This year’s Oscars race, which began with January’s conventional wisdom favoring “Lincoln,” blew wide open as “Argo” began a monthlong surge of critics’ and movie guild awards. For a brief, exciting period, it appeared to be a competitive horse race, one of the most unpredictable and unique awards seasons in years.

While Sunday’s Academy Awards had their share of surprises — not the least First Lady Michelle Obama’s introduction of the best picture award — the competition settled into mostly predictable form. To the surprise of no one, she announced the winner: “Argo,” which dramatized the collaboration between Hollywood and the CIA to free six American diplomats trapped in the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Actor/director Ben Affleck, who was snubbed for a best-director nomination, effusively thanked everyone connected with the film, his wife and even Canada, whose consulate played a key role in helping the Americans escape.

It is unusual for a film to win Hollywood’s top prize without also receiving a best director nomination. It last happened for 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy” and twice earlier in the Oscars’ infancy.

The biggest shock of the evening was Ang Lee’s best-director award for the phantasmagorical shipwreck saga “Life of Pi.” He had won in 2005 for “Brokeback Mountain.” Steven Spielberg had been considered the front runner for his stately, mature “Lincoln.”

“Thank you, movie god,” Lee said, beaming. To his crew, cast and producers, he said, “Thank you for believing in the journey. Thank you for taking the leap with me.”

For the most part, however, the big contests were settled in the early rounds of awards ceremonies. “Lincoln” star Daniel Day-Lewis sailed to his third best actor Oscar, making him the only performer to win a hat trick.

“I really don’t know how all this happened,” he said in a humble and humorous acceptance speech. “I had been committed to play Margaret Thatcher, and Meryl [Streep, who presented his Oscar] was Steven’s first choice to play Lincoln,” he joked. Ending on a serious note he thanked “the mysteriously beautiful ... spirit of Abraham Lincoln.”

As predicted, Jennifer Lawrence pulled ahead of the pack to win a best actress Oscar as a funny, unstable new widow in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Even an actress as accomplished as Anne Hathaway had trouble looking surprised when she accepted her award as best supporting actress for “Les Miserables.”

“It came true,” said Hathaway, whose signature moment in the film comes when she belts out “I Dreamed a Dream.”

In a rare show of spreading the wealth, the top awards went to six different movies. But for anyone expecting upsets, shocks and snubs in the major categories, the ceremony was a predetermined drag.

The first prize of the night, for best supporting actor, looked to be especially competitive. For the first time, each of the contenders — “Argo’s” Alan Arkin, “Silver Linings Playbook’s” Robert De Niro, “The Master’s” Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Lincoln’s” Tommy Lee Jones and “Django Unchained’s” Christoph Waltz — was already an Oscar winner. DeNiro campaigned hard for the award with an uncharacteristic round of television appearances. Arkin, playing a sly old Hollywood producer, had a role close to the voters’ hearts. Jones won the Screen Actors Guild award, while Waltz won the Golden Globe and Britain’s BAFTA.

The winner was Waltz, who, in truth, was the favorite, since the BAFTA win matched six of the last seven Oscar winners, while SAG only went five for eight.

In a choked voice, Waltz offered thanks to his character and “to his creator and the creator of his awe-inspiring world, Quentin Tarantino.” A veteran performer in Germany and his native Austria, Waltz had been a virtual unknown in Hollywood when Tarantino cast him as a gleefully evil Nazi in 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” which won him his first Oscar. Backstage, Waltz had a simple explanation for why the collaboration works: “Quentin writes poetry, and I like poetry.”

One unexpected turn was a rare tie in the sound-editing category, with “Skyfall” and “Zero Dark Thirty” each receiving an award. There have only been a handful of ties in Oscar history.

A feeling of inevitability reverberated through most of the evening of envelope-ripping. British pop star and Grammy magnet Adele added another award to her bulging shelf with the Oscar for best original song. Her win for “Skyfall” was all but foreordained when the recording studio was rented.

William Goldenberg, who edited both “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo,” won for Ben Affleck’s film. Since the film editing and best picture awards generally go hand in hand, his award seemed to foretell an “Argo” lock on the top prize. Chris Terrio’s best adapted screenplay for the film effectively sealed the deal.

Previous winner Quentin Tarantino praised his “Django” cast for bringing his characters to life as he brandished his best original screenplay statuette.

“I only get one chance to get it right, and boy, did I,” he said. He also commended the other nominees in both writing categories, declaring that this would be remembered as “the writer’s year.”

The Scottish fantasy “Brave” won the invincible Pixar Studios its seventh award since the animated feature category was founded in 2002. “Paperman,” the polished romantic entry from Disney, won for best animated short against an undistinguished field of artsy, rather boring contenders.

In the cinematography award, three-time winner Robert Richardson (“Django”) faced Roger Deakins (“Skyfall”), who won the American Society of Cinematographers award, and Janusz Kaminski, whose two Oscar wins came for Spielberg’s best-director winning films “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” None of the other films measured up to the epic visual fantasy of “Life of Pi,” however, and it was no shock when Claudio Miranda — a relative newcomer — took the prize for that film.

“Pi” also predictably scooped up the best-visual-effects award for its remarkable digitally rendered images of phosphorescent sea creatures, eerie jungle islands and a thoroughly convincing 400-pound Bengal tiger that prowls and growls through more half the scenes. Though Peter Jackson’s films have never lost in this category, he shot “The Hobbit” with a new 48-frames-per-second film technology, twice as fast as standard films, in an effort to make it more “immersive.” The technique divided audiences, and snapped Jackson’s winning streak for technical Oscars.

Academy voters nominated Austrian art film king Michael Haneke’s “Amour” as a best picture contender, Haneke as a finalist for best director and his 85-year old star Emmanuelle Riva as best actress. No surprise, then, when the old-age love story won in the parallel category as best foreign film.