LOS ANGELES – They defeated the evil lord Sauron. They won legions of fans. There's just one hurdle left for the people of Middle-earth.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (search) is expected to claim the best-picture crown at Sunday's Academy Awards, ending filmmaker Peter Jackson's seven-year march toward serious critical acceptance of the fantasy genre.
"The Return of the King" leads the field with 11 nominations and looks like an easy winner over the other best-picture nominees, "Lost in Translation," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," "Mystic River" and "Seabiscuit."
Jackson seems assured of winning the directing prize — technically, for "Return of the King," but in reality for the monumental achievement of bringing all three installments of J.R.R. Tolkien's (search) epic to life with such depth, drama and visual flair.
Other Oscar front-runners include Charlize Theron (search) as best actress for "Monster," Tim Robbins as supporting actor for "Mystic River" and Renee Zellweger as supporting actress for "Cold Mountain."
Sean Penn, long considered the best-actor favorite for "Mystic River," found fresh competition after Johnny Depp of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" took the lead-actor honor at last weekend's Screen Actors Guild Awards, boosting his Oscar prospects. Bill Murray also is a strong best-actor rival for "Lost in Translation."
The story of the night, though, is "The Lord of the Rings." The three films came out just a year apart, building into a nearly 10-hour saga that has grossed $2.8 billion at theaters worldwide. A best-picture win Sunday would make "Return of the King" the first fantasy film ever to win the top Oscar.
The first two parts — "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers" — both were nominated but lost.
This awards season, the cast and crew of "Lord of the Rings" have resembled a real-life fellowship on an emotional farewell tour, traveling from awards show to awards show.
"We've all had a long time to anticipate the coming of the end," Sean Astin, who played sturdy hobbit Samwise Gamgee, said backstage at the SAG awards, where he and his cast mates were honored with the best-ensemble performance prize. "So we've all experienced moments of sadness and pain and relief and glee that it's over."
Liv Tyler, who played the elf princess Arwen, said "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was a life-changing experience.
"I've learned a lot about patience and endurance and, I guess, what it really is to make a movie. And I'll be different forever," said Tyler.
Sunday's Oscars also end an awards season fraught with early drama and machinations that pitted studio flicks against low-budgeted rivals. Ultimately, a healthy mix of big and small films earned Oscar nominations.
Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to move the awards to late February, three weeks earlier than usual, hoping to boost sagging TV ratings by shortening the awards season. The academy also implemented tougher rules to scale back aggressive campaigning as studios court Oscar voters through special events and ads in Hollywood trade papers.
Those changes were overshadowed last fall when top studios and their trade group, the Motion Picture Association of America, sought to ban special video copies of Oscar contenders sent to awards voters so they can watch the films at home.
Producers and distributors of smaller films complained that the ban on so-called "awards screeners" would put them at a disadvantage against studio competitors, which have huge budgets to promote their movies to academy members.
The ban eventually failed, screeners were sent out, and an impressive range of movies made the cut in top Oscar categories.
Alongside big-budget mainstream fare such as "Return of the King," "The Last Samurai," "Master and Commander" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," intimate stories such as "Lost in Translation," "House of Sand and Fog," "Whale Rider" and "Pieces of April" scored key nominations.
"Without sounding completely naive, it just goes to show you don't have to have a massive studio and tons of money behind you to get an Oscar nomination," said Samantha Morton, a best-actress nominee for "In America," a quiet drama that also landed Djimon Hounsou in the supporting-actor race.
The academy's effort to curtail rancorous Oscar campaigning seems to have paid off. Two years ago, Universal claimed that its eventual best-picture winner "A Beautiful Mind" was the target of a smear campaign, and last year, some studios complained that Miramax was overzealous in its "Gangs of New York" campaign.
Such bad blood has been absent this time.
"This campaign has felt really nice," said "Lord of the Rings" creator Jackson. "We've seen it getting ugly and personal in the past, but this year, none of that seems to be the case. It just seems to be about the movies, which is the way it should be."