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The decision to expand Oscar’s best picture competition from five to 10 titles came from a place of greed and anxiety: the desperate need to attract more viewers to the awards telecast Sunday.


Whatever the motive for the expansion, it has been a good thing for movies.


That’s a gut feeling, not a scientific study. But this awards season I’ve sensed a much greater anticipation for the big event among just plain moviegoers. If the purpose of doubling the best picture slate was to involve more of us and make the Academy Awards seem more relevant, it worked.


Fanboys have “Avatar” and “District 9” to cheer for. Middle Americans — religious, family-oriented, football-mad — have “The Blind Side.” Kids have “Up” (although many an adult is rooting for this Pixar marvel). Ironic hipsters have “Inglourious Basterds.”


And for those who still cling to the idea that film is an art form, we have “The Hurt Locker,” “An Education,” “Precious,” “A Serious Man” and “Up in the Air.”


Of course, the pundits have been saying for weeks that the race really boils down to a David-and-Goliath smackdown between the modest war drama “The Hurt Locker” and that two-ton gorilla, the 3-D space opera “Avatar.”


It’s a classic confrontation between a big-money monster and a scrappy little contender. A week after seeing “Avatar” last December I’d have sworn it was going to sweep the boards in the manner of James Cameron’s last spectacle, “Titanic.”


But a funny thing happened: The buzz began growing on “Hurt Locker.” The film opened last summer and played for several weeks, but it didn’t do as much business as “Avatar” has in three hours.


Since then Kathryn Bigelow’s drama about a bomb demolition team in Iraq has become available on cable pay-per-view and DVD. I’ve been astounded by the number of people who’ve told me they finally watched the film at home and loved it.


You could feel the momentum swinging. In January, the Golden Globes gave “Avatar” best picture and director honors while denying any award to “The Hurt Locker.” The recent BAFTA awards in London, though, signaled an about-face. “The Hurt Locker” picked up awards for picture, director, original screenplay, cinematography, editing and sound. “Avatar” won only technical awards for production design and special effects.


Now I’ll call the race for “The Hurt Locker,” though in my heart of hearts I truly believe that “Up” was the most artful, totally satisfying film of the year. But you can’t expect the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is made up mostly of actors, to go overboard for a film that suggests actors aren’t really necessary. “Up” will have to be content with an animation award.


Of course, we’ve yet to see how the academy’s new scoring system plays out. Voters were asked to list their choices by first place, second place and so on. A film that was listed in second place on everybody’s ballot could very well earn more points than the two top contenders.


Let’s say that on the first round the first-place votes are evenly divided between “Avatar” and the “Hurt Locker.” But every single voter chose “Inglourious Basterds” for second place.


Result: “Inglourious Basterds” wins, even though it’s nobody’s first-place choice.


Welcome to Oscar’s brave new world! Of course we’ll never know, since the academy doesn’t make public the vote breakdown.


All I know is that on Sunday night, I fully expect “The Hurt Locker” to be named best picture.


—Director:


The shifting momentum of the best picture race spills over into the contest for director.


It sounds like something dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter — a standoff between a former married couple, James Cameron (“Avatar”) and Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”).


Except that it’s not a real-life “War of the Roses.” The two were married briefly more than 20 years ago and have since remained pals. Bigelow reports she sent her cut of “Hurt Locker” to Cameron for his comments; he told her it was ready to go.


The irony here is that what both Cameron and Bigelow accomplished with their respective films is little short of amazing.


Cameron oversaw a massive logistical effort and the expenditure of many millions of dollars, yet was able to keep his artistic vision (love it or not) intact.


Working with about a 20thof Cameron’s budget, Bigelow created an intimate yet oddly epic war film, shooting in Jordan, where temperatures routinely reached 115 degrees and where the actors rested between takes in tents, not air-conditioned trailers.


This race also gives Oscar voters a chance to make history. Bigelow is only the fourth woman to be nominated for best director (the others: Lina Wertmuller for “Seven Beauties” in 197 7, Jane Campion for “T he Piano” in 199 4 and Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” in 200 4).She would be the first to win.


The irony is that Bigelow would hate to win because she’s a woman. Ever since being inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s ultra-violent “Wild Bunch” in the late ‘60s, Bigelow has made films about violence, machismo and their repercussions. No ribbons and bows for Bigelow — even her female stars (Jamie Lee Curtis in “Blue Steel,” Angela Bassett in “Strange Days”) play tough, determined and, if necessary, decisively violent characters.


To marvel that “The Hurt Locker” was made by a woman is an insult — Bigelow has been making hard-hitting, gutsy films her entire career.


Whatever their reasons, Oscar voters will give her the statuette. Even Cameron thinks so.


Don’t expect much competition from the other nominees — Lee Daniels for “Precious,” Jason Reitman for “Up in the Air “(though he may win for adapted screenplay), Quentin Tarantino for “Inglourious Basterds.“But I’d love to see Tarantino pull an upset. “Basterds” was a perfect example of a director having an absolute ball and transmitting his joy and enthusiasm to his audience. Next to “Up,” it was the best time I had at the movies last year.


