HOLLYWOOD: Hollywood woke up to its biggest day of the year Sunday, as two odes to film-making -- silent movie "The Artist" and Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" -- vie for Oscars glory at the 84th Academy Awards.
After months of campaigning and a flurry of lesser prizes, Tinseltown's annual awards season reaches its high point with the most prestigious honors of them all, the coveted golden statuettes.
Hundreds of millions around the globe will tune in for the ceremony hosted once again by veteran Billy Crystal, after A-listers strut their stuff down the most-watched red carpet in the world.
"I'm a little bit nervous. I'm realizing that I'm a bit tense because the outside pressure is rising considerably," said "The Artist" director Michel Hazanavicius, after his film won another pre-Oscars boost Saturday by with wins at the independent Spirit awards, in Santa Monica, California.
As usual, the annual march to Oscars coronation has not been without a few twists and surprises.
British actor Sacha Baron Cohen, a member of the cast of "Hugo," has ruffled feathers with his apparent plans to promote his upcoming film "The Dictator" in full faux strongman regalia on the red carpet, flustering the top brass at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The list of presenters is chock full of heavy-hitters -- last year's best actress and actor Natalie Portman and Colin Firth will join Halle Berry, Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie among others.
Scorsese's "Hugo," a visually rich 3D tribute to a French film pioneer, goes into the show with the most nominations, at 11, with black-and-white Hollywood love letter "The Artist" just behind on 10.
Scorsese is not the only legendary director in the mix -- Woody Allen is in the running for best picture honors for his comeback hit "Midnight in Paris," and Steven Spielberg will gun for the top prize with "War Horse."
Buddies George Clooney and Brad Pitt will duke it out for best actor, but "Artist" star Jean Dujardin, who has won a slew of awards for his role as a struggling silent-era movie star, could best them both.
Pitt is up for his role as coach Billy Beane in baseball movie "Moneyball," while Clooney has been hailed for playing against type in "The Descendants," a family drama set in Hawaii that is also in the hunt for best picture glory.
Mexico's Demian Bichir is on the best actor shortlist for his poignant turn as an undocumented migrant in "A Better Life," as is British veteran Gary Oldman for Cold War spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
Meryl Streep could take home her first Oscar in three decades for a powerful turn as former British premier Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," in a battle against cross-dressing Glenn Close in "Albert Nobbs."
Rooney Mara, who plays damaged hacker Lisbeth Salander in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is also in the running for the best actress prize, as is Michelle Williams for her turn as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn."
But Oscar watchers say they could all be beaten by Viola Davis, whose role as a black maid in "The Help" -- set in Mississippi against the backdrop of the 1960s civil rights struggle -- has earned her an outpouring of praise.
Davis' co-star Octavia Spencer is seen as a top contender in the best supporting actress category. Castmate Jessica Chastain is also nominated along with Berenice Bejo from "The Artist" and Melissa McCarthy for "Bridesmaids."
Janet McTeer rounds out the category with her gender-bending turn opposite Close in "Albert Nobbs."
"The Help" is also among the nine movies nominated for best picture, along with "War Horse," "The Artist," "Moneyball," "The Descendants," "Midnight in Paris," "Hugo" and powerful 9/11 film "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
Also up for the top prize is Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," which won the coveted Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
Supporting actor top tips are Christopher Plummer in "Beginners" and Max von Sydow in "Extremely Loud." Kenneth Branagh in "My Week with Marilyn," Jonah Hill in "Moneyball" and Nick Nolte in "Warrior" are also in the race.
The easy foreign language film frontrunner is Iran's "A Separation," which has already won a series of awards season prizes including a Spirit Award on Saturday. It competes against films from Belgium, Canada, Israel and Poland.
On the eve of the Oscars US actor Adam Sandler set a record for cinematic stinker nominations, as organizers of the Razzie awards unveiled their 32nd annual movie short lists of shame.
The Golden Raspberry Award Foundation nominees for worst films and performances, announced a day ahead of the Oscars, included no fewer than 11 for Sandler, more than double the previous record by Eddie Murphy in 2007.