It was evident from the start that this year's Oscar awards were going to be a two-horse race for best picture and best director. Gratifyingly, Hollywood's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opted for Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker over James Cameron's Avatar in this contest of intriguing contrasts. Bigelow's intense Iraqi war drama about an elite bomb disposal squad in Baghdad was made on a modest $11 million budget and earned a paltry $14.7 million before the award was announced. By contrast, Cameron's visually breathtaking interstellar epic, which employed cutting edge digital technologies, consumed $237 million in the making and has grossed a record breaking $3 billion (and counting). In rewarding the nerve-wracking portrayal of war, steeped in realism, over a fantasy about a conflict between humans and blue-skinned humanoids, which is marred by a cliche-ridden and clumsily allegorical storyline, the Academy favoured substance over style. It has not always done so, opting often for commercially successful big-budget films over smaller and much better ones. This attitude has been changing in recent years. In terms of art, the only possible contender to The Hurt Locker this year was Quentin Tarantino's hip and stylishly compelling Inglorious Bestards. Fittingly, while the winner picked up six Oscars of the nine for which it was nominated, Avatar bagged three well-deserved statuettes in the technical category.

The uncertainty over the Bigelow-Cameron contest, which was lent an additional edge by the fact they were once husband and wife, is a departure from last year, when Slumdog Millionaire was the runaway favourite. But this year's Oscars are proof that a bigger nomination list for best picture (10 against the usual five), doesn't necessarily mean a better list. Apart from Slumdog Millionaire, last year's list included Milk, the crusading biopic of America's first openly gay public official, The Reader, a haunting and beautifully filmed love story in the time of Nazi Germany, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an intriguing and meticulously crafted story of a man who ages backwards. The justification for returning to a 10-picture nomination list, a practice given up in 1943, is that it prevents some very good films from getting squeezed out of the race. But in the bid to provide greater exposure to films, something for which there exists strong commercial pressure, the Academy should not spread itself thin and devalue nomination to the world's best-known film awards.

Readers' Editor clarifies:

The film is “Inglourious Basterds” (Director: Quentin Tarantino). The second paragraph of “Substance over style” had it as “Inglorious Bestards”.

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