An animated Israeli film that's taken on unexpected timeliness in recent days won the top award Saturday from U.S. film critics.
"Waltz with Bashir," Ari Folman's animated documentary chronicling his coming to terms with repressed memories of his experiences with the Israeli army in the 1982 Lebanon War, was named best picture of 2008 by the National Society of Film Critics. The film was released in the U.S. only weeks before Israel's military offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
The daring film, which is nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film and uses multiple animation techniques, has earned numerous accolades, including six awards from the Israeli Film Academy and best animated film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" and Disney/Pixar's animated hit "Wall-E" tied for runner-up in the best picture category.
Leigh earned best director and screenplay for his humanistic comedy, with the film's Sally Hawkins winning best actress as the eternally optimistic Poppy, and Eddie Marsan winning best supporting actor as her cranky driving instructor.
Sean Penn is shaping up to be the leading contender for the best actor Oscar after receiving the top honor from the Film Critics society for his touching portrait of slain gay activist Harvey Milk in "Milk." He's already earned best actor from numerous groups, including the L.A. Film Critics Assn. and the New York Film Critics Circle, as well as nominations for the Critics' Choice Award, the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Award.
Hawkins previously had been named best actress by the L.A. and New York critics groups and is nominated for a Golden Globe, but failed to get a nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Award. Leigh also earned best director from the New York film critics and best screenplay from the L.A. group.
Best supporting actress went to veteran German performer Hanna Schygulla for "The Edge of Heaven," and nonfiction film honors went to "Man on Wire."
Interestingly, several of the Golden Globe top nominees, including "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Doubt," "Frost/Nixon" and "Revolutionary Road," failed to cause a ripple with the National Society of Film Critics, which comprises critics from major publications across the country.
This year's Cinderella story, "Slumdog Millionaire," won best cinematography for Anthony Dod Mantle.
As with the L.A. and New York film critics groups, the society is known for its rather esoteric selections. In the last 31 years, the group has agreed with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only four times in the best picture category -- the last being 2004's "Million Dollar Baby."
Ken Jacobs' "Razzle Dazzle" was named best experimental film. And film heritage awards were awarded to the "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" DVD set; Sam Fuller's 1982 film "White Dog"; Flicker Alley's DVD releases of rare silent American and European films; and the restoration of Kent Mackenzie's 1961 film "The Exiles" by Ross Lipman at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Forty-nine of the society's 63 members voted Saturday afternoon at the 43rd annual meeting at the venerable Sardi's restaurant in New York City.