By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Oscars rolled out the red carpet on Sunday for the movie industry's biggest night, with Iran hostage drama "Argo" and presidential drama "Lincoln" in a tight race for Best Picture.
With several contests too close to call, a slate of big box office hits to celebrate and an unpredictable first-time host in Seth MacFarlane, movie fans could be in for surprises when the curtain rises on the 85th annual Academy Awards.
Before the festivities begin, nominees including Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, Sally Field, Jessica Chastain, British singer Adele and "Argo" producer George Clooney, along with performers Barbra Streisand and Jennifer Hudson will parade along the 500-ft long (152 meter) red carpet before dozens of photographers and camera crews.
Inside Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, Academy Awards history could be re-written.
Daniel Day-Lewis as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is considered an unstoppable force to become the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars.
Buzz is building over a possible late upset by France's Emmanuelle Riva, 86, in the Best Actress contest that would make the star of harrowing Austrian entry "Amour" the oldest person ever to win an acting Oscar.
"Lincoln" goes into Sunday's three-hour plus ceremony with a leading 12 nominations, including a directing nod for double Oscar winner Steven Spielberg.
But its front-runner Best Picture status has been dented by the six-week victory streak enjoyed at other Hollywood awards by Ben Affleck's "Argo."
"It's been an interesting year," said Matt Atchity, editor in chief of movie review website Rotten Tomatoes.
"I think 'Argo' probably has the best shot. It's certainly got the momentum. It has won so many top awards, and I think it's probably the movie to beat," Atchity told Reuters.
If "Argo" does prevail for the top prize, it will be the first movie to win Best Picture without its director even getting a nomination since "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1990.
ANNE HATHAWAY OSCAR BOUND
Musical "Les Miserables," comedy "Silver Linings Playbook," shipwreck tale "Life of Pi," Osama bin laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty," slavery Western "Django Unchained," indie film "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and "Amour" round out the contenders for the best film of 2012.
In other categories, only Anne Hathaway is considered a sure bet to take home a golden statuette after starving herself and chopping off her long brown locks for her supporting turn as tragic heroine Fantine in "Les Miserables."
Awards pundits says Spielberg could lose out in the director's race to Taiwan's Ang Lee for his technical and imaginative feat in filming fantastical adventure "Life of Pi" with a cast of exotic animals.
And the supporting actor Oscar could go to any of the five nominees - Robert De Niro ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Alan Arkin ("Argo"), Christoph Waltz ("Django Unchained"), Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln") and Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master").
The Oscar winners are chosen in secret ballots by some 5,800 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and handed out before an audience of 3,300 guests and tens of millions more watching around the world on television.
After several years of nominating little-seen movies, this year's nine Best Picture contenders have pulled in more than $2 billion in tickets worldwide.
"We are so fortunate to inherit this great group of films that are also popular at the box office ... We just lucked out and had this fantastic year in film," Academy Awards telecast co-producer Neil Meron told Reuters.
Producers are promising a fast-paced show packed with music and big performances. But the man getting the early attention will be MacFarlane, the provocative comedian behind animated TV series "Family Guy" and an unknown quantity as Oscar host.
"We are not going to know what works until we put it out there and see what plays in front of an audience," co-producer Craig Zadan said.
"It's a live show and that is always unpredictable. Once the train has left the station, whatever happens, happens."
The Academy Awards will be broadcast live on ABC television in the United States, starting at 5 p.m. PST (0100 GMT).
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; editing by Jackie Frank)