LOS ANGELES: Steven Spielberg goes into next weekend's Oscars with the most nominations for his presidential "Lincoln," but the momentum is all with Ben Affleck's thriller "Argo" in the Academy Awards home straight.
And while the Hollywood veteran and the young pretender vie for the Oscars best picture crown, several other frontrunners remain hard on their heels, in one of the least predictable Oscar races in recent memory.
Taiwan-born Ang Lee's 3D spectacular "Life of Pi," Osama bin Laden manhunt movie "Zero Dark Thirty" and romcom "Silver Linings Playbook" could all be in with a chance at the Oscars, the climax of Tinseltown's annual awards season.
Spielberg and Lee are frontrunners for best director, while "Lincoln" star Daniel Day-Lewis is widely seen as a shoo-in for best actor. For best actress the hot money is on Jessica Chastain for her part in "Zero Dark Thirty" or "Hunger Games" star Jennifer Lawrence.
But Affleck's Iran hostage drama, despite only winning seven nominations -- against 12 for "Lincoln," 11 for "Life of Pi" and eight each for "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Les Miserables" -- has a clear edge for best picture.
It has swept up top prizes at a string of key awards shows, including the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Producers Guild of America (PGA), the Directors Guild of America (DGA), and Britain's BAFTA last weekend.
Affleck has gotten used to making acceptance speeches over the last two months -- but he has been tightlipped on his prospects for the all-important 85th Academy Awards, to be held at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre next Sunday.
"I just feel so incredibly honored to be nominated as a producer for this movie. To be here at the big party," he said at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon, the annual gathering of those in the race, held in Beverly Hills on February 4.
Indeed, his best picture nomination is as a co-producer of the film -- along with George Clooney and Grant Heslov -- rather than as a director, a category in which he was not nominated, in a perceived snub.
Snub or no snub, he will be among presenters at the show, along with a Who's Who of A-listers including Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, and Meryl Streep.
"Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane will be hosting, a move organizers hope will attract younger viewers among the hundreds of millions watching live around the world.
Other nominees presenting include Chastain -- best actress frontrunner for playing a relentless CIA agent on the hunt for bin Laden, in Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow's controversial "Zero Dark Thirty."
But Lawrence, star of the "Hunger Games" blockbuster franchise, could also win the category for her portrayal of mixed-up Tiffany to Bradley Cooper's bipolar ex-teacher in "Silver Linings Playbook."
Cooper is up for best actor, along with Hugh Jackman for "Les Miserables," Joaquin Phoenix for "The Master" and Denzel Washington for "Flight" -- but Day-Lewis is widely forecast for a record third Oscar for his "Lincoln" turn.
For best director, 66-year-old Spielberg will be hoping for his first Oscar since "Saving Private Ryan" in 1999.
But he is up against Lee -- whose "Brokeback Mountain" won best picture in 2006 -- as well as Michael Haneke for his Cannes-winning "Amour, David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook," and Benh Zeitlin for "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Best supporting actor nominees are Alan Arkin for "Argo," Robert De Niro for "Silver Linings Playbook," Philip Seymour Hoffman for "The Master," Tommy Lee Jones for "Lincoln," and Christoph Waltz for "Django Unchained."
For supporting actress Anne Hathaway is tipped to win for performance in "Les Miserables" -- including her heart-wrenching close-up rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" -- against Amy Adams for "The Master," Sally Field in "Lincoln," Helen Hunt in "The Sessions," and Jacki Weaver in "Silver Linings Playbook."
The Oscars have a musical theme this year, including a performance by Britain's Adele singing the Oscar-nominated 007 theme tune "Skyfall," as well as by Shirley Bassey and Norah Jones, and Barbra Streisand, in her first Oscars turn since 1977.