Unquestionably one of the highlights of any awards season is the feel-good, everyone’s-still-a-winner Oscar Nominees Luncheon, which was held Monday at the Beverly Hilton. Academy Award nominees gather together and get to meet each other in a pressure-free zone — except for the huge press turnout to cover their arrivals (there are also press conference-style interviews and poolside one-on-one opportunities for TV cameras afterwards for some of the higher-profile nominees). Basically all they have to do is report to the risers set up in the Hilton’s International Ballroom as their name is called for the big group photo of the Oscar Class of 2012.

Related: 85th Academy Awards Nominees Photo

This year, rather than going alphabetically, the Academy summoned nominees by the table number they were sitting at. The table where I was lucky enough to be invited happened to be No. 1, smack dab in front of those risers, and so nominees Denzel Washington (Best Actor, Flight), producer Kathleen Kennedy (Lincoln), costume designer Colleen Atwood (Snow White And The Huntsman), and Makeup and Hairstyling contender Howard Berger (Hitchcock) were first to be called and had to stand the longest before the shot was taken. Actually, the roll call was bookended with longtime colleagues Kennedy — who was first up — and Lincoln director Steven Spielberg, who was dead-last (just after 9-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis, who got a rip-roaring reception when her name was announced).

Overall, 16 of the acting nominees (excluding Emmanuelle Riva, Alan Arkin and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and four of the directors (Michael Haneke is directing an opera in Europe) were in attendance, along with approximately 140 others who showed up and really seemed to have a good time at the annual affair, where the nominees also get their official certificate and a sweatshirt. Another acting contender, Daniel Day-Lewis came down with the flu and was very disappointed he couldn’t make it I am told. Like Day-Lewis, I also heard Quentin Tarantino was really bummed he couldn’t attend due to a bout with the flu. Seems to be rampant these days.

Among those who were there, it certainly was a great place to people watch or catch up on Oscar buzz. Ben Affleck, attending as a nominated producer of Best Picture hopeful Argo, was accepting numerous congrats for his Saturday night DGA win as people approached him at the reception. Silver Linings Playbook supporitng nominee Robert De Niro had just come straight from his hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese, which he said he enjoyed (the theatre has just been garishly renamed the TCL Chinese by the Chinese company that purchased naming rights from the new owners — sorry it will always be Grauman’s to this blogger). Best Actor nominee for The Master, Joaquin Phoenix, who earlier in the season had said he didn’t like the whole awards competition thing, could not have been more gracious as we talked about the touching Santa Barbara Film Festival tribute to his co-star Amy Adams (I moderated) which he attended last week. Academy Governor Ed Begley Jr. came over to catch up with his St. Elsewhere co-star Denzel, who said, “You know how far we go back? 1982!”

Washington, who really seemed to be enjoying himself, was caught off-guard when Wallis came by with her mother to get her picture taken with him. “OK, that will be $50,” he joked, but didn’t seem to recognize her. When I mentioned she was a Best Actress nominee, he laughed and said, “Well if you win I hope you will mention my name in your speech,” to which she assured him that she wouldn’t. That girl’s a firecracker. He told her if  he won he would mention her.

So many people seemed to love reuniting at the event. At Table 1, Atwood and Washington, who worked together on Fallen and Philadelphia, caught up, while Berger said he did some prosthetic work for Washington on Deja Vu. Now, with his sixth nomination, two-time winner Washington told me he was under the weather the first time he was nominated in 1988 for Cry Freedom. He remembered the traffic was so horrendous trying to get into the Shrine Auditorium, stars were literally getting out of their limos and walking a couple of city blocks to get there including Glenn Close, a Best Actress nominee who strolled right past his car. “There’s no way I was going to the Oscars and not driving up in a limo, so we stuck it out and missed the whole red carpet,” he said. For Kennedy, who is also an Academy Governor, the lunch was a real family affair as her producer-husband Frank Marshall was providing the music as the afternoon’s DJ. She says he does this side gig often and is in demand. Who knew? We talked about the big box office for Lincoln which she said stunned her, especially with so many younger people checking out the film. She said screenwriting nominee Tony Kushner’s initial 500-page script was so long she ran out of fax paper when they tried to send it to her home in Telluride.

Before heading out for the lunch I watched all five Animated Short nominees (a lot of great ones) while on my treadmill. I flipped out for one called Head Over Heels and was delighted to run smack into that 11-minute gem’s director Timothy Reckart, whom I only recognized by his name tag. It’s a great lunch when you tell extraordinary new talent they have done truly Oscar-worthy work. Later I noticed him talking to Animated Feature nominee Tim Burton (Frankenweenie). The two should get together. They have a lot in common.

Zero Dark Thirty’s double nominee Mark Boal recalled his only other Oscar luncheon, in 2010, when he was a Picture and Screenwriting nominee (as he is this year) for The Hurt Locker. “I got to sit at a table with Frank Pierson. Now that was something I won’t forget,” he said.

Academy President Hawk Koch got things rolling after the reception by telling the elite crowd he “got chills” as he sat and signed each nomination certificate, calling it “a truly great year for films”.He introduced Oscarcast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who made the traditional pitch to potential winners in the audience to keep their speeches to 45 seconds and to “speak from the heart. You’ll be talking to over 1 billion people around the world. Please don’t speak from a piece of paper”. At that point, one of the nominees at my table whispered, “A billion people?  That’s exactly why I will be using a piece of paper”.

The producers touted the high-quality musical talent that would be on the show including Barbra Streisand performing on the Oscars for the first time in 36 years. Earlier I told Meron I was guessing she would be there singing “The Way We Were”  in honor of her friend and collaborator Marvin Hamlisch, who died in the past year. Meron wouldn’t bite, so I guess we will just have to wait and see. Although the producers mentioned him, oddly Oscar show host Seth MacFarlane was not in attendance though he is a nominee himself for co-writing “Everybody Needs A Best Friend” from Ted.

Taking advantage of having a lot of their nominees in town for this special pre-Oscar event, and knowing ballots go out on Friday for the final vote, several awards strategists scheduled Q&As for talent after the lunch wrapped shortly before 3 PM. Bookending his footprint ceremony and just before he had to catch a plane back to his New Orleans location for a new film, De Niro appeared to an enthusiastic standing ovation at a special American Cinematheque tribute at 4 PM at the Aero in Santa Monica, where he was introduced by Harvey Weinstein (who was also at the lunch). A packed crowd had just seen Silver Linings and the seven-time nominee and two-time winner talked acting and his career (I moderated). Later at the same venue, Burton appeared between a double bill of Frankenweenie and Corpse Bride. Not to be outdone The Paranorman gang were Q&A’ing at the Landmark with a Laika double bill that included past nominee Coraline along with their latest, while  Affleck and many of his nominated artists from Argo appeared for a Q&A in another theatre there. Across town at the DGA Theatre David O.Russell, Bradley Cooper, and cast and crew of Silver Linings also played to a SRO crowd that included Academy and BAFTA members. It’s getting near the end, but in a tight anything-can-happen race like this one, every vote–  and potential — voter counts.

In that regard, it is always interesting to try and read the tea leaves at the Oscar luncheon to figure out who gets the most applause when their name is called by Academy COO Ric Robertson. By that standard there were a few, but the first to get a real genuine vocal whoop was not a major star or director but Bill Westenhofer, the Special Visual Effects nominee from Life Of Pi. We’ll leave it at that. Trying to figure out who is going to win by the amount of applause in this room is fool’s folly, and anyway it is not what this day is all about.  Like the AFI lunch in January, it is all about celebrating the work and the shared honor these 160 or so motion picture artists have in common: an Oscar nomination.