By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Hollywood's awards season reaches a climax at Sunday's Oscars with a cliffhanger over the top prize after a topsy-turvy best picture race marked by the fading of early favorites and the tantalizing question of whether Netflix (Xetra: 552484 - news) can trump traditional movie studios.
While Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's sentimental Netflix (Swiss: NFLX-USD.SW - news) movie "Roma" and historical romp "The Favourite" from Fox Searchlight go into the ceremony with a leading 10 nominations each, there's no guarantee they will come out on top.
"This year's Oscar best picture race is as wide open as I have ever seen it," said Matthew Belloni, editorial director of the Hollywood Reporter.
"If 'Roma' wins best picture, it will be a watershed moment for Netflix. It will announce the day they have arrived," he added. No streaming service has ever won the Academy Award for best picture.
Award watchers say Universal Pictures' "Green Book," a road trip set in the segregated U.S. South in the 1960s, and the studio's Ku Klux Klan comedy-drama "BlacKkKlansman" from director Spike Lee are also serious contenders for the best picture statuette.
Sentiment for Lee is rising, they say, and he could become the first African-American ever to win a best director Oscar with his film tapping into historical and contemporary U.S. racial tensions.
"'Green Book' and 'BlacKkKlansman' are more representative of the traditional best picture winner, which is a polished popular film that has an important social message," said Tom O'Neil, founder of awards website Goldderby.com.
Awards leading up to the Oscars this year have been inconsistent, with "Green Book," 21st Century Fox rock biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody," Disney superhero movie "Black Panther" and "Roma" all picking up prizes.
Political comedy "Vice" and Warner Bros. musical romance "A Star is Born," starring acting nominees Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, round out the best picture contenders, although both films have seen their luster fade.
"In the fall, I would have thought 'A Star is Born' would have been coming in as the big favorite, and it has faded out of the conversation for reasons I cannot really place," said Alison Willmore, critic and culture writer for BuzzFeed News.
Meanwhile, "Green Book" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" have shrugged off a slew of negative publicity, and "Bohemian Rhapsody" star Rami Malek is seen as the favorite to win best actor for his portrayal of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" director Bryan Singer was accused of sexual misconduct involving underage men in the 1990s in an article published in January by The Atlantic magazine. Singer issued a statement denying the accusations.
Willmore said Malek looked like an Oscar winner. "What Rami Malek does in that movie is acting with a capital 'A.' He models himself after this famous figure, he wears prosthetics and he 'performs' at Live Aid," she said.
The family of the real-life black pianist at the center of "Green Book" have said his portrayal, by supporting actor front-runner Mahershala Ali, contained inaccuracies. Ali has said he respects the family and had spoken with them.
Accusations also resurfaced in January of sexual impropriety in the 1990s by the movie's director, Peter Farrelly. Farrelly apologized for his conduct.
"No film has been more insulted this year than 'Green Book,' but no film has won more prizes," said Variety awards editor Tim Gray.
In other races, Glenn Close looks certain to take her first Oscar, for best actress, for portraying a submissive spouse to her Nobel Prize-winning writer husband in "The Wife."
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; editing by Jonathan Oatis)