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Scandal-tainted Hurt Locker favourite for Oscars

Scandal-tainted Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker is poised to overcome science-fiction epic Avatar at the Oscars, as the movers and shakers of the movie world gather in Hollywood.

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The critically acclaimed film about a bomb disposal squad in Baghdad has emerged as a clear favorite after winning a string of awards seen as key indicators of likely glory at the Oscars.

But the movie’s momentum has been shaken in the home stretch after it emerged that co-producer Nicolas Chartier had engaged in “negative campaigning” against rival Avatar, earning a stern rebuke from Oscars organisers – and a ban from the ceremony itself.

The film, which is nominated for nine Oscars along with Avatar has also faced stinging criticism from veterans about its portrayal of soldiers, as well as a lawsuit from a serviceman alleging he was the inspiration for the movie.

Pundits said a flood of last-minute ballots were cast shortly before voting ended on Tuesday, a factor which could indicate either a late surge for or against the heavy pre-Oscars favorite.

“A lot of voters turned in their ballots pretty soon after they received them,” said Scott Feinberg, who runs the andthewinneris blog.

“I think what’s happened in the last few days is going to be too little and too late to impact the result.”

Best Picture field doubled

Although Oscars organizers doubled the field of best picture nominees to 10 this year, most analysts see the contest as a straight shoot-out between The Hurt Locker and Avatar, James Cameron’s blockbuster which is the highest grossing film in history with more than two billion dollars in earnings.

The race has been given added spice by the fact that The Hurt Locker was made by Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow.

Bigelow, 58, is also favorite to pip her former spouse for the best director Oscar, which would make her the first woman in history to win the award.

“No matter what happens in the best picture race I don’t think Kathryn Bigelow is going to be denied,” said Hammond. “It’s too irresistible a story.”

Other nominees for best director include Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds, Lee Daniels for harrowing drama Precious and Jason Reitman for the recession-era dramedy Up In the Air.

Clear favorites have emerged in most of the acting categories, but Sandra Bullock could face a stronger-than-expected challenge in the best actress race.

Bridges favourite for Best Actor

Bullock, who won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for her part in the drama The Blind Side, faces competition from Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia), Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Gabby Sidibe (Precious).

“Best actress is the one race that is very fluid,” said Maxim film critic and veteran awards season pundit Pete Hammond. “It’s a four-way race.”

In the best actor category, popular veteran Jeff Bridges is expected to claim his first Oscar at the fifth attempt.

The 60-year-old has already won at the Golden Globes and SAG awards for his heart-wrenching portrayal of a washed up country singer in Crazy Heart.

Other nominees include George Clooney for Up In the Air, Morgan Freeman for Invictus, Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker and Britain’s Colin Firth for A Single Man.

The junior acting awards are considered a formality, with Austria’s Christoph Waltz set to win best supporting actor for his turn as a sadistic Nazi in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and Mo’Nique regarded as a shoo-in for best supporting actress for her role as an abusive parent in Precious.

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