'The Hurt Locker,' 'Avatar' score big in Oscar nominations

Academy President Tom Sherak and actress Anne Hathaway announce the 2010 Academy Award nominees on Tuesday.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; 5:59 PM

The dance floor is packed, kids. It's hot and stinky 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, mano-a-womano battle of the exes.

A populist blockbuster versus a prestige picture. The Academy's plan to democratize the taste-making 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 see some 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 Brit bildungsroman "An Education" and "Up," the whimsical tale 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 women adopts a timid young black man and coaches him into an all-star football player.

Then there's "Avatar," which is about race and war and anything else you'd like it to be. Group together the lanky blue Na'vi aliens, "The Hurt Locker's" dusty Baghdad alleys and the ferocious Nazis and Nazi-hunters in the final best picture nominee -- Quentin Tarantino's pulpy Reichsploitation flick "Inglourious Basterds" -- and you've got a triptych snapshot of past, present and future warfare.

Make sense? Or have we gone cross-eyed from overthinking?

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What we do know: It was a decent morning for movies with local connections.

Arlington native Sandra Bullock scored her first-ever 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 and first started performing in downtown comedy clubs, received an inevitable supporting-actress bid for snarling her way through "Precious" as the title character's wretched mother.

Former National Geographic photographer Louis 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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