Jessica Chastain plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives… (Jonathan Olley / Columbia…)
The New York Film Critics Circle's selection of "Zero Dark Thirty" as the year's best picture moves that film and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, whom the group also awarded, to the head of a pack of well-reviewed contenders at the beginning of an awards season that culminates Feb. 24 with the Oscars.
"Zero Dark Thirty," the action thriller chronicling the decade-long hunt for and eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, has emerged as a favorite among reviewers and film writers since its initial screenings Thanksgiving weekend. Its three Critics Circle wins on Monday, which also included one for cinematographer Greig Fraser, gives the movie, which opens in theaters Dec. 19, significant early momentum, perhaps at the expense of "Argo," the season's other Middle East-set CIA thriller that opened in October.
The Critics Circle, made up of 35 film reviewers from New York-based publications, has earned a reputation in recent years for making safer, more mainstream choices than its West Coast counterpart, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. (From 2009 to 2011, for example, the New York critics gave the lead actress award to Meryl Streep — twice — and Annette Bening, while the L.A. critics went for far less-known Yolande Moreau, Kim Hye-ja and Yun Jung-hee.) The New York group's website trumpets itself as a "principled alternative to the Oscars" while simultaneously noting how often it matches the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' picks. Of its past five best picture winners, three ("The Artist," "The Hurt Locker" and "No Country for Old Men") have gone on to win the Oscar.
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"Argo" did have some support among the New York film critic voters, finishing second in voting for best picture, and its director, Ben Affleck, came in third behind Bigelow and "The Master's" Paul Thomas Anderson. But according to one member present at the five-hour voting meeting who was not authorized to speak publicly, it was clear early on that "Zero Dark Thirty" would easily take the top two film awards as the clear consensus choice in the group's weighted ballot voting system.
The New York voters showed no love for other expected awards-season heavy hitters such as David O. Russell's screwball comedy "Silver Linings Playbook" and the lavish musical "Les Misérables," or the critically acclaimed "The Master," a movie that could use a boost right about now. If "The Master" doesn't win a major prize from the L.A. critics association, Anderson's home-turf group, when it votes on Sunday, the film's Oscar chances could be dealt a significant blow.
This year's acting honors didn't veer far from what will soon become a well-trod path, with awards given to "Lincoln" actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field and the film's screenwriter, Tony Kushner. Matthew McConaughey, who has become everyone's favorite comeback/career-rehabilitation story of the year, won supporting actor honors for his turns in "Magic Mike" and "Bernie," among other films.
"Zero Dark Thirty's" Bigelow won director for the second time in four years, following her win for "The Hurt Locker" in 2009. Day-Lewis' victory marked the fifth time the New York critics have feted him, putting him past Streep among the group's most-honored actors.
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The group's one left-field honor went to Rachel Weisz, who won lead actress honors for her work as the shattered adulteress in "The Deep Blue Sea." Weisz's victory came after "Silver Linings Playbook" lead Jennifer Lawrence and "Zero Dark Thirty" star Jessica Chastain tied on the third ballot. Emmanuelle Riva, the 85-year-old French actress from Michael Haneke's marital drama "Amour" (which was the New York group's choice for foreign language film) also had strong support.
Weisz's win will help her stay in the awards-season conversation, particularly since her well-regarded film opened in March, an eternity ago in awards-season time.
Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" won animated feature on the heels of earning an Annie Award nomination in that category earlier in the morning. David France's "How to Survive a Plague" won for best first film, while "The Central Park Five," directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, took best documentary.
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