BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The science-fiction sensation"Avatar" and the war-on-terror thriller "The Hurt Locker" leadthe Academy Awards with nine nominations each, including bestpicture and director for former spouses James Cameron and KathrynBigelow.
For the first time since 1943 the Oscars feature 10 best-picturecontenders instead of the usual five.
Also nominated for best-picture Tuesday: "District 9"; theanimated comedy "Up"; the World War II saga "InglouriousBasterds"; the football drama "The Blind Side"; the recessiontale "Up in The Air," the 1960s drama "A Serious Man," and theteen tales "An Education" and "Precious: Based on the Novel`Push' By Sapphire."
Acting nominees include the four stars who have dominated earlyawards 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 showdownbetween ex-spouses who directed films that have dominated earlierHollywood honors.
Cameron's "Avatar" won best drama and director at the GoldenGlobes, while Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" beat out Cameron at theDirectors Guild of America Awards, whose recipient usually goes onto earn the best-director Oscar.
"The Hurt Locker" also beat "Avatar" for the Producers Guildof America top prize and was chosen as last year's best film bymany key critics groups.
Bigelow, whose films include "Point Break" and "K19: TheWidowmaker," is only the fourth woman nominated for a directingOscar, following Sofia Coppola for 2003's "Lost in Translation,"Jane Campion for 1993's "The Piano" and Lena Wertmuller for1975's "Seven Beauties."
No woman has ever won the directing Oscar, and until Bigelow, nowoman had ever won the Director's Guild honor.
Lee Daniels, who made "Precious," became only the second blackfilmmaker nominated for best director, after John Singleton for1991's "Boyz N the Hood."
Also nominated for best director are Jason Reitman for "Up inthe Air" and Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds." "Upin the Air" co-writer Reitman also had a nomination for adaptedscreenplay, while Tarantino also earned a nomination for originalscreenplay.
Longtime audience darling Bullock has never been nominated foran 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 chefJulia Child in "Julie & Julia" and Helen Mirren as Leo Tolstoy'sbullheaded wife in "The Last Station," along with first-timenominees Carey Mulligan as a British teen involved with an olderman in "An Education" and Gabourey Sidibe as a Harlem teenovercoming horrible abuse and neglect in "Precious."
Sidibe made her screen debut in "Precious," earning an Oscarnomination for her first professional acting job.
Bridges, nominated four times previously without winning anOscar, is viewed as the man to beat this time for his role as aboozy country singer trying to clean up his act in "Crazy Heart."
Also nominated for best actor are past Oscar winners GeorgeClooney as a frequent-flyer junkie in "Up in the Air" and MorganFreeman as South African leader Nelson Mandela in "Invictus,"Colin Firth as a grieving gay academic in "A Single Man" andJeremy Renner as a bomb disposal expert in Iran in "The HurtLocker."
Mo'Nique and Waltz were nominated for wicked roles, she as areprehensible welfare mother in "Precious," he as a gleefullygarrulous Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds." They were breakoutroles for both, Mo'Nique leaping into the awards elite after acareer of mainly lowbrow comedy, Waltz making his first Hollywoodsplash after working mostly in European theater and television.
Also up for supporting actress are "Up in the Air" co-starsVera Farmiga as Clooney's frequent-flyer soul mate and AnnaKendrick as his reluctant business protege. The other nominationswent to past Oscar winner Penelope Cruz as a filmmaker's needymistress in the musical "Nine" and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a singlemom involved wit Bridges' character in "Crazy Heart."
Joining Waltz in the supporting-actor lineup are Matt Damon as aSouth African rugby player in "Invictus," Woody Harrelson as amilitary 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."
With 10 best-picture contenders, this is the first time since1943 that so many films are competing for Hollywood's highesthonor. From 1931 to 1943, the Oscars featured between eight and 12best-picture nominees. There were 10 in 1943, when "Casablanca"won best picture, but the show switched to five nominees afterthat.
Last summer, academy organizers decided to go back to 10, sayingthey wanted a broader range of titles in the mix, including worthypopulist movies that often miss out on best-picture nominations infavor of the smaller dramas Oscar voters typically prefer.
Freeman got the news of his nomination while in Rome.
"This is my fifth nomination and I'm more proud of that thanall the rest of it I think," he said, also approving of theexpansion of the best picture category although it did not include"Invictus."
"I think it's a good call, a good call, some good pictures. Wedidn't get a best picture nomination? Well that's a big letdown.Well there you go. That's my problem, I thought we should get abest picture nomination. But it's OK."
Blockbuster best-picture contenders usually translate to betterratings for the Oscar broadcast, whose TV audience peaked withCameron's "Titanic" triumph 12 years ago. Ratings have been so-soever since, hitting an all-time low two years ago.
Luckily for Oscar overseers, the show this time includes thebiggest thing since "Titanic." Cameron's "Avatar" has soaredpast "Titanic" to become No. 1 on the box-office charts, with $2billion and climbing worldwide.
"Up," a travel adventure about a lonely widower who flies hishouse off to South America suspended from helium balloons, is onlythe second animated film ever to earn a best-picture nomination,following "Beauty and the Beast" in 1991, when the category hadonly five contenders.
Along with best picture, "Up" was nominated for animatedfeature, along with "Coraline," "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "ThePrincess and the Frog" and "The Secret of Kells." PixarAnimation, which made "Up," has produced four of the eightwinners since the animated-feature category was added in 2001,including "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E."
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, includingvisual effects and makeup.
Best-picture nominee "The Blind Side" was a huge hit butgenerally viewed as a longshot for a nomination in the top Oscarcategory.
Actors snubbed for acclaimed performances included Emily Bluntfor "The Young Victoria," Julianne Moore for "A Single Man" andDiane Kruger for "Inglourious Basterds."
Oscar nominees are chosen in most categories by specificbranches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, suchas actors, directors and writers. The academy's full membership ofabout 5,800 was eligible to vote for best-picture nominations andcan cast ballots for the winners in all categories at the Oscarceremony itself.
The 82nd Oscars will be presented March 7 in a ceremony airingon ABC from Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
This season's ceremony continues last year's effort to liven upthe show. Organizers chose song-and-dance Hugh Jackman as host ayear ago rather than the usual comedian, and this time, theydecided to go with dual hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.
Oscar producers Adam Shankman, a choreographer and directorwhose films include "Hairspray," and Bill Mechanic, former studioboss at 20th Century Fox, are promising to step up the fun quotientat this year's show.
Honorary Oscars, which took up a big chunk of space during pastshows, were moved to a separate event last fall, freeing up moretime to focus on the expanded best-picture nominees and othercategories viewers care most about.
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