Martin Scorsese's 3-D family film snapped up five trophies in technical categories, including surprise wins for cinematography and visual effects.
But as the more prestigious prizes were handed out later in the night, momentum shifted to the expected favorite, "The Artist," which won for best picture, director and lead actor among its five awards.
The only upset in the highest-profile categories came near the end of the show, when Meryl Streep won the lead actress statue for her portrayal of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," beating out Viola Davis for "The Help." Many thought Davis, who had won the Screen Actors Guild over Streep for her role as a maid in Mississippi in the early 1960s, had a good chance of repeating that victory at the Oscars.
Several films that were respected enough by Oscar voters to garner multiple nominations went home empty-handed. "Moneyball" and "War Horse," with six nominations each, including best picture, didn't win a single prize.
"The Descendants," which received five nominations and early in awards season looked like a viable contender for Oscar's top honor after winning best motion picture drama at the Golden Globes, received only one trophy Sunday night, for adapted screenplay.Another movie that once seemed to have a shot at best picture, SAG award winner for ensemble cast "The Help," only captured one win out of four nominations, best supporting actress for Octavia Spencer.
The film editing category has often been a good predictor of the best picture winner, as the two went together in seven of the prior 10 years. But "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall pulled off the rare feat of winning for a movie that wasn't even nominated for best picture. The only other time that happened in the last decade was in 2008, when "The Bourne Ultimatum" won for editing.
With its win for visual effects, "Hugo' defeated a film that many considered groundbreaking for its lifelike motion-captured animal performance: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." But Oscar voters showed they were more impressed by "Hugo's eye-popping 3-D effects, which included a mechanical robot and a dramatic train crash.
Traditional Oscar-ology also held that Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" was a favorite in the cinematography category, given its spectacular shots of sun-drenched nature. This year, however, it was a movie that takes place largely in a Paris train station and was enhanced by digital 3-D effects that took the prize.