Looks like it'll be a toss-up between The Hurt Locker and Avatar at the Academy awards tonight. Bet on Avatar, if only because it is at least visually adventurous…

As the 82nd Oscars draw near, it looks more and more likely that a movie that grossed $12 million might actually beat a movie that made more than $2 billion. If The Hurt Locker wins best picture over Avatar, it will be one of those rare instances in the history of the Academy Awards where a small, artistically made thriller triumphs over box office and popularity. Even though I hadn't seen The Hurt Locker, I was rooting for it to win. How could I not? It is the darling of most film critics this year. And then I finally saw it a week ago and now I'm hoping Avatar will win.

I don't like either choices but Avatar is the less troubling of the two — and if not anything else, this box office monster at least gives you paisa vasool. (This year, nearly every nominated film is embroiled in some sort of racial politics controversy or the other). Why is The Hurt Locker the year's most acclaimed film? It's an artfully made thriller, say critics, and the first Iraq War film that captures the experience of American soldiers there. I agree it's a first-rate thriller but how credible is a Hollywood movie that uses the disaster that was the Iraq War — and the uneasy occupation of U.S. soldiers there — as the setting for an action thriller?

The American snipers are the good guys and the Iraqi insurgents are the bad guys. Is it any surprise that this is one Iraq War film that even conservatives and right wingers are unafraid to like? After her share of BAFTA awards, its director Kathryn Bigelow told a TV journo backstage: “The movie pays tribute to the conflict in Iraq, to the courage of the men and women there.” That's fine. As long as it's also paying tribute to the fighters on both sides — but it doesn't. The insurgents are anonymous in the film, shapeless blurs in the shimmering desert. As the American snipers and bomb diffusers roam Baghdad dismantling charges and picking off resistance fighters, Iraqi children and women and men watch silently (and ominously) from balconies and windows.

The audience roots for the snipers, cheering when the American soldiers hit their targets and the bodies of natives drop like rubble. As for its authenticity, Iraq veterans and embedded reporters have pointed to several sections of the film being so unrealistic and inaccurate that the movie felt like a parody to them. Bigelow has never made anything other than adrenaline-fuelled thrillers, so you couldn't help wondering if dedicating her BAFTA award to “finding a solution to peace” was really Oscar talk more than political statement.

After an hour of Pandora-eye candy in the Avatar, I found the politics of the story, though anti-war and pro-environment, infuriating. Once again we're forced to witness an imperial spectacle of a young white American male (an ex-marine and fresh off a war) step in and save — not just another country or a new culture but a whole planet and a new race from extinction. Oh, and the Na'vi, those natives, can't thank him enough, their gratitude turns into worship when he comes riding Toruk, the untameable, the unconquerable bird sacred to these people.

This is the part that especially incensed me: surely Tsu Tey, the young leader, trained and wise in the ways of the Na'vi would have tamed this giant flying beast if he could by now, don't you think? But no, this cowboy, a babe really in the ways of the Na'vi, finds a way to tame Toruk and become a god overnight. How humiliating is this? First he steals the most beautiful Na'vi woman from Tsu Tey, and then steps in as their saviour as well? Unacceptable.

Here's what I'm hoping will happen at the 82nd Oscars: best director to Bigelow and best picture for James Cameron's Avatar. Either way, the Oscars stay in the family. Bigelow used to be married to Cameron. The divorced couple go head to head today. Bigelow will become the first woman filmmaker to win best director Oscar. Yes, I know. You thought there must have been many others, right?

But I've only just found out myself that in the past 81 years, there have been only three women before Bigelow who were even nominated: Lena Wertmuller for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for The Piano and Sophia Coppola for Lost in Translation. Lee Daniels for Precious becomes the first African-American to be nominated for best director — another bit of Oscar trivia that shocked me.

Different format

This year there's another big difference in the Academy Awards: for the first time since the 1940s, 10 films, not five, have been nominated for best picture. (The voting system has also changed, from members simply ticking once against their choice to now ticking a list of preferred choices). My Oscar prediction for sure-fire wins for 2010 are: Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz as the frighteningly suave Nazi in Inglorious Basterds, Best Animated Picture for Up(though Fantastic Mr. Fox really deserves it), Best Actor for Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart and Best Supporting Actress for Mo'Nique as the hateful mother in Precious.

Bridges is a likeable star who has been around a long time without the recognition of awards. He's overdue. Equally deserving are his fellow nominees, especially Colin Firth as the gay professor in A Single Man(my favourite best actor performance), and Jeremy Renner startlingly good in The Hurt Locker. The best actress is the tricky one: it's either Meryl Streep or Sandra Bullock, and even Oscar pundits are unable to say who it will be. Streep has two Oscars — will they give her the third just so the house can come thunderously to its feet again for Streep in another Oscar moment?

I really hope not: her Julia Child is annoying, annoying, annoying. But I fear there is a lot of love for Streep in the industry and she could be the winner. However, if there's one actress this year that the Academy (and fans) have even more love for, it is Sandra Bullock. (Don't ask me why.) Helen Mirren has her Oscar for The Queen and she'll be pleased just to have the nomination as Tolstoy's long suffering wife in The Last Station. The top spot, however, should really have gone to an actress who — outrageously enough — hasn't even been nominated: Abbie Cornish as Fawn Brodie, John Keat's first love in Jane Campion's Bright Star. A radiant performance that was snubbed simply because the movie wasn't populist enough. This year, Abbie Cornish apart, the snubs are: nothing for Chris McKay's dazzling impersonation of Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles, nothing for Paul Giamatti (my most favourite performance of the year) in Cold Souls, Robert Downey for Sherlock Holmes, Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger for Inglorious Basterds. Nothing for Cold Souls writer-director Sophie Barthes' fabulous script, and nothing for Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are, an unusual and beautiful adaptation of the Maurice Sendak children's classic.

Coming back to those two best picture frontrunners. If The Hurt Locker wins, it will be America's way of saying: look it's not exactly been a picnic there for us either. And if Avatar wins, then we'll know it is America's consolation prize for failing to set things right geo-politically elsewhere in the world, but nailing it at the Cineplex. And in 3D, too. No, seriously: in a year where there isn't one clear, stand-out winner, I'd lean towards Avatar. Its politics is naïve and half-baked but in redefining cinematic technology, it has given us a glimpse of how visually adventurous popcorn movies can look like in the future.