You'd think that Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," the highest-grossing film of the Oscar nominees ($174 million and counting) with the most nominations (12), would be steady as they go. (Best Picture nominees Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" scored eleven, "Les Miserables" eight, "Argo" seven, and "Zero Dark Thirty" five.) Yet Ben Affleck's "Argo," fueled by sympathy for the popular actor-director's "snub" by the Oscar directors' branch, is sxurging past the one-time best picture frontrunner. The directors branch, packed with foreign auteurs, is known for making idiosyncratic choices, but rarely have the DGA and Academy lists been so different. (Also left off the Oscar directors list: Tom Hooper and Kathryn Bigelow.) With final voting under way, "Argo" leads "Lincoln." But it's Spielberg vs. Ang Lee in the director race.

Ben Affleck's 'Argo'
Ben Affleck's 'Argo'

Many awards prognosticators thought that "Argo" might win the Producers Guild's top award, and so it did. But few expected it to also win the SAG Ensemble Award--that was supposed to be a win for "Lincoln" or Harvey Weinstein's actor-friendly "Silver Linings Playbook," which for the first time in 31 years (since "Reds"), scored all four acting categories (putting "Silver Linings" in a league with "Sunset Boulevard" and "Streetcar Named Desire"). Winning the SAG ensemble prize indicates that the dominant Academy actors branch are also leaning "Argo"'s way, even though Alan Arkin landed the film's only acting nod and is not expected to win.

Obviously, as a popular star, Affleck has an advantage (see Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Mel Gibson). But it is still statistically rare for a movie to win best picture without a best director nomination. ("Driving Miss Daisy" is the exception that proves the rule.) While many Academy members have told me that "Argo" lacks the gravitas to beat "Lincoln," that it doesn't seem like a best-picture winner, these wins build momentum. Case in point: the Directors and Editing Guild awards won by "Argo." A win would have shored up "Lincoln"'s run toward best picture. And London's BAFTA Awards, the Scripters and the WGA also went "Argo"'s way.

But even though "Apollo 13" won the Golden Globe, PGA, SAG, and DGA, it still lost Best Picture to "Braveheart." Somehow, "Apollo 13," from actor-director Ron Howard, lacked the gravitas that actor-director Mel Gibson's film represented. That's the issue here. The PGA, SAG and DGA are more mainstream groups than the Academy.

"The Life of Pi"
"The Life of Pi"

This race reminds me of the "King's Speech" vs. "The Social Network." On the one hand, there's recognition of what the older Academy goes for: quality, heart, period seriousness. On the other is a more youthful, ardent and in its way, au courant popular favorite. This year, both contenders are resonant and timely, but one seems more establishment while the other is the hip up-and-comer.

It looks like "Argo" could steal from "Lincoln" Best Editing (William Goldenberg, also nominated for "Zero Dark Thirty" with Dylan Tichenor). "Lincoln" could grab Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting (SAG-winner Tommy Lee Jones) and Lead Actor. SAG and BAFTA winner Daniel Day-Lewis's Oscar would mark an unprecedented third for a lead actor. Jack Nicholson, Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Marlon Brando have won two lead Oscars. (Katharine Hepburn earned four.)

At SAG, "Silver Linings Playbook" best female actor winner Jennifer Lawrence gave a strong acceptance speech on the road to what looked like an inevitable Oscar. The SAG best actress-winner has become the Academy's best actress winner in six of the last ten years... but not last year, when SAG winner Viola Davis lost to Meryl Streep. But "Amour" veteran and BAFTA-winner Emmanuelle Riva was not up for a SAG award, and could trump Lawrence (who is a strong young personality actress) with her consummate craft. "Amour" marks the first time since 1998's "Central Station" that a foreign best picture nominee also landed a best actress nomination. Riva, 85, is the oldest best actress nominee, while "Beasts" rookie Quvenzhane Wallis is the youngest ever at age nine. And Globe, SAG and BAFTA-winner, "Les Miserables" supporting actress Anne Hathaway, is unstoppable for an Oscar win.

Looking like a mainly tech play--cinematography, score and VFX are likely wins-- is Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," which is comparable to a "Lord of the Rings" or "Avatar," without acting nominations. But Lee is well-respected, even beloved for his enormous range and depth (with one Oscar win to Spielberg's two) and could prove a surprise director-winner in an Affleck-free category.

Oscar nominations morning brought some welcome presents to independents "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (four nominations) and "Amour" (five) especially, as each film landed on the best picture list of nine and earned writing and directing nominations for Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke, who could win original screenplay as well as foreign film.

Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain
Jessica Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

In the animated category, it's a fierce battle among three Disney releases, Pixar's "Brave," which won the VES, Editing, Sound Mixing and BAFTA awards, Tim Burton's artful "Frankenweenie," and box-office success "Wreck-It-Ralph,' which won the PGA, Critics Choice and five Annie awards.

In the documentary category, two Sony Pictures Classic pick-ups are vying for the win: recent release Israeli expose "The Gatekeepers" and popular Sundance hit and multiple award-winner "Searching for Sugar Man," which has the advantage now that the entire Academy is voting in this category, having been sent screeners.

The full list is below, with projected winners marked in bold.

Best motion picture of the year

  1.  "Argo" Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, Producers
  2. "Lincoln" Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers
  3. "Life of Pi" Gil Netter, Ang Lee and David Womark, Producers
  4. "Silver Linings Playbook" Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
  5. "Amour" Margaret Menegoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka and Michael Katz, Producers
  6. "Zero Dark Thirty" Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison, Producers
  7. "Les Misérables" Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh, Producers
  8. "Django Unchained" Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin and Pilar Savone, Producers
  9. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" Dan Janvey, Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald, Producers

Performance by an actor in a leading role

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln"
  2. Hugh Jackman in "Les Misérables"
  3. Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook"
  4. Denzel Washington in "Flight"
  5. Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master"
Ben Affleck's 'Argo'
Ben Affleck's 'Argo'

Performance by an actor in a supporting role

  1. Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln"
  2. Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook"
  3. Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master"
  4. Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook"
  5. Alan Arkin in "Argo"
  6. Christoph Waltz in "Django Unchained"

Performance by an actress in a leading role

  1. Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook"
  2. Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour"
  3. Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"
  4. Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
  5. Naomi Watts in "The Impossible"