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"Million Dollar" critics' group picks its 2004 baby

How the pre-Oscar awards are stacking up, so far...

Not all movie awards are created equal. Countless groups bestow their praise on each year's movies, no doubt stirred by honorable motives, as well as a desire to influence the Oscars and get publicity. The Golden Globes are no doubt the best-known of the pre-Oscars, but not necessarily the most respected. For respect, the top of the field is occupied, I think, by the National Society of Film Critics and the American Film Institute.

The AFI lists the year's top ten films alphabetically. They're picked up a jury of professionals from various areas of the movie world, which debates for a day in Los Angeles; I was the chairman this year, and our choices were "The Aviator," "Collateral," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Friday Night Lights," "The Incredibles," "Kinsey," "Maria Full of Grace," "Million Dollar Baby," "Sideways," and "Spider-Man 2."

The National Society, the group originally identified with such giants as Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann and Andrew Sarris, meets every January in New York, and has been chaired for 15 years by Peter Rainer who, until recently, was the film critic for New York magazine. To become a member, you have to be voted in by the existing members, so the membership arguably represents the best of American film criticism.

Unlike the AFI, the Oscars, the Globes or any other group, the NSFC actually releases the results of its voting, naming the winning film and the first two runners-up. The numbers do not represent vote totals, however, but point totals, in which each member awards three points to a first-place vote, two to a second and one to a third.

The key result of this year's awards, announced Sunday, is that Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" outpointed Alexander Payne's "Sideways," which has won awards from a number of critic's groups. That reflects the year-end groundswell for "Baby," which Eastwood didn't screen until the second week in December, avoiding the usual pre-release hoopla. The Seattle and Dallas-Ft. Worth critics also recently named it the year's best. It goes into wide release only this week, just prior to no doubt making many headlines when the Oscar nominations are announced Jan.25. (The Chicago critics, I am unhappy to report, voted for "Sideways," which is a wonderful film -- but I've seen "Million Dollar Baby," and critics, "Sideways" is no "Million Dollar Baby.")

The NSFC results may reflect East Coast support for Eastwood against Los Angeles support for Payne; two New York Times film critics, A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, picked it as the year's best film; Dargis put "Sideways" third on her list, but Scott attacked it as "the most overrated film of the year," leading industry pundit David Poland to wonder if he was trying to sink its chances (answer: yes).

Other NSFC awards may help leading Oscar contenders. That Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") and Hilary Swank ("Million Dollar Baby") tied for best actress is good for them both; Staunton may edge into the final five because of notice like this. Virginia Madsen seems to have a lock on a supporting actress nomination for "Sideways," and the NSFC agrees. Jamie Foxx's nod for both "Ray" and "Collateral" help nail down his best actor nomination. And Paul Giamatti of "Sideways," edged out 31-29 by Foxx, also seems to have good Oscar prospects.

The NSFC winner least likely to be helped -- because it's a critical favorite but has not attracted attention in the industry -- is Richard Linklater's "Before Sunset," a virtuoso sequel to his "Before Sunrise" (1994); in both films, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are strangers who talk for hours about the direction of their lives. The NSFC put "Before Sunset," third on its list of best films, and also mentioned Delpy's performance and the screenplay by Hawke, Delpy and Linklater.

The complete results, so you can see the vote totals and the runners-up:

PICTURE 1. "Million Dollar Baby" (Clint Eastwood) - 50 2. "Sideways" (Alexander Payne) - 44 3. "Before Sunset" (Richard Linklater) - 28

FOREIGN-LANGUAGE PICTURE 1. "Moolaade" (Ousmane Sembene) - 29 2. "House of Flying Daggers" (Zhang Yimou) - 27 3. "Notre Musique" (Jean-Luc Godard) - 15

DIRECTOR 1. Zhang Yimou ("House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero") - 33 2. Alexander Payne ("Sideways") - 31 3. Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby") - 30

NONFICTION FILM 1. "Tarnation" (Jonathan Caouette) - 27 2. "The Story of the Weeping Camel" (Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni)- 25 3. "Bright Leaves" (Ross McElwee) - 16

SCREENPLAY 1. "Sideways" (Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor) - 60 2. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (Charlie Kaufman) - 55 3. "Before Sunset" (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke) - 29

CINEMATOGRAPHY 1. "House of Flying Daggers" (Xiaoding Zhao) - 39 2. "Hero" (Christopher Doyle) - 31 3. "Collateral" (Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron) - 18

ACTRESS - tie 1. Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") - 52 1. Hilary Swank ("Million Dollar Baby") - 52 2. Julie Delpy ("Before Sunset") - 40

SUPPORTING ACTRESS 1. Virginia Madsen ("Sideways") - 58 2. Cate Blanchett ("The Aviator" and "Coffee and Cigarettes") - 37 3. Laura Linney ("Kinsey") - 18

ACTOR 1. Jamie Foxx ("Ray" and "Collateral") - 31 2. Paul Giamatti ("Sideways") - 29 3. Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby") - 26

SUPPORTING ACTOR 1. Thomas Haden Church ("Sideways") - 55 2. Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby") - 54 3. Peter Sarsgaard ("Kinsey") - 19

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