While Hollywood advances its 3-D capabilities and other dazzling digital technology, the Academy Awards could be going silent.
Not since the first Oscar ceremony in 1929 has a silent film walked away with the top prize. But the 84th Oscars feature a potential front-runner with virtually no spoken dialogue in "The Artist," a loving reproduction of the silent era that has emerged as an early favorite among awards watchers.
"Early favorite" is a critical distinction, given that the Feb. 26 Oscars still are months away. Awards fortunes rise and fall, momentum shifts back and forth, and other awards shows help sort out winners from losers on the long path to the Oscars. At this stage, unlike past years when clear front-runners emerged from the outset, every major Oscar category is up for grabs.
Yet "The Artist," made by a French filmmaker barely known in Hollywood, looks like a solid contender for one of the best-picture slots alongside a lineup of big studio productions such as Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" and the hit literary adaptation "The Help."
"To be honest with you, that would be totally alien," said French actor Jean Dujardin, who stars with Berenice Bejo in filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist." "I do not think very much about it. Others do that for me. But if there happened to be a nomination, whether for Michel, for Berenice, for me, or for the movie itself, that would be fantastic."
Here's a look at the prospects in top categories:
Unlike last year, when eventual winner "The King's Speech" and runner-up "The Social Network" quickly stood out as the favorites, this season is murky, right down to the number of nominees.
Oscar overseers who doubled the best-picture field from five to 10 nominees three years ago have tweaked the rules again. This time, there will be anywhere from five to 10 nominees, depending on how many films receive at least 5 percent of first-place votes in nominations ballots from the roughly 6,000 academy members.
Great reviews and honors from some of the season's initial awards have raised the Oscar fortunes of "The Artist," a black-and-white tale that stars Dujardin as a silent-era star whose career crumbles as talking pictures take over in the late 1920s.
But Spielberg's "War Horse" is the sort of sprawling, glorious epic that could gallop in to grab the reins as a front-runner. Gorgeously shot, "War Horse" is one of those big, big pictures that always used to dominate the Oscars.
The action follows a resilient horse as it is raised by a British youth, sold into the cavalry during World War I, then passed from side to side amid the battlefields and trenches. The film is based on a children's book and the stage play it inspired that used life-sized puppets to create the horses.
"I heard about the play and that inspired me to read the book, which I loved," Spielberg said. "Then I traveled to the west end in London with my wife and actually saw the play, and walked out of that marvelous experience with a deep desire to make the movie."
Deep desire describes the motivation behind Scorsese's "Hugo," another adaptation of a children's book that allows the director to play with new technology in a ravishing 3-D production while indulging his love for early cinema and devotion for film preservation.
The story of a boy and girl caught up in a mystery involving French silent-film pioneer Georges Melies, "Hugo" also has momentum from early awards announcements that could help launch it into best-picture contention.
With a stellar cast and box-office success already behind it, the crowd-pleasing civil-rights era drama "The Help" is in the mix, along with "Social Network" director David Fincher's thriller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Among other best-picture possibilities: George Clooney's family comic drama "The Descendants"; Brad Pitt's baseball tale "Moneyball" and his family chronicle "The Tree of Life," directed by Terrence Malick; Woody Allen's romantic fantasy "Midnight in Paris"; Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar Hoover biopic "J. Edgar"; and Gary Oldman's espionage saga "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
Tinker, tailor, soldier, Oscar winner? Oldman — that scary guy who played Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald and Dracula in younger days and now has become an avuncular presence as Harry Potter's godfather or Batman's police ally — surprisingly has zero Oscar nominations to his credit.
As John le Carre's wily, aloof George Smiley in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," Oldman finally could get some Oscar respect for a performance that's a marvel of stillness and subtlety.
"I'm proud of the work. I'm proud of the movie," Oldman said. "If it was to happen, I can't think of a better project for it to happen with. So, we shall see."
