NEW YORK - The New York Film Critics Circle named the silent film ode "The Artist" the year's best film Tuesday, giving the nostalgic black-and-white movie an early boost to its already promising Academy Awards prospects.
"The Artist," which is silent like the films to which it pays homage, also earned best director for the French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius.
"It's a celebration of cinema," said John Anderson, chairman of the group and critic. "It's clever and it's upbeat and all that, but it's really about the movies. Of course, that's going to strike a chord among critics."
The boldly old-fashioned "The Artist," which the Weinstein Company opened in limited release last week, has emerged as an unlikely front-runner in the early stages of the Oscar race. The Spirit Awards, which honor independent film, also bestowed five nominations on it Tuesday.
The critics otherwise, as they usually do, spread the awards around. Brad Pitt won best actor for his performances in the baseball film "Moneyball" and Terrence Malick's cosmic drama "Tree of Life." Both of those films also earned other awards: "Tree of Life" for best cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and "Moneyball" for Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin's screenplay.
Meryl Steep was chosen as best actress for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming "The Iron Lady." The suddenly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain won best supporting actress for a trio of performances in "Tree of Life," "The Help" and "Take Shelter."
Albert Brooks earned best supporting actor for his against-type performance as a violent villain in the drama "Drive."
The New York Film Critics moved up their annual vote this year, a shift that was widely seen as a bid for greater relevance in the fall award season, which effectively began in earnest Tuesday. The move also meant some finagling: The critics screened "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" on Monday, and were not able to see the eagerly anticipated 9/11 drama "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
Anderson didn't deny that the move was partially for a louder voice in the awards conversation, but said other reasons were foremost.
"I thought it would be interesting for us to be able to vote without other awards having been given out," said Anderson, a critic for Variety and Newsday. "Subconsciously or consciously, people are affected by other groups' voting. It may sound petty, but if (the Los Angeles Film Critics) gives a film best picture, a lot of our members are inclined to go the other way."
Anderson said the group might return to a later time next year because a number of members didn't like jamming in the screenings in a smaller window.
Werner Herzog's 3-D documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" was selected as best nonfiction film. The financial industry thriller "Margin Call" won best first feature. And the Iranian drama "A Separation" was picked for best foreign film.
The year's special award was given posthumously to the prolific Chilean-born filmmaker Raoul Ruiz, who died in August, shortly after the U.S. release of his acclaimed "Mysteries of Lisbon."
The New York Film Critics Circle, a body of 33 New York-based critics founded in 1935, announced their annual vote on Twitter for the first time. The group describes its awards as "a principled alternative to the Oscars, honoring esthetic merit in a forum that is immune to commercial and political pressures." The group last year chose the Facebook drama "The Social Network" as best picture.
Among the films snubbed by the critics were Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" and Steven Spielberg's "War Horse."
The awards will be handed out at a ceremony Jan. 9.