The Artist leads the top nominations with Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director among others.
Veteran Oscars host Billy Crystal launched Hollywood's biggest night Sunday with a spoof video skit featuring the year's key nominees, as silent film The Artist eyed Academy Awards gold.
Hosting the show for his ninth time, he appeared in a series of clips beginning with a black-and-white nod to the French-directed movie, featuring stars including Justin Bieber and George Clooney -- who kissed Crystal.
The When Harry Met Sally star then launched into a song and dance routine also including references to other movies including Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Clooney's Hawaiian-themed family drama The Descendants.
Hollywood's biggest night was expected to be a battle between two odes to film-making -- French-directed black-and-white movie The Artist and Scorsese's 3D adventure Hugo.
The first two awards of the night went to Hugo -- about the French grandfather of early cinema, Georges Melies -- for cinematography and art direction.
But the spectacle began even before the curtain went up, with the usual procession of glamour gowns on the red carpet leading into the Oscars, the climax of Hollywood's annual awards season.
British comic Sacha Baron Cohen also pulled a colorful stunt, defying a warning against coming dressed as the star of his latest movie -- and pouring the faux ashes of late North Korean leader Jim Kong-Il onto the red carpet.
The list of presenters is chock full of heavy-hitters -- last year's best actress and actor Natalie Portman and Colin Firth will join Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie among others.
Hugo went into the show with the most nominations, at 11, with The Artist just behind on 10.
Scorsese is not the only legendary director in the mix -- Woody Allen is in the running for best picture honors for his comeback hit Midnight in Paris, and Steven Spielberg will gun for the top prize with War Horse.
Buddies Clooney and Brad Pitt will duke it out for best actor, but "Artist" star Jean Dujardin, who has won a slew of awards for his portrayal of a struggling silent-era movie star, could best them both.
Clooney downplayed his hopes of winning best actor before the show, saying: "I have a feeling in the best actor race you're going to hear someone speaking French."
Meryl Streep could take home her first Oscar in three decades for a powerful turn as former British premier Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," in a battle against cross-dressing Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs.
Rooney Mara, who plays damaged hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is also in the running for the best actress prize, as is Michelle Williams for her turn as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn.
But Oscar watchers say they could all be beaten by Viola Davis, whose role as a black maid in The Help -- set in Mississippi against the backdrop of the 1960s civil rights struggle -- has earned her an outpouring of praise.
Davis' co-star Octavia Spencer is seen as a top contender in the best supporting actress category. Castmate Jessica Chastain is also nominated along with Berenice Bejo from "The Artist" and Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids.
Janet McTeer rounds out the category with her gender-bending turn opposite Close in Albert Nobbs.
The Help is also among the nine movies nominated for best picture, along with War Horse, The Artist, Moneyball, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Hugo and powerful 9/11 film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Also up for the top prize is Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which won the coveted Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
Supporting actor top tips are Christopher Plummer in Beginners and Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud. Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn, Jonah Hill in Moneyball and Nick Nolte in Warrior are also in the race.
The easy foreign language film frontrunner is Iran's A Separation, which has already won a series of awards season prizes including a Spirit Award on Saturday. It competes against films from Belgium, Canada, Israel and Poland.