LOS ANGELES (AFP) - All eyes will be on Hollywood Tuesday as the Oscars nominees are unveiled, with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ahead by a nose in an awards season overshadowed by the industry's war on sleaze.
In a departure from previous years, there are very few clear front-runners for the March 4 gala, making the major categories a genuine sprint to the finish line rather than the perfunctory coronation sometimes inflicted on viewers.
The announcements are also being seen as an opportunity for the industry to support female film-making, with the #MeToo and Time's Up campaigns against sexual misconduct and gender inequality a mainstay of the 2018 awards circuit.
After 12 months of breakthrough movies by women about women - led by directors such as Dee Rees, Patty Jenkins and Greta Gerwig - the Oscars could also right the historic wrong of female filmmakers rarely getting acknowledged.
"Whatever happens, the #MeToo movement will... play a big part in the event," predicted Tom Wood, a film writer for the millennial-skewing viral content portal Lad Bible.
"Hollywood is still being rocked by allegations of historical sexual abuse from some huge names and they will be looking to grow the movement to empower victims to speak out against their abusers and raise awareness." .
The nominated movies, actors and filmmakers will be unveiled at a pre-dawn announcement, with industry watchers placing Three Billboards - buoyed by strong showings at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards - in pole position for best film.
The movie, about a campaign for justice waged by "the Dirty Harry of grieving mothers" - hat tip to Vanity Fair for a clever turn of phrase - is also favourite to win best actress (Frances McDormand) and supporting actor (Sam Rockwell).
But the movie faces stiff competition from Gerwig's coming-of-age tale Lady Bird and Guillermo del Toro's fantasy romance The Shape of Water. In a year when the top awards could be relatively evenly spread, expect same-sex romance Call Me by Your Name, dark satire Get Out, tense war movie Dunkirk and Pentagon Papers thriller The Post all to be in the mix too.
Tuesday's nominations follow weekend awards ceremonies hosted by the guilds of both producers and actors - ceremonies seen as bellwethers for the Academy Awards.
The Shape of Water, a 1960s-set fairy tale about a mute government laboratory janitor falling in love with a merman-like creature, was deemed best movie by the Producers Guild and picked up best director for Del Toro at January's Golden Globes.
But the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) gave the victory for best cast - deemed as encouraging a signifier for the best picture Oscar as the producers' endorsement - to Three Billboards. Sunday's SAGs also rewarded Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) and Allison Janney (I, Tonya), as well as McDormand and Rockwell for Three Billboards, all of whom took home trophies from the Globes or the Critics' Choice Awards.
Janney and Rockwell should expect strong competition in the Oscars supporting acting categories from Globes nominees Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) and Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird).
Oldman - perhaps the only clear leader in the major categories - has remained the firm lead actor front-runner for weeks, while McDormand and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) face a photo finish in March.
Tempting as it always is by late January to view the Oscars race as done and dusted, there are invariably twists in the final weeks as movies lose momentum or are tainted by scandal.
Allegations, ranging from harassment to rape, have dogged Hollywood since October, leading to the downfall of numerous powerful figures including Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor and Brett Ratner.
Figures tainted by the scandal such as James Franco (The Disaster Artist) have seen their Oscars campaigns badly damaged or, in the case of Spacey - who was expunged from All the Money in the World after filming was completed - wiped out entirely.
Meanwhile, stars attending the various Tinseltown ceremonies - whether through defiant acceptance speeches at the podium or sober attire on the red carpet - have been careful to send a message that Hollywood is no longer tolerating sleaze.
Roughly 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - a more diverse bunch than the old white men's club maligned in previous years - stopped voting for nominees on January 12.
"The point is, there's a very long phase two still ahead, two weeks longer than usual due to the Winter Olympics," Variety magazine's awards editor Kris Tapley wrote on Sunday.
"A lot can happen. Final Oscar ballots are due in 37 days - an eternity."