The National Board of Review picked Martin Scorsese's 3-D "Hugo" as the year's best film, an unusually kid friendly choice sure to add further intrigue to the Oscar hunt.
The group also picked Scorsese as best director for his whimsical film about an orphan who lives in a 1930s Paris train station. It's the director's first film in 3-D but one in which the adventure leads back to the early days of cinema and the wondrous films of French filmmaker George Melies.
It had been another movie nostalgic for the early days of movies — the silent film "The Artist" — that's thus far been the award season's early leader. That film didn't receive any individual awards, but it was named among the group's top films of the year. The others were "The Descendants," "Drive," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2," "The Ides of March," "J. Edgar," "Tree of Life" and "War Horse."
Alexander's Payne's "The Descendants," a warmly humorous film about a middle-aged Hawaiian (George Clooney) balancing a new commitment to parenthood, earned the most awards with three. Best actor went to Clooney, best supporting actress to the 20-year-old Shailene Woodley (who plays the eldest daughter) and best adapted screenplay to Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's script, taken from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel.
Tilda Swinton was awarded best actress for her performance in Lynne Ramsey's drama about a school shooting in "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Best supporting actor went to the 81-year-old Christopher Plummer for his performance as a dying man who awakens to his latent homosexuality in "Beginners."
The National Board of Review, a group of film historians, students and academics founded in 1909, is one of the first notable groups to announce its picks for the year's best movies. Although it's usually the first group out of the gate, the New York Film Critics Circle moved ahead of them this year, selecting "The Artist" on Tuesday as the year's best film.
The National Board of Review has some pedigree in picking films that have gone on to win best picture at the Oscars. Last year, it selected "The Social Network" as the year's best film, while the academy chose "The King's Speech." Most likely, this year's picks only reinforce the notion that the field remains refreshingly wide open ahead of the Academy Awards nominations on Jan. 24.
NBR president Annie Schulhof drew a connection between "Hugo," "The Artist" and the group's animation pick, Gore Verbinski's movie-reference-stuffed "Rango." She called them all celebrations of film history.
"It feels really good," Schulhof said. "We can learn so much from our cinematic past. Filmmakers today are celebrating and respecting it and bringing it forward to the new generation of filmgoers."
The group awarded best ensemble to the Civil Rights-era drama "The Help." Its spotlight award went to Michael Fassbender, the Irish actor who stars in four films this year: "A Dangerous Method," "Shame," "Jane Eyre" and "X-Men: First Class."
The West Memphis 3 documentary "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" was selected best documentary. Best foreign film went to the Iranian drama "A Separation."
Two actresses were honored for breakthrough performances: Felicity Jones in the young love drama "Like Crazy" and Rooney Mara in the adapted thriller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." J.C. Chandor was singled out for debut director for his first feature, the financial industry thriller "Margin Call."
Will Reiser was awarded best original screenplay for his script to the cancer comedy "50/50." Special achievement in filmmaking was given to the Harry Potter franchise for its "distinguished translation from book to film."
The NBRs also give an award for "freedom of expression," which it bestowed on two films: "Pariah," a drama about a black teenager embracing her lesbianism, and "Crime After Crime," a documentary about an incarcerated victim of domestic abuse.
A gala for the National Board of Review Awards will be held Jan. 10 at New York's Cipriani's, to be hosted by the "Today" show's Natalie Morales.