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By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Sunday's Oscar ceremony is set for a cliffhanger ending after a topsy-turvy awards season that has left the two top prizes - Best Picture and Best Director - too close to call.
With just days to go before the movie industry's highest honors are handed out on Feb. 24, awards watchers are keyed up for one of the most exciting nights in recent Academy Awards history.
Despite entering the Oscar race with a leading 12 nominations in January, the front-runner Best Picture status of Steven Spielberg's presidential drama "Lincoln" has been undermined by a slew of awards picked up Ben Affleck's Iran hostage thriller "Argo."
But an "Argo" win despite Affleck's omission from the Best Director shortlist would defy the conventional wisdom that says the Oscar for Best Film usually brings a trophy for its director.
"Argo" would be the first movie to take home the statuette for Best Picture without its director winning even a nomination since "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1990.
"Everything is kind of haywire, so those of us in the (awards prediction) business are all left scratching our heads and saying what does it mean?" said Matt Atchity, editor in chief of movie review website Rotten Tomatoes.
After beating "Lincoln" at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, directors, producers and writers guilds, "Argo" now has the edge in the Best Picture race.
"Even if 'Argo' wins for Best Picture, which is kind of a foregone conclusion at this point, it still feels exciting because 'Argo' has managed to keep this underdog status even though it has been winning every award," Dave Karger, chief correspondent for Fandango.com told Reuters.
"If 'Lincoln' wins, ironically it will be considered an upset even though it has the most nominations. That's what's strange about this year - all the rules seems to be turned on their heads," Karger added.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday underlined the stiff competition. Some 17 percent of the 1,443 people questioned in the United States between Feb. 15 and 19 thought that "Lincoln" was most likely to win Best Picture, but the same percentage gave their backing to musical "Les Miserables."
"Argo" was thought most likely to take home the Oscar by 8 percent of those questioned, while "Django Unchained" and "Life of Pi" tied with 4 percent. Some 41 percent of those asked in the Reuters/Ipsos poll were unsure which movie would win on Sunday.
JOCKEYING FOR POSITION FOR MONTHS
Unlike last year when silent film "The Artist" had the race sewn up weeks ahead of the Academy Awards ceremony, four films have moved in and out of the front position six times since September, according to movie pundits at Goldderby.com.
They include quirky comedy "Silver Linings Playbook" which won the top prize at the Toronto film festival, and "Les Miserables" the screen version of hit French Revolutionary stage show which has a strong fan following but which got mixed reviews.
"The fact the front-runner has changed so many times has made it exasperating, but almost more fun," said Karger.
"Argo" is thought to have come through less because of a sympathy vote for the snub to Affleck and more because of its deft blend of thriller with a satire on Hollywood movie making. The movie is based on the true story of the CIA rescue from Islamic revolutionary Tehran of six U.S. diplomats who pretended to be producing a fake film.
"I think people genuinely love that movie and it's very inclusive to the Hollywood professionals who are voting on these awards. It allows people in Hollywood to say, we helped get those hostages out, and there is an appeal there," Atchity said.
"The critical reaction to 'Lincoln' tended to be that it was a very educational and really impressive film but it didn't grab you emotionally the way some of the other nominees did."
Directors Tom Hooper ("Les Miserables"), Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty") and Quentin Tarantino ("Django Unchained") were also left off the Oscars short-list although their movies earned nominations.
That leaves Spielberg as presumed favorite for a third Best Director Oscar after victories with 1990s films "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan."
But don't count out David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook," and Ang Lee, the self-effacing Taiwanese director who brought Yann Martel's mythological shipwreck survival novel "Life of Pi" to the big screen.
"No one thought that book was filmable, and yet Ang Lee was able to pull it off. When you think this was the same man that made 'Brokeback Mountain,' 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and 'Sense and Sensibility,' he is so versatile it's astonishing," said Karger.
"Lincoln" is distributed by Walt Disney Co. and 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp ; "Argo" is distributed by Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner ; "Les Miserables" is distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp ; "Life of Pi" is distributed by 20th Century Fox; "Zero Dark Thirty" is released by Sony Corp's movie studio arm; "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Django Unchained" are distributed by privately held Weinstein Co.