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James Cameron's "Avatar" -- the most expensive movie ever made and the highest grossing film of all time -- picked up a slew of nominations including best picture and best director.
Low budget "The Hurt Locker" -- directed by Cameron's ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow -- also earned nine nods including best director, best picture, best actor and best original screenplay.
Bigelow is only the fourth woman ever to be nominated for directing and the first since Sofia Coppola received a nod for "Lost in Translation" in 2003. No woman director has ever won the Oscars top prize.
However "The Hurt Locker," a tense thriller about a US army bomb disposal squad operating in Iraq, has emerged as the favorite to land the Oscars top best picture prize when the 82nd Academy Awards are presented on March 7.
Although it has earned only $16 million at the box office -- around 125 times less than "Avatar" -- Bigelow's film has won a host of awards regarded as reliable indicators of likely Oscars success.
"It's so gratifying, so extraordinary," a delighted Bigelow told NBC television on Tuesday. "And it's such a compliment to everybody who worked on the movie -- the cast, crew everybody."
This year's best picture race was expanded to 10 films by the Academy in a move analysts said was intended to boost television ratings for the awards show. It is the first time since 1943 -- when "Casablanca" won best picture -- that so many films have been nominated in the category.
While "The Hurt Locker" has nominations spread across various spheres, most of "Avatar's" nods are in technical categories, reflecting the film's groundbreaking 3-D visual effects.
Vying for the best picture race alongside "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker" are Quentin Tarantino's bloody World War II revenge film "Inglourious Basterds," which weighed in with eight nominations.
It was followed by the independent "Precious," about the struggles of an illiterate abused teenager, which scored six nominations, including best picture and best director.
Other films in the best picture race include "District 9," South African director Neill Blomkamp's dazzling science-fiction film about aliens stranded in a Johannesburg township, and "Up," Pixar's charming animated film about a crotchety widower who ties balloons to his house and floats to South America.
It is only the second time that an animated film has made it into the best picture race following Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" in 1992.
"I hope this means that Hollywood is seeing (animated films) as we see them," said "Up" director Peter Docter. "We feel that these are films -- we just happen to use computers to tell the story."
Other best picture nominees included British drama "An Education," recession-era dramedy "Up In the Air", Joel and Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man," and the Sandra Bullock film "The Blind Side."
There were few major surprises in the acting nominations, where Jeff Bridges and Bullock are widely tipped to win the best actor and actress honors after dominating this year's awards circuit.
Bridges was nominated for his performance as a washed-up country singer in "Crazy Heart." Other nominees included George Clooney for "Up In the Air," Britain's Colin Firth for "A Single Man," Morgan Freeman for "Invictus," and Jeremy Renner for "The Hurt Locker."
Bullock celebrated the first Oscar nomination of her career with a light-hearted vow to undergo a make-over before the Academy Awards.
"I do believe some liposuction is in order, a very strict diet regime, and I will acquire a very light English accent," she joked on NBC's "Today" show.
Bullock's rivals for best actress include veteran Meryl Streep -- picking up her record 16th nomination for "Julie and Julia."
Other nominees included Brits Helen Mirren for "The Last Station" and Carey Mulligan for "An Education," and Gabby Sidibe for "Precious".
In the best supporting actress category, Mo'Nique is expected to prevail for her powerful performance as an abusive parent in "Precious." She faces competition from last year's winner, Spain's Penelope Cruz, nominated again for "Nine," and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart."
Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick round out the nominees for their performances in "Up In the Air."
As expected, Austrian Christoph Waltz is nominated in the best supporting actor category for "Inglourious Basterds," along with Matt Damon for "Invictus," Woody Harrelson for "The Messenger," Canadian Christopher Plummer for "The Last Station," and Stanley Tucci for "The Lovely Bones".
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