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Stuck on ‘Traffic’ (N.Y. Crix Pix)

Soderbergh's film lauded as year's best

NEW YORK — USA Films’ “Traffic,” Steven Soderbergh’s panoramic portrayal of the North American drug trade, came away from the 66th annual New York Film Critics Circle awards Wednesday with the best-film prize and other top honors.

The critics, convening at Sardi’s in Manhattan, gave the director nod to Soderbergh for both “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich,” and supporting actor kudos to Benicio Del Toro for “Traffic.”

Tom Hanks was named best actor for his role in Fox’s “Cast Away.” Laura Linney nabbed the actress award for Paramount Classics’ “You Can Count on Me,” which also earned the screenplay award for writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. Marcia Gay Harden was named best supporting actress for Sony Pictures Classics’ “Pollock,” the directing debut of Ed Harris.

Winning the award for first film was David Gordon Green’s “George Washington,” distribbed by Cowboy Booking Intl. and a selection in this year’s New York Film Festival.

Taiwanese writer-director Edward Yang’s “Yi-Yi” nabbed the foreign-language film award, in what might be perceived by some as an upset. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was widely considered a contender in both this and the film category. “Crouching Tiger” did, however, pick up the cinematography prize for Hong-Kong born lenser Peter Pau.

“I am stunned but happy,” Soderbergh said. “The film is a result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people both in front of and behind the camera. It is thrilling to see their contributions honored by such a prestigious group.”

It’s the second straight year that USA Films, which is just 18 months old, has landed the top prize, following Mike Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy” last year.

“We’re thrilled,” USA co-heads Scott Greenstein and Russell Schwartz said. “But most of the credit has to go to Steven Soderbergh for having an undying vision, and for making the picture. And fortunately it was done in a way that people are responding to.”

‘Hank’ a hit

Aviva Kempner’s arthouse sleeper, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” was chosen best nonfiction film. DreamWorks’ “Chicken Run,” co-written and co-directed by British duo Peter Lord and Nick Park, won in the animated film category, which was created last year.

Special kudos went to blacklisted noir director Jules Dassin and Rialto Pictures for their recent re-release of Dassin’s “Rififi,” and to Gotham-based specialized-film distrib the Shooting Gallery in recognition of its innovative approach to distribution and its choice of films.

“This was a very weak year for Hollywood cinema,” org’s chair and Christian Science Monitor critic David Sterritt told Daily Variety. “So it doesn’t surprise me that we gave many awards to independent and world films.”

On the other hand, Sterritt said, “I think this year’s awards strike an excellent balance between the entertaining and the artistic… when you’re giving awards to both Tom Hanks and ‘George Washington,’ I think that is clear.”

‘Mirth’ a miss

The votes for film and director were as close as the Presidential election, according to one participant. “Crouching Tiger” came in second in both races, as well as for foreign film.

Terence Davies and his “House of Mirth” adaptation were third for director and film, while the pic’s star Gillian Anderson, was second for best actress. In the best actor balloting, del Toro was a close second, but in a later vote he came out on top in the supporting category.

Third placers for actor and actress were Javier Bardem (“Before Night Falls”) and Bjork (“Dancer in the Dark”).

Runners-up in the supporting races were Willem Dafoe (“Shadow of the Vampire”) and Frances McDormand (“Almost Famous).

The awards banquet will be held Jan. 14 at Windows on the World in Manhattan.

Among the Circle’s 36 members are the New Yorker’s David Denby, the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, New York magazine’s Peter Rainer, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, the New York Press’ Armond White, the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris and the Village Voice’s Amy Taubin.

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