Blowing past the distant Civil War history of "Lincoln" and the more controversial recent history of "Zero Dark Thirty," director and star Ben Affleck's rousing, reassuringly apolitical thriller "Argo" won Sunday's Academy Award for best picture.
This was a rebuke to the very academy bestowing the prize: Affleck failed to receive a directing nomination for "Argo," joining "Zero Dark Thirty" director Kathryn Bigelow as the evening's most conspicuous snubs.
In their place, Ang Lee scored his second directing Oscar (following "Brokeback Mountain") for the formidable technical achievement that was "Life of Pi," which won four Oscars in all. Though "Pi" was widely considered an unfilmable novel, Lee's supple handling of the story of a boy, a tiger, a lifeboat and a slew of digital visual wonders has led to a picture grossing nearly $600 million worldwide.
This has happened with Lee before. His "Brokeback Mountain" directing Oscar didn't come attached to a best picture win for the same movie; the big prize that year went to "Crash" instead.
Sunday night's "Life of Pi" win for Lee marked the second time the director went up against industry lion Steven Spielberg, nominated for "Lincoln," and won.
Spielberg's film won just two Oscars, for Daniel Day-Lewis' towering lead performance and production design. It was instead the night of "Argo," which won three Oscars, and "Life of Pi."
A couple of months ago the best picture Oscar seemed like "Lincoln's" to lose. But after receiving top prizes from the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America, as well as the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award, "Argo" officially became the front-runner. No movie has ever won the Globes, the DGA, the PGA and the SAG without eventually picking up the Oscar.
In the academy's 85-year awards history, "Argo" is only the fourth to secure best picture without an accompanying directorial nomination. The other three: "Wings" (1927, the first best picture winner), "Grand Hotel" (1932) and "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989).
"Lincoln" seemed to lose its Oscar mojo the second the nominations were announced Jan. 10, even though Spielberg's superb slice of historical fiction (scripted by the dramatist Tony Kushner, who lost the adapted screenwriting Oscar to "Argo's" Chris Terrio) pulled down 12 nominations in all, the most of any film.
The best actress race was widely considered one of the evening's tough calls. Emmanuelle Riva, at 86 the oldest-ever leading actress Oscar nominee (for "Amour"), made the trip all the way from Paris to attend the academy's prom night Sunday. Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, was the youngest-ever best actress nominee, cited for "Beasts of the Southern Wild."