NEW YORK – The year-end film awards season got under way officially Tuesday as the Gotham-based National Board of Review of Motion Pictures named Fine Line’s “Shine” the best film of 1996.

The Board of Review voted Tom Cruise top actor for his portrayal of a sports agent who exits the fast track in TriStar Pictures’ “Jerry Maguire.” Renee Zellweger, his co-star in the film, was named best breakthrough performer.

Frances McDormand captured actress honors for her role as an unflappable, pregnant sheriff in Joel and Ethan Coen’s grisly comedy “Fargo,” distributed by Gramercy Pictures.

Edward Norton received the supporting actor award for his roles in Paramount’s “Primal Fear,” Miramax’s “Everyone Says I Love You” and Sony Pictures’ “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott-Thomas tied for supporting actress for their performances in Miramax’s “The English Patient.”

Joel Coen was named top director for “Fargo,” which he wrote with his brother Ethan.

Directed by Scott Hicks, “Shine” chronicles Australian pianist David Helfgott’s triumph over mental illness. Fine Line, the arthouse unit of New Line Cinema, acquired the pic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival after a heated battle with Miramax Films.

Commenting on the award, Fine Line president Ruth Vitale said, “I’m delighted. This is a wonderful acknowledgment from a respected organization. For this company, it heralds the beginning of something very exciting.”

The Board honored Billy Bob Thornton with a special achievement award in filmmaking for writing, directing and acting in the Southern gothic “Sling Blade.”

Gena Rowlands, who toplines”Unhook the Stars” under the direction of her son Nick Cassavetes, will receive the career achievement award at the group’s gala on Feb. 24 at New York’s Tavern on the Green.

In the foreign-language films category, the Board selected five: “Ridicule,” “Les Voleurs,” “Bitter Sugar,” “La Ceremonie” and “Kolya.”

“Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” directed and distributed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, won for film documentary. “Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick,” a study of helmer William Wellman from writer-director Todd Robinson, won for TV docu.

Paramount’s “The First Wives Club” was cited for outstanding achievement in ensemble performance.

In addition to naming “Shine” the year’s best film, the Board also ranked what it considered to be the top-10 pics of the year after it. In order, they are: “The English Patient,” “Fargo,” October Films’ “Secrets & Lies,” “Everyone Says I Love You,” Walt Disney’s “Evita,” “Sling Blade” and Miramax’s “Trainspotting” (which tied for the No. 7 slot), “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” October’s “Breaking the Waves” and “Jerry Maguire.”

Founded before the Motion Picture Academy, the Board is the nation’s oldest film-ranking organization.

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