( AP ) - One evening last November, a handful of journalists and industry insiders eased into the plush armchairs of a Hollywood screening room to watch "The Golden Compass," the Nicole Kidman fantasy based on the first novel in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.
New Line Cinema had been touting the costly movie as a sure-fire awards contender, destined to take its place alongside their last major Oscar winner, 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."
Within hours, New Line's hopes crashed as e-mails and text messages swept across town. After two years, $180 million in production costs and the best efforts of the studio's Oscar campaigners, the movie would go on to be shut out of the major categories.
Welcome to the reality of the Oscar race, in which highly touted thoroughbreds can pull up lame while unheralded upstarts turn into Seabiscuits.
This year has seen its share of both. "Juno," a $7 million comedy that premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2006, came out of nowhere and surprised even its director, Jason Reitman, when it earned four nominations, including one for Reitman himself. But far more often this season, pictures stumbled along the way.
Remember "Lust, Caution?" The tony teaming of director Ang Lee, co-writer James Schamus and Asian superstar Tony Leung never gathered momentum, despite wowing at the Venice Film Festival.
Then there was "In the Valley of Elah," Paul Haggis' follow-up to his 2006 best picture Oscar winner "Crash." The movie got only one nomination -- for its star, Tommy Lee Jones.
Even films that did well with both critics and audiences got lost in the mix -- like Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" and Marc Forster's "The Kite Runner."
What is surprising about this season is how long it took for the real contenders to emerge; indeed, it was not until the very beginning of this month that there was a true front-runner for best picture.
But after winning the top awards from the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America, Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" has emerged as the favorite.
The Miramax/Paramount Vantage co-production's long journey began unusually early, at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Several American-made movies competed for the Palme d'Or, but the jury gave the top prize to Romania's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," shutting "No Country" out of the winner's circle altogether, despite its laudatory response.
A lull followed Cannes, interrupted by Venice in late August, where "Atonement" and "Michael Clayton" debuted strongly.
Then, at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September, historically a launching pad for Oscar winners, no single film emerged with front-runner Oscar buzz, though word of mouth increased for "No Country," "Clayton" and "Atonement," all of which played there.
Toronto also solidified "Juno's" emergence. "There was a press screening on Friday afternoon that got applause -- and, as Roger Ebert said, he had never heard that at a press screening before," notes one of "Juno's" producers, Russell Smith.
Fox Searchlight had intended to release "Juno" in the spring, but after Toronto's raucous screenings, it rethought its strategy. "That convinced Searchlight: Don't wait for this movie; let's figure out a way to put it out in the fall," Smith says.
Still, in the weeks following Toronto, the Oscar scene looked bleak. There was no buzz, no front-runner and one awards-targeted movie after another tanked at the box office.
Four out of Focus Features' five contenders died: David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," Terry George's " Reservation Road," Kasi Lemmons' "Talk to Me" and even "Lust, Caution." Only "Atonement" survived the onslaught after its release was delayed by three months to the second weekend of December.
Over at Paramount Vantage, three awards contenders -- "Into the Wild," "Margot at the Wedding" and "A Mighty Heart" -- opened to weak grosses. While "Wild" won over enough fans to stay in the running, the two other failures took insiders by surprise.
Hopes were also dashed for other highly anticipated releases, like the Tom Cruise-Robert Redford collaboration "Lions for Lambs," the first screenings of which left many in the media shocked into silence.
By the middle of the fall, awards season was in disarray. "Gone Baby Gone" had opened to decent business and good reviews on October 19, but only the performance by Amy Ryan generated lasting appeal.
It was against this background that "No Country" proved a sensation at the New York Film Festival in early October and then added to its strength with excellent box office when it opened November 9.
"Up until then, everybody was saying independent film was dead," says Mark Gill, former president of Warner Independent and now CEO of the Film Department. "If Miramax had opened it a few weeks later, it would not have done nearly as well. But when it opened, it was the only film that anyone who loved films was talking about."
Still, "No Country" was by no means a lock. Its ending left even fans disappointed, and its violence loomed as a major obstacle to winning an Oscar.
Then the first of the big awards bodies, the National Board of Review, gave "No Country" its top prize. "That really helps; it really anoints it," Gill says.
This was soon followed by the New York Film Critics Circle Award, among others. Indeed, more critics groups named "No Country" best picture than any other film -- though the Los Angeles critics opted for "There Will Be Blood," helping Paul Thomas Anderson's film pick up some steam. ("Blood" was also a Paramount Vantage/Miramax co-production.)
With "Blood" and "No Country" jostling for attention, and with "Michael Clayton" and "Atonement" nipping at their heels, insiders waited for the December 13 Golden Globe nominations, convinced they would add clarity.
But the Globes made things even more complicated by selecting an eye-popping seven movies in the best dramatic picture category.
Uncertainty turned into utter confusion a month later, in mid-January, when the Globes named "Atonement" best drama and "Sweeney Todd" best comedy/musical -- while failing to give any picture more than two awards.
"The Globes saved 'Atonement,"' says Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse. "It seemed to be faltering before that. But they also had an amazing ad campaign that is the most aggressive in making you believe this is an Academy Award-winning movie."
The Globes seemed to dent "No Country's" hopes. But as time went by, insiders had begun to re-evaluate the film. The ending seemed less troubling. And the picture's violence did not seem any worse than, say, "Sweeney Todd's" or "Blood's" or the 2007 best picture winner "The Departed."
When the Oscar nominations finally were unveiled January 22, few were surprised that "No Country" tied "Blood" with eight nominations apiece.
Then the Hollywood guilds all opted for "No Country," making the front-runner obvious.
Now "No Country" is the film to beat. But does that mean it is certain to win? Oscar veterans theorize that it and "Blood" could split the same indie-leaning vote, leaving an opening for "Atonement" or "Clayton." "Juno" could even ride its uniqueness into an upset win. This is no awards season for the weak of heart.