LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood's biggest stars strutted and posed on the Oscars red carpet on Sunday, as Iran hostage drama "Argo" and presidential drama "Lincoln" went into the movie industry's biggest night in a tight race for Best Picture.
Nominees Jessica Chastain, sparkling in a gold strapless Armani Prive dress, and Amy Adams in a gray strapless Oscar de la Renta gown, were among early arrivals walking the 500-foot (150-meter) long red carpet under warm, sunny skies.
Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, the breakout Best Actress nominee of indie film "Beasts of the Southern Wild," showed off her puppy-shaped purse to the delight of more than 100 photographers and cameras crews from around the world.
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, surprises are in store when the curtain rises on the 85th annual Academy Awards.
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.
And buzz was building over a possible upset by France's Emmanuelle Riva, 86, in the Best Actress contest.
Riva, star of the harrowing Austrian entry "Amour," emerged as a dark horse in the past few days in a race that had been seen as a battle between "Zero Dark Thirty" actress Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence of "Silver Linings Playbook."
A win by Riva would make her 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.
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," Oscar telecast co-producer Craig Zadan told Reuters.
"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/8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT).
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Sandra Maler)