Oscar nominations that are for the people

They are precisely the kinds of movies hardly ever nominated for the best-picture Oscar -- a tear-jerker sports film, a space-alien thriller and an animated feature with a flying house and talking dogs -- but the populist pleasures "The Blind Side," "District 9" and "Up" all made the final cut for the top Academy Award.

Concerned that a steady stream of challenging, often little-seen art movies were dominating the Oscars and deflating TV ratings, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doubled this year's best-picture race to 10 contestants, and the results Tuesday were exactly as intended: the inclusion of movies that have sold a boatload of tickets.

The nominations for the 82nd annual Academy Awards were led by the presumptive best-picture favorites -- "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker," which each scored in nine categories. The two movies represent opposite extremes of audience recognition, as "Avatar" has generated almost 50 times more domestic revenue than "The Hurt Locker."

But to the delight of the March 7 ceremony's producers, four movies besides "Avatar" that have grossed more than $100 million made the best-picture competition: "Up" ($293 million), "The Blind Side" ($237.9 million), " Inglourious Basterds" ($120.5 million) and "District 9" ($115.6 million).

When last year's statuettes were presented, only one of the five best-picture finalists -- "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" -- had grossed more than $100 million.

"The fact that 'The Blind Side' made it in made me happier than anything," said Sandra Bullock, who also was nominated for lead actress. "The greatest thing the academy could have done is to make it 10 movies."

The last time the academy nominated so many films for best picture was in the 1943 race ( "Casablanca" won), and the return to the expanded list was sparked by declining ratings (about 36 million people watched last year's ceremony, down from 1998's "Titanic" sweep record of 55.2 million) and viewers who were growing older and more concentrated in large cities.

In recent years, Oscar voters also had been singling out works that were often unfamiliar even to regular moviegoers: challenging and sparsely attended productions such as "The Last King of Scotland" and "Milk." If the annual ceremony didn't change it risked becoming "an awards show dinosaur," academy President Tom Sherak said. "So we said, 'Let's do something, and not sit on our hands.' "

Some of the best-picture picks almost certainly would have been nominated by the academy's 5,777 voters even if the category was its usual size: James Cameron's science-fiction blockbuster "Avatar," Kathryn Bigelow's bomb-defuser drama "The Hurt Locker," Quentin Tarantino's World War II fantasy "Inglourious Basterds," Jason Reitman's downsizing dramedy "Up in the Air" and Lee Daniels' incest survivor story "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."

The filmmakers all were nominated for director, which, like most other categories, remained at five selections. It could be a historic year in the category. Were Bigelow to win the director Oscar, she would become the first woman to do so. If Daniels wins, he will be the first African American.

Although some of the year's most popular films -- including the beloved bachelor-party comedy "The Hangover" and the popular "Star Trek" reboot -- didn't make the shortlist, the five other best picture nominations represented a diverse slice of film genres, audience appeal and critical acclaim. In addition to "The Blind Side," "District 9" and "Up," the other best-picture nominees were the coming-of-age movie "An Education" and the quirky, dark comedy "A Serious Man."

"Some of them might be smaller, some might be bigger. In the end, it's probably good for the movie business," said Lawrence Bender, a producer of "Inglourious Basterds."

The acting nominations include bold-faced names in high-profile studio productions ( George Clooney in "Up in the Air," Meryl Streep from "Julia & Julia") as well as lesser-known, up-and-coming performers in smaller, independently financed films (Jeremy Renner for "The Hurt Locker," Carey Mulligan in "An Education"). Since the academy added a separate race for animated movies for the 2002 awards ("Shrek" took the first such prize), no animated feature has been nominated for the best picture honor -- until a movie about a cranky old man, a chubby kid, a bunch of balloons and an unusual pack of canines arrived.

" 'Up' is a movie that was probably the most critically acclaimed film of the year and also one of the biggest box-office winners," said Rich Ross, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, whose Pixar Animation Studios made the film.

Ross said the expanded best-picture list offered a better representation of movies that real people -- not just film buffs -- are talking about in their social communities. "In a Facebook nation, this is exactly what makes sense," Ross said.

Neill Blomkamp, who directed and co-wrote (with Terri Tatchell) "District 9," said he was astounded his apartheid allegory was nominated for the top honor, "even with the fact that they're trying to reach a larger audience. If someone had said to me while I was shooting the film in some shack in a township that it would have been nominated for best picture, I would have just laughed. It's absurd."

Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson of Alcon Entertainment, which financed "The Blind Side," said they were unsure about their hit film's awards chances. "It's your movie, so of course you really love it. Even though audiences enjoy it, it's not necessarily the movie people think about for awards," Johnson said. Added Kosove: "But I'll be honest in saying that I absolutely understood it was a possibility."

James Schamus, whose Focus Features financed "A Serious Man," said that as a film enthusiast, he's excited to see such a diverse slate for the best-picture statuette. "It makes it feel like you're part of a big industry with all kinds of audiences," Schamus said. "It really does celebrate Hollywood."

john.horn@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rachel Abramowitz, Chris Lee and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.

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