Oscar's wide embrace for Best Picture

The nominees for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards -- hosted by Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin -- stretch from the mean streets of Iraq to another blue marble in space called Pandora.
By Dan Zak and Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The dance floor is packed, kids. It's hot and sweaty out here, in this mosh pit of Na'vi and Nazis. This is what happens when you let nearly everyone into the party, which is what the Academy did Tuesday morning when it announced its Best Picture nominees (10 instead of the usual five). How are we supposed to divine meaning from this movie year when the selection seems so crowded, so random, so themeless? No genre left behind!

"The Hurt Locker," the taut Iraq war drama directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and "Avatar," the futuristic sci-fi spectacle directed by the former Mr. Bigelow (James Cameron), each snagged a leading nine Academy Award nominations, officially casting this year's Oscar race as a neck-and-neck battle of the exes.

A populist blockbuster versus a prestige picture: The Academy's plan to diversify the crop by widening the field seems to have worked. Five Best Picture nominees have already hurdled the $200 million mark at the global box office. When last year's nominations were announced, the Best Picture category had a record-low $186.7 million in combined receipts -- the kind of loose change James Cameron might find under his couch cushions.

Squint harder and watch Best Picture nominees dance to a similar rhythm. The tangy-sweet George Clooney vehicle "Up in the Air," the Coen brothers' biblical black comedy "A Serious Man," the modish coming-of-age tale "An Education" and "Up," the whimsical fable of an airborne septuagenarian -- they all revel in achy life transitions. Race and self-image are stitched through the alien-apartheid allegory "District 9" (another sci-fi movie!), the copiously titled and brutally rendered "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" and "The Blind Side," in which a wealthy white woman adopts a timid young black man and coaches him into a well-rounded all-star football player.

Then there's "Avatar," which is about racial tension and shock-and-awe tactics and anything else you'd like it to be. Group together the peace-loving Na'vi aliens, "The Hurt Locker's" lethal Baghdad alleys, and the ferocious Nazis and Nazi-hunters in the final Best Picture nominee -- Quentin Tarantino's Reichsploitation flick "Inglourious Basterds" -- and you've got a triptych of past, present and future warfare.

Make sense? Or have we gotten lost in the scrum?

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Oscar's expanded dance card is a good thing, says Pixar director Pete Docter, whose "Up" became only the second animated feature ever to be nominated for Best Picture.

"They've made no secret of the point of the Academy Awards from the day it started, and that's to get people excited about going to the movies," he said. "The fact that we're talking about 10 films instead of just five is a good thing for everybody."

Some former Washington area residents must've been excited. Arlington native Sandra Bullock scored her first nomination for playing the wealthy white woman in "The Blind Side," which is based on the life of Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher. Mo'Nique, who was born outside Baltimore, received an inevitable Supporting Actress bid for snarling her way through "Precious" as the title character's wretched mother.

Former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, who lived at 18th and Lamont streets NW in the early '80s, directed the nominated documentary "The Cove," which investigates dolphin-killing in Japan.

"It's a great day for the environmental movement, for dolphins," says Psihoyos, who was back in the District on Monday for the RealScreen Summit. "They're the only wild animal through history to save the lives of humans. Hopefully we can repay the favor."

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