Surprise win for Keaton as best actress

The National Board of Review has planted the first flag in what’s expected to be a contentious awards season with a high studio presence, choosing the Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow production “Mystic River” as the best film of 2003.

One of the biggest surprises was the NBR’s nod for best actress to Diane Keaton in the Columbia Pictures-WB comedy “Something’s Gotta Give.”

The NBR’s choices presage what could be a robust awards season for WB, whose “The Last Samurai” was crowned as second best film of the year, with Edward Zwick honored as top director. The studio is also repped in the actor race, as Sean Penn won for his performances in both “River” and Focus Features’ “21 Grams.”

“This was a strong year for the studios,” said NBR president Annie Schulhof. “They produced films with powerful storylines and characters with their own moral codes.”

Supporting actor award went to Alec Baldwin for Lions Gate’s “The Cooler”; supporting actress was Patricia Clarkson for her performances in United Artists’ “Pieces of April” and Miramax’s “The Station Agent.”

Vadim Perelman won the directorial debut trophy for DreamWorks’ “House of Sand and Fog.”

Jim Sheridan, Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan won original screenplay for Fox Searchlight’s “In America,” while Anthony Minghella picked up adapted screenplay honors for Miramax’s “Cold Mountain.”

New Line’s highly anticipated “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” picked up the ensemble acting award, while Paul Giamatti and Charlize Theron were honored for their breakthrough performances in New Line’s “American Splendor” and Newmarket’s “Monster,” respectively.

The org lists its fave films in order. Following “Mystic River” and “Samurai” were, in order: “The Station Agent”; Focus Features’ “21 Grams”; DreamWorks’ “House of Sand and Fog”; Focus’ “Lost in Translation,” which also won Sofia Coppola a special filmmaking achievement award; “Cold Mountain”; “In America”; Universal’s “Seabiscuit”; and Fox’s “Master and Commander.”

“Seabiscuit” was the lone entry from the first two-thirds of the year. Most of the films are late-year entries, though only three are December openers.

Org named Denys Arcand’s Canadian pic “The Barbarian Invasions” from Miramax its foreign film of the year. Best documentary was Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” from Sony Pictures Classics.

Whenever an awards season has no clearcut front-runner, Oscar pundits look to critics groups for signs. The NBR is traditionally the first group to announce its winners. Thus, its selections carry a weight that’s unusual for a secretive committee whose membership is a mystery to most people in the film biz.

Created as a censorship group in 1909, the board is composed of roughly 150 members from varying professions: educators, doctors, lawyers, historians and a few former industry insiders. The group’s selections tend to veer into the specialty market. With its emphasis on breakthrough performances and emerging talent, org often honors films and talent that aren’t obvious Oscar candidates.

As an Oscar gauge, the National Board of Review has a mixed track record: A few years ago, it picked “Quills” as best pic, but the film didn’t even land an Oscar nom in that category.

Last year’s NBR winners included best pic “The Hours,” helmer Phillip Noyce (“The Quiet American” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence”) and thesps Campbell Scott (“Roger Dodger”), Julianne Moore (“Far From Heaven”), Chris Cooper (“Adaptation”) and Kathy Bates (“About Schmidt”).

Some of those went on to Oscar noms, with Cooper winning. Noyce and Scott were not nominated.

Other awards to be presented at this year’s 95th annual gala, to be held Jan. 13 at Tavern on the Green in New York and hosted by writer-actor Charles Busch, include animated feature “Finding Nemo” (Pixar/Disney); cable film “Angels in America” (HBO); career achievement, Morgan Freeman; film music composition, Hans Zimmer; cinematography, John Toll; and excellence in directing, Norman Jewison. Richard LaGravanese and the late Ted Demme will get the William K. Everson Award for Film History for “A Decade Under the Influence”; and Gale Anne Hurd, Kathleen Kennedy and Christine Vachon receive the producer’s award.

The NBR also saluted four films for honoring freedom of expression — “Capturing the Friedmans,” “Dirty Pretty Things,” “The Magdalene Sisters” and “September 11″ — and saluted 11 pics for excellence in filmmaking.

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)

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