By the time the Oscars rolled around in 2010, Avatar (pictured) was well on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film of all-time, with James Cameron topping his own Titanic achievement of 12 years earlier. Meanwhile, Hurt Locker was just a tiny, indie-made war drama that almost no ticket-buyers had seen, but that critics had managed to rescue from obscurity. Of course, its director was Kathryn Bigelow, who happened to be one of Cameron’s ex-wives. The battle of the exes became the narrative behind the race that year, even though Cameron and Bigelow had nothing but supportive words for each other throughout the campaign. Cameron could afford to be confident. His movie was a technical breakthrough, one that transformed 3D from a gimmick into a valid storytelling tool, with results that were lavishly beautiful to see. Detractors, however, noted that the story was a retread, the acting earthbound, and the characters less than three-dimensional.
Hurt Locker, however, managed to be both a film of substance and a nail-biting action thriller; it was a movie about a contemporary topic (Americans at war in Iraq) that managed an apolitical stance on whether or not we should have been there in the first place. Not that the film was without controversy; veterans came out of the woodwork to argue over whether the film was true to their experience or a Hollywood hack job. Still, it helped that Hurt Locker, no less an auteur’s achievement than Avatar, was directed by a woman, allowing the Academy to recognize a woman as Best Director after 81 years of failing to do so. Ultimately, the Academy decided that was a more historic feat than Cameron’s. Picking the critical favorite over the populist favorite may have helped Oscar’s credibility, but it provoked head-scratching among moviegoers at large. Indeed, with its theatrical take of just under $50 million, Hurt Locker remains the least popular, least seen Best Picture winner in Oscar history.