Expanding the field for the Academy Award for best picture from five films to 10 has made a major difference in this year's Oscars: Instead of three movies no one is talking about, there are eight.
Even if the field had stayed small, this would be a David-and-Goliath battle between all-time box-office champ Avatar, directed by Titanic's James Cameron, and the scrappy indie flick The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Cameron's ex-wife.
The inclusion of populist fare including The Blind Side, Up and District 9 might create a perception to casual viewers that these films are serious contenders. But everything you read out of Tinseltown says this is between Kathy and the Giant.
That's what we say today. If something totally unexpected happens Sunday night, say, football flick The Blind Side drives up the middle of a split vote and captures the top prize, then there might be all sorts of renewed chatter — and controversy — about this new format on Monday morning. But right now, it feels like the same ol' party with a few more guests.
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Yes, Avatar is the top-grossing movie of all time; it has the cachet of Cameron, who has already won Oscars for best picture and best director; and it will probably be fodder for dozens of jokes by hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin about blue people.
But the movie and its fans will have to be content with that and a bunch of technical awards. There are two big reasons why The Hurt Locker should win this battle.
First, although Avatar won Golden Globes for director and motion picture-drama, those awards are voted on by journalists. When it comes to filmmakers' honors, The Hurt Locker has gotten all the love. The Writers Guild gave it best original screenplay, the Producers Guild gave it best producer and the Directors Guild named Bigelow best director.
Second, when you look at the nominations, The Hurt Locker just looks like a best picture, and Avatar doesn't. The big Kahuna is a science-fiction fantasy film, a genre that always has had a hard time winning upper-echelon Oscars. And the only other upper-tier award it is nominated for is best director. It didn't even get a screenplay nomination.
Meanwhile, The Hurt Locker, about a bomb-defusing squad in the Iraq war, is nominated for two other major awards: original screenplay and actor, for star Jeremy Renner. Because it's based on actual events, it also has a stronger Oscar pedigree.
Avatar looks like a towering giant here, but The Hurt Locker has the stones to win.
Cameron and Bigelow were married from 1989 to 1991, and now Bigelow is probably the best prospect ever to break the glass ceiling of the best-director trophy and become the first woman to win the prize.
Three women have been nominated: Lina Wertmüller in 1976 for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion in 1993 for The Piano, and Sofia Coppola in 2003 for Lost in Translation.
This time, it would be even more surprising if Bigelow lost best director than if Hurt Locker lost best picture. You have the glass-ceiling factor, pretty harrowing stories about making the movie, general love for the film, and then that little ex-versus-ex story.
George Clooney was fabulous in Up in the Air, a movie that in other years might have been more of a contender for best picture. But as Crazy Heart started to capture people's attention, the feeling that Jeff Bridges is overdue quickly swelled up. We won't see our Kentucky native win the prize, but we can have some pride that former Somerset resident Scott Cooper wrote the script for Crazy Heart and directed Bridges to his win.
There is less of a feeling that Sandra Bullock is overdue — as good as The Blind Side was, she was also in and produced the painfully awful All About Steve last year. But there is a lot of love for Bullock's resurgent career and the The Blind Side's feel-good story. I dare say, if the movie were more of a legitimate contender for best picture, there would be more interest in the Oscars in general this year.
The best shot at wrecking Bullock's great year would be if the Academy finally decides it's time to add to Meryl Streep's trophy case for her performance in Julie & Julia — but pre-Oscar awards don't indicate that that is a rising tide.
Best supporting actor
This is one of those Oscar categories in which a terrific actor you have never heard of will probably beat four marquee stars.
Even if you thought Inglourious Basterds was grotesque revenge fantasy, Christoph Waltz's performance as an unsettling charismatic Nazi colonel was an amazing turn. Surprisingly, Christopher Plummer is enjoying his first Oscar nomination, for playing novelist Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, but there is no emerging precedent for him getting the award.
Best supporting actress
The acclaim that was heaped on Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire last fall made it seem as if the movie might be all the rage Sunday night. But now it looks as if Mo'Nique might be the film's biggest honoree, for powerfully playing several grotesque emotions all at once. As wonderful as Vera Farmiga's subtle turn was in Up in the Air, it's hard to make a case for any of Mo'Nique's competitors snatching this honor from her.