LOS ANGELES (AP) — Too predictable. That's the persistent complaint about the Academy Awards, whose drama generally is sapped by a glut of earlier award shows that spell out what films will win at the Oscars before the show starts.
Not this time — at least for Sunday's top prize.
With the best-picture lineup expanded to 10 films instead of the usual five, the science-fiction spectacle and box-office behemoth "Avatar" is head-to-head with the low-budgeted, low-grossing Iraq War story "The Hurt Locker."
The acting prizes look as predictable as ever, with Oscars expected to go to Sandra Bullock as best actress for "The Blind Side," Jeff Bridges as best actor for "Crazy Heart," Mo'Nique as supporting actress for "Precious" and Christoph Waltz as supporting actor for "Inglourious Basterds."
"Avatar" won best drama at the Golden Globes, traditionally a good gauge for how the Oscars might play out. But the Globes were nearly two months ago, the first major ceremony in the long buildup to the Oscars. A lot has happened since.
"The Hurt Locker" dominated honors from Hollywood trade groups, including guilds representing directors, writers and producers. It also won best-picture and five other prizes at the British Academy Film Awards.
The films bring some behind-the-scenes drama. "Avatar" director James Cameron and "The Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow were married from 1989-91, making this the first time ex-spouses have competed for the directing Oscar.
Bigelow would be the first woman ever to win best director, a prize Cameron earned with 1997's "Titanic."
And one of Bigelow's fellow producers on "The Hurt Locker," Nicolas Chartier, has been barred from attending the Oscars after he ran afoul of the awards rules by sending e-mails to academy voters urging them to support his film over "Avatar."
Overseers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took some heat after doubling the field to 10 films last summer. Many actors, filmmakers and others in Hollywood wondered if the Oscars had lowered their standards by letting so many films into the best-picture race.
But the move has brought a different energy to the show, both for producers with films in the running and TV viewers who have gradually lost interest in the Oscars. The ceremony's TV ratings sank to an all-time low two years ago, then bounced back a bit last year.
The top awards were utterly predictable both years, "No Country for Old Men" dominating two years ago and "Slumdog Millionaire" winning last time.
Oscar organizers say they sense greater interest in the awards all-around, from the A-list lineup that will strut the red carpet outside Hollywood's Kodak Theatre to the stargazers watching on TV at home.
"People seem to be talking about the movies. The idea that we've gone to 10 is something that's been a little controversial to some people, even though we've done it before," said Tom Sherak, academy president. The Oscars often had 10 or more best-picture nominees until 1943.
"It's created a conversation about the movies, and I don't think there's a clear-cut winner. We want it to be fun to watch, for people to have an interest in seeing what's going to happen with these 10 movies," Sherak said.
Also in the running for best picture: the football drama "The Blind Side," the sci-fi thriller "District 9," the British teen tale "An Education," the World War II saga "Inglourious Basterds," the Harlem story "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," the Jewish domestic chronicle "A Serious Man," the animated adventure "Up" and the recession-era yarn "Up in the Air."
Along with "The Hurt Locker," which took in just $12.6 million domestically, competitors such as "An Education" and "A Serious Man" have found relatively small audiences.
The lineup is balanced with huge hits, led by "Avatar," the biggest modern blockbuster with $700 million domestically and $2.6 billion worldwide. "Up" and "The Blind Side" both topped $200 million domestically, while "Inglourious Basterds" and "District 9" were $100 million hits.
Oscar TV ratings tend to rise in years when big hits are among the front-runners. The show had its biggest audience ever when Cameron's colossal hit "Titanic" won best-picture 12 years ago.
Academy organizers also aim to liven up the show, continuing a trend they began last year by hiring song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman as host, rather than a traditional comedian.
Sunday's show features past host Steve Martin paired with Alec Baldwin, the first time since 1987 that the Oscars have had more than one emcee.
Lifetime-achievement Oscars have been moved to a separate event to speed up the pace of the show.
Oscar producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic also are mixing up the cast of awards presenters with young talent such as Miley Cyrus and "Twilight" co-stars Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner and veterans such as Sean Penn, Barbra Streisand and Samuel L. Jackson.
"New Hollywood and classic Hollywood. Love it," Shankman said.
"You'll see that quite a bit," Mechanic said. "Not paired together, but you'll see a respect for the traditions of Hollywood and a welcoming of new Hollywood."
And a scramble by Oscar bosses come Monday to see how the ratings went.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.