‘Splendor’ in awards mix

Pekar pic tops NSFC's kudos as org fetes indies

This article was updated at 5:46 p.m.

NEW YORK — The National Society of Film Critics dealt another wild card in the wide open poker game that is this year’s awards race Saturday, naming “American Splendor” as best picture and screenplay of 2003 in an honors list skewed heavily toward indie fare.

Released by HBO Films/Fine Line, husband-and-wife writer-director team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s affectionate portrait of the mundane yet somehow heroic life of Cleveland comicstrip creator Harvey Pekar nudged out Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” for the NSFC’s top award.

Other honors

However, both those films scored key honors from the critics org. Eastwood took the director award, ahead of Peter Jackson for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and Coppola, while “Lost in Translation” earned Bill Murray the actor nod, winning over Sean Penn in “Mystic River” and Paul Giamatti in “American Splendor.”

Charlize Theron drew actress kudos for “Monster,” edging out Hope Davis for her work in both “American Splendor” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” and Naomi Watts for “21 Grams.”

Supporting actor honors went to Peter Sarsgaard for “Shattered Glass,” who beat out Tim Robbins in “Mystic River” and Alec Baldwin in “The Cooler.”

Patricia Clarkson landed the supporting actress award for her roles in “The Station Agent” and “Pieces of April,” trailed by Maria Bello in “The Cooler” and Shohreh Aghdashloo in “House of Sand and Fog.”

The cinematography prize went to Russell Boyd for “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” with Lance Acord for “Lost in Translation” and Harris Savides for “Elephant” in the runner-up spots.

Idiosyncratic Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s “The Man Without a Past” took foreign-language feature, ahead of Sylvain Chomet’s French animated pic “The Triplets of Belleville” and Chinese helmer Jia Zhangke’s “Unknown Pleasures.”

The org’s prize for nonfiction film went to Gallic documentary “To Be and to Have” by Nicolas Philibert, beating out Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War” and Jeffrey Blitz’s popular hit “Spellbound.”

Overall, the NSFC vastly favored independent productions from the specialty divisions over studio fare, with only Warner’s “Mystic River” figuring among the top three titles in more than one category. Brian Helgeland’s screenplay for that film came in second to “American Splendor,” followed by Craig Lucas for “The Secret Lives of Dentists.”

No ban influence

However, NSFC chair Peter Rainer said voting was not influenced by any lingering anti-Hollywood sentiment resulting from the MPAA screener ban.

“Certainly, we discussed the screener issue before we voted to give everyone an overview,” Rainer told Daily Variety. “But I don’t think there was any animus pro or con toward the studios. I think this is genuinely the way the group felt about this year’s films.”

By no means a mainstream Oscar barometer, the NSFC is known for its esoteric, at times offbeat choices for best picture, including “Mulholland Drive,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Topsy Turvy,” “Babe” and “Hoop Dreams” in recent years. Almost one third of the org’s best picture honorees in the past have been foreign-language films, most recently Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” in 2000.

While the org’s 2002 selection of “The Pianist” came closer than most years to matching popular thinking, only three times in its four-decade history has the NSFC’s best picture choices coincided with the top Oscar winner: “Annie Hall,” “Unforgiven” and “Schindler’s List.”

“The group has never been very close to the kind of choices that tend to win Oscars,” said Rainer. “The National Society vote this year is essentially a confirmation of what I think is fairly apparent — that the independent or so-called mini-major films have been head and shoulders above most of the studio films in quality.”

Voting for the NSFC’s 38th annual awards was conducted at Sardi’s restaurant in the Manhattan theater district. New York magazine critic Rainer was re-elected as chair of the 55-member org at Saturday’s meeting. Elizabeth Weis serves as exec director.

Founded in l966, the NSFC includes some of the country’s leading film critics from major papers in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. All films released in the U.S. in 2003 were eligible for awards.

In addition to principal honors, the NSFC voted to present two film heritage awards.

These went to Gotham distribution boutique Kino on Video for its DVD collections of F.W. Murnau, Erich von Stroheim and the American Film Theater Series; and to Milestone Film and Video for its theatrical and/or DVD presentations of Michael Powell’s “The Edge of the World,” E.A. Dupont’s “Piccadilly,” Andre Antoine’s “La Terre” and “Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer.”