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(CNN) -- The biggest box-office hit of all time and a small independent film that grossed about $16 million led all comers when the nominations for the 82nd annual Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning.
The head-to-head competition between "Avatar," the gigantic hit about the collision of two civilizations, and "The Hurt Locker," a gritty film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, takes on additional drama since the directors of those two films -- James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, respectively -- were once married to each other.
The two films each earned nine nominations. Quentin Tarantino's World War II drama, "Inglourious Basterds," followed with eight.
Film festival favorite "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" and "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney as a much-traveled "career transition specialist," are each up for six Oscars, while the Disney-Pixar animated comedy "Up" got five.
It's a year for "films that were of little means with film of humongous means," said "Precious" producer Sarah Siegel-Magness.
Ten films received best picture nominations, including Cameron's "Avatar," Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," the feel-good hit "The Blind Side," sci-fi thriller "District 9," British coming-of-age film "An Education," dark comedy "A Serious Man," "Precious," "Up" and "Up in the Air."
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doubled the number of movies nominated for best picture this year to 10, a move perhaps aimed at bolstering sagging ratings for the Academy Awards broadcast.
It is a return to the way the Oscars were awarded in the movies' early decades when as many as 12 films were considered in the field of finalists, then-academy President Sid Ganis said announcing the change in June.
A best picture nomination often serves as a marketing boost, driving DVD sales for those films no longer in theaters.
"Precious," a gritty film about the struggles of a teen mother, got a major boost when talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and filmmaker Tyler Perry got behind the movie as executive producers after its success at the Sundance Film Festival.
"I believe it brought validity to 'Precious' ' story as a universal story, because Oprah and Tyler speak to the masses," Siegel-Magness said. "When they speak, people listen."
Acting award nominations closely followed the lead of the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes, handed out in January.
Best actor nominations went to: Jeff Bridges for "Crazy Heart," Clooney for "Up in the Air," Colin Firth for "A Single Man," Jeremy Renner for "The Hurt Locker" and Morgan Freeman for "Invictus."
Freeman, who played South African President Nelson Mandela, thanked director Clint Eastwood and co-star Matt Damon.
"Most importantly, thank you to Nelson Mandela for his encouragement, his blessing and his friendship -- without which, this film would not have been possible," Freeman said.
Firth's reaction to news of his nomination was memorable.
"I thought I was managing my expectations, but on hearing the news I discovered new and unfamiliar vocal tones," Firth said. "Perhaps I should do another musical."
The best actress Oscar nominations include: Sandra Bullock for "The Blind Side," Helen Mirren for "The Last Station," Carey Mulligan for "An Education," Gabourey Sidibe for "Precious" and Meryl Streep for "Julie & Julia."
Streep's nomination gave her a record 16 Oscar nods -- extending her own mark -- well ahead of Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson's 12 each.
Mirren's nomination for playing the aging wife of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy gave "The Last Station" two chances to win an Oscar. Christopher Plummer, who played Tolstoy, is up for best supporting actor.
"I think Tolstoy himself would have been perplexed by all this, but Sofya, his wife, would have been over the moon," Mirren said. "So in that spirit, I am too."
Plummer said he hopes the nominations will call attention to the film. "I liked the little movie," he said.
While the nominations varied little from the SAG and Golden Globe choices, the best supporting actress category offered a surprise.
Penelope Cruz was nominated for best supporting actress for "Nine," a heavily promoted film that bombed at the box office. The movie received four nominations.
"I am completely surprised and elated," said Cruz, who won the best supporting actress Oscar last year for Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
Another best supporting actress nominee that may have caught observers off-guard was Maggie Gyllenhaal for "Crazy Heart." Though her co-star, Bridges, has dominated the lead actor categories for his role, the film marked Gyllenhaal's first nomination.
Other best supporting actress nominees are Vera Farmiga, "Up in the Air"; Anna Kendrick, "Up in the Air"; and Mo'Nique, "Precious."
Mo'Nique carried home both the Golden Globe and SAG trophies last month.
Kendrick said she went running in her neighborhood instead of watching the nominations that were telecast at 5:30 a.m. PT Tuesday.
Her roommate sent her a text message with the news, she said.
"I was alone in the dark, listening to music," Kendrick said. "It was really perfect, and it allowed me to have a moment."
Best supporting actor nominations followed a script made familiar by the previous awards shows: Damon for "Invictus," Woody Harrelson for "The Messenger," Plummer for "The Last Station," Stanley Tucci for "The Lovely Bones" and Christoph Waltz for "Inglourious Basterds."
Waltz, a veteran Austrian actor hardly known outside Europe until last year, won the Golden Globe and SAG awards last month. He played a memorable Nazi villain in Tarantino's thriller.
The director category features a showdown between former spouses Cameron and Bigelow, along with nominations for Tarantino, Lee Daniels for "Precious" and Jason Reitman for "Up in the Air."
The 82nd Academy Awards show is set for March 7 at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
CNN's JD Cargill contributed to this report.