By Scott Bowles

LOS ANGELES -Argomust have a chip on its shoulder, because the film has been taking no prisoners of late.

Ever since Ben Affleck was snubbed for a best-director Oscar nomination on Jan. 10, the Iran hostage drama has been pummeling the competition.Argoseized top picture wins from the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild Award and, on Sunday night, a surprise victory at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for best ensemble cast.

The comeback has infused the Feb. 24 Academy Awards with an element it rarely sees: tension.

And while many analysts still lean toward Steven Spielberg's biopicLincolnas the favorite, others now see a neck-and-neck sprint.

"The tide is withArgoat the moment," says Jeremy Kay, U.S. editor of the London-based trade publicationScreen International. "Lincolnremains a strong contender, but this has become largely a two-horse race.''

Not that Affleck should be polishing an acceptance speech yet. Kay notes that no movie has won a best-picture Oscar without an accompanying best-director nomination since 1989'sDriving Miss Daisy, which took the top statuette even though director Bruce Beresford wasn't nominated.

"It's historically unlikely," Kay says ofArgo's chances. "But if I were personally going to bet, it would be onArgo."

The film has cleaned up among critics as well.Argohas seized at least 10 best-picture wins from critics circles, compared toLincoln's two, according to a tally by film

Film author Bryan O'Neill, whose latest book,Original Plots: The Unified Field Theory of Storytelling, examines successful screenplays, saysArgohas flourished by taking on a real-life story that didn't scream blockbuster.

"Being a hostage-crisis film (set) in the '70s, the appeal could have been limited," he says.

But with a box office haul of $118 million and counting, O'Neill says, the film struck a nerve with the public. And that has given it momentum in the drawn-out awards season, which typically makes the best-picture Oscar race a predictable call.

"With ticket prices going up, the audience votes with their dollars," he says. "It's nice when great storytelling is rewarded, so it's no surpriseArgois able to stand above the rest."

But will it maintain its perch? Kay says that whileLincolnhasn't taken many best-picture honors yet, its pedigree - Spielberg as director, Academy Award winner Daniel-Day Lewis in the title role - could still resonate with Oscar voters.

"The academy is its own animal," he says. "Voters don't pay that much attention to other awards. AndLincolnhas Oscar darlings in its corner."

Not to mention millions at the box office. The movie, which is considered a lock for a best-actor win for Day-Lewis, has already done $167 million.Argoreceived seven Oscar nominations, including a best-supporting-actor nomination for Alan Arkin.Lincolnnabbed a pack-leading dozen nominations, including Spielberg for director, Tommy Lee Jones for supporting actor and Sally Field for supporting actress.

There are dark horses in the race -Silver Linings Playbook,Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables-"but right now it appears to beLincolnvs.Argo," Kay says. "What's exciting is you just don't know who is going to win this year."

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