It was the most competitive Oscar race in recent memory, one loaded with twists and turns.

In the end, though, it was "Argo," which started out as front-runner, slid to also-ran and then staged a huge, late comeback, that was presented the Academy Award for best picture Sunday night by Michelle Obama, who did the honors via streaming video from the White House.

The film -- a thriller based on the true story of American hostages who were spirited out of Iran by a CIA team pretending to be filmmakers -- is the first since 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy" to win the top prize without its director being nominated. Ben Affleck was unexpectedly, and inexplicably, left out of the best director field when the nominations were announced in January. Initially that led many observers to discount "Argo" as a strong contender.

Ironically, the snub had the opposite effect, triggering a wave of sympathy that "Argo" rode to eventual victory. "There are eight great films that have every right, as much a right to be up here as we do," Affleck said of the other best-picture nominees.

Indeed, as befitting a year when there were an unusually large number of high-quality films in contention, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters spread the love around in a big way with "Argo," "Les Miserables," "Skyfall," "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi" all getting multiple awards.


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They delivered some serious diss to one-time front-runners "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty." "Lincoln," which had the most nominations with 12, took home just two: best actor and production design. Steven Spielberg, who had been the odds-on favorite to win best director, lost out to Ang Lee ("Life of Pi") in the night's biggest upset, while scriptwriter Tony Kushner, also a favorite, lost the best adapted screenplay to Chris Terrio of "Argo."

"Zero Dark Thirty," which had lost traction in the Oscar race after its depiction of the search for Osama bin Laden was criticized for its accuracy, shared the sound editing award with "Skyfall." (It was only the sixth tie in Academy history.)

There was less drama in the top acting categories.

Daniel Day-Lewis snagged the prize for his imposing portrayal of the 16th president in "Lincoln." The victory makes Day-Lewis the first to win best actor three times. Since 1989's "My Left Foot," Day-Lewis -- a very selective actor -- has made just 11 movies, being nominated for best actor for five and winning three: "Left Foot," 2007's "There Will Be Blood" and now "Lincoln."

Jennifer Lawrence scored her first Oscar win in her second nomination, for the dark comedy "Silver Linings Playbook." At age 22, she becomes the second-youngest woman to win best actress, behind Marlee Matlin, who was 21 when she won for "Children of a Lesser God."

Lawrence -- who had gotten a reputation for the unpredictable during the awards season -- was so eager to make it onstage that she tripped on her way. "You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell," said Lawrence as the audience gave her a standing ovation.

In the most unpredictable category of the night, Christoph Waltz won his second best supporting actor award for his performance as a genteel bounty hunter in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." He really owes director Tarantino since his first victory was for the director's "Inglourious Basterds."

"Quentin writes poetry, and I like poetry," Waltz said of Tarantino who won the Oscar for best original screenplay for "Django."

To the shock of almost no one including her fellow nominees, Anne Hathaway -- Fantine in "Les Miserables" -- took best supporting actress.

Michael Haneke's extraordinary contemplation of love, aging and death, "Amour," had unexpectedly been nominated for four Oscars but won only best foreign language film. In something of a surprise, Pixar's "Brave" took home the best animated feature award, beating out pre-ceremony favorite "Wreck-It Ralph" and such high-quality contenders as "ParaNorman" and Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie."

Malik Bendjelloul's popular "Searching for Sugar Man" -- the quest to discover the fate of Sixto Rodriguez, an all-but-forgotten American singer-songwriter who became an icon in South Africa -- grabbed the best documentary prize.

For the latest on film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.