If last year's Oscar race was run in the land of fantasy -- the black-and-white bauble The Artist and the visually opulent Hugo were the big winners with five statues each -- this year's competition is rooted more in realpolitik. From the slave-era racial dynamics of the incendiary Django Unchained, the behind-the-scenes senatorial maneuvering of Lincoln and the Gulf Coast disaster daydreaming of Beasts of the Southern Wild to the Iranian hostage drama Argo and the torture theatrics of Zero Dark Thirty, many of the Best Picture nominees reflect global headlines.
That's not to say the purely fantastical films have been totally forgotten -- the ravishing Life of Pi and the musical Les Miserables are also in the running -- but they have not received nearly as much attention. And then there are the family dynamics of Silver Linings Playbook and Amour, the French-language film about decline and death that has completely upended expectations by receiving nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. It all adds up to one of the more intriguing contests in a long time.
Here's a look at who's up in the major categories along with picks for who will win and who should win.
On the face of it, Lincoln would seem to be the front-runner. It's a serious period piece, which is generally catnip to Oscar voters. Also, it has at its center a layered and powerful performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who has already earned a Golden Globe. And it's directed by one of the most celebrated of American directors, Steven Spielberg. But Lincoln might find itself outdone by the expertly made Argo, even though Ben Affleck was overlooked for directing. Argo has won at the Golden Globes and England's BAFTA Awards, and momentum seems to be moving in its direction.
Don't write off Silver Linings Playbook, which, with its mix of mirth and melancholy set against a backdrop of loving family dysfunction, seems to have the elements that appeal to academy voters in the same way a show like Modern Family is so beloved by Emmy voters.
All stand a better chance than the far darker but often brilliant Zero Dark Thirty, which may be a little too grim for Oscar voters, who probably don't like the negative attention it has received over its depiction of torture by U.S. forces in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The inclusion of critics' favorites like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained and Amour makes the academy look hip, but these don't stand a chance.
Will win: Argo
Should win: Zero Dark Thirty
In his long and storied career, which includes 10 nominations in this category, Steven Spielberg has won the Oscar for Best Director only twice: for Saving Private Ryan (1999) and for Schindler's List (1994). So even though Affleck is not nominated here, Spielberg isn't a shoo-in. Oscar voters could decide to give it to Ang Lee for the visually stunning Life of Pi or, even more likely, David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, which has accomplished the rare feat of being nominated in all the major categories. While Hollywood seems to respect Lincoln, it seems to genuinely love Silver Linings Playbook. Michael Haneke ( Amour) and Benh Zeitlin ( Beasts of the Southern Wild) would be real upsets.
Will win: David O. Russell
Should win: Steven Spielberg
If Lincoln, which is up for 12 Oscars, leaves with only one, it will be in this category. Daniel Day-Lewis' performance is the kind that sends shivers down the spines of Oscar voters; it reverberates with historic importance and heft. There are other great performances in this category, especially Denzel Washington's alcoholic pilot in Flight and Joaquin Phoenix's manic cult follower in The Master, but they -- along with Hugh Jackman in Les Miz and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook -- are probably going to have to sit on the sidelines applauding Day-Lewis.
Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Jennifer Lawrence's first performance as a full-fledged adult could be one that gets her the golden statue. That's not to say her performance was the most powerful (that belongs to Emmanuelle Riva as a woman facing death in Amour, Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, Naomi Watts in The Impossible or, the most surprising, Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild), but it is the one that shows Lawrence has arrived as a star who doesn't need the trappings of a huge franchise like The Hunger Games to make a name for herself.
Will win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should win: Emmanuelle Riva
Best Supporting Actor
This could be a tight one. Tommy Lee Jones would seem to have it in the bag for his role as abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, but voters may give it to Robert De Niro ( Silver Linings Playbook) simply because it's the first role he's played in a long time that is worthy of his talents. Plus, he hasn't won an Oscar since being named Best Actor in 1981 for Raging Bull. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivered a knockout performance as the cult leader in The Master, and Alan Arkin received a ton of press for his brashly funny turn as a Hollywood power broker helping to make the fake film in Argo, but they're running at the back of the pack with Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained.
Will win: Robert De Niro
Should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Best Supporting Actress
This will be a tussle between Sally Field ( Lincoln) and Anne Hathaway ( Les Miz). Hathaway won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, but Field is a well-liked Hollywood veteran who has won twice before, for Norma Rae (Best Actress, 1980) and Places in the Heart (Best Actress, 1985). Her strong performance as Abe's wife in Lincoln captured a sense of the woman's inner conflict. Helen Hunt gave a brave performance in The Sessions, while Amy Adams ( The Master) and Jacki Weaver ( Silver Linings Playbook) were good but won't challenge the front-runners. Besides, Hathaway has that song, sung in one long, emotional take. So there's that.
Will win: Anne Hathaway
Should win: Sally Field