With a host of contenders now screening for awards voters, the front runners are becoming clearer. Jeremy Kay reports

Everything changed over Thanksgiving weekend. Up until the late-November US holiday, most awards observers would have agreed the front runner for the best picture Oscar was Argo, directed by Warner Bros wunderkind Ben Affleck.

There is no doubt the fine hostage drama remains a heavyweight contender. However, for some time now Argo’s top-dog status has been challenged by a pack that includes Life Of Pi, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, to say nothing of outliers such as Beasts Of The Southern Wild and Flight.

Now there is a new name on everyone’s lips. Universal’s great awards season hope was always going to be Les Misérables, though few not associated with the movie could have predicted the extent of the late arrival’s impact on the race. Tom Hooper unveiled his musical at a series of New York screenings on Friday Nov 23 before hopping over to Los Angeles with select cast to do the aw-shucks shuffle in front of West Coast guild members the following day.

Universal, or perhaps Hooper himself, set a punishing schedule over that weekend. The sombre, somewhat exhausted Englishman introduced screenings or took part in six on-stage Q&As in Los Angeles on Saturday Nov 24 and certainly set the cat among the pigeons.

Hooper told the audience at one of two shows at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica that the triumphant campaign trail for The King’s Speech had kicked off on exactly the same weekend two years ago. Two hours and 20 minutes later there was a sense among the crowd that history might be about to repeat itself. Hooper himself cut a fatigued yet relieved figure on stage before the screening. He introduced cast members Amanda Seyfried, 2012 Screen Star of Tomorrow Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne.

“If you’re here for the screening,” Hooper deadpanned in what would become his stock line of the day, according to reports from other screenings, “it must mean one thing - I’ve finished the movie.” In fact, he had only just done so. He finally signed off on Les Misérables at 2am on Thanksgiving Thursday. If the director had found it difficult to stomach the turkey that day, he should have spared himself the butterflies. Les Misérables earned at least four ovations during that Santa Monica screening and the applause rippled across town.

According to guild and academy members canvassed by Screen in an unabashedly unscientific poll, the movie is a muscular best picture candidate. The excellence of the music is anchored by notable performances from Barks, Redmayne, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and an extraordinary Hugh Jackman.

Les Misérables will take on front runner Anna Karenina in the crafts categories and of course it seems likely Hooper himself will be in the running yet again for best director honours.

In this regard the Brit abroad will most likely vie for the prize with filmmaking royalty. Top of the list is Steven Spielberg, whose Lincoln is a cerebral treat that has, to be fair, garnered more respect than love. Ang Lee has won fans for his wondrous Life Of Pi and Affleck, as mentioned, is a solid prospect for Argo.

The young American has the right profile. He is smart, popular and has already built up a small body of respected work. Affleck continues to tread the comeback trail after his Jennifer Lopez days dovetailed with what was then a fizzling career as an actor. Hollywood likes a redemption story and Les Misérables is not the only one in town.

Robert Zemeckis and Paul Thomas Anderson have been hailed for fine work for Flight and The Master, respectively, and could galvanise critics groups. People are hot for Silver Linings Playbook, which earlier this week earned five Spirit Award nods. Director David O Russell is a first-rate film-maker who will benefit from Harvey Weinstein’s campaign experience.

The genius of Michael Haneke is renowned and the Austrian’s support will ensure he floats into view, though Amour’s themes of ageing and mortality may hit too close to home for the Academy’s older demographic. Newcomer Benh Zeitlin has earned widespread admiration for Beasts Of The Southern Wild and has just picked up a couple of Gotham awards and a best director Spirit Award nomination.

Before Nov 25 there were three major unseen works: Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. The Hobbit was due to receive its world premiere in Wellington, New Zealand, at the end of Nov while Django starts screening from early December.

US distributor Sony set a slew of shows on Nov 25 in Los Angeles for Zero Dark Thirty. The consensus seemed to be positive for Bigelow’s follow-up to the 2010 Oscar winner The Hurt Locker.

So far Jessica Chastain has stood out the most, wowing critics with her performance as a CIA operative whose hunch leads to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Chastain is admired by her peers and has been spoken of for some time as an emerging great.

While it is no surprise she can lead a cast, the response to her performance represents a big pendulum swing in what has been a prosaic best actress race punctuated by two intense performances from France: Marion Cotillard in Rust And Bone and Emmanuelle Riva in Amour.

Naomi Watts is generating buzz for her role in The Impossible, though the tsunami drama itself remains low-key despite spectacular Spanish box office. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are in the running for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Smith’s role in Quartet. Helen Mirren has not yet generated much critical mass for her role as Alma Reville in Hitchcock.

The wild card is nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, the precocious talent who cut a dash silhouetted against fireworks and heaving levees in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Can Wallis’ feral turn as an inhabitant of a disenfranchised, deliriously defiant bayou community earn a nomination? Her feistiness and cute looks have won hearts and minds. Time will tell.

Les Misérables’ Anne Hathaway is now a strong bet for supporting actress and joins Amy Adams from The Master, Sally Field from Lincoln and Helen Hunt from The Sessions in the race. Flight’s Kelly Reilly is one of several dark horses who could cause an upset. For the men, Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook is a front runner for supporting actor with Lincoln’s Tommy Lee Jones.

The best lead actor category is fierce and too close to call. Daniel Day-Lewis’ measured portrait of Abraham Lincoln has earned favourable reviews. Denzel Washington delivered fabulous work as a troubled airline pilot in Flight. John Hawkes set Sundance alight when he played the late polio sufferer Mark O’Brien in The Sessions. Joaquin Phoenix in The Master is beguiling but may have shot himself in the foot when he gave an interview and lambasted the raison d’etre of awards.

The bright new prospect is Hugh Jackman. The Australian stage veteran is memorable as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables and his magnificent voice and stirring performance have set tongues wagging in Hollywood.

Musicals tend not to thrive at the modern Academy Awards. The last time a musical prevailed at the Oscars was Chicago back in 2003. The awards race is unpredictable, but 10 years on there are rumblings that Les Misérables seems destined for more than just a shot at Golden Globes glory.