While Iran-hostage drama Argo continued its journey from awards-season outsider to favourite at the Baftas, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey failed to bag one of the three trophies it was nominated for.
The first film of Sir Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy was nominated for best special visual effects, best sound, and best make-up and hair at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Life of Pi took out the best special effects, while musical epic Les Miserables was judged to have the best sound, make-up and hair.
Ben Affleck was named best director for the based-on-reality story of a longshot plan to rescue a group of American diplomats from Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the film also took the editing trophy.
Affleck, who has made a remarkable journey from little-regarded actor to award-winning director, dedicated his directing prize for "anyone out there who's trying to get their second act."
George Clooney, a producer of Argo, quipped: "I don't know what you're going to do for a third act."
Daniel Day-Lewis won his universally expected best-actor trophy for Lincoln - the only prize out of 10 nominations for Steven Spielberg's historical biopic.
Emmanuelle Riva, the 85-year-old French film legend, was named best actress for Michael Haneke's poignant old-age portrait Amour.
Made-in-Britain French revolutionary musical Les Miserables won four prizes including best supporting actress for Anne Hathaway. James Bond adventure Skyfall spied some elusive awards recognition, winning trophies for music and best British film.
The British awards, known as Baftas, are increasingly glamorous - despite a well-earned reputation for dismal weather - and ever-more scrutinized as an indicator of likely success at the Hollywood Oscars. In recent years they have prefigured Academy Awards triumph for word-of-mouth hits including Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech and The Artist.
This year they spread the honours widely, with multiple trophies for Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, Amour and Django Unchained, as well as Argo.
Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty was shut out of the prizes, despite five nominations.
This season's movie with momentum is crowd-pleaser Argo, which has been building steam with big prizes at ceremonies such as the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild of America Awards.
It is now considered a front-runner for the best picture award at the Oscars on February 25, even though Affleck was not nominated for best director.
Argo marks a change for Affleck, whose first two features as director - Gone Baby Gone and The Town - were set in his native Boston. In Argo he stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who poses as a sci-fi filmmaker in a risky plot to rescue Americans in Tehran.
"I wanted to get as far away from Boston as I could," Affleck said. "I ended up in Iran."
Skyfall, the highest-grossing film in the Bond series' 50-year history, was named best British film - rare awards-season recognition for an action movie. Thomas Newman's score also won the best-music prize.
Director Sam Mendes said he was accepting the trophy on behalf of the "1,292 people" who worked on Skyfall.
"We all had high expectations for this film and it's fair to say all of them have been exceeded," Mendes said. "Here's to the next 50 years."
The early prizes were shared widely, with Les Mis taking trophies for sound and makeup/hair and Life of Pi receiving the honour for cinematography.
Quentin Tarantino picked up the original screenplay award for Django Unchained, and Christoph Waltz was named best supporting actor for playing a loquacious bounty hunter in Tarantino's slave-revenge thriller.
Waltz said his victory was entirely due to Tarantino - "you silver-penned devil, you."
Hathaway said she was "overjoyed" for being named best supporting actress for her brief but powerhouse performance in Les Miserables. She said she was so taken aback that "I almost walked past George Clooney without hugging him."
Writer-director David O. Russell won the adapted screenplay prize for Silver Linings Playbook, a comedy about characters confronting mental illness.
Before the ceremony, stars including Clooney, Affleck, Hugh Jackman, Samuel L. Jackson, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper braved a chilly rain that turned to snow outside the Royal Opera House.
For once it was hair, even more than frocks, that drew attention - though Marion Cotillard defied the dull weather in a canary-yellow gown. Beards were de rigour among male stars including Clooney, Affleck and Cooper, while Helen Mirren turned heads with a pink 'do, sported in honour of breast cancer awareness.
The ceremony also saw director Alan Parker receive a Bafta Fellowship, the academy's highest honour, for a career that includes Midnight Express, Fame and Mississippi Burning.
Full list of winners:
Film - Argo
British Film - Skyfall
Director - Ben Affleck, Argo
Actor - Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln.
Actress - Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Supporting Actress - Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Rising Star - Juno Temple
British Debut - Bart Layton and Dimitri Doganis, The Imposter
Original Screenplay - Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Adapted Screenplay - David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Film Not in the English Language - Amour
Music - Thomas Newman, Skyfall
Cinematography - Life of Pi
Editing - Argo
Production Design - Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson, Les Miserables
Costume Design - Anna Karenina
Sound - Les Miserables
Visual Effects - Life of Pi
Makeup and Hair - Les Miserables
Animated Feature - Brave
Short Film - Swimmer
Short Animation - The Making of Longbird
Documentary - Searching for Sugar Man
Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema - Tessa Ross
Academy Fellowship - Alan Parker