Along with Dujardin for "The Artist," other contenders include: Leonardo DiCaprio as FBI boss Hoover in "J. Edgar"; Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in "Shame"; Clooney as a neglectful dad trying to get his act straight in "The Descendants"; Pitt as Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball"; Michael Shannon as a man beset with apocalyptic visions in "Take Shelter"; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cancer patient in "50/50"; Daniel Craig as a journalist investigating old serial slayings in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"; and Ryan Gosling for two films, as a getaway driver in "Drive" and a White House candidate's aide in "The Ides of March."
Dressing like a man helped Hilary Swank take home her first Oscar. Can five-time nominee Glenn Close finally claim a statue for her anguished role as a woman disguising herself as a male butler to survive hard times in the 19th century Irish drama "Albert Nobbs"?
Close isn't counting on anything.
"I've gone through my whole career not believing anything's going to happen until it happens," Close said. "I don't expect anything. I think, just do your work, and that's what you've got."
The competition is fierce, the lineup loaded with outstanding performances, among them two-time Oscar winner and acting nominations record-holder Meryl Streep's turn as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." Michelle Williams simply embodies Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn." And while Viola Davis has the edge over her "The Help" co-star Emma Stone, they deliver so well that both could end up nominated.
Also in the running: Tilda Swinton as a grief-stricken woman in "We Need to Talk About Kevin"; Rooney Mara as an emotionally damaged computer hacker in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"; Kirsten Dunst as a manic depressive facing Earth's doomsday in "Melancholia"; Charlize Theron as a writer scheming to steal back her old boyfriend in "Young Adult"; and Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman trying to escape a cult in "Martha Marcy May Marlene."
Christopher Plummer went his long career without a nomination until two years ago, when he made the Oscar short list for "The Last Station." He didn't win, but this could be his time for "Beginners," in which he plays an ailing elderly dad who comes out as gay.
It doesn't hurt Plummer's chances that he also delivers a nice turn as a family patriarch in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Other prospects include: Albert Brooks as a gregarious gangster in "Drive"; Jonah Hill as a number-crunching genius in "Moneyball"; Nick Nolte as a fighter's estranged dad in "Warrior"; Jim Broadbent as Thatcher's hubby in "The Iron Lady"; Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier in "My Week with Marilyn"; Pitt as a domineering father in "The Tree of Life"; Patton Oswalt as Theron's geeky new pal in "Young Adult; Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway in "Midnight in Paris"; and both Clooney as a presidential candidate and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his top aide in "The Ides of March."
"The Help" could practically fill out this category by itself with great performances from Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain and Sissy Spacek.
A fresh face who's suddenly everywhere, Chastain also delivered strong performances in "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter," "The Debt" and "Coriolanus." The latter features an excellent turn by Vanessa Redgrave, who also has a shot as Queen Elizabeth I in "Anonymous."
Along with Bejo as a rising film star in "The Artist," contenders include: Judi Dench as Hoover's doting mother in "J. Edgar"; Shailene Woodley as a troublesome daughter in "The Descendants"; Janet McTeer as a cross-dressing laborer in "Albert Nobbs"; Carey Mulligan as a sex addict's unstable sister in "Shame"; Emily Watson as a salt-of-the-earth farm woman in "War Horse"; and Melissa McCarthy as a crude but caring member of the wedding in "Bridesmaids."
Past winners Spielberg for "War Horse," Scorsese for "Hugo," Allen for "Midnight in Paris" and Eastwood for "J. Edgar" are in the running, along with previous nominees Fincher for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Malick for "The Tree of Life," Alexander Payne for "The Descendants" and Bennett Miller for "Moneyball."
Along with Hazanavicius for "The Artist," newcomers to the directing field could include Tate Taylor for "The Help" and Tomas Alfredson for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
The Oscar nominations aren't released until Jan. 24, and momentum will ebb and flow amid an onslaught of lesser awards announcements that come first.