Robert Altman’s Fine Line Features release “The Player” was the big winner in the 58th annual New York Film Critics Circle Awards, narrowly defeating Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” for best picture and best director while also picking up the best cinematography award.

British actress Emma Thompson of Sony Pictures Classics’ “Howards End” continued her inexorable march toward the Academy Awards, easily winning a best actress nod from the group after taking home the L.A. Film Critics and D.W. Griffith award for same this week.

Runner-up was Susan Sarandon of “Lorenzo’s Oil.”

Denzel Washington won a commanding victory as best actor in the title role of WB’s “Malcolm X,” far outdistancing runner-up Harvey Keitel, who received votes for “Bad Lieutenant” and “Reservoir Dogs.”

Gene Hackman followed his best supporting actor kudos from the L.A. critics for WB’s “Unforgiven” with the same honor from the Gotham scribes, with Seymour Cassel of “In the Soup” runner-up.

Supporting actress honors went to Miranda Richardson, with the NYFCC recognizing her versatility in three 1992 releases: “The Crying Game,””Enchanted April” and “Damage.” A close second-place finisher was Judy Davis of “Husbands and Wives”; she won in this category in New York last year.

Neil Jordan took home best screenplay honors for Miramax’s “The Crying Game,” besting Michael Tolkin of “The Player” and David Webb Peoples of “Unforgiven” in the group’s tightest race, extending over four ballots.

In contrast, Zhang Yimou’s Chinese film “Raise the Red Lantern” from Orion Classics had no difficulty scoring a second-ballot victory as best foreign-language film, scoring more than double the points on weighted ballots over the second-place finisher, Aki Kaurismaki’s “The Match Factory Girl.”

For best documentary, Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky’s “Brother’s Keeper” repeated its victory after taking a D.W. Griffith award the day before. A close runner-up was Barbara Kopple with her Oscar-winning “American Dream.”

The NYFCC also voted a best new director award to Allison Anders for helming her first feature “Gas Food Lodging,” distributed by IRS Releasing. She narrowly defeated Quentin Tarantino of “Reservoir Dogs,” with Tim Robbins of “Bob Roberts” finishing third in this category.

Jean Lepine, who photographed both “The Player” and “Bob Roberts,” won best cinematography in a tight race over Jean Segonzac of “Laws of Gravity.”

For “The Player,” its best-picture victory over “Unforgiven” on the second ballot was by a slim margin of 37 points to 35. Next best films were (in order) “Howards End,””The Crying Game” and “Malcolm X.”

Even closer was Altman’s win over Eastwood in the head-to-head directing sweepstakes, with the “Player” helmer getting 38 points on the second ballot to the “Unforgiven” wrangler’s 37.

With Marshall Fine of Gannett Newspapers as chairman, NYFCC will give out its awards Jan. 17 at the Pegasus Room at Rockefeller Center. E! Entertainment Television has pacted to tape the event, to be broadcast beginning Jan. 23.

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