New York Film Critics Can’t Wait to Give Their Top Prizes to The Artist

The Gotham gang also names Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep as Best Actor and Actress, and Albert Brooks and Jessica Chastain in the supporting categories

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The Weinstein Company

Jean Dujardin and Missi Pyle in The Artist

The New York Film Critics Circle, founded in 1935 during the first flush of talking pictures, waited 76 years to give its highest award to a silent film. The Artist, so faithful to its story of a movie star from the silent era that it utters barely a word, was named Best Film today, and its writer-director, Michel Hazanvicius, Best Director.

Not qualifying for the Foreign-Language Film award, since the words its actors speak, sing or mouth are all in English, and all its actors except for the two leads are Americans, The Artist nonetheless stars and was written, directed, photographed and produced by French people. In those important senses it is a foreign film — the fifth ever to win the NYFCC’s top prize (after Z in 1969, Cries and Whispers in 1972, Day for Night in 1973 and Amarcord in 1974). Today’s Foreign Language Film honor went to the Iranian drama A Separation.

(READ: Whatever happened to foreign films?)

Otherwise, the Circle’s 33 members, representing New York-based newspapers and magazines (some of them online), spread the wealth like a socialist Santa: except for The Artist, no other film received more than one unshared prize. Vaunted stars earned Academy cred for their Oscar campaigns in the lead-acting categories, where Brad Pitt won for Moneyball and The Tree of Life and Meryl Streep for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady — the fourth time the New Yorkers have named Streep Best Actress (after Sophie’s Choice, A Cry in the Dark and Julie & Julia, with an early Supporting Actress nod for Kramer vs. Kramer).

In the process, the NYFCC confounded the “experts” at Gold Derby, who had predicted that Alexander Payne’s The Descendants would win the Film and Director prizes that went to The Artist. (They forecasted a win for the movie’s star, Jean Dujardin, but he lost to Pitt.) What this means for awards season is beyond our ken or caring, but it should boost Pitt’s chances, certify Streep’s front-runner status to win her first Oscar in 29 years and put a broad smile on the face of Harvey Weinstein, whose company has The Artist and The Iron Lady. Gold Derby’s swamis have chosen The Descendants as the film to beat in the Oscars. Anyone care to take that bet?

Here are the winners in all 11 categories (with second- and third-place finishers in parentheses):

BEST FILM: The Artist (Melancholia, Hugo)

FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM: A Separation (Incendies, The Skin I Live In)

ACTOR: Brad Pitt for Moneyball and The Tree of Life (Michael Fassbender, Jean Dujardin)

ACTRESS: Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady (Michelle Williams, Kirtsen Dunst)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Albert Brooks for Drive (Christopher Plummer, Viggo Mortensen)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Jessica Chastain for The Help, Take Shelter and The Tree of Life (Carey Mulligan, Vanessa Redgrave)

DIRECTOR: Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist (Martin Scorsese for Hugo, Lars von Trier for Melancholia)

SCREENPLAY: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin for Moneyball (Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris, Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for The Descendants)

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life (Robert Richardson for Hugo, Manuel Alberto Claro for Melancholia)

NON-FICTION FEATURE: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Senna, Buck)

FIRST FEATURE: Margin Call (Martha Marcy May Marlene, My Week With Marilyn)

CAREER ACHIEVEMENT AWARD to Raul Ruiz, the prolific Chilean filmmaker who died this year

(No award was voted in the animation category.)

(READ: Why Raul Ruiz deserved his award)

The NYFCC has usually held its voting session in the second week of Dec., midway through the glut of year-end critics’ awards. This time the group advanced its voting date by two weeks, thus beating the Christmas rush and acing out the venerable National Board of Review, the panel of teachers and cinephiles that is usually the first bunch to announce prizes. The NYFCC’s peremptory shot might have led to a frenzy of date-jumping, as if critics’ fraternities were primary states angling to be first. But other groups stood fast (the NBR accolades will be announced Thursday), letting the New Yorkers stand first. That meant the members could not see some big holiday films still in the editing rooms: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the Mission: Impossible and Sherlock Holmes sequels. They will presumably be eligible in 2012, though fat chance they’ll win anything.

In olden days the NYFCC was a reliable barometer for the Academy Awards. Its choice of Best Film coincided with Oscar’s Best Picture 18 times in the 23 years the group voted between 1944 and 1967, and in six of seven years from 1977 to 1983. In the 27 years since then, the Academy has agreed with the New Yorkers on only five occasions, the most recent being No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker. You could say that the Academy stayed square while the New York critics got hipper, Sundancing into Indieland. (Last year they lavished three citations on one film: The Kids Are All Right. Go figure.)

(WONDER: How many New York Film Critics top movies are on the all-TIME 100 Movies list? Only seven!)

We won’t know until Feb. 24, Oscar Night, whether the Academy is back in synch with the NYFCC — and, honestly, who cares if a bunch of Manhattan scribes are accurate touts for a bunch of Hollywood swells? — but today’s vote suggested a minor course correction into the mainstream. The critics withheld prizes from such hardscrabble indie faves as Like Crazy, Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene, the better to honor rich Americans and a foreigner who loves old Hollywood. You could sum up this year’s change in two words: Brad Pitt! He was cited not just for his performance as a stern mid-century dad in the art-house challenge The Tree of Life, but also as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane in Moneyball, a full-frontal display of radiant star quality.

Speaking of full-frontal, rising star Michael Fassbender finished second to Pitt; he could be nominated for his dreamboat role in Jane Eyre or his nightmare exhibition in Shame. Among the non-winners, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo finished second or third in three categories — film, director and cinematography —  and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia was just out of the money in film, actress and director. Alluding to von Trier’s Cannes Film Festival outburst, one NYFCC member voted for “the Nazi” on the best-director ballot.

(READ: The dish on von Trier’s ‘Nazi’ remarks as Cannes

Though the New Yorkers stuck to their Nov. guns, they did push back the voting session by one day to allow members to catch David Fincher’s avidly anticipated remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But seeing a big movie, by the winner of last year’s Film and Director awards (for The Social Network), hours before the meeting made no difference in the choice of awards. Some other group — and there are about 30 organizations that hand out year-end awards — will have to give Dragon Tattoo, or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a nudge toward Oscar glory.