‘Avatar,’ ‘The Hurt Locker’ lead Oscar nominations

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The science-fiction sensation “Avatar” and the war-on-terror thriller “The Hurt Locker” lead the Academy Awards with nine nominations each, including best picture and 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 today: “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 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 dominated 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 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.”

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.”

“After 82 years, it’s the first film nominated for best picture directed by an African-American,” 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 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 said “no one cares about the end result or the statue.” For her, the awards run has been about rubbing shoulders with the actresses she’s nominated alongside.

“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?’” Bullock 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.”

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.

The Oscar nomination also capped a breakout year for Mulligan.

“It was like a really good, friendly punch in the stomach. It’s a good feeling, but it’s like a jolt,” 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.”

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-flyer junkie in “Up in the Air” and Morgan Freeman as South African leader Nelson Mandela in “Invictus,” and first-timers Colin Firth as a grieving gay academic in “A Single Man” and Jeremy Renner as a bomb disposal expert in Iran 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, Waltz making his first Hollywood splash after working mostly in European theater and television.

Also up for supporting actress are “Up in the Air” co-stars Vera Farmiga as Clooney’s frequent-flyer 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 Bridges’ character in “Crazy Heart.”

Joining 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 included Germany’s “The White Ribbon,” the likely front-runner after taking the same prize at the Golden Globes and top honors at last May’s Cannes Film Festival. Also nominated were the Cannes runner-up, “A Prophet,” and Israel’s “Ajami,” Argentina’s “El Secreto de Sus Ojos” 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 between eight and 12 best-picture nominees. There were 10 in 1943, when “Casablanca” won best picture, but the academy 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.

Freeman got the news of his nomination while in Rome.

“This is my fifth nomination and I’m more proud of that than all the rest of it I think,” he said, also approving of the expansion of the best picture category although it did not include “Invictus.”

“I think it’s a good call, a good call, some good pictures. We didn’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 a best picture nomination. But it’s OK.”

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.

“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 best picture, “Up” was nominated for animated feature, along with “Coraline,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Princess and the Frog” and “The Secret of Kells.” Pixar Animation, which made “Up,” has produced four of the eight winners 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, 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.”

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.

The 82nd Oscars will be presented March 7 in a ceremony airing on ABC from Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre.

This season’s ceremony continues last year’s effort to liven up the show. Organizers chose Hugh Jackman as host a year ago rather than the usual comedian, and this time, they decided to go with dual hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.

Oscar producers Adam Shankman, a choreographer and director whose films include “Hairspray,” and Bill Mechanic, former studio boss at 20th Century Fox, are promising to step up the fun quotient at this year’s show.

Honorary Oscars, which took up a big chunk of space during past shows, were moved to a separate event last fall, freeing up more time to focus on the expanded best-picture nominees and other categories viewers care most about.

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