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War movies will battle it out at Oscars

A look at Oscar's curious and not-so-curious choices for this year's Academy Awards

Chris Garcia

Without a twitch of surprise, this year's Oscar race boils down to a war between two war movies and, singularly, between ex-spouses.

Every year two front-runners for best picture clearly emerge, with some variation and the occasional upset (remember, wincingly, "Crash"?). In one corner this year we have "Avatar," directed by James Cameron; in the other corner, "The Hurt Locker," directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Both films are tied with nine nominations. Cameron and Bigelow are vying for best director. And, of course, they used to be married.

It's a friendly rivalry. While accepting his directing award at the Golden Globes, Cameron said Bigelow deserved the honor. And he applauded wildly when she did win for "The Hurt Locker" at the Directors Guild of America Awards. Amity reigns; there won't be blood. (But "The Hurt Locker" better win.)

A couple of months ago, before the crush of "Avatar" looniness, Jason Reitman's low-key comedy "Up in the Air" looked to be a hot front-runner for the best picture prize. Then the navy-hued Na'vi stormed in. Now it's Reitman who's feeling blue.

Genuine surprises were at a premium during Tuesday's Oscar nominations announcement. Only one nomination blindsided this observer: "The Blind Side," a melodrama fit for the Hallmark Channel, was nominated for best picture, elbowing out the semi-favored Clint Eastwood drama "Invictus," which has to settle for a best actor nod for Morgan Freeman and best supporting actor nod for Matt Damon.

The other best-picture nominees are "District 9, "An Education," "Inglourious Basterds," "Precious," "A Serious Man," "Up" and "Up in the Air."

This year the best-picture category was widened from five contestants to 10. The gesture is eye-rolling on many levels, mostly because it's just too chummy and accommodating. Pundits say it was spurred by last year's egregious snubbing of the critically acclaimed, box-office-breaking "The Dark Knight," a work of art that inarguably deserved a best picture nomination. The Academy is famously allergic to comedy, animation, science-fiction and fantasy films for the top honor. (Exceptions exist: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" won best picture in 2004.)

Now, with extra room, the Oscars are happy to invite aliens to the party. The sharp "District 9" and the hokey "Avatar" are tapped for best picture. But then where is "Star Trek"? I submit that J.J. Abrams' exciting remake is better than other best picture contenders "Inglourious Basterds" (silly) "Up" (quite charming) and, of course, "The Blind Side" (pandering). "Star Trek" didn't even earn a best adapted screenplay nod (fist shake).

Other curious shut-outs: "A Single Man," directed by Austin native Tom Ford, for any awards other than Colin Firth's best-actor nod; "Where the Wild Things Are" for adapted screenplay, art direction and costume design; "The Beaches of Agnes" and "Valentino: The Last Emperor" for best documentary feature; "The Informant!" and "The Hangover" for anything at all (the latter won best comedy at the Golden Globes); and "(500) Days of Summer" for best original screenplay, a snub that makes me 500 kinds of glad.

Some are shocked that "The Road" and "Public Enemies" earned zero nominations. Not me. These competently made but forgettable films never had a chance for a major trophy, in my mind.

The most disappointing oversight is Christian McKay for best supporting actor for his wondrous portrayal of the young Orson Welles in Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles." Reportedly, the film's distributor, Freestyle, took the wrong tack to get McKay nominated. Instead of pushing him for best supporting actor, the category in which he belonged, they went for best actor, where he was easily shooed away by the likes of Freeman, George Clooney and probable winner Jeff Bridges.

Entertaining side note: Sandra Bullock, who won best dramatic actress at the Golden Globes, is nominated for the best actress Oscar for "The Blind Side." At the same time, she's been nominated for worst actress for "All About Steve" by the Razzie Awards. Winning both awards might sound embarrassing, but, really, wouldn't it be kind of brilliant?

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649