Five months after "Argo" debuted as a sneak preview at the Telluride Film Festival, almost 20 weeks after "Lincoln" had its own sneak at the New York Film Festival, and 401 days after "Beasts of the Southern Wild" took Sundance by storm, the moment of truth has arrived.
Those three films, and six others competing for Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards, will learn their fates on Sunday night at the Dolby Theatre. "Argo" could make history as only the second film in 80 years, and the fourth overall, to win the top Oscar without a Best Director nomination … or it could make history as the first film not to win Best Picture after taking awards from all four of the major Hollywood guilds.
Emmanuelle Riva from "Amour" could become the oldest Best Actress winner ever on her 86th birthday, or Quvenzhane Wallis from "Beasts" could become the youngest six months shy of her 10th. Daniel Day-Lewis could -- and let's face it, probably will -- become the first person to win three Best Actor honors.
But the most important numbers from this awards season are the ones that pertain to the voting schedule. The deadline for nominating ballots was Jan. 4, the earliest ever; the date nominations were announced was Jan. 10, again the earliest; the date final voting began was Feb. 8, almost a full month after nominations.
This lengthy, confusing awards season was turned upside down by that revamped Oscar voting timetable, thrown into momentary disarray by the confusing introduction of online voting and knocked for a loop by the baffling choices of the Academy's Directors Branch, who opted not to nominate Ben Affleck for "Argo," Kathryn Bigelow for "Zero Dark Thirty" or Tom Hooper for "Les Miserables."
Also read: Oscars 2013: The Complete List of Nominees
Meanwhile, film critics found their roles usurped by Congress, which injected itself into the best-pic debate with a vengeance when Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin criticized "Zero Dark Thirty" for its portrayal of the role torture played in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The criticism derailed a film that for a moment seemed to have the potential to blow the friendlier, simpler and less disturbing "Argo" out of the water – but instead of the tougher movie driving voters away from "Argo," the complaints (which have been forcibly condemned in recent weeks) may have helped drive voters into the warmer, less complicated embrace of the movie that allows you to unashamedly root for the good guys without questioning their methods.
As this played out, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" went from a tailor-made Best Picture winner -- solemn, important, impeccably executed, and did we mention important? -- to a film that voters respected and admired but didn't love, at least not in the way that would take it into the winner's circle.
Of course, as Oscar night approaches, this is just speculation. Maybe "Argo" isn't the slam dunk it appears to be; maybe the fact that Academy members cast their nominating ballots before the guilds had announced their own nominees and cast their final ballots after most guild awards had been handed out means that their choices will be unmoored from the guild results, which in the past had been a reliable predictor of Oscar success.
Maybe "Lincoln" will prevail cobble together the votes the way its main character did in the movie; maybe of Pi" will dazzle its way to victory, or "Zero Dark Thirty" will emerge bloody but triumphant. And maybe Harvey Weinstein will pull his magic once again and campaign "Silver Linings Playbook" all the way to a third consecutive Best Picture trophy for the Weinstein Company.
While some Academy members have embraced the uncertainty caused by the revamped timetable, most campaigners complained bitterly about a schedule that caused a frenzy of screening and partying in mid-December, because if voters didn't see the films before the holiday break they might not have time after it.
And lots of AMPAS members have denounced the timetable as well, partly because it gave voters more time to see the 38 movies that were nominated but less time to see the 282 that wanted to be nominated, partly because the Academy never owned up to what everyone figured was the real reason for the change: hurting the Golden Globes, which are pretty much impervious to anything the Academy does because they never needed credibility to begin with.
A few shocks at the Dolby on Sunday night, though, and the people who like the accelerated timeline will celebrate how it created an unpredictable Oscars and shook things up in a good way.
Other things to watch for during the show:
>> Best Editing, a key award if "Argo" wants to win at least three Oscars. (No Best Picture winner in decades has won fewer than that, and almost all have won at least four.)
>> The two screenplay categories, each of which seem to be a three-way dogfight. Adapted Screenplay is between "Argo," "Lincoln" and "Silver Linings Playbook," while Original Screenplay pits "Zero Dark Thirty" against "Django Unchained" and "Amour."
>> Best Actress, in which Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook") is probably the smart-money choice but Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty") also stands out and Emmanuelle Riva ("Amour") has a real shot to score an upset on her birthday.
>> Best Supporting Actor, a confounding category that could go to Tommy Lee Jones for "Lincoln," Robert De Niro for "Silver Linings Playbook," Christoph Waltz for "Django Unchained" or even Philip Seymour Hoffman for "The Master."
>> Best Director, where Affleck's absence means the award is up for grabs among Spielberg, David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook" and Ang Lee for "Life of Pi."
As for the show itself, it could be equally intriguing. Show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron promise lots of music and a few big surprises. It'll have host Seth MacFarlane singing, and Barbra Streisand and Adele and Norah Jones performing, and a big choreographed tribute to movie musicals of the last decade (three of them, to be exact), and even a closing song after we find out what wins Best Picture.
That sounds as if it could take a long time. Zadan and Meron promise a show as close to three hours as they can make it, but one high-placed show staffer flatly told me that it was going to be a lengthy show, and a former AMPAS official laughed this week when I speculated that it might well be closer to four hours than three.
"Oh, you've heard the rumors too?" he said.
Then again, the 2012-2013 awards season has already been a long, strange trip. A short, succinct Oscar show just wouldn't be the right way to bring it to a close.