BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — "Avatar" is a dreamy space fantasy that has made more money than any movie in history. "The Hurt Locker" is a ground-level dose of war-on-terror reality and one of the lowest-grossing best-picture contenders ever.
With a leading nine Oscar nominations each and ex-spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow as directors, the films are a study in extremes. They're also the only two movies that really matter in the expanded race for Hollywood's top prize March 7.
"Avatar," about the human invasion of a faraway moon populated by blue-hued creatures, won best drama and director at the Golden Globes. "The Hurt Locker," a disturbingly close and claustrophobic look at the strains of disabling bombs in Iraq, earned the top prizes from guilds representing directors and producers, and was chosen as the year's best film by many key critics groups.
"It's a true David and Goliath kind of story, isn't it?" said Jeremy Renner, a best-actor nominee for his performance as a bomb-disposal expert in "The Hurt Locker." "You know what? I love being David. ... It's like `The Bad News Bears' or something, or Rocky Balboa."
In between the two films in the Academy Award best-picture nominations announced Tuesday is a range of mainstream hits and critical darlings that deliver just what Oscar overseers wanted when they expanded the category from five films to 10 – something for everyone.
"Extraordinary company. Every film is a masterpiece in and of itself," said Bigelow, whose best-director nod for "The Hurt Locker" makes her the fourth woman ever nominated in that category. "It creates a lot to choose from, let's put it that way."
Despite the head-to-head awards rivalry between Bigelow and Cameron, who were married from 1989 to 1991, they don't seem to share any animosity.
"Frankly, I thought Kathryn was going to get this. She richly deserves it," Cameron said last month as he accepted his Golden Globe.
Along with Cameron's behemoth "Avatar," which has surpassed his own "Titanic" as the biggest modern blockbuster, four other huge hits earned best-picture nominations: the animated comedy "Up," the football drama "The Blind Side," the World War II saga "Inglourious Basterds" and the sci-fi tale "District 9."
Two other nominees, the recession tale "Up in the Air" and the Harlem drama "Precious: Based on the Novel `Push' By Sapphire," have been solid moneymakers.
Then there's "The Hurt Locker," the teen drama "An Education" and the offbeat academia story "A Serious Man," little arthouse triumphs whose domestic grosses – ranging from $9 million to $12.7 million – amount to popcorn money compared with the $600 million in the U.S. and more than $2 billion-plus worldwide "Avatar" has made.
"What a great day for film when you have the biggest film ever made in the same grouping as a little film like 'Precious.' And 'Hurt Locker.' And how fantastic I think that is for this environment," said Sarah Siegel-Magness, a producer on "Precious."
Diversity rules the directing category, traditionally a white men's club. Bigelow has a good shot to become the first woman to win the directing Oscar, while "Precious" filmmaker Lee Daniels is only the second black director ever nominated.
"It's always the first black something-or-other," Daniels said. "After 82 years, it's the first film nominated for best picture directed by an African-American. Isn't that great? It's so exciting. How can you lose? You can't lose!"
Along with Bigelow, Daniels and Cameron – whose "Titanic" won 11 Oscars, including picture and director – the directing nominees are Jason Reitman for "Up in the Air" and Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds."
Acting nominees include the four stars who have emerged as favorites from previous 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."
More best-picture choices this time means more types of films in the awards spotlight, said Bullock, who scored her first Oscar nomination as a wealthy woman who takes in a homeless teen who goes on to NFL stardom.
She said expanding the nominees means more types of films, from blockbusters to small independents, have a chance.
"It's so right and timely, and I'm so happy about it, because I think it's going to excite filmmakers even more now to just do the types of films they want to make without worrying about fitting it into this mold that would get recognition," she said.
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." 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," are first-time nominees.
It was the 16th nomination for Streep, extending her lead in the Oscar record book for acting nominees. Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson are tied for second-place with 12 each.
Bridges, who has been nominated four times without winning, 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."
Joining Bridges and Renner in the best-actor lineup 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," along with Colin Firth, as a grieving gay academic in "A Single Man."
While "Star Trek" was snubbed for a best-picture nomination, "Avatar" and "District 9" brought Oscar respectability to a genre often overlooked during Hollywood's prestige season. Only two sci-fi films – "Star Wars" And "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" – previously had been nominated for best picture.
Doubling the best-picture field also opened the door for animation, which has its own Oscar category. "Up" is the front-runner to win for feature animation, but it gains added luster as only the second animated film competing for best picture, following 1991's "Beauty and the Beast."
"The whole reason the Oscars exist, they've made no secret of it, is to get people excited about movies. The fact we're talking about 10 instead of five, I guess it's working," said "Up" director Pete Docter. "To be included on that list is just humbling and amazing."
Ten nominees, even as many as 12, were common for the Oscars through 1943, but the best-picture competition was reduced to five films after that. The bosses at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences liked what they got for this first year with the revived top-10 format.
"What the voters have done for us is they've given us a little bit of everything you could ask for," said Tom Sherak, academy president. "I guess the only thing that wasn't in there was a foreign picture, which would have been nice also as a best picture, too. But other than that, I think they gave us the kind of sample of the movies that came out last year that they loved and that made some kind of impact on them."
AP Entertainment writers Sandy Cohen, Anthony McCartney, Jake Coyle, Derrik Lang and Ryan Pearson and AP writers John Rogers and John Antczak contributed to this report.
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