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'Hurt Locker,' 'Avatar' Lead Oscar Contenders

The science-fiction sensation Avatar and the war-on-terror thriller The Hurt Locker took the lead in the Academy Awards nominations Tuesday with nine each, including best picture and director for former spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow.

For the first time since 1943, the Oscars featured 10 best-picture contenders instead of the usual five.

Also nominated for best-picture Tuesday: the sci-fi film District 9; the animated comedy Up; the World War II saga Inglourious Basterds; the football drama The Blind Side; the recession tale Up in The Air, the 1960s drama A Serious Man, and the teen tales An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire.

Acting nominees include the four stars who have dominated early awards shows: lead players Sandra Bullock for the football drama The Blind Side and Jeff Bridges for the country-music tale Crazy Heart and supporting performers Mo'Nique for Precious and Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds.

The best-picture and director categories shape up as a showdown between ex-spouses who directed films that have taken home earlier Hollywood honors.

Cameron's Avatar won best drama and director at the Golden Globes, while Bigelow's The Hurt Locker beat out Cameron at the Directors Guild of America Awards, whose recipient usually goes on to earn the best-director Oscar.

The Hurt Locker also beat Avatar for the Producers Guild of America top prize and was chosen as last year's best film by many key critics groups.

Bigelow, whose films include Point Break and K19: The Widowmaker, is only the fourth woman nominated for a directing Oscar, following Sofia Coppola for 2003's Lost in Translation, Jane Campion for 1993's The Piano and Lina Wertmuller for 1975's Seven Beauties.

No woman has ever won the directing Oscar, and until Bigelow, no woman had ever won the Directors Guild honor.

Lee Daniels, who made Precious, became only the second black filmmaker nominated for best director, after John Singleton for 1991's Boyz N the Hood.

Also nominated for best director are Jason Reitman for Up in the Air and Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds. Up in the Air co-writer Reitman also had a nomination for adapted screenplay, while Tarantino also earned a nomination for original screenplay.

Longtime audience darling Bullock has never been nominated for an Oscar before but is considered the best-actress front-runner, playing a wealthy woman who takes in homeless teen Michael Oher, now a star with the Baltimore Ravens.

Bullock is up against past Oscar winners Meryl Streep as chef Julia Child in Julie & Julia and Helen Mirren as Leo Tolstoy's bullheaded wife in The Last Station, along with first-time nominees Carey Mulligan as a British teen involved with an older man in An Education and Gabourey Sidibe as a Harlem teen overcoming horrible abuse and neglect in Precious. Sidibe made her screen debut in Precious, earning an Oscar nomination for her first professional acting job.

Bridges, nominated four times previously without winning an Oscar, is viewed as the man to beat this time for his role as a boozy country singer trying to clean up his act in Crazy Heart.

Director James Cameron's <em>Avatar</em> has been nominated for nine Academy Awards.
Frazer Harrison
Getty Images
Director James Cameron's Avatar has been nominated for nine Academy Awards.

Also nominated for best actor are past Oscar winners George Clooney as a frequent-flyer junkie in Up in the Air and Morgan Freeman as South African leader Nelson Mandela in Invictus, Colin Firth as a grieving gay academic in A Single Man and Jeremy Renner as a bomb disposal expert in Iraq in The Hurt Locker.

Mo'Nique and Waltz were nominated for wicked roles: she as a reprehensible welfare mother in Precious; he as a gleefully garrulous Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. They were breakout roles for both — Mo'Nique leaping into the awards elite after a career of mainly lowbrow comedy and Waltz making his first Hollywood splash after working mostly in European theater and television.

With 10 best-picture contenders, this is the first time since 1943 that so many films are competing for Hollywood's highest honor. From 1931 to 1943, the Oscars featured between eight and 12 best-picture nominees. There were 10 in 1943, when Casablanca won best picture, but the show switched to five nominees after that.

Last summer, academy organizers decided to go back to 10, saying they wanted a broader range of titles in the mix, including worthy populist movies that often miss out on best-picture nominations in favor of the smaller dramas Oscar voters typically prefer.

Blockbuster best-picture contenders usually translate to better ratings for the Oscar broadcast, whose TV audience peaked with Cameron's Titanic triumph 12 years ago. Ratings have been so-so ever since, hitting an all-time low two years ago.

Luckily for Oscar overseers, the show this time includes the biggest thing since Titanic. Cameron's Avatar has soared past Titanic to become No. 1 on the box-office charts, with $2 billion and climbing worldwide.

Director Kathryn Bigelow's <em>The Hurt Locker</em> is among the best-picture nominees.
Frazer Harrison
Getty Images
Director Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is among the best-picture nominees.

Up, a travel adventure about a lonely widower who flies his house off to South America suspended from helium balloons, is only the second animated film ever to earn a best-picture nomination, following Beauty and the Beast in 1991, when the category had only five contenders.

Along with Avatar and District 9, a third sci-fi hit, Star Trek, had been considered a likely best-picture nominee, but it missed out, scoring only technical nominations, including visual effects and makeup.

Best-picture nominee The Blind Side was a huge hit but generally viewed as a longshot for a nomination in the top Oscar category.

Actors snubbed for acclaimed performances included Emily Blunt for The Young Victoria, Julianne Moore for A Single Man and Diane Kruger for Inglourious Basterds.

The 82nd Oscars will be presented March 7 in a ceremony airing on ABC from Hollywood's Kodak Theatre. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin will host.

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