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Gotham crix crown ‘King’ as best film

NYFCC turns tide against 'River'; 'Secret' surprises

This article was updated at 4:48 p.m.

NEW YORK — The New York Film Critics Circle gave its top honor to New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” while the vast majority of the other awards went to low-budget (and often indie) fare.

Focus Features’ “Lost in Translation,” HBO/Fine Line’s “American Splendor” and — from out of left field — Manhattan Pictures’ “The Secret Lives of Dentists” all scored multiple awards, shrugging off competition from studio heavyweights.

Sofia Coppola was named director for “Lost in Translation,” narrowly elbowing out Peter Jackson for the “Rings” finale and marking only the second time in NYFCC history that prize has gone to a woman. (Coppola’s predecessor was Jane Campion in 1993 for “The Piano.”) Also for “Translation,” Bill Murray scored actor honors.

Perhaps the most surprising award was the actress nod to Hope Davis for her roles in “American Splendor” and “Dentists.”

In the animated feature spot, Sony Pictures Classics’ French import “The Triplets of Belleville” beat out Disney’s critical and commercial behemoth “Finding Nemo” for the top prize.

“American Splendor” also took the first feature award for husband-and-wife co-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman.

The studios had to content themselves with recognition in the supporting performance ranks. Eugene Levy’s comic turn in Warner’s “A Mighty Wind” earned him supporting actor honors, while Iranian thesp Shohreh Aghdashloo was named supporting actress for DreamWorks’ “House of Sand of Fog.”

The most hard fought prize was screenplay, which went to Craig Lucas for “Dentists,” adapted from Jane Smiley’s novella, “The Age of Grief.”

Miramax’s Brazilian gangland drama “City of God,” by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund was named foreign film, with “Man Without a Past” from Finland coming in a strong second. Non-fiction film was Magnolia Pictures’ “Capturing the Friedmans” by Andrew Jarecki; Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War” settled in the runner-up spot.

Lenser Harris Savides landed the cinematography prize for his contribution to two films directed by Gus Van Sant, HBO/Fine Line’s “Elephant” and ThinkFilm’s “Gerry.”

Wide open field

The ample spread of awards and the complete shutout of several major-studio biggies indicates how wide open this year’s Oscar race remains.

The org traditionally favors non-mainstream fare. Last year, Focus Features’ “Far From Heaven” earned five citations, including best pic and director. Of last year’s 11 NYFCC nods, only one coincided with Oscar’s picks: The animated “Spirited Away.”

Indie strength

“There’s been a logjam of epics from the studios in the last month or two so maybe if there had been more variety, they might have fared better,” NYFCC chairman Andrew Johnston said. “But the more important point is that it was a really good year for independent films as opposed to a poor year for the studios, which I don’t think we were snubbing.”

“I thought the wealth was very well spread and I’m happy with the range of films that got recognized,” he added. “I’d like to think the award we gave ‘A Mighty Wind’ could serve to encourage studios to make small, quirky films like that more often.”

Johnston said “The Return of the King” was a clear winner in early ballots for picture, despite considerable support for “Mystic River.” Neither of Jackson’s previous two installments in the “Rings” trilogy was acknowledged in any category by the NYFCC.

“This is a wonderful validation of “Return of the King” specifically and obviously a great validation of the trilogy as a whole,” said Mark Ordesky, exec VP and chief operating officer of New Line Prods.

“On a larger corporate basis, the wins for HBO and Fine Line’s ‘American Splendor’ and ‘Elephant’ are extremely gratifying as well,” he added.

Murray beat Sean Penn for “Mystic River” and Jack Black for “School of Rock.” Actress runners-up were Naomi Watts in “21 Grams” and Charlize Theron in “Monster.”

Other pics that featured strongly in voting for first feature included “The Triplets of Belleville,” “Thirteen,” “Raising Victor Vargas” and “Shattered Glass.”

Lucas’ “Dentists” script was followed closely in the voting by Steven Knight for “Dirty Pretty Things” and Coppola for “Lost in Translation.”

The NYFCC awards have been presented annually since the group was founded in 1935. Voting took place Monday at Gotham theater district hotel Muse, with 24 members present and nine others weighing in by proxy. The 2003 awards will be presented at a dinner Jan. 11 at Manhattan eatery Noche.

Johnston will step down as chairman next year, to be succeeded by New York Post critic Jonathan Foreman.

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