use four hand-held Super 16 mm cameras to capture multiple perspectives, often simultaneously.

Chris Innis spends the first eight weeks editing the film on location in Jordan, before returning to Los Angeles, where she is joined by Bob Murawski. They have to assemble the 200 hours of raw footage described by them as a “hodge-podge of disconnected, nausea-inducing motion that was constantly crossing the 180-degree line“. The editing process takes over eight months to complete, conveying a brutally realistic portrayal of the realities of war, using minimal special effects or technical enhancement.

The Hurt Locker premieres at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. After being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, it is picked up for distribution in the United States, a year later

The film is met with nearly universal acclaim, with Renner’s performance receiving special praise from critics.

At the Academy Awards, the film is nominated in nine categories, winning six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (the first woman to win this award), and Best Original Screenplay. Although being profitable (grossing $49.2 million against a budget of $15 million), The Hurt Locker is the lowest-grossing film to have ever won Best Picture.

2008
Darren Aronofsky
’s heart-wrenching sports drama The Wrestler is written by Robert D. Siegel and stars Mickey Rourke. The film follows an aging professional wrestler who, despite his failing health and waning fame, continues to wrestle in an attempt to cling to the success of his 1980s heyday. He also tries to mend his relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and to find romance with a woman (Marisa Tomei) who works as a stripper.

The film receives universal critical acclaim and wins the Golden Lion Award in the 2008 Venice Film Festival. In his review for Variety, Todd McCarthy writes, “Rourke creates a galvanizing, humorous, deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great, iconic screen performances.”

The success of the film revitalizes the career of Mickey Rourke, who goes on to receive a BAFTA award, a Golden Globe award, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Marisa Tomei also receives an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

The film is financially successful, grossing $44.7 million worldwide, against a slim budget of $6 million.