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Our critic picks likely best picture Oscar nominees

The last time the best picture Oscar category contained 10 nominees, the year was 1943 and the winner was "Casablanca."

Kind of a no-brainer, in hindsight. But Tuesday, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its 10 contenders for best picture - up from the usual five - the race may be tougher to call.

The list is sure to include James Cameron's sci-fi extravaganza "Avatar," currently the Oscar front-runner, thanks to last month's Golden Globe for best dramatic film (not to mention a record-breaking run at the box-office). But one of last year's best-reviewed films, "The Hurt Locker," continues to rack up awards from small but significant groups like the Producers Guild of America. And don't dismiss "Up in the Air," whose timely recession theme has struck a chord with audiences.

The Academy is hoping that a broader best picture category will make room for movies that often go overlooked - comedies, musicals, indies. That's possible, though the result may be five more mainstream Hollywood films of even lesser quality. At any rate, having 10 nominees won't make the race more unpredictable: As always, there appear to be only a few real contenders, making the rest of the list irrelevant.

Here are our predictions for best picture nominees:

1. AVATAR: James Cameron's technological marvel won Globes for best picture and best director, putting it at the head of the Oscar pack.

2. THE HURT LOCKER: Still a contender, thanks to Kathryn Bigelow's visceral direction. Side note: A best director Oscar for Bigelow would be the first ever for a woman.

3. UP IN THE AIR: Though this film won only one Globe, for best screenplay, it has generated enormous goodwill for its sympathetic look at America's unemployment crisis.

4. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS: Quentin Tarantino's unorthodox World War II actioner won the Screen Actors Guild award for ensemble performance.

5. PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE: This urban drama rises above message-movie cliches with surprisingly strong performances from comedian Mo'Nique, singer Mariah Carey and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe.

6. INVICTUS: Clint Eastwood's historical sports drama received respectful reviews, and Morgan Freeman will likely be nominated as best actor for his turn as Nelson Mandela.

7. AN EDUCATION: If this small-scale, limited-release drama gets a nod, it will be thanks to Carey Mulligan's breakout performance as a British schoolgirl led astray.

8. A SERIOUS MAN: This tale of a modern-day Job made barely a dent in the box office, but Hollywood has loved the Coen Brothers ever since "Fargo."

9. THE ROAD: Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee were compelling as a father and son caught in a dying world, but the film's grim outlook seemed too much for most viewers.

10. NINE: This musical received some of the year's most wretched reviews, but the platinum-plated cast (Daniel Day-Lewis, Penélope Cruz and Nicole Kidman, to name just a few) seems like catnip to voters. A nomination seems likely; a win, less so.

Several notable films may go begging Tuesday even though they could generate Oscars in the acting categories: "Crazy Heart," starring Jeff Bridges as a country singer; "A Single Man," with Colin Firth as a gay professor; "The Blind Side," which drew surprisingly good reviews for Sandra Bullock; "Julie & Julia," anchored by Meryl Streep's portrayal of Julia Child; and "The Lovely Bones," which cast Stanley Tucci in the unlikely role of villain. All earned acting nominations at the Golden Globes but were not nominated for best dramatic picture.

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