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Oscar battle between 'Avatar' and 'Hurt Locker' sets stage for Academy Awards

Choosing sides in a war usually isn't this tough.

Especially when the battlefield is Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, where the 82nd annual Academy Awards will be presented tonight.

Never have lines been so distinctly drawn between best picture favorites: a cinematic superpower and a determined guerrilla production. Avatar had every filmmaking and marketing weapon at its disposal, while The Hurt Locker gutted it out in film festival trenches, practically missing in box office action.

The academy expected a face-off between blockbuster tastes and arty film vitality when the best picture category expanded beyond five nominees for the first time since 1943. But they probably didn't expect a final showdown this downright puzzling.

Now it's our duty to guess how the academy will handle the standoff, part of the annual tradition of Oscar party pools and prediction columns like this.

Let's begin with the biggest skirmish of the night:

BEST PICTURE

After raising moviegoers' expectations of a best picture winner they've actually seen, I don't see the academy swerving all the way to the mainstream. Avatar is a megahit cinematic milestone but The Hurt Locker has qualities that Oscar voters admire: a serious topic, expertly crafted, plus a rags-to-riches history proving anything is possible in Hollywood. Voters may also believe James Cameron has prospered enough.

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

Persall's pick: The Hurt Locker, making it the lowest-grossing movie ($12 million) to ever win the best picture Oscar.

BEST ACTOR

Nearly 40 years after bursting onto the scene in The Last Picture Show, Jeff Bridges will win his first Oscar for playing a washed-up country music singer in Crazy Heart. It's the perfect combination of Bridges being both worthy and overdue, after four previous nominations, plus the cult classic, The Big Lebowski

.

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart

George Clooney, Up in the Air

Colin Firth, A Single Man

Morgan Freeman, Invictus

Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Persall's pick: The Dude abides tonight.

BEST ACTRESS

Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia) perfectly captured chef Julia Child's trilling voice and lumbering presence. Yet only one woman over the past decade (Charlize Theron, Monster) claimed the best actress Oscar with her film's lone nomination. Streep finds herself in that situation this year. The Blind Side earned only one nomination besides Sandra Bullock's but it's a biggie: best picture.

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

Helen Mirren, The Last Station

Carey Mulligan, An Education

Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Persall's pick: Bullock caps her comeback year with a golden statuette.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

All signs point to Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), who swept every major pre-Oscars prize in this category. It could be closer than you think. The academy sometimes uses this category to reward winless old-timers (most recently Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman), so octogenarian Christopher Plummer (The Last Station) could pull off a surprise with his first nomination ever.

Matt Damon, Invictus

Woody Harrelson, The Messenger

Christopher Plummer, The Last Station

Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones

Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Persall's pick: Waltz, but not waltzing away from the pack.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Like Waltz, Precious co-star Mo'Nique grabbed every pre-Oscars award in sight, for her searing portrayal of an abusive mother. Unlike Waltz, she isn't competing against a sentimental favorite. Plus, this is the only real chance for Precious to nab an Academy Award, and the movie is admired enough to deserve one.

Penélope Cruz, Nine

Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart

Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air

Mo'Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Persall's pick: Mo'Nique, who will never land a role this good again.

DIRECTOR

Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) will become the first woman ever to win this Oscar. Bigelow's closest competition is ex-husband James Cameron (Avatar), who has publicly endorsed her winning. That means something, in a town known for acrimonious divorces.

James Cameron, Avatar

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker

Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

Persall's pick: Bigelow, because she's solid, and the academy loves making history.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

No way that Up in the Air leaves empty-handed tonight. Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner didn't just adapt Walter Kirn's novel of internal monologues but actually improved it.

District 9, Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

An Education, Nick Hornby

In the Loop, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, Geoffrey Fletcher

Up in the Air, Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

Persall's pick: Up in the Air, easily and wittily.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Tough call, this one. Mark Boal's backstory as a former embedded journalist in Iraq, leading him to write The Hurt Locker, is good copy. Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) writes loquacious scripts that actors love, and they're the academy's largest voting branch.

The Hurt Locker, Mark Boal

Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino

The Messenger, Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman

A Serious Man, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Up, Bob Peterson, Pete Docter

Persall's pick: Boal, which actually could spoil The Hurt Locker's chance of winning best picture, since only one film (Crash) in the past decade won both Oscars.

ANIMATED FEATURE

No surprise expected since Up is also among the 10 best picture finalists.

Coraline

Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Princess and the Frog

The Secret of Kells

Up

Persall's pick: Never bet against Pixar (Up)in this category.

QUICK PICKS FOR THE REST OF OSCAR'S 24 CATEGORIES

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Ajami, Israel

The Milk of Sorrow (La Teta Asustada), Peru

A Prophet (Un Prophete), France

The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos), Argentina

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band), Germany

Persall's pick: Germany's dark fascism fable, The White Ribbon. Purely guesswork since that's the only nominee I've seen, as foreign film distributors mostly skipped the Tampa Bay area in 2009.

ORIGINAL SCORE

Avatar

Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Hurt Locker

Sherlock Holmes

Up

Persall's pick: Up composer Michael Giacchino clinched this Oscar in the film's first 10 minutes, a wordless, romantic arc that left viewers sobbing.

ORIGINAL SONG

Almost There, The Princess and the Frog

Down in New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog

Loin de Paname, Paris 36

Take It All, Nine

The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart

Persall's pick: I'd nominate a couple of livelier songs from Crazy Heart but The Weary Kind will do.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Avatar

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds

The White Ribbon

Persall's pick: Go with the movie boasting sights unlike any others you've ever seen: Avatar, legitimizing the 3-D trend that will be Hollywood's meal ticket for years to come.

FILM EDITING

Avatar

District 9

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Persall's pick: The bomb disposal scenes of The Hurt Locker are textbook examples of creating tension in the editing room.

ART DIRECTION

Avatar

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Nine

Sherlock Holmes

The Young Victoria

Persall's pick: State-of-the-art, digitally painted sets or old-school crafting by hand? I'll choose Avatar, for opening Pandora's box of spectacular fantasy.

VISUAL EFFECTS

Avatar

District 9

Star Trek

Persall's pick: The only way that Avatar loses is if voters kept their eyes closed during screenings.

COSTUME DESIGN

Bright Star

Coco Before Chanel

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Nine

The Young Victoria

Persall's pick: Nine was a dud but those kicky 1960s duds were divine.

MAKEUP

Il Divo

Star Trek

The Young Victoria

Persall's pick: Give me the alien lifeforms of Star Trek over powdered regals (The Young Victoria) and prosthetic mimicry of an Italian politician (Il Divo).

SOUND EDITING

Avatar

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds

Star Trek

Up

SOUND MIXING

Avatar

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds

Star Trek

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Persall's picks: Two categories that nobody outside show biz can tell apart. Avatar recently earned top honors from the sound editing guild, so give it both Oscars.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Burma VJ

The Cove

Food, Inc.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Which Way Home

Persall's pick: The Cove and Food, Inc. shared a slot on my top 10 list, so I'm pulling for both. I'll pick The Cove, which presented its eco-causes with the crackling suspense of a caper movie.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT

China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province

The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner

The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant

Music by Prudence

Rabbit a la Berlin

Persall's pick: Haven't seen the nominees, as usual, but The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant sounds topical enough for Oscar voters.

LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

The Door

Instead of Abracadabra

Kavi

Miracle Fish

The New Tenants

Persall's pick: Judging solely from a preview trailer, The New Tenants gives off a Fargo-style vibe.

ANIMATED SHORT FILM

French Roast

Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty

The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)

Logorama

A Matter of Loaf and Death

Persall's pick: Never bet against Nick Park in this category. A Matter of Loaf and Death starring Wallace & Gromit should earn his fourth Oscar here, and fifth overall.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

On TV

82nd annual Academy Awards, 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC-TV.

Oscar battle between 'Avatar' and 'Hurt Locker' sets stage for Academy Awards 03/05/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 7, 2010 5:31pm]

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