—Actress:


When “Julie & Julia” opened last summer, I’d have sworn the best actress race was decided. Meryl Streep is so flat-out brilliant as Julia Child — hilariously eccentric yet genuinely moving — that it seemed the contest was over before it had begun.


Not so fast. As is the case with the late-blossoming “The Hurt Locker,” the fortunes of Sandra Bullock and “The Blind Side” continue to rise.


Bullock plays a force-of-nature Southern mom in this true-life tale of a wealthy white family that takes in a homeless black youth and nudges him on to gridiron glory. It isn’t likely to win best picture honors. But I’m now confident in predicting that Bullock will win the Academy Award.


Not that I think her performance is better than Streep’s. But it’s Bullock’s time.


Bullock has that America’s sweetheart thing going for her, thanks to a career full of romantic comedies and modest thrillers. Even when you’re indifferent to her movies, you like Bullock personally (with the possible exception of this year’s “All About Steve”).


Moreover, an Oscar race is a bit like one for homecoming queen. Everything else being equal, you vote for someone you like, or at least someone who didn’t make your adolescence miserable.


Streep has been nominated a record 16 times(she has won twice),so having her in contention is just business as usual. But when a presumed lightweight sinks her teeth into something meaty and leaves you marveling — well, that’s a scenario Oscar loves.


Could any other actress derail this train? Of the other nominees — Helen Mirren in “The Last Station,” Carey Mulligan in “An Education,” Gabourey Sidibe in “Precious” — only Sidibe seems to have much traction. This is the sort of Cinderella story Oscar also loves (first-time actress shoots to the top). Maybe another year, and not against Bullock and Streep.


—Actor


No contest. After a long career as one of Hollywood’s most reliable leading men, Jeff Bridges has been cleaning up this awards season. His story will reach its dramatic acme on Sunday, when he finally takes home an Academy Award for his performance as the alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart.”


Bearded, potbellied and graying, Bridges was transformed. You could argue that this is more character acting than leading man acting ... and what of it? It’s still terrific.


Bridges has earned five Oscar nominations but no statues; the academy must be thinking it’s his turn.


Do any of the other nominees have a chance? Well, you can never rule out George Clooney (“Up in the Air”), though I suspect many voters think his character was awfully close to the real George Clooney. (I say who cares, since I can imagine no other Hollywood leading man who could have pulled it off so successfully.)


My favorite is Colin Firth in “A Single Man” (the perfect blend of a cool exterior with a tortured inner life). Don’t think Morgan Freeman (“Invictus”) or Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) have much hope, although Renner might benefit from a general sweep by “Locker.”


—Supporting actress


There was nothing funny about stand-up comic Mo’Nique ‘s turn as an abusive urban mother in “Precious.”


But this first-time dramatic actress gives an amazingly nuanced performance. You start out hating her, and by the film’s end you ... well, you still hate her, but you at least understand where her evil comes from.


This would have been a challenge for an experienced actress. Mo’Nique makes it look easy. She has won virtually every one of the supporting actress awards leading up to Oscar night. Can’t imagine she won’t take home the little gold man as well.


I liked Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick in “Up in the Air” (Kendrick actually gives the superior performance). Penelope Cruz ‘s sexy musical number in “Nine” is just about the only memorable thing about that movie; Maggie Gyllenhaal is good as the small-town reporter falling for an older wreck in “Crazy Heart.”


But none of them is close to catching up with Mo’Nique.


—Supporting actor


Everything I said about Mo’Nique in the supporting actress race goes double for Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.”


This Austrian export has won supporting actor honors from just about every group that hands out awards; that isn’t going to change on Sunday night in Hollywood.


As Nazi Jew hunter Hans Landa, Waltz gives us a smart, sophisticated, absolutely entertaining character who just happens to be rotten to the core. If Mo’Nique gives an ultra-realistic performance, Waltz delivers the acting version of acrobatics. He makes us take joy in his character’s awful ness without feeling guilty.


None of the other nominees — Matt Damon (“Invictus”), Christopher Plummer (“The Last Station”), Stanley Tucci (“The Lovely Bones”) and Woody Harrelson (“The Messenger”) — is likely to stop the Waltz blitzkrieg, although of these also-rans, I was most impressed with Harrelson’s turn as an alcoholic Army officer.


BEST PICTURE CANDIDATES


“Avatar”


“The Blind Side”


“District 9”


“An Education”


“The Hurt Locker”


“Inglourious Basterds”


“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”


“A Serious Man”


“Up”


“Up in the Air”



The last time there were 10 best picture nominees was 1943. The lineup:


“Casablanca” (winner)


“For Whom the Bell Tolls”


“Heaven Can Wait”


“The Human Comedy”


In Which We Serve”


“Madame Curie”


“The More the Merrier”


“The Ox-Bow Incident”


“The Song of Bernadette”


“Watch on the Rhine”



BEST OSCAR YEAR EVER: 1939


The 10 films up for top honors in ‘39 must rank as the greatest competitive lineup in movie history.


“Dark Victory”


“Gone With the Wind” (winner)


“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”


“Love Affair”


“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”


“Ninotchka”


“Of Mice and Men”


“Stagecoach”


“The Wizard of Oz”


“Wuthering Heights”

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