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Helmers battle realism vs. fantastical

Film directors tackled the everyday with fantasy

This season’s directing contenders — those garnering critics’ org attention and nominations buzz — in one sense worked within two opposing categories of scope and ambition: Either they took us to a highly imagined “other world” or they planted our feet firmly on our own.

Yet both 2009 helmer groups proved to be on parallel tracks: the fabulists leavening their epics with humanity and the realists incorporating bold cinematic flair.

Avatar’s” fantastical creatures and save-the-planet ethos have been percolating in James Cameron’s head since childhood. A similar core of personal filmmaking runs through Spike Jonze’s insistence on maintaining a 9-year-old’s dark p.o.v. in “Where the Wild Things Are” or Wes Anderson’s determination to exploit stop-motion’s full emotional range in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

J.J. Abrams reinvented the Enterprise just as Quentin Tarantino reinvented World War II, but “Star Trek” and “Inglourious Basterds” explored the same personal themes loyalty, honor, teamwork; the nobility of self-sacrifice vs. the futility of vengeance — each director had taken up in previous works.

Closer to home, Jason Reitman’s spoonfuls of wryly humorous sugar made a serious treatment of class, joblessness and career fatigue go down easier in “Up in the Air,” just as Lee Daniels’ carefully modulated dream sequences invested “Precious” with a needed dollop of hope.

While “A Serious Man” and “A Single Man” got their 1960s details eminently right, the Coen brothers’ outlandish mythological touches kept “Serious” playful, and Tom Ford’s interest in color saturation as a reflection of mood gave “Single” a singular texture.

Straddling both broad filmmaking categories, in different ways, were “It’s Complicated,” with Nancy Meyers taking up dicey issues of divorce and late-life sexuality within a jaw-dropping architectural Wonderland; and the audacious “District 9,” in which Neill Blomkamp plopped a fully imagined race of alien Prawns into a Johannesburg marked by utter docu photorealism.

If filmmakers continue to meld the constantly evolving technology with a passionate interest in the way we live now, 2009 could turn out to be a watershed year after all.

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