Malick gets best director nod for 'Tree,' 'Rango' wins for best animation

Fox Searchlight’s Hawaii-set comedy-drama “The Descendants” was named best picture of the year Sunday by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., marking the third time an Alexander Payne-directed film has prevailed in this category, after 2002′s “About Schmidt” and 2004′s “Sideways.”

The choice marked a come-from-behind victory in spirited voting that had initially favored another Searchlight release, “The Tree of Life,” which took honors for director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and was the runner-up for picture.

It’s the seventh L.A. crix win overall for Payne, who now stands as the most-feted filmmaker in the group’s history. He previously won the director prize for “Sideways”; two screenplay awards (shared with co-writer Jim Taylor) for “Sideways” and “About Schmidt”; and the group’s 1999 New Generation prize (also shared with Taylor) for “Election.”

Selection of “The Descendants” marked the first best-picture critics’ prize for “The Descendants” in a season dominated so far by “The Artist,” which was feted by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Assn. and the Boston Film Critics Society, which also announced its winners Sunday.

Martin Scorsese was the director runner-up for Paramount’s “Hugo,” which drew an award for Dante Ferretti’s production design.

With 34 LAFCA members present at the voting meeting and 14 proxy ballots, the group spread its choices around, especially with two awards that honored thesps for their work in multiple 2011 releases. Michael Fassbender was named top actor for his performances in four films (“A Dangerous Method,” “Jane Eyre,” “Shame” and “X-Men: First Class”) while Jessica Chastain was crowned supporting actress for six pics (“Coriolanus,” “The Debt,” “The Help,” “Take Shelter,” “Texas Killing Fields” and “The Tree of Life”).

Yun Jung-hee received the actress laurels for her performance in Kino Intl. drama “Poetry,” marking the second year in a row the L.A. crix have bestowed the prize on a Korean thesp (the prize went to Kim Hye-ja last year for “Mother”). Christopher Plummer drew the supporting-actor nod for his work in Focus Features’ “Beginners.”

The critics voted the screenplay prize to Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi for “A Separation,” repping the first time in the group’s history that a foreign-language script has won the honor. The Sony Classics drama was the runner-up in the foreign-language film category, however, placing second to Kino’s “City of Life and Death,” a chronicle of the 1937-38 Nanjing massacre from Chinese director Lu Chuan.

Werner Herzog’s 3D docu “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” an IFC release, took the org’s documentary/nonfiction prize, while the critics bestowed their animation prize on Paramount’s “Rango.” Par also released the runner-up in the toon category, Steven Spielberg’s motion-capture adventure “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.”

Two non-orchestral scores were the top vote-getters in LAFCA’s music/score category; the award was voted to the Chemical Brothers for Focus Features’ “Hanna,” while Cliff Martinez was the runner-up for FilmDistrict’s “Drive.”

Another Fox Searchlight title, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” drew the group’s New Generation prize, awarded to writer-director Sean Durkin, Borderline Films producers Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, and actress Elizabeth Olsen.

AFI Film Festival entry “Spark of Being,” a found-footage take on the “Frankenstein” myth from avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison, received the Douglas Edwards Independent/Experimental Film/Video award.

Runners-up in other categories were Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter” (actor); Kirsten Dunst, “Melancholia” (actress); Patton Oswalt, “Young Adult” (supporting actor); Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs” (supporting actress); Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Descendants” (screenplay); “The Arbor” (docu/nonfiction); Cao Yu, “City of Life and Death” (cinematography); and Maria Djurkovic, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (production design).

The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. will hand out its prizes on Jan. 13 at the InterContinental Hotel in Century City.

List of winners:

Foreign-language film–“City of Life and Death” / Runner-up: “A Separation”

Best Picture– “The Descendants” / Runner-up: “The Tree of Life”

Animation– “Rango” / Runner-up: “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn”

Best Director– Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”/ Runner-up: Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”

Best Actor– Michael Fassbender, “A Dangerous Method,” “Jane Eyre,” “Shame,” “X-Men: First Class” / Runner-up: Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”

Best Actress– Yun Jung-hee, “Poetry” / Runner-up: Kirsten Dunst, “Melancholia”

Documentary/Nonfiction– “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” / Runner-up: “The Arbor”

Best Screenplay– Asghar Farhadi, “A Separation” / Runner-up: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Descendants”

Best Supporting Actor– Christopher Plummer, “Beginners” / Runner-up: Patton Oswalt, “Young Adult”

Best Supporting Actress– Jessica Chastain, “Coriolanus,” “The Debt,” “The Help,” “Take Shelter,” “Texas Killing Fields,” “The Tree of Life” / Runner-up: Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”

Best Cinematography– Winner: Emmanuel Lubezki, “The Tree of Life” / Runner-Up: Cao Yu, “City of Life and Death”

Best Production Design– Dante Ferretti, “Hugo” / Runner-up: Maria Djurkovic, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Best Music/Score– The Chemical Brothers, “Hanna” / Runner-up: Cliff Martinez, “Drive”

Best Independent/Experimental– “Spark of Being”

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