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A look at the expanded Oscar field 

Let the guessing game begin.

It's been over 65 years since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allowed more than five films to be nominated in the category of Best Picture. However, in a shameless effort to boost flagging interest in the awards by making more room for crowd-pleasing blockbusters (call it "The Dark Knight Effect," after last year's critical and commercial smash failed to get nominated over the decidedly more Oscar-friendly Nazi melodrama The Reader), the organization elected to raise the total number of nominees from five to 10, thus greatly increasing the chances of inviting more audience-adored endeavors to the party. And it seems to have worked, as five of the 10 movies selected have earned over $100 million at the box office.

Of course, with 10 pictures in the running, there's the question of which five movies would not have been nominated if the Academy hadn't added this rule. Actually, I think it's fairly obvious: The five movies that ended up garnering the most nods (see sidebar) were the five that pretty much dominated this entire award season, and all were considered locks or near-locks. Of the remaining five nominees, An Education arguably seemed the most likely to knock off one of the frontrunners.

But if anything can be said about this Oscar season, it's that the choices were more predetermined -- and therefore more dull -- than ever before. Eight of the 10 Picture nominees were also up for the Producers Guild Award. A whopping 19 of the 20 acting nominees were also up for the Screen Actors Guild Awards. And all five of the directing nominees were also up for the Directors Guild Award. Only the writers' branch of the Academy -- generally the most maverick anyway -- chose to go its own way, matching only four of the 10 Writers Guild picks.

Here, then, are some more observations regarding this year's crop of contenders.

Highlights:

• The Best Picture nods for A Serious Man, An Education and Up. Well, at least they put most of those extra slots to good use. Had there been five nominees, only one film from my year-end 10 Best list -- Up in the Air -- would have probably made the cut. Thanks to the expanded field, four of my top 10 -- a much better percentage -- ended up making it.

• The Best Adapted Screenplay nod for In the Loop. Speaking of movies from my 10 Best, I fully expected this scathing political satire from Britain to be overlooked. Happily, enough Academy members from the writers' branch watched their screeners and recognized the excellence of the movie's script.

• The shutout of The Hangover. In past years, great raunchy comedies like National Lampoon's Animal House, There's Something About Mary and The 40-Year-Old Virgin were completely ignored by the snobbish Academy. Yet I feared that, bolstered by its ridiculous win at the Golden Globes, this vastly inferior film in a similar vein would be embraced by members desperately hoping to look hip. It didn't happen.

• The strong showing for science fiction. The Academy hasn't always warmed up to the genre, but they were obviously pleased with it this time around. Both Avatar and District 9 are up for Best Picture, while Star Trek (which for my money is better than either of them) scored four technical nods. And sci-fi's first cousin, the fantasy flick, also fared nicely, thanks to assorted technical nods for (among others) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Low Points:

• The shutout of (500) Days of Summer. No one expected it to run the field, but a Best Original Screenplay nomination at least seemed assured. Yet even that failed to materialize.

• The near-shutout of Bright Star. Admittedly, this lovely drama never gained the awards season traction it needed to move forward. As a result, its only nomination is for Best Costume Design. The fine contributions of writer-director Jane Campion and performers Abbie Cornish and Paul Schneider were all ignored.

• The nomination for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Sure, maybe it deserves its nod in the Best Sound Mixing category. I just shudder at the phrase, "The Oscar-nominated Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

Worth Noting:

Julie & Julia star Meryl Streep builds on her record number of acting nominations, upping her total to 16. In second place, Jack Nicholson remains tied with the late Katharine Hepburn at 12.

How They Compare

OSCAR'S 10 BEST

These were the films nominated by the Academy for Best Picture.

1. Avatar (9 nominations)

2. The Hurt Locker (9)

3. Inglourious Basterds (8)

4. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (6)

5. Up in the Air (6)

6. Up (5)

7. District 9 (4)

8. An Education (3)

9. The Blind Side (2)

10. A Serious Man (2)

CRITICS' 5 BEST

Based on a national sampling of 225 critics, these were the films that appeared the most frequently on critics' 10 Best lists.

1. The Hurt Locker

2. Inglourious Basterds

3. Up in the Air

4. Up

5. A Serious Man

(Source: www.moviecitynews.com)

BRUNSON'S 5 BEST

These were my picks for the year's best movies.

1. Up in the Air

2. A Serious Man

3. An Education

4. Up

5. (500) Days of Summer

MOVIEGOERS' 5 BEST

These were the year's biggest moneymaking releases.

1. Avatar

2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

4. The Twilight Saga: New Moon

5. Up

(Source: www.imdb.com)

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