Academy on verge of another best picture award train wreck

With the Academy Awards ceremony less than a week away a once-close race for best picture now looks anything but. Argo, the least sophisticated, most manipulative of the nominees, is a hot favourite. The academy is all set to make its worst decision since Crash beat Brokeback Mountain.

Having now seen all of the contenders, it is easy to appreciate how this has come about. Ironically, Ben Affleck's patriotic ode to the CIA has benefited from the collective strength of its competition. The other eight nominees each individually have much to recommend them while another two, equally fine films - Moonrise Kingdom and The Master - have been marginalised. With the intellectual vote split between the brilliant but downbeat Amour, the thoughtful and unusually restrained Spielberg biopic Lincoln and the too-controversial-by-half Zero Dark Thirty, Affleck's populism has enjoyed free reign. A feelgood, nominally true tale of bloodless triumph over Muslim extremists in Iran, is a much safer choice than movies that in their own way explore the violence and prejudice of America's past. Both Lincoln and Django Unchained face the issue of slavery, while Zero Dark Thirty addresses the moral ambiguities of the war on terror.

Unusually for a best picture favourite, Argo isn't up for best director and enjoys only a solitary acting nomination. This fact will ensure that awards night holds some surprises and the odd record is likely to be broken.

The best director contest retains some fascination. If the head says the award should go to Michael Haneke for Amour, sentiment suggests that Spielberg will take home his third Oscar in this category, drawing level with Frank Capra and William Wyler, one place behind four-time winner John Ford.

Ang Lee for Life of Pi and debutante Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild are likely also-rans. The dark horse is David O Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, an innovative and fantastically entertaining comedy about mental illness.

Three of the four acting categories feature strong favourites. Daniel Day-Lewis is simply staggering as the Civil War president, the high-pitched voice, folksy storytelling and limping gait further evidence of the Englishman's immense talent. The only thing that might stop him winning best actor is an awareness of history by academy members. Given that he has already won twice before, another award would create a record, placing Day-Lewis ahead of the likes of Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. Still, it is difficult to see who would beat him. Arguably the next best performance is that of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, a moody and introspective work.

Jessica Chastain is where the smart money is going for best actress. Perhaps the lauding of her subtle acting will be the only recognition Zero Dark Thirty gets. While Chastain is a haunting presence, arguably the favouritism has as much to do with her achievements in a multitude of films the year before last. Jennifer Lawrence has an outside chance of an upset win for Silver Linings Playbook - she won a Golden Globe in the equivalent comedy category - but my vote would go to Emmanuelle Riva, who will turn 86 years old on the day of the ceremony. I don't think that the cinema has ever seen a more realistic portrayal of a stroke victim. It is a fearless, deeply humane performance.

Anne Hathaway is a dead certainty to take out best supporting actress. Winning supporting awards often turn on small moments and Hathaway's show-stopping rendition of I Dreamed a Dream in Les Miserables did more than just banish memories of Susan Boyle. Sally Field is a distant second for her unflattering reading of the joyless Mary Lincoln, but Amy Adams, Jacki Weaver and Helen Hunt are no competition at all. There is a sneaking suspicion that Hunt was nominated only because she had the courage to take her clothes off.

Best supporting actor is a real contest, with each of the five nominees all having won before, four of them in this category. Personally, I would back Philip Seymour Hoffman for his fascinating L Ron Hubbard-like cult leader in The Master. While the Golden Globes went for Christoph Waltz, having him again win for a Tarantino film, Tommy Lee Jones has just as good a chance for his curmudgeonly radical in Lincoln. The sentimental attraction of Robert De Niro's critical comeback, getting in touch with a talent that many thought was forever lost, should also not be discounted.