LOS ANGELES (AP) — A few weeks ago, the Oscar race looked wide open. The stately, historical "Lincoln" seemed like the safe and likely choice, with the provocative "Zero Dark Thirty" and the quirky and inspiring "Silver Linings Playbook" very much in the mix for the Academy Award for best picture.
But now, an "Argo" juggernaut — an "Argo"-naut, if you will — seems to be rolling along and gathering momentum as we head toward Hollywood's top prize.
The international thriller from director Ben Affleck, who also stars as a CIA operative orchestrating a daring rescue during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, received the top honor of best ensemble cast in a movie at Sunday night's Screen Actors Guild Awards, their equivalent of the best-picture Oscar. It's a decent indicator of eventual Academy Awards success, with the two matching up about half the time.
The film, which also stars John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood veterans who help stage a fake movie as a cover, has received nearly unanimous critical raves and has proven to be a box-office favorite, as well, grossing nearly $190 million worldwide.
But "Argo" also won the Producers Guild of America Award on Saturday night, which is an excellent Oscar predictor, and it earned best picture and director statues from the Golden Globes two weeks earlier. The Directors Guild of America Awards next Saturday will help crystallize the situation even further.
The one tricky thing at work here: Affleck surprisingly didn't receive an Academy Award nomination in the director category, which most often goes hand in hand with best picture. (There are nine best-picture nominees but only five slots for directors.) Only once in modern times has a film won best picture without a directing nomination: 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy." The other two times came in the show's early years, at the first Oscars in 1929 with "Wings" and for 1932's "Grand Hotel."
Asked backstage at the SAG Awards what might happen when the Oscar winners are announced Feb. 24, Affleck said: "I don't do handicapping or try to divine what's going to happen down the road with movies.
"I didn't get nominated as a director and I thought, 'OK, that's that.' Then I remembered that I was nominated as a producer," said Affleck, who already has an original screenplay Oscar for writing 1997's "Good Will Hunting" with longtime friend Matt Damon. "Nothing may happen but it's a wonderful opportunity to be on the ride and I'm really honored."
Many of the usual suspects throughout the lengthy awards season heard their names called again Sunday night, including Daniel Day-Lewis as best actor for his intense, deeply immersed portrayal of the 16th U.S. president in "Lincoln." Accepting the prize on stage, he gave thanks to several of his colleagues including "The Master" star Joaquin Phoenix (who did not receive a SAG nomination), Leonardo DiCaprio and Liam Neeson.
Backstage, Day-Lewis elaborated for reporters that DiCaprio urged him to stick with Steven Spielberg's project, which was in the works for many years.
"He said, 'Don't give up, he's the greatest man of the 19th century,'" Day-Lewis said. "So this is all Leo's fault."
His co-star, Tommy Lee Jones, also won again in the supporting-actor category for his lacerating portrayal of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens in Spielberg's Civil War epic.
Anne Hathaway, the front-runner for best supporting actress at the Oscars and a winner already at the Golden Globes, won at the SAGs for her performance as the doomed prostitute Fantine in the gritty musical "Les Miserables."
"I'm just thrilled I have dental," Hathaway joked on stage.
But in the already-tight best actress race, Jennifer Lawrence made things a little more interesting in winning for the drama "Silver Linings Playbook." The 22-year-old plays a damaged young widow opposite Bradley Cooper, whose character is fresh out of a mental institution. Jessica Chastain, the winner at the Golden Globes, has been her main competition as a driven CIA operative searching for Osama bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty."
Lawrence said on stage that she got her SAG card at 14 — which was only eight short years ago — for a promo for the MTV reality series "My Super Sweet 16," which she said felt like the best day of her life.
"And now I have this naked statue which means that some of you even voted for me, and that is an indescribable feeling," she said.
On the television side, the popular PBS series "Downton Abbey" bested more established shows like "Mad Men" to win the TV drama cast award in just its first nomination. "Modern Family" won the comedy cast prize for the third straight year.
And Dick Van Dyke received the guild's life-achievement award, an honor he presented last year to his "The Dick Van Dyke Show" co-star, Mary Tyler Moore.
After receiving a lengthy standing ovation from the audience, he asked his fellow actors, "Aren't we lucky that we found a line of work that doesn't require growing up?"
Contact AP Movie Writer Christy Lemire through Twitter: http://twitter.com/christylemire
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.