- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2010

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. | The science-fiction sensation “Avatar” and the war-on-terrorism thriller “The Hurt Locker” lead the Academy Awards with nine nominations each, including best picture and best director for former spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow.

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

Also nominated for best picture Tuesday: “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.”

Oscar nominees are chosen in most categories by specific branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, such as actors, directors and writers. The academy’s full membership of about 5,800 was eligible to vote for best-picture nominations and can cast ballots for the winners in all categories at the Oscar ceremony itself.

Acting nominees include the four stars who have dominated early awards shows: lead players Sandra Bullock for “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 best-director categories shape up as a showdown between ex-spouses who directed films that have dominated earlier Hollywood honors.

Mr. Cameron’s “Avatar” won best drama and director at the Golden Globes, while Ms. Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” beat out Mr. 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’s top prize and was chosen as last year’s best film by many key critics groups.

Ms. Bigelow said she was gratified and humbled.

“It’s a huge, huge compliment to the entire cast and crew,” she said. “It was a very difficult shoot of heat and sun and windstorms and sandstorms, and they had to unite crew from Lebanon and Israel.”

Ms. Bigelow, whose previous films include “Point Break” and “K19: The Widowmaker,” is just 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 Ms. Bigelow, no woman had ever won the Directors Guild honor.

“I hope someday we can lose the modifier and that becomes a moot point whether the person is male or female, and they’re just filmmakers making statements that they believe in,” Ms. Bigelow said.

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

“After 82 years, it’s the first film nominated for best picture directed by an African-American,” Mr. Daniels said. “Isn’t that great? It’s so exciting.”

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 Mr. Reitman also has a nomination for adapted screenplay, while Mr. Tarantino also earned a nomination for original screenplay.

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

Miss Bullock said, “No one cares about the end result or the statue.” For her, the awards run has been about rubbing shoulders with the actresses alongside whom she is nominated.

“You laugh at the absurdity of it all, and how they pit women up against each other. We go, ‘Why are they making us out to be fighting when we’re just happy to share this moment?’” she said. “The women I’ve met and gotten to know along the way have made me so happy for this business that didn’t really support women for a long time. It’s been really sweet. I feel really lucky to be working at this time.”

Miss 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.”

Miss Sidibe made her screen debut in “Precious,” earning an Oscar nomination for her first professional acting job.

The Oscar nomination also capped a breakout year for Miss Mulligan.

“It was like a really good, friendly punch in the stomach. It’s a good feeling, but it’s like a jolt,” Miss Mulligan said. “You can be in as many top-five lists and have as many people say things to you on red carpets as you like, and it doesn’t for a single second make you honestly think that you’re going to get nominated.”

Mr. 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.”

Also nominated for best actor are past Oscar winners George Clooney as a frequent-flier 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 Mr. 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, with Mo’Nique leaping into the awards elite after a career of mainly lowbrow comedy and Mr. Waltz making his first Hollywood splash after working mostly in European theater and television.

Also up for the supporting-actress Oscar are “Up in the Air” co-stars Vera Farmiga as Mr. Clooney’s frequent-flier soul mate and Anna Kendrick as his reluctant business protege. The other nominations went to past Oscar winner Penelope Cruz as a filmmaker’s needy mistress in the musical “Nine” and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single mom involved with Mr. Bridges’ character in “Crazy Heart.”

Joining Mr. Waltz in the supporting-actor lineup are Matt Damon as a South African rugby player in “Invictus,” Woody Harrelson as a military man giving bad news to next of kin in “The Messenger,” Christopher Plummer as aging author Tolstoy in “The Last Station” and Stanley Tucci as a serial killer in “The Lovely Bones.”

Nominees for best foreign-language film include Germany’s “The White Ribbon,” the likely front-runner after taking the same prize at the Golden Globes and top honors at May’s Cannes Film Festival. Also nominated are the Cannes runner-up, “A Prophet,” and Israel’s “Ajami,” Argentina’s “The Secret in Their Eyes” and Peru’s “The Milk of Sorrow.”

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 eight to 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 Oscars broadcast, whose TV audience peaked with Mr. 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.” “Avatar” has soared past “Titanic” to become No. 1 on the box-office charts, with $2 billion and climbing worldwide.

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

Actors snubbed for acclaimed performances include 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.

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