Clint Eastwood's powerful thriller Mystic River, set in the working-class suburbs of Boston, enhanced its status as a favourite in the race for the Oscars yesterday after it was named best film of the year by the National Board of Review.
The New York-based organisation, whose announcement by tradition kicks off the lengthy annual film awards season, also chose to honour Sean Penn as best actor for his tortured, brilliantly nuanced roles in both Mystic River and 21 Grams, Alejandro Inarritu's ambitious English-language debut about coincidence and death.
The best actress choice was a surprise - Diane Keaton, taking on a comic role opposite Jack Nicholson in Something's Gotta Give.
Although the National Board of Review tends to be a little more high-minded than the Oscar voters, its choices help establish the field of likely contenders in what is expected to be a tightly competitive year.
Among its other choices for top films were - in order - The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise as a disaffected career soldier finding meaning in ancient Japanese tradition; The Station Agent, a glowingly received, low-budget movie about a dwarf who inherits a railway station house in New Jersey; 21 Grams; House of Sand and Fog, an adaptation of the Andre Dubus novel starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly; Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's acclaimed study of cultural and human dislocation starring Bill Murray; Cold Mountain, Anthony Minghella's adaptation of the Civil War bestseller; Jim Sheridan's autobiographical In America; the horse-racing feelgood movie Seabiscuit; and Peter Weir's swashbuckling Master and Commander. The list gives a flavour of the breadth and ambition of this year's offerings, if not necessarily the choices the Academy will opt for at its glitz-filled ceremony on 26 February.
One title almost certain to receive more favour in the Oscar stakes is The Return of the King, the last instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which only picked up an ensemble acting award from the NBR.
Mystic River is nevertheless likely to remain one of the Oscar front-runners. It has all the elements: a fine screenplay, based on a respectable, and popular, novel by Dennis Lehane; stunning acting performances, particularly from Penn's co-stars Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon; and a respectedproducer-director in Eastwood.
This week also saw nominations for the Independent Spirit awards, handed out on the eve of the Oscars, and favoured titles there included such off-beat non-studio fare as American Splendor, a quirky biopic about the misanthropic comic book anti-hero Harvey Pekar, and Lost in Translation.
RAP AND R&B HEAD GRAMMYS
Rap and R&B dominated the charts this year, and Grammy voters took note, nominating Beyonce, Jay-Z, OutKast and Pharrell Williams for a leading six Grammy nominations each yesterday. Missy Elliott, Eminem, Evanescence, 50 Cent, Chad Hugo, Ricky Skaggs, Justin Timberlake, the ailing Luther Vandross and the late Warren Zevon received five nominations each at a press conference for the 46th annual Grammy Awards at the Beverly Hilton hotel. Beyonce and her boyfriend, Jay-Z, were contenders for record of the year for their summer anthem "Crazy in Love". The song of the year nominees included the Black Eyed Peas-Justin Timberlake collaboration "Where is the Love?". The Grammys will be awarded in 105 categories on 8 February at the Staples Centre arena in Los Angeles.