The Big Oscar Race for Best Picture: 10 Nominees! Two Favorites! One Maybe Spoiler! Who Wins it?

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And so the Big One. Best Picture. The major Oscar category that still has people guessing right down to the wire. Why? Because this is the year the Academy decided to nominate 10 movies for Best Picture instead of the usual 5. Is it the desire to spread the wealth because the year was filled with so many tumultuous classics? Yeah, right!

The real reason is that the ratings for the Oscar show always tank when no one's heard of the Best Picture nominees. But when a blockbuster is nominated — Titantic, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, take your pick — the folks at home tune in to see who wins. And here I thought audiences watched the Oscars for a truly profound reason — the Red Carpet fashions!

Enough cynicism. Let's pretend that quality is what determines who wins Best Picture. Here are the 10 nominees in alphabetical order:

Avatar

The Blind Side

District 9

An Education

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds

Precious

A Serious Man

Up

Up in the Air

Pick your favorite to win and get Peter Travers' snap reaction in our Choose Your Own Adventure-style countdown.

How to figure out the winner? Let's start by eliminating five movies (Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man, Up). Why? Because not one of them scored a nomination for directing, which still has the usual five nominees not 10.

That leaves us with the 5 real contenders. Make that 3 because Precious and Up in the Air have almost no chance of winning. They didn't score with the Golden Globes or the major critics groups or with John Q public. What movies did?

The Hurt Locker racked up the most love from movie critics, despite a paltry worldwide gross of $16 million, which is less than nothing in Hollywood terms.

Avatar, on the other hand, is liked by critics and scored $2.2 billion at the worldwide box office, making James Cameron's 3-D epic the biggest blockbuster of all time. Got that? ALL TIME! Remember back at the beginning of this blog when I mentioned that the Academy doubled the Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 to pack in movies that audiences really liked? Well, they never paid up to see a movie the way they did for Avatar. And the funny part is, Avatar would have been nominated anyway even if they stuck with just 5 nominees. So the idea of tossing in 5 more movies was needless as well as brainless.

Or could the 10 nominee Best Picture slot — and the new preferential voting system — lead to the Oscar show's biggest surprise? I'll explain: In the old days, voters marked one movie as the best. Now they are being asked to rank them from 1 to 10 according to preference. Translation: Third-or-fourth choice votes can start to add up and achieve the needed 50 percent majority. If a spoiler is possible, my guess is it will be Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which is very well liked by Academy voters, even those who don't vote it as No. 1. A Basterds win would be a real shocker. Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? Nah. I'm calling this as a 2 horse race:

Vote Avatar and you vote in the movie that's good for business and the 3-D future of Hollywood.

Vote The Hurt Locker and you vote in quality that shows utter disregard for the money side of things.

What will happen when schizoid Oscar voters are torn between art and commerce? Here's my best guess: The Best Director Oscar will go to Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow, who will become the first female director in the Academy's 82 years to win the prize. That win for The Hurt Locker will be historic.

The Best Picture Oscar will go to James Cameron's Avatar, allowing Oscar voters to worship before the golden calf of box office while feeling they've paid due deference to Hurt Locker in other categories, most notably Best Director. The fact that Cameron and Bigelow were once married (they divorced amicably in 1991) will only add to the photo-op kick of Oscar night by allowing the ex-mates to split the gold and pose prettily for the global media. It's a perfect scenario. But as the wise screenwriter William Goldman said, when it comes to Hollywood, "no one knows anything."

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