First prize of awards season goes to Eastwood epic

The kudos season kicked off Wednesday with a nod to Clint Eastwood and Warners as the helmer’s Japanese-language “Letters From Iwo Jima” took the National Board of Review’s prize for best picture.

NBR is a group made up of film educators and other professionals with no official ties to the biz. While its workings are not well known in Hollywood, an NBR nod can help set the tone for the awards season and top 10 lists that follow.

Martin Scorsese nabbed the director prize for his mob Warner Bros. drama “The Departed.”

Searchlight’s “Last King of Scotland” brought home the actor prize for Forest Whitaker, who portrays dictator Idi Amin. Helen Mirren scored the actress nod for her role as a conflicted Queen Elizabeth II in Miramax’s “The Queen.”

Pedro Almodovar’s female-centric “Volver” won the prize for foreign film. Al Gore’s environmental warning “An Inconvenient Truth” won for docu while Pixar’s “Cars” nabbed the prize for animated feature.

It was a red-letter day for Warners, which in addition to Scorsese’s nod made the top 10 list with “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.” And Warner Independent grabbed a spot on the list with “The Painted Veil.” “Flags of Our Fathers” is a co-production between Par and Warners.

Fox Searchlight also turned in a stellar perf, landing three films in the top 10: “The History Boys,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Notes on a Scandal,” while Fox 2000’s “Devil Wears Prada” also rated a spot.

All told, Fox and Warner Bros. units scored eight out of the 10 spots; Par Vantage’s “Babel” and Par’s “Flags of Our Fathers” were the only films that didn’t come from one of the two companies.

Djimon Hounsou of “Blood Diamond” and Catherine O’Hara from “For Your Consideration” were the winners in the supporting acting categories.

Warners recently changed course with “Letters,” announcing recently that it would move up the release from early 2007 to December to prep for an awards run.

It was a smooth year for the National Board of Review after a problem-riddled 2005 in which former members accused the group of acting in an exclusionary manner. Group was also caught in an embarrassing situation in which it had to postpone its awards announcements because it had sent out incomplete eligibility forms.

Other named winners this year include Ryan Gosling for breakthrough perf by an actor and Jennifer Hudson and Rinko Kikuchi sharing the nod for breakthrough actress.

Zach Helm won for original screenplay with “Stranger Than Fiction” and Ron Nyswaner for adapted with his “The Painted Veil.” Jason Reitman won for best directorial debut for “Thank You for Smoking.”

Other announced short lists include, in foreign, “Curse of the Golden Flower,” “Days of Glory,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Water”; and in docu, “51 Birch Street,” “Iraq in Fragments,” “Shut Up and Sing” and “Wordplay.”

Group also listed top indie films. They were “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Bobby,” “Catch a Fire,” “Copying Beethoven,” “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” “Half Nelson,” “The Illusionist,” “Lonesome Jim,” “Sherrybaby,” “10 Items or Less” and “Thank You for Smoking.”

The National Board of Review will also hand out a number of career awards at its Gotham ceremony on January 9. They include the Career Achievement Award to Eli Wallach; the Billy Wilder Award For Excellence in Directing to Jonathan Demme; the William K. Everson Award For Film History to Donald Krim; the Career Achievement in Producing award to Irwin Winkler; and the Bvlgari Award for NBR Freedom of Expression to “Water” and “World Trade Center.”

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