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The Last of the Film Critics Prizes

Friday, December 22----The final film critics prizes were announced by the film critics associations in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Dallas and the Southeast (including Florida, Georgia and other states south of the Mason Dixon line). There was concensus in certain categories, but critics also differed enough to keep the Oscar race varied and interesting.


BEST PICTURE

The Phoenix Film Critics Association, along with the Dallas/Fort Worth Film Critics Association, chose the 9-11 docudrama UNITED 93 as their picture of the year, with their colleagues in Las Vegas and the Southeast picking Martin Scorsese’s Boston crime drama THE DEPARTED as their choice for top film honors.


BEST DIRECTOR

All four critics groups unanimously named Martin Scorsese as Best Director for his return-to-form with THE DEPARTED. Scorsese has assumed the front-runner position after five failed Oscar nominations over the years and stands his best chance of copping that sought-after prize at the Oscar ceremonies in February. His only real competition at the moment is Paul Greengrass, the director of UNITED 93 (with possible upsets from Clint Eastwood for either FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS or LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, or Bill Condon for the film adaptation of the Broadway musical smash DREAMGIRLS).


BEST ACTOR/ACTRESS

All four groups were in agreement, following their critic colleagues across the country, in their choices in these two categories. It would take a surprise of royal proportions to stop the unstoppable Dame Helen Mirren in winning the Oscar as Best Actress, for her stiff upper lip portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in THE QUEEN. A royal of a different sort, the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, provides a ferocious role for Forest Whitaker, who won nods from almost all film critics groups so far for his harrowing portrait in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (a film which, by the way, has completely disappeared from theatrical screens).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

There was no such concensus among the various critics groups in the category of Best Supporting Actor. The Phoenix film critics chose veteran actor Jack Nicholson for his powerful performance as a Boston crime kingpin in THE DEPARTED, while their Las Vegas colleagues picked the African-born actor Djimon Hounsou for his performance in the political thriller BLOOD DIAMOND. Both the Dallas and Southeast Film Critics chose to honor Jackie Earle Haley for his memorable turn as a pedophile caught in the grip of his obsession in the suburban drama LITTLE CHILDREN. So far, all of the above seem set for Oscar nominations, without a clear front-runner yet identified.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

The Best Supporting Actress race seems to be boiling down to two strong contenders. The Phoenix and Dallas film critics agreed on their choice of Cate Blanchett for her role as a teacher who is blackmailed following her illicit affair with an underaged student in the thriller NOTES ON A SCANDAL. Critics in Las Vegas and the Southeast chose debut actress Jennifer Hudson for her dynamic performance as an overweight singer dropped from a popular singing group in the musical drama DREAMGIRLS. The two are in a tight race for Oscar gold, with the edge going to newcomer Hudson, since Blanchett won in this same category just last year for her reincarnation of acting legend Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s biopic THE AVIATOR.

BEST DOCUMENTARY

No contest here, with all four critics groups naming the eco-film AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH as the Best Documentary of the Year. The film, directed by Davis Guggenheim and featuring newly minted Hollywood star Al Gore, certainly seems to be the one to beat on Oscar night, with the Catholic Church sex abuse documentary DELIVER US FROM EVIL a possible upset winner.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

While Pedro Almodovar’s VOLVER seemed like a shoe-in in this category following its Cannes Film Festival premiere and rave reviews, the film has not fared that well in this category so far with film critics groups. The front-runners that are emerging are the Clint Eastwood-directed Japanese language film LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, which was chosen by the Phoenix and Dallas film critics, and PAN’S LABYRINTH, the choice of the Las Vegas and Southeast film critics. Since LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, which has received thunderous reviews, may be a contender in the Best Picture category for the Oscar, that leaves the fantasy film PAN’S LABYRINTH as the one to beat for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (unless Almodovar makes a last minute upset).


SPECIAL AWARDS

Each of the four film critics groups announced a number of special awards. The Phoenix Film Critics Association gave its nod for Best Ensemble Acting to the dysfunctional family road movie LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, while also acknowledging the psychological thriller HARD CANDY as Most Overlooked Film of the Year.

The Las Vegas Film Critics Association announced that the recipient of its William Holden Lifetime Achievement Award will be veteran actor Peter O’Toole, who has received rave reviews for his performance as an over-the-hill cad in the film VENUS. O’Toole, who famously began his four-decade career as the title character in the David Lean epic LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, has been nominated for an Oscar six times, without a single win so far. Odds are that he will be up for his seventh go at the gold for his comic performance in VENUS.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Assocation voted the indie pic HALF NELSON as its choice for the Russell Smith Award, named for the late Dallas Morning News film critic. The honor is given annually to the best low-budget or cutting-edge independent film. HALF NELSON has been acknowledged as one of the best indie films of the year, with a possible Oscar nomination in the offing for its young star Ryan Gosling.

The Southeastern Film Critics Association announced that its Wyatt Award, which is given to the best "Southern" film, will be awarded to the documentary THE DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING, a chronicle of the career aftermath of the popular country and western singing group that criticized the war policies of President Bush.


Sandy Mandelberger
Awards Watch Editor

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