On a chilly evening in Los Angeles, it comes down to this: nerds vs. royals, critics vs. moviemakers, maturity vs. youth, tradition vs. iconoclasm.
The 83rd Academy Awards arrive with some races seemingly decided, others hanging in the air.
They come after a season of dramatic shifts, a season in which David Fincher's challenging "The Social Network" racked up an unprecedented string of critics' award victories, and then Tom Hooper's crowd-pleasing "The King's Speech" enjoyed a dominant run with the Hollywood guilds.
Unless "The Fighter" or something else pulls off an upset for the ages, the final envelope opened on Sunday night at the Kodak Theater will contain the name of either Hooper's film, or Fincher's.
It could put the capper on a night in which "The King's Speech" sweeps through the field and takes home, eight, 10 or more of its 12 nominations, or it could mark the startling resurgence of "The Social Network," and prove once again that the Academy has come to agree with the critics much of the time.
At this point, after a battle that started when both films began screening in early September, few would argue that the King has the upper hand and is the likely winner.
But there's still some drama and uncertainty left in this race — and while last year's battle between "The Hurt Locker" and "Avatar" was painted as a David vs. Goliath scenario, in many ways the "King's Speech"/"Social Network" divide is almost as dramatic.
Fincher is part of a (relatively) young breed of non-traditional directors who came up through independent film, music videos or commercials, and whose early films were critically acclaimed but too tough and divisive for the Academy. (Other members of the group include Darren Aronofsky, nominated for "Black Swan," Christopher Nolan, whose "Inception" has eight nominations; and the Coen Brothers, who broke through with the Best Picture winner "No Country for Old Men" two years ago and are now back with "True Grit.")
Fincher's film, which famously deals with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is tough and unsentimental, with Aaron Sorkin's machine-gun dialogue playing out against a defiantly untraditional musical score by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and collaborator Atticus Ross.
"The Social Network" is very much a movie of the time — which is why, its many backers say, it should stand as emblematic of 2010, and why some think it's just too daring (i.e., too young) for the Academy.
Hooper, on the other hand, is a lesser-known Brit whose major work before "The King's Speech" was the HBO miniseries "John Adams."
He is not a maverick, but an accomplished filmmaker who treats his period drama with an unexpectedly light touch, given the earnestness and import of its story about how Britain's reluctant king, George VI, dealt with a debilitating stammer on the eve of World War II.
"The King's Speech" is not a movie for 2010, but the kind of film that has won Academy acclaim across the ages. Critics, for the most part, have been appreciative, but audiences swoon — and the Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild all agreed, which gave the film its current status as the clear frontrunner.
Fincher largely stayed off the campaign trail this season; Hooper tirelessly worked it.
Fincher had Scott Rudin, who twice produced two Best Picture nominees in the same year, on his side.
Hooper had Harvey Weinstein, who transformed Oscar campaigning at Miramax and whose history with Rudin has not always been collegial.
Juicy plot lines abound — and even if the frontrunner walks away with the top prize, there are plenty of other dramas playing out at the 83rd Oscars, and other questions to be answered:
Will Hooper beat Fincher for the Best Director award, overcoming the groundswell of sentiment that this is going to be a rare year in which the picture and director awards split?
Will the sly, subversive and controversial "Exit Through the Gift Shop" come out on top in a fiercely competitive Best Documentary Feature category, or will the more traditional, sober "Inside Job" (or the more inspirational "Waste Land") click with Oscar voters?
And if "Exit" does win, will its elusive director, Banksy, make his presence known?
In a wide-open Supporting Actress race, will onetime frontrunner Melissa Leo ("The Fighter") survive her campaign stumbles, or could she lose to her well-liked co-star Amy Adams, or the lead performance from 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit," or Helena Bonham Carter in a "King's Speech" sweep, or even dark horse Jacki Weaver from "Animal Kingdom?"
Can Annette Bening upset Natalie Portman for Best Actress?
Can anyone beat Christian Bale?
Will "Inception," without key directing or editing nominations, wind up with the second-biggest haul of the night?
Can anything possibly beat "Toy Story 3" in the Animated Feature category?
And what of the show itself? James Franco and Anne Hathaway are attractive and multi-talented, but can they simultaneously work a very tough room and communicate with hundreds of millions of TV viewers?
It has been a year of momentum changes, a year that has prompted questions about whether the old idea of an "Oscar movie" still exists. It has also been a year without notably negative or dirty campaigning, give or take the odd whisper campaign against the accuracy of whichever film happened to be the frontrunner.
And now, over the course of three hours and change, it all comes to a head.
The red carpet will be cold and the Kodak Theater tense, but the end is in sight.
(Photos by Jonathan Alcorn)