BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Crusaders for good, old-fashioned Western democracy look to be the key figures vying for this year's Academy Awards.
Best-picture favorites for Thursday morning's Oscar nominations include "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's portrait of the great emancipator who abolished slavery and reunified the United States; "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's chronicle of the hunt for U.S. public enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden; and "Les Miserables," Tom Hooper's musical epic set against an uprising of freedom fighters in 19th century France.
Among other prospects are "Argo," Ben Affleck's thriller about a CIA scheme to save Americans from Iran amid the 1979 hostage crisis; "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's bloody revenge saga about a former slave hunting white oppressors just before the Civil War; and "Life of Pi," Ang Lee's story of a free-thinking Indian youth cast adrift on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger while traveling to a new life in North America.
This year's nominations come earlier than usual in Hollywood's long awards season, leaving the awards picture a bit murkier. By the time Oscar nominations come out most years, the Golden Globes already have given their trophies, helping to sort out prospective front-runners for show business' biggest night.
The nominations this time precede the Golden Globes ceremony, which follows on Sunday.
The Globes and other honors presented in late January and February by directors, actors, writers and producers guilds will clear up the best-picture race for the Oscars. Right now, "Lincoln," "Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty" appear the most likely contenders for the top prize.
All three films come from directors who delivered best-picture winners in the past: Spielberg with 1993's "Schindler's List," Bigelow with 2009's "The Hurt Locker" and Hooper with 2010's "The King's Speech." Bigelow also won the directing Oscar, the first woman ever to earn that honor, Hooper earned the same prize a year later, and Spielberg has received the directing trophy twice, for "Schindler's List" and 1998's "Saving Private Ryan."
"Lincoln" also has good chances on acting nominations for three past winners: two-time Oscar recipients Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and supporting actor recipient Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens.
"Zero Dark Thirty" star Jessica Chastain, a supporting-actress nominee last season for "The Help," is in the running for a best-actress slot this time as a CIA operative relentlessly pursuing bin Laden.
Two past Oscar ceremony hosts have strong shots at nominations for "Les Miserables": Hugh Jackman for best actor as Victor Hugo's tragic hero Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway for supporting actress as a doomed single mother forced into prostitution.
Other acting possibilities include Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro for the oddball romance "Silver Linings Playbook; Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz for "Django Unchained"; Affleck and Alan Arkin for "Argo"; John Hawkes and Helen Hunt for the sex-surrogate story "The Sessions"; Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams for the 1950s cult tale "The Master"; Bill Murray for the Franklin Roosevelt comic drama "Hyde Park on Hudson"; Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren for the filmmaking chronicle "Hitchcock"; Marion Cotillard for the French-language drama "Rust and Bone"; and Denzel Washington for the airliner-crash saga "Flight."
Winners for the 85th Oscars will be announced Feb. 24 at a ceremony aired live on ABC from Hollywood's Dolby Theatre.
"Family Guy" creator and vocal star Seth MacFarlane -- a versatile performer whose work includes directing and voicing for the title character of last summer's hit "Ted" and a Frank Sinatra-style album of standards -- is the Oscar host.
Thursday's nominees will be announced at 8:40 a.m. EST by "The Amazing Spider-Man" star Emma Stone and MacFarlane, the first time that an Oscar show host has joined in the preliminary announcement since 1972, when Charlton Heston participated on nominations day.