LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fantasy "Avatar" and war movie "The Hurt Locker" claimed nine Oscar nominations each on Tuesday, including best film, pitting the two against one another as front-runners for the world's highest film honors.
The contrast between the two presents several intriguing elements. "Avatar" director James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, his ex-wife and director of "Hurt Locker," will compete against each other in the category for best director.
"Avatar" is a big-budget science-fiction space adventure from major studio 20th Century Fox with a global box office haul over $2 billion. It is the highest-grossing movie of all time -- eclipsing Cameron's previous blockbuster "Titanic."
"This has gone way above our wildest expectations. We were looking to make a good movie that entertained the masses," said "Avatar" producer Jon Landau, calling it "a pinch-me moment."
At the opposite end of the movie spectrum is "Hurt Locker," a low-budget film about soldiers who defuse bombs in Iraq made by independent Summit Entertainment. Its worldwide ticket sales stand at a mere $16 million.
"I was surprised at the number of nominations and very grateful," said "Hurt Locker" writer and producer Mark Boal. "When a film gets nominated in nine different categories, you just have to take it as a huge compliment."
Bigelow's nomination was a rarity. Only three other women, including Sofia Coppola for 2003's "Lost in Translation," have been nominated for best director in the 80-plus years since the Oscars have been bestowed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. No woman has ever won.
Only one nod behind "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker" is Quentin Tarantino's World War Two fantasy, "Inglourious Basterds," also in the best film and best director race.
In a break from the past, Academy voters this year expanded the field of best film nominees from five movies to 10 to boost competitiveness but many pundits said the race, as of Tuesday, boiled down to "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker."
"We have a classic David and Goliath matchup between the biggest movie in history and a film that ... had no stars and is about Iraq, which is a cursed subject at the Oscars," said Tom O'Neil, veteran awards watcher with TheEnvelope.com.
Joining them was Disney animated movie "Up," about an elderly man on the adventure of a lifetime. It is only the second animated film behind 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" to earn a nod for best picture and along with that, also earned a nomination for best animated movie.
Also in the running for best film are corporate downsizing tale "Up in the Air" and urban drama "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," with six nominations each.
South African sci-fi film "District 9" also made the best film list in a rarity. Only two other sci-fi films had been nominated for best movie before it and "Avatar": "Star Wars" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial."
Rounding out the best film field was coming-of-age tale "An Education" and football flick "The Blind Side," which garnered Sandra Bullock a best actress nod in a year in which she has already claimed Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards.
"Who would have thought after all these years that I would be experiencing this moment now ... I certainly didn't," Bullock said in a statement.
Meryl Streep's performance in "Julie & Julia" resulted in her 16th Oscar nomination, including a 13th for lead actress. She passed Katharine Hepburn with 12 to become the most-nominated lead actress in Oscar history.
Joining Streep, who played chef Julia Child in "Julie & Julia" and Bullock as a wealthy woman who helps a homeless boy become a sports star, on the list of best actress nominees were Helen Mirren in "The Last Station," Carey Mulligan for "An Education" and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious."
A best actor nod went to Jeff Bridges as a drunk country singer in "Crazy Heart," and like Bullock, he won the recent Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for the same role.
He will compete against George Clooney as a corporate hatchet man in "Up in the Air," Jeremy Renner as a bomb specialist in "The Hurt Locker," Colin Firth for "A Single Man" and Morgan Freeman for "Invictus."
Reporting by Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Bill Trott