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The Hurt Locker
With wins from Directors Guild, Producers Guild, and countless critics groups, The Hurt Locker is now officially the movie to beat. It's up for nine awards on Oscar night and, if Kathryn Bigelow strikes gold for Best Director, she'll be the first woman ever to take home the big prize. (She faces stiff competition, though, from her ex-husband, Avatar's James Cameron.)
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Chances are, you've already seen Avatar (after all, it is the all-time box office champ). But if you haven't — get a move on! This is one you'll want to see on the big screen. In 3-D. On IMAX. It's the visual effects that are mesmerizing, not the allegorical alien love story.
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Up in the Air
It's timely, topical, and features George Clooney being, well, George Clooney. That — plus a pair of compelling supporting performances from Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick — makes this movie about the recession and corporate cruelty seem downright entertaining.
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With bravura performances from Mo'Nique (Supporting Actress) and Gabourey Sidibe (Actress), it's been nominated for every big pre-Oscar prize. Plus: Don't you want to see Mariah Carey get uglified?
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Quentin Tarantino's bloody (and hilarious) anti-Nazi revenge flick is one of only three films (along with The Hurt Locker and Precious) to score the trifecta of SAG, DGA, and PGA nominations. (Plus it won the SAG award for Best Ensemble.) It may be too edgy to win Best Picture, but it seems Christoph Waltz has a lock on Best Supporting Actor.
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This small, British indie has an Oscar-nominated script (adapted by Nick Hornby) and a stellar supporting cast (including Alfred Molina, Peter Sarsgaard, and Emma Thompson). It's also the movie that catapulted little-known ingénue Carey Mulligan to ''it girl'' status. Time to see what all the buzz is about.
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It's the first animated film to reach the big dance since 1991's Beauty and the Beast. And even if you never make it past the ridiculously beautiful opening sequence, you'll understand why.
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A Serious Man
The Coen brothers mined their own childhoods to fashion their most personal film, never straying from their singularly wacky sense of humor. But this movie petered out with $9 million at the box office, making it one of the least-watched Best Picture nominees. All the more reason to Netflix it.
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The Blind Side
It may have earned a surprise nomination for best picture, but the real reason to see Blind Side has got to be Sandra Bullock's powerful performance as a gun-toting, tough-as-nails suburban mom. Fresh off her win at the SAG awards, Bullock has got to be the frontrunner for Best Actress.
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Avatar isn't the only alien flick getting attention this awards-show season. District 9 — a surprisingly smart anti-Apartheid think piece wrapped inside a sci-fi action film — also earned a Producers Guild nomination and a legion of cultish fans devoted to its amazing visuals and intelligent futuristic vision.
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The Messenger earned a Supporting Actor nod for Woody Harrelson (cementing his comeback this year) and, somewhat surprisingly, nabbed a spot in the Best Original Screenplay slate — beating out the adorable (500) Days of Summer. Alas, one of our fave performances, Ben Foster as a soldier just back from Iraq whose new duty is to inform military families their loved ones have died, was overlooked for Best Actor.
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Julie & Julia
Meryl Streep may be losing ground to Sandra Bullock with each passing day — but that doesn't distract from the delicious charms of her performance as famed chef Julia Child. And Stanley Tucci is positively delightful as her husband Paul.
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A Single Man
Check out A Single Man to prepare for one of Oscar night's most interesting races: Best Actor. Jeff Bridges seems to be a lock for Crazy Heart, but, in my mind, it's A Single Man's Colin Firth who deserves the gold: He was truly transporting in Tom Ford's sumptuous drama. (On a side note, even though Julianne Moore failed to earn a SAG nod for A Single Man, I'm still surprised the Academy didn't give her a fifth career nomination.)
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Jeff Bridges had already picked up a Golden Globe and SAG Award for his portrayal of a world-weary country singer. How can he lose the Oscar? I'd say Jeremy Renner is the only one who can upset him (like The Pianist's Adrien Brody did in 2003, sneaking up on frontrunner Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York)).
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The Last Station
Helen Mirren scored her fourth Oscar nomination for her fiery and intense performance as Leo Tolstoy's wife, Sofya. And thank goodness, after his distinguished 50-year-long film career, Christopher Plummer (who plays the ailing Tolstoy) can finally add ''Oscar nominee'' to his resume.
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It may have been shut out of Best Picture — guess even with 10 films, there's still only room for one sports movie — but Morgan Freeman (playing Nelson Mandela) and Matt Damon (playing François Pienaar, a South African rugby star) did score acting nominations.
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Critics weren't exactly singing its praises. But Penélope Cruz is sassy and sexy (as always) in her supporting turn as a neglected mistress. The film may be uneven, but her performance was compelling enough to eke out a surprise nomination.
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With Avatar and District 9 both earning Best Picture nominations, maybe there just wasn't enough sci-fi love left over for Star Trek. The stylish series reboot did score a total of four nominations but just couldn't muscle into the big race.
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Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson's weird and wonderful stop-motion animated film is refreshingly ramshackle in a world of increasingly slick (albeit stunning) movies from Pixar & Co. Fox — based on the book by Roald Dahl, and surprisingly overlooked in the Best Adapted Screenplay category — is unlikely to upset Up, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining for children and adults alike.
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The Lovely Bones
It's never an easy task bringing a beloved book to the big screen, as Peter Jackson learned the hard way with The Lovely Bones. Stanley Tucci is inarguably the cast's biggest standout as a (spoiler alert!) suburban serial killer — rightfully earning him his first ever Oscar nomination.
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The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
There was certainly a lot of curiosity surrounding Parnassus — the movie Heath Ledger was working on at the time of his death. (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell stepped in to complete the film.) Unfortunately that didn't translate into box office business: The move pulled in just $6.4 million domestically. Still, it must have caught the eye of some Academy members, earning nominations for Best Costumes and Best Art Direction.
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In the Loop
What's In the Loop? You are certainly not alone if Oscar-nomination morning left you scratching your head. I was shocked that the little-seen Loop managed to score a Best Adapted Screenplay nod. But the writers branch often goes for a sharp British indie, so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised.
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The Young Victoria
She was always a longshot. But I'm bummed that Emily Blunt didn't get a Best Actress nomination for The Young Victoria. She adeptly carries the film, playing a teenage Queen Victoria with convincing forthrightness. If that's not enough incentive to see it, go for the lush period visuals (striking enough to earn nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, and Best Makeup).
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The year's most acclaimed documentary follows a group of activists exposing the world of dolphin slaughtering in Japan. Director Louie Psihoyos, who used hidden cameras for the most shocking footage, has already won the Directors Guild and Producers Guild prizes for the film.
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The Princess and the Frog
It may not be as visually stunning as Up or as retro-cool as Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Princess and the Frog is a feel-good fairytale in the grand Disney tradition. No wonder it earned a spot in the Best Animated Feature category. (Always popular with the academy, Randy Newman also earned the movie two nods for Best Song.)