earned eight nominations apiece in the race for the British Academy Film Awards, Britain's equivalent of the Oscars.
The three films are up for best picture alongside Up in the Air and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.
The British awards, known as BAFTAs, are handed out two weeks before the Academy Awards in Hollywood and considered an important indicator of likely Oscar success.
South African alien thriller District 9 received seven BAFTA nominations, while Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Jason Reitman's Up in the Air got six each.
The nominations boost the Oscar hopes of James Cameron's Avatar, an astronomically expensive eco-adventure that has already taken more than $1.6 billion at the global box office. Avatar - Cameron's first narrative feature since the Oscar-sweeping Titanic in 1997 - has already won Golden Globes for best drama and director.
It faces strong competition from two much smaller films: The Hurt Locker, a claustrophobic study of a bomb-disposal team in Iraq, and An Education, the piquant tale of a teenager's sentimental education in 1960s London.
Cameron is competing for best director against his ex-wife, The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow. The other director nominees are Neill Blomkamp for District 9, Lone Scherfig for An Education and Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds.
The best actor race pits George Clooney, for Up in the Air, against The Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner, Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart,Colin Firth for A Single Man and Andy Serkis for his portrayal of musician Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
Meryl Streep received her 13th BAFTA nomination for Julie & Julia. The other best-actress nominees are Carey Mulligan for An Education, Audrey Tautou for Coco Before Chanel, Irish actress Saoirse Ronan for The Lovely Bones and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe for Precious.
Nominees for outstanding British film are An Education; Fish Tank; In the Loop; Moon and Nowhere Boy.
Five films are competing for best foreign-language film - biopic Coco Before Chanel, Pedro Almodovar's lush Broken Embraces, Swedish vampire story Let the Right One In, Jacques Audiard's prison drama A Prophet and Michael Haneke's chilling The White Ribbon.
The British prizes - officially the Orange British Academy Film Awards - will be awarded during a ceremony at London's Royal Opera House on Feb. 21.
Last year, Danny Boyle's underdog picture Slumdog Millionaire won seven BAFTAs, including best film; it went on to win eight Oscars.