Oscars in cliffhanger over Best Picture, Director

Actor/director Ben Affleck (L) poses with producers Grant Heslov (C) and George Clooney with the award for best motion picture drama for "Argo" at the Golden Globes awards ceremony in Beverly Hills on 13 January 2013. Picture: AFP
LOS ANGELES - 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 honours are handed out on 24 February, 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 15 and 19 February 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.