Christie triumphs in first honours of film award season

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The Independent Culture

Julie Christie has been rewarded for her stunning performance as a woman succumbing to Alzheimer's disease in the independent movie Away From Her, as she was named best actress yesterday in the first major announcement of the 2007 film awards season.

The National Board of Review, a New York-based foundation made up of educators and film-makers, gave a huge boost to Christie's chances of winning what would be her second Oscar. (She last won in 1966 for Darling.)

The board's best actor was George Clooney, for his role as a disillusioned fixer for a corrupt law firm in Michael Clayton, and its best film was No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers' adaptation of a brutal novel by Cormac McCarthy.

This year's awards season will be bitter-sweet because of the shadow of a writers' strike and the threat of further industrial action by directors and actors, whose contracts with the studio expire next June.

Still, the juggernaut rolls on: the National Board of Review's choices will be followed later this week by the New York and Los Angeles critics' associations; the Broadcast Film Critics Association; and by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which will announce its nominees for the Golden Globe awards handed out in January.

The National Board of Review tends to be just a little too high-minded to be a reliable bellwether of the Oscars, but some of its choices are sure to be talked about energetically as the studios mount their publicity campaigns to draw performances and writing and directing achievements to the attention of Academy voters.

Christie stands an excellent chance of remaining in the spotlight, even though relatively few people have seen her film a fascinating portrait of a seemingly happy marriage whose foundations come into serious question as Christie's character's condition deteriorates. The best actress category in the Oscars is viewed as wide open, with only one other performance Marion Cotillard embodying Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose inspiring the kind of breathless admiration that guarantees a spot on the awards promotion circuit.

Likewise, Clooney gets a head start in the best actor category, for a performance that was not universally loved. He won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as a CIA agent in Syriana two years ago, but has never been nominated as a lead.

As for best film, No Country For Old Men has already attracted considerable critical attention because of its bravura in just about every department of film-making, from acting to writing to cinematography and even its memorable use of sound.

"I think it is one of the purest adaptations of a book," said the National Board of Review president Annie Schulhof. "The ensemble performances were absolutely extraordinary and it really talks about what happens when evil overrides good."

Like many Coen brothers films, however, the story of a drug deal gone wrong and what happens to the opportunist who finds the money in the desert refuses to follow Hollywood convention, especially in its ending, and may not be entirely in sync with the Academy's mainstream sensibilities.

Other possible contenders for the Oscars' top prize are Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton's adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical which the NBR rewarded with its best director prize; The Kite Runner, adapted from Khaled Hosseini's book; and Atonement, adapted from Ian McEwan's novel.