HOLLYWOOD: Everything Everywhere All at Once, a wacky sci-fi film featuring multiple universes, sex toys and hot dog fingers, enters Sunday's (Mar 12) Oscars ceremony as the highly unorthodox frontrunner for best picture.
Academy bosses hope audiences will tune in to see whether the zany US$100 million-grossing hit can claim Hollywood's most coveted prize - and draw a line under Will Smith's infamous slap at last year's gala.
Everything Everywhere - which leads the overall nominations count at 11 - follows a Chinese immigrant laundromat owner locked in battle with an inter-dimensional supervillain who happens to also be her own daughter.
Michelle Yeoh's heroine Evelyn must harness the power of her alter egos living in parallel universes, which feature hot dogs as human fingers, talking rocks and giant dildos used as weapons.
The film has dominated nearly every awards show in Hollywood, with its charismatic, predominantly Asian stars becoming the feel-good story of the season.
"It's a group of very likable people behind the movie who it's impossible to not be happy for," Hollywood Reporter awards columnist Scott Feinberg told AFP.
But although the quirky film is widely expected to dominate Oscars night, it could hit a stumbling block for best picture.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences uses a special "preferential" voting system for that award, in which members rank films from best to worst.
The approach punishes polarising films.
One Oscars voter who asked not to be identified told AFP that some members - particularly among the Academy's older ranks - are "more divided about Everything Everywhere All at Once."
"It was very bold and unique, but not a traditional movie ... it could be further down the ballot for a lot of people," the voter said.
If any rival can benefit, it is likely All Quiet on the Western Front, Netflix's German-language World War I movie that dominated Britain's BAFTAs.
Another potential beneficiary is Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited sequel from Tom Cruise - no less a figure than Steven Spielberg recently said the actor and his film "might have saved the entire theatrical industry" from the pandemic.
"It was that movie that brought audiences back to movie theaters," said the anonymous Oscars voter.
While the best picture race has a clear favourite, the acting contests are incredibly tight.
"I can't remember a year, at least in the time I've been doing it, where three of the four acting categories were true toss-ups," said Feinberg.
For best actress, Cate Blanchett had long been favourite to win a third Oscar for Tar, but Everything Everywhere love could propel Yeoh to a historic first win by an Asian woman in the category.
"I think that Michelle Yeoh will probably win," said the Oscars voter. "Cate Blanchett has already won twice ... some people vote with that in the back of their mind."
Best actor is a three-horse race between Austin Butler (Elvis), Brendan Fraser (The Whale) and Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin).
And the supporting actress race may be even closer.
Angela Bassett, the first Marvel superhero actor ever nominated with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, is up against Everything Everywhere star Jamie Lee Curtis and Banshees actress Kerry Condon.
One category does appear to be locked.
Ke Huy Quan, the former child star of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, has won every best supporting actor prize going and looks near-certain to complete a comeback story for the ages.
Hanging over the ceremony is the specter of The Slap - the shocking moment at last year's Oscars when Smith assaulted Chris Rock on stage for cracking a joke about his wife.
At a press conference this week, Oscars executive producer Molly McNearney said: "We're going to acknowledge it, and then we're going to move on."
Organizers were criticised last year for allowing Smith to remain at the show after the attack, and even collect his best actor award.
He was later banned from Oscars events for a decade, meaning he cannot present the best actress statuette this year, as is traditional.
A "crisis team" has been set up for the first time, to immediately respond to any unexpected developments.
Partly thanks to "The Slap," last year's Oscars TV ratings improved from record lows, but remained well below their late 1990s peak, as interest in awards shows wanes and doomsayers continue to predict the demise of theatergoing.
This year, organizers have brought back Jimmy Kimmel as host for a third stint, and hope that nominations for widely watched blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water will bring viewers back.
In 1997, when the wildly popular Titanic won 11 Oscars, a record 57 million tuned in.
"If the public cares about the movies, they care about the Oscars, relatively more," said Feinberg.