Ben Affleck accepts the award for outstanding cast in a...

Ben Affleck accepts the award for outstanding cast in a motion picture for "Argo" at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (Jan. 27, 2013) Credit: AP

They like it -- they really, really like it.

There are several reasons why "Argo," Ben Affleck's thriller about a CIA agent who enlists Hollywood's help to rescue Americans from revolutionary Iran, has emerged as this year's front-runner for best picture. It has been aggressively advertised by Warner Bros., its director is a well-liked celebrity, and it has already earned an armful of awards from movie industry guilds. In the end, though, "Argo" may win the top Oscar for one very simple reason.

"You can give excuses for everything, but you can't deny the momentum," says Pete Hammond, awards columnist for the media-industry site "Sometimes you just have to say, 'People really like this movie.' "

'Lincoln' had a pedigree

The race for the 85th annual Academy Awards didn't always look this way. In November, the newly released "Lincoln" seemed to be the shoo-in.

Directed by Steven Spielberg and written by acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner from a book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the movie certainly had a pedigree. Two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis played the 16th president alongside co-stars Sally Field (two Oscars) and Tommy Lee Jones (one). "Lincoln" also hit the kind of inspirational themes that Academy Awards seem made for: the abolition of slavery, civil rights, the nobler side of politics.

In December came the very different "Zero Dark Thirty." Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to her 2009 best picture winner, "The Hurt Locker," dramatized the hunt for Osama bin Laden, with Jessica Chastain as a relentless CIA agent who stops at nothing -- not even condoning torture -- to get her man. This movie also seemed like a best picture contender: tough and topical, with a screenplay by Oscar-winning journalist Mark Boal based on "firsthand accounts."

"Argo," released in October, struck a tone somewhere in the middle. Set in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, the film starred Affleck as Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who rescues six Americans by disguising them as a Canadian film crew. Amazingly, the entire caper -- which involved a fake movie, a dummy studio and planted news stories -- actually happened. "Argo" showed the CIA helping people, not torturing them. What's more, with John Goodman and Alan Arkin playing movie-biz types who join the cause, Hollywood got to share the glory.

"It certainly doesn't hurt that it's the movie where Hollywood comes to the rescue," says Steve Pond, awards editor at thewrap. com. "Also, it's not a morally conflicted movie the way 'Zero Dark Thirty' is. It's celebratory."

'Zero' garners plenty

As December progressed, "Zero Dark Thirty" began to outpace "Lincoln," sweeping critics' awards from New York to San Francisco. But some critics accused it of justifying or even glorifying torture by showing that it worked to obtain information. Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain formed a bipartisan trio to publicly condemn the film's "particularly graphic scenes," and in January came news that the Senate Intelligence Committee would begin investigating whether the filmmakers received inappropriate access to CIA information.

"That came right when Oscar voters were getting their ballots," says Pond. "The criticisms from senators, that really hurt it. And it showed in the nominations."

The film earned Oscar nods in only five categories, including best picture, actress and original screenplay. It was "Lincoln" that triumphed, leading the Oscar race with a whopping 12 nominations.

So why does that movie now seem like the also-ran? " 'Lincoln' is a movie that a lot of people respect and admire but don't love," says Phil Contrino, vice president of boxoffice.

com. "It stopped short of that enthusiastic, gung-ho response that you need to push you over the hurdle to win best picture."

That seemed borne out by the Golden Globes. "Argo" became the surprise winner for best dramatic motion picture, and Affleck looked genuinely surprised to win the Globe for best director. (He hadn't even been nominated for a directing Oscar.) "Argo" would go on to win best film from the Producers Guild of America and best cast from the Screen Actors Guild. Affleck picked up another award from the Directors Guild of America. The movie also took best picture and director at last week's BAFTAs, the British equivalent of the Oscars.

A big earner

In hindsight, there were signs that "Argo" could become the picture to beat. It was almost universally well reviewed -- it enjoys a 96 percent rating at -- and it broke the $100 million mark at the box office even before the awards-season activity gave it a boost. As of press time, the movie's cumulative gross is more than $120 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo.

But is it really the best picture of the year? That may not be quite the point, says Pond at TheWrap. The Oscar balloting system requires voters to rank this year's nine nominated films, not simply pick one. The movie with the least support gets weeded out, and its votes are given to the next most popular film, and so on. "What that means is, not only do you need to be the No. 1 choice of a lot of voters, but you also need to be the No. 2 or No. 3 choice," says Pond. "I think 'Argo' is the consensus movie."

That said, "Argo" probably won't turn all seven of its Oscar nominations into wins. Jones, in "Lincoln," seems likely to beat Arkin for supporting actor; "Les Miserables" may win for sound mixing; and best adapted screenplay may go to Kushner for "Lincoln."

"It's an interesting year," says Hammond at "We could sit Oscar night and not hear 'Argo' until the envelope for best picture is opened. Who knows?"

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