LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Independently-made Iraq war movie "The Hurt Locker" won a second key film critics award on Monday in a week heavy with nominations that are likely to set the stage for the Oscars.
The New York Film Critics Circle named "The Hurt Locker" -- about U.S. bomb disposal experts in Iraq -- its film of the year and gave Kathryn Bigelow her second directing award in two days. Bigelow and the movie also won honors on Sunday from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
George Clooney was named best actor by the New York circle for his roles in both "Up In The Air" and for voice work in animated movie "Fantastic Mr.Fox". Veteran Meryl Streep was a surprise choice for best actress playing television chef Julia Child in "Julie and Julia".
Some of the most influential choices will come on Tuesday this week with the Golden Globe nominations, and on Thursday when the Screen Actors Guild announces its list of contenders for the top movies and performances of 2009.
Until now, most nominations and awards have been picked by U.S. critics and independent movie groups, and have shown little broad consensus ahead of the coveted Oscar race.
"It is all over the place this year. We don't have an obvious front runner yet," said Tom O'Neil, of Hollywood awards site www.TheEnvelope.com.
O'Neil saw Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and the Fellini-inspired musical "Nine" leading the pack at the Golden Globe nominations on Tuesday after they both got 10 nods from the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) on Monday.
He said both movies could do well at Oscar time. Oscar nominations are announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in early February and handed out on March 7.
"One thing Oscar loves is a movie packed with A-list stars and 'Nine' and 'Inglourious' both have that," O'Neil said.
"Up in the Air", with Hollywood favorite Clooney playing an executive who fires people for a living, has featured consistently on early critics lists.
But critics have also scattered their praise over movies and performances like "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push" by Sapphire", "An Education", Disney-Pixar's animated movie "Up" and designer Tom Ford's directing debut "A Single Man".
Dave Karger, a senior writer with Entertainment Weekly, thought "Up in the Air", "Hurt Locker" and "Precious" would do well at the Globes and SAG but agreed that the race was still wide open.
"This season feels like a breath of fresh air. It seems like we are actually going to have a race," Karger said.
Karger saw "Avatar" as a wild card after initial skepticism over the costly 3-D adventure gave way to critical praise. "It is now something of a force to be reckoned with and a definite player at the Golden Globes," he said.
The BFCA, the largest movie critics' group in the United States and Canada, on Monday included Sandra Bullock and Irish teenager Saoirse Ronan in their best actress nominees for roles in "The Blind Side" and "The Lovely Bones," respectively.
Elsewhere, the African-American Film Critics Association on Monday named its favorites of 2009 with "Precious" named best film, Morgan Freeman best actor for "Invictus" and Nicole Beharie best actress in "American Violet."
One film that had figured in the Oscar hunt earlier this year, "The Road", the post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son, has failed to gain much traction so far either at the box office ($4 million worldwide) or in the awards race.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte