published Sunday, March 7th, 2010

'Avatar,' 'Hurt Locker' lead expanded Oscar parade

DAVID GERMAIN

AP Movie Writer

Click here for more Times Free Press 2010 Oscars coverage

LOS ANGELES — Academy Awards voters are expected to go very big or very small on their best-picture winner at Sunday's Oscars.

The two favorites in the expanded field of 10 best-picture nominees are the biggest modern blockbuster "Avatar" and the critical darling "The Hurt Locker," which drew a tiny fraction of the audience its mammoth competitor pulled in.

Either movie would represent a first at the Oscars. James Cameron's "Avatar" would be the only science-fiction film ever to take home the best-picture prize. While war films have done well at the Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" would be the first winner centered on the fight against terrorism, a subject that has stirred little interest among movie audiences shell-shocked by news coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The other eight films competing for best picture: the football drama "The Blind Side," the science-fiction thriller "District 9," the British teen tale "An Education," the World War II saga "Inglourious Basterds," the Harlem story "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," the Jewish domestic chronicle "A Serious Man," the animated adventure "Up," and the recession-era yarn "Up in the Air."

Leaders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences widened the category from the usual five films to expand the range of contenders for a ceremony whose predictability had turned it into a humdrum affair for TV audiences.

Adding to the suspense is how this year's use of preferential voting for best picture — where voters rank the 10 nominees in order of preference — may affect the category's outcome.

Oscar ratings fell to an all-time low two years ago and rebounded just a bit last year, when the show's overseers freshened things up with lively production numbers and new ways of presenting some awards.

The overhaul continues this season with a show that farmed out time-consuming lifetime-achievement honors to a separate event last fall and hired Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as the first dual Oscar hosts in 23 years.

"Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker" lead with nine nominations each, including best director for Cameron and Bigelow, who have a personal history that spices up the competition. They were married from 1989-91, making this the first time ex-spouses have competed for the directing Oscar.

Cameron took the directing prize at the Golden Globes, but Bigelow earned the top honor from the Directors Guild of America, whose recipient almost always wins the same award at the Oscars.

If it happens, Bigelow would be the first woman in the 82-year history of the Oscars to win best director. Cameron won the directing prize with 1997's "Titanic," which received a record-tying 11 Oscars, including best picture.

"Avatar" has surpassed "Titanic" to become the biggest modern blockbuster with $700 million domestically and $2.6 billion worldwide so far. "The Hurt Locker" took in just $12.6 million domestically.

Four first-time winners are expected to triumph in the acting categories.

Audience darling Sandra Bullock is the best-actress favorite for "The Blind Side," which brought her the first Oscar nomination of her career. Jeff Bridges, nominated four times previously without a win, looks like a lock for best actor for the country-music tale "Crazy Heart."

Front-runners for the supporting categories are veteran Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who had been virtually unknown in Hollywood until his star-making turn in "Inglourious Basterds," and Mo'Nique, a performer known for lowbrow comedy who showed unsuspected dramatic depths in "Precious."

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