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Release date: Dec. 18

Distrib: Fox

The most anticipated and most mysterious entry in this year’s race is James Cameron’s first fiction film since “Titanic,” the 3D sci-fi epic “Avatar.” Cameron, like the Pixar gang, likes to keep his stories relatively simple while pushing the envelope with technology. When that combination comes together, as it did on “Titanic,” Oscar voters and mass audiences find themselves in rare agreement. “Avatar” is seen by many as the early favorite in the vfx race and should contend in every technical category, as Cameron seeks synergies among digital cinematography, performance capture, stereoscopic 3D, computer-generated animation and environments, and more. The mystery is whether his story will move auds as “Titanic” did. Previews have prompted snarky comparisons to “Dances With Wolves” (a pic that also won seven Oscars), but recent interviews with the filmmaker hint the pic will have a timely environmental message to go with a ripping romantic adventure. If it lands right, “Avatar” could put Cameron in the running for directing honors — and his epic in picture contention.